Headliners: Shaggy, NOFX, The Cat Empire
When: 7th – 10th August 2014
Where: Matterley Estate, Winchester, UK
Reviewed By: Dan Stoten and Millie Manders
Photography By: Jonnie Miller
So, Boomtown Fair 2014. How to review such a frankly absurd weekend? It’s a festival which has many more truly outstanding points as absolutely dire ones, but it’s also a festival the shine is beginning to be slightly taken off by the accumulation of these negatives. Fundamentally, however, it remains a brilliant weekend of skanking, bouncing, partying and good times.
We arrived just after 1.30pm on Thursday, with the gate having been open just over an hour and a half. We immediately ran into one of the biggest issues with Boomtown: the frankly ridiculous queueing. I am lucky enough to say I’ve been to many festivals around the UK and Europe, many of which are bigger than Boomtown. In none of these has it taken the three and a half hours it took us to get into Boomtown this year. I can absolutely understand the need to up security checks following last year’s tragic circumstances surrounding ketamine, but fundamentally getting 40,000 people through one gate is just not logistically sensible. Friends (and myself included) have queued for a maximum of one hour to get into Glastonbury, a festival over four times the size of Boomtown.
However, we eventually made it in, set up camp and went off in search of some music, with there being a considerable amount of quality sound around on the Thursday night. My first act of the weekend was The Indecision, who opened up the Chinatown Courtyard. Theirs was an excellent set. As the sun set over Boomtown leaving a gorgeous glow around the edges of the Courtyard, sipping a cool Thatchers (priced at £4.50, not the £3.80 listed on the Boomtown website…), I had one of those festival moments. The band’s energy and the crowd’s enthusiasm was something to behold and a very early highlight of a strong weekend musically.
Considering this was the first day, at 6pm, you’d be forgiven for thinking most of the stages would be fairly empty. NO! Popes Of Chilli Town might not have a label, national radio play or “commercial backing” but I walked in to a tent full of people, at least thirty of which were recognisable from the ska-punk scene in London. Their frontman Matt gets into the crowd and frenzies them up: a circle pit at dinner time is a pretty good achievement in my book! Their own brand of dub-punk is only getting better, their new material is harder and faster and with Matt’s exceptional vocals and never-ending energy levels you can’t fail but to love them.
Dirty Revolution were up next. Being one of our favourite sets of the weekend from last year’s festival, I was keen to see the Cardiff band ahead of their upcoming separation. They did a great job to carry on The Indecision’s energy, rifling through some of their much-loved tracks to a rapturous reception. From there, we decided to have a bit of a rove around the festival’s districts, taking in many of the sights, sounds and smells Boomtown offers. We ended up raving outside a clothing stall into the early hours: classic Boomtown!
Friday dawned with many sore heads but a keen excitement for a day of reggae. We started in the best possible fashion with The Wailers. This was a perfect way to ease us into the festival, their classic tracks reverberating nicely around the Lion’s Den, following on from Solo Banton (who was the stage compere) with his hilariously poor banter. The huge crowd singing along to Three Little Birds was majestic. A point to note here: The Wailers, who were the first act of the day, came on stage over half an hour late. This pushed back the times as corresponding bands became later and later, a theme which was disconcertingly recurring throughout the whole weekend. Many times we walked past stages, wondering who was on, only to look at the programme which told us that there should be a band changeover, or an entirely different band on at that time. I can absolutely understand some minor slippage but Boomtown 2014 was plagued by it.
Soom T, who was next up on the Lion’s Den stage, is small and unassuming to look at: a petite Scottish lady of Indian descent, slight in stature and young looking, but she ripped up that stage with the biggest dub/reggae and hip-hop sounds imaginable. Her flow was impeccable and her singing voice was gorgeous. Annoyingly though, the mix in the speakers at the back of The Lions Den was awful. The vocals were indecipherable above the huge amounts of bass and lack of treble. Did they swap engineer? We had to make our way to be forward of the sound desk in order to hear what was unarguably a brilliant set at its fullest.
From The Wailers and Soom T, we next saw one of the best acts of the weekend, Bermudan dancehall artist Uzimon. His unique brand of ‘rude’ reggae absolutely lit up the Lion’s Den, which was now beginning to darken as foreboding storm clowds gathered overhead. Combining classic rhythms with, to put it kindly, cheeky lyrics, as well as a commanding and active stage presence, his song Steven Seagal quickly became stuck in our heads. His set up in the Hidden Woods on Sunday only reaffirmed what a strong live performer he is.
The Punk Archive favourites, The Skints came next, and played to an absolutely packed-out Lion’s Den. That is, until the deluge of rain began, sending many (although not as many as you might think) dashing for cover to the forested areas to the side of the stage. The Skints, however, absolutely smashed their set, belting through a number of their classic tracks, paying homage to Dawn Penn (as is now a regular feature in their sets), as well as playing a couple of new tracks, the favourite being Forest For The Trees. It was a sublime set, with my one complaint only being that it felt pretty similar to every set I’ve seen the East London reggae heroes play over the last year or so. I guess that’s what comes with near-constant touring.
Think Psychedelic Indie-Pop-Rock with inflections of sunshine and drunk-on-the-love-of-life reggae: Will & The People were next. These guys spend their lives touring and writing songs rooted in their love for their planet and its people, and it shined out from the stage as their fans flocked in to watch their set at Boomtown. Having first seen them perform a number of years ago at a small burlesque club, Madame Jo-Jo’s in the heart of Soho to maybe fifty people and watching their rise to gather tens of thousands of fans around the world it was a real treat to see them bring smiles to hundreds there. Their set was flawless pop precision: bright and bouncy and full of light and life. The Town Hall arena was a packed riot of revellers and I loved every second.
With the deluge not looking like it was going to stop, it was quickly back to the tent to pick up the essential poncho, waterproofs, wellies, and cans (for warmth, obviously…) before slipping and sliding back down to the Lion’s Den for Easy Star All-Stars, who were to play through their album Dub Side of the Moon. For me, this is actually their weakest album, which automatically affects my thought on their show. It was a technically very tight and note-perfect set, so there’s nothing to complain about there: I just feel that they have produced much better material. However, as I say there was nothing bad about their set. Chronixx, who is one of the rising stars of the reggae scene right now, was stunning, though. Recent track Who Knows (on which he features with Protoje) was brilliantly triumphant. Chronixx has a truly excellent voice and ability to pair that perfectly with some deliciously decadent reggae grooves. His performance was a real treat.
Shaggy‘s, however, was anything but. I wasn’t able to shake the feeling that the crowd were there for his three most famous tracks, and had actually forgotten his other, extensive, back catalogue. Equally, the first of a handful of sound problems Boomtown experienced began to plague his set: I’m not sure whether it was the wind blowing the sound or the rain distorting it: but basically the set was poor. People began to drift away into the night, as did we once his hour had finished.
We hadn’t planned on hanging around after The Snare set finished, but we had decided to chill out behind The Town Hall when we got caught by the sound of some seriously good ska coming from the stage. Original High Five were an instant hit for me. Like a party from a cannon they laid out pop hooks lyrically over tight drums, a four-piece horn section and some serious rock’n’roll. I later found out by way of an encore (the crowd could not be satiated: they just wanted MORE) that they are in fact from Sweden. I am always impressed by people that can master a new language and marry it to their art. I have asked them if The Punk Archive can review their album… Watch this space…
Our night also included sets from Stanton Warriors who absolutely tore apart Circo Baile, as well as Boddika.
Saturday dawned with some sun, a welcome sight following Friday afternoon’s weather and the rumours circulating of impending tropical storms. We again needed easing into the day, which was dutifully performed by catching the end of The Drop, before grabbing a couple of healing pints and standing on the top of the hill to watch Trojan Soundsystem rattle through some classic reggae vinyl. There is something hugely evocative about the crackle that always comes with vinyl: this was a really enjoyable set.
We caught The Talks, too. No surprises here: if you’ve read our previous review of the band you’ll know they rock your socks off. Bouncy, fun-loving and full of beautiful brass they punch out hook-filled ska tunes with punk and pop undercurrents. Pat and the boys are firm friends with everyone they meet and are talented lads to boot. A skankathon ensued. Alongside hardcore fans that knew every word, The Talks picked up a legion of new fans at Boomtown. Bravo.
Dawn Penn came next, and she absolutely smashed the Lion’s Den with a set choc-full of classics. Clearly No No No (You Don’t Love Me) was the standout track, but it’s good to be able to say Dawn still has a phenomenal voice under which the bass heavy reggae grooves flow wonderfully. It’s also always good to be able to say that legends performed well, something which couldn’t necessarily be levelled at 2013’s festival. Sister Nancy was equally strong, her MC’ing over classic reggae rhythms really getting the crowd moving.
I was also looking forward to catching Stylo G onstage with Robbo Ranx, which came up next on the Lion’s Den. Again, I wasn’t disappointed. Stylo G is a bit of a hidden UK dancehall gem, with tracks Soundbwoy and Badd (which actually features Sister Nancy, who joined him on stage) absolutely setting the Lion’s Den off with their addictive style. He was excellent and definitely one to look out for if you haven’t already.
We then moved to the Town Centre expecting to see The Skatalites, only to be informed that their set had been swapped with The Toasters. They delivered a safe set of easy-skanking two-tone and ska, rifling through their tracks at a pace. We caught about half their set before heading down to Mayfair in order to try and catch Elle and the Pocket Belles vs Mista Trick, an act we had absolutely loved as Nozstock the previous weekend. With a twenty-minute only slot in the programme, we made sure we were ten minutes early. However, the programming curse struck again: they didn’t appear, and when asking a handful of stewards and staff we were left with blank stares and “I dunno” responses. Again, I absolutely appreciate that some lateness does creep in but this was really quite frustrating.
Every cloud and all that, though, and we spent an enjoyable half hour raving to classic dance tracks just by the helter-skelter from a movable speaker system. It’s things like this which do make Boomtown special: the randomness off it, as well as the gathering, happy and friendly audience.
Next came Lady Saw, the self titled ‘Queen of The Dancehall’ and it’s easy to get that pomp. She addresses controversial topics: miscarriage, adoption, abuse and is unafraid of her body and sexuality. She exudes confidence, commanding the crowd’s unwavering attention whether she is talking or singing. Her voice is incredible, soaring over dark dance beats with a honey-like quality and enviable range. Having not heard much of her before Boomtown, I can safely say I was a little enraptured!
We then bounced back up to the Town Centre to catch what we were hoping would be one of the weekend’s highlights…
I’ve seen NOFX a number of times before, and I know of their notorious inconsistency from a technical point of view. I also know, though, that every time they deliver a brilliantly fun set. This again was exactly the case at Boomtown: but, once again, sound issues really ploughed into the veteran punks’ set. Fat Mike’s vocal was too low, and the sound echoed viciously around the Town Centre from our central location. This was a real shame as they played an outstanding set, with the standard NOFX banter perfectly interwoven.
Oh my good lord. If you weren’t feeling it after the rain then Counting Coins were the ones to watch to get you back in the mood. So much energy! A fusion of ska, punk, hip-hop and gypsy and a frontman that can spit rhymes a fast as Busta made for an awesome show. The entire stage was jumping and the crowd followed. New fan over here at The Archive!
It was, sadly, Saturday evening when we began to hear the rumours of a festival-goer having passed away. This was confirmed on arrival home on Monday: all of us at The Punk Archive would like to extend our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of all those related to the deceased.
That night we caught another handful of acts, including Aphrodite & Junior Red at Arcadia (the sight of a moving, fire-breathing spider pumping out the loudest of dance music will never get old) as well as Liondub up at the Hidden Woods. Walking back to our tents in the rain, we dropped into our sleeping bags, knackered…
…Only to be woken about two hours later by one of the biggest and most dramatic storms I’ve ever heard. As lightning flashed directly overhead and huge booms of thunder felt like they were shaking the festival, we began to hear the sound of people deciding to leave Boomtown early. The huge amounts of mud and wind (many tents had been torn from their pegs during the night) were clear reasons to do so, and walking around the campsites when the weather subsided somewhat during the early afternoon gave a view of the mess the weather had caused. However, this didn’t kill Boomtown’s spirit, and the site of people sliding down the hill in just harem pants (no shoes) gave everyone a smile.
For us, Sunday involved a lot of sitting down. Once again (as last year) Boomtown had broken us. We set up a camp sat on bin bags at the Lion’s Den, buoyed once again by Solo Banton’s “uniqie” banter. First of all came Daddy Skitz & Rodney P who presented us with a UK Hip-Hop Reggae Showcase, absolutely blowing the ears off all around, and blowing away the consequent hangovers, too. Fair play to the festival on this piece of programming: there’s nothing like blowing away the huge Sunday cobwebs with some absolutely stomping basslines and brilliant MCs. I was surprised at just how much I loved this hour.
Macka B & The Roots Ragga Band came next, and despite some now slightly contrived lyrics, still gave a decent set from his back catalogue. Again, this was a good Sunday set, with plenty of easy singalongs and good vibes pumping from the stage’s huge speakers. We saw Mungo’s Hi-Fi next, who had Parly B and Charlie P on the mics. This was another set I had been looking forward to, having listened a lot to the Glasgow soundsystem a lot over the past year. They didn’t disappoint, heavy classic beats tinged at times with a dubstep and electronic edge really giving the crowd energy.
In between times, we caught Karma Party, having listened to their EP ahead of the festival. I was excited about going to watch them: well produced and politically charged, they seemed just up our street. Unfortunately what I found was a two-bit imitation of The King Blues with a weaker front man looking like he’d just stepped off the stage with Take That; added to which the vocals were pitchy and soft. I left after a couple of songs. Disappointed to say the least. I hope it was just a bad day.
We also caught the mighty Imperial Leisure. Having been an avid fan of the band for a few years but not being able to go to a gig in months, this was one of the highlights for me. In January, IL embarked upon a challenge to release a third album after 100 gigs. In late March they signed to FXD Records who are fully backing this adventure and Boomtown was around the thirtieth instalment in the story. They’ve always been slick with their performance. Rehearsed to perfection and their ska-punk-hiphop sound nailed they are the unsung heroes in their genre having toured with everyone from King Prawn to SB6. Releasing dozens of beach balls into the audience, covering them with rum and prosecco and bouncing around like men possessed, IL ruled their stage and did not disappoint. Ahhhh. I’d missed those lads. The new material is as epic as the old. Watch this space: they hope to release the new record a year to the day of the first of the 100 gigs, making it early 2015.
Lazy Habits have their very own, unique brand of brass-backed hip hop. Two full drum kits positioned either side of the stage made for intricate beats that sounded synthesised whilst lead man James spat lyrical genius over the crowd, his flow smooth and immaculate. The band were perfectly in control of their performance leaving James to work the crowd up: not that he needed to. We were all singing along, the tent was absolutely rammed and everyone was dancing like a crazy! If you don’t know Lazy Habits yet, go check out songs like Starting Fires and Bulletin. If they don’t make you new fans I don’t know what will.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again about Jaya The Cat. THESE GUYS ARE AWESOME! The rum-swilling pirates of the ska-punk world (without the thievery, raping and pillaging, it’s just the rum!), their roots-derived sound with the phattest bass and sharpest lyrical hooks drive these guys way above the competition. No one else could get several hundred people to separate for two minutes while the backline keeps them waiting and a front man takes a nap on stage before jumping up and getting everybody to run into each other and…….. HUG. Yes, the mosh was there. So was the skank-out of the century. But what Jaya managed was to spread love through the crowd and complete the community feel in their audience that Boomtown is renowned for.
Our last two sets of the weekend, before we had to leave the site for various travel-based reasons, were Uzimon for a second time, and Bristol heavyweights Laid Blak. Having missed them last year but caught their Beautiful Days set, I was keen to see them this year. They were superb, getting the crowd packing out the Hidden Woods almost rabid with excitement. Their live drum’n’bass, as well as their stunningly catchy and melodic tracks such as Get Down Low blew the roof off.
Boomtown 2014: a crazy, wild, random experience. I will undoubtedly be back next year, but really hope that some of that shine mentioned earlier can be buffed back into place….