[review by ste sync]
We’ve probably all got used to booking tickets in advance and waiting eagerly as the event date approached only to be let down by the inevitable cancellations due to Covid. It’s happened to me about 10 times in the last 18 months and each time it chips away a little bit of your hope for things to get back to normal. Lack of live music depression is a real condition that I think most music lovers have been suffering from for too long. Let’s hope that things start to creep back to normal now there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. There are loads of festivals and events advertised over the coming months. Let’s all ease the depression and get back to into our old routines, probably in an exaggerated way for a while!
I was lucky enough to have an early opportunity. A mate of mine Evo and his Mrs always book Download Festival tickets early before they even announce bands. They decide whether to keep or sell (at face value mind) when the bands are announced. When Download announced this year’s Pilot event was to go ahead for 10,000 lucky people, their natural reaction was the same. They got online at the start of the sale and both got tickets. Result! Evo’s Mrs then decided she didn’t want to go, so offered me her ticket which was transferable. Another result!
This Pilot festival was a government backed test event where 10,000 screened festival goers could drink and frolic to their hearts content in the wash of music and atmosphere without any social distancing or masks etc. Everyone attending had to produce a home negative test on arrival and also a posted lab test to get your wristband. The lineup wasn’t as attractive as previous downloads, but it was the first proper festival back this year so it was a no brainier for a diehard festival music lover like myself. I’ll watch any old shite at a festival, and you know what, some of the shite ends up being really good too!
As the weekend approached, we watched the weather forecast eagerly praying for good weather. In true British weather fashion, the forecast was going to be a wet one, but hey, I’ve been to some washout muddy festivals before, the worst being Bestival 2008 where it pissed it down the week before, during and after the festival. There was thick liquid mud everywhere including inside the large second and third stage tents. The comedy tent at this festival actually floated off on a sea of mud down a hill which was ironically hilarious. With this in mind, we prepared for the worst.
We left North Wales with its blue skies and it’s summer temperatures, and as we approached Stoke, this changed to drizzle and then persistent heavy rain. We arrived at Donnington Park in good time and the rain had eased off a bit. We erected the tents in relatively dry conditions but we were told by neighbours that it had poured down all day until now. We cracked open the first of our festival ales and decided to check the grounds out. As this event was only for 10,000 people, it was on a much smaller area scale than the usual festival. This was great because the car park was a couple of minutes walking away from the campsite and the festival grounds a couple of minutes from the camp site. The organisers allowed a limited amount of your own alcohol into the festival. You were allowed to bring in a crate of ale or some plastic bottled spirits per person so by the time we’d gone backwards and forwards from the van a couple of times, we were sorted. I even smuggled in a bottle of rum down my pants just for old times sake!
The festival had a main stage and a second stage in a tent. There were two large bars, but they were hardly used due to everyone bringing their own ale. The usual eateries were scattered around and also a small fairground. The whole area was about a quarter of the usual size I’d guess.
We arrived at the main stage nearing the end of Boston Manors set. They were alright. Nothing special, but it was great just to see live music on a stage again. They could have been an orchestra quartet playing Rolf Harris Stylophones and we would have nodded our fucking heads to it! The beer was flowing good and well. We were chatting to like minded Downloaders who all shared the same principals as us on all being there for the event and not the actual bands. Looking through the lineup before I even knew I had a ticket, it wasn’t particularly appealing to my own tastes, but I was sure it would entertain one way or another.
Next up on the main stage were North Wales very own Neck Deep who I knew absolutely nothing about. Evo said the frontman was from Colwyn Bay, but Wiki says the band are from Wrexham. They were tagged as “Pop Punk” which are two words which should never be put together in any sentence in my opinion. There’s nothing wrong with pop mind, but over the last 20 years when I’ve heard a whiney American voice bleat out tales of failed love attempts and how school sucks, over a tame 3 chord punk riff, it makes me want to vomit. I kept my ale down and we watched their set, shaking our heads, not nodding them through most of it. His high pitched transatlantic Disney voice really did annoy and I was left thinking, how does someone from The Bay end up sounding like that.
It had stayed dry since we put the tents up and started drinking so everyone was in a good mood wherever you went. The festival field was up to capacity with everyone eagerly awaiting Frank Carter And The Rattlesnakes. Again, I knew nothing about this band, but I was informed by a couple of more knowledgeable people than myself the weeks leading up to the festival that they were well worth a watch.
They took to the stage, and immediately Frank and guitarist Dean Richardson leapt into the swelling sea of enthusiastic mosh-pitters. Frank is apparently famous for his crowd surfing and stage climbing antics so he’d been waiting a while to dive in once again. The place went nuts as the bands opening song rocked the entire festival ground. It was punchy stuff and Frank has a phenomenal voice considering he’s being thrown around like a rag doll through a lot of the set. The guitarist did alright too considering he was on his back being handed around the pit throughout the first song. He may be small, but Frank was certainly a live wire with a massive personality and image, covered in tattoos and confidence. I was enjoying their set more than I anticipated probably due to the fact I was high on alcohol and festival adrenaline. There had been the obligatory “Circle Of Deaths” during the set, but nearing the end of the set, Frank asked for a female only circle of death which ended up looking more like opening time at a Black Friday department store sale. Frank Carter and his Rattlesnakes certainly were worthy of their headline status and I’d gladly go and see them again sometime.
Saturday we were up early and on the ale by 11am. This was going to be our only full-on all dayer of drink and music as we’d planned to sack the Sunday off due to the mighty Wales playing Italy in Rome that afternoon, so we’d planned to pack up and go on Sunday morning. You’ve got to get your priorities right.
One thing which became a problem first thing Saturday morning were the large queues forming for a Portaloo. Download appeared to have supplied enough Portaloos for the women, and there were 2 large areas of urinals for the men, but there were literally only a handful of Portaloos in a few locations for a man to shit in! There must have been 7000 blokes with a full days build up inside them waiting to explode onto the inevitable pyramid of filth! I got tired of waiting in the end and wandered off into the car park on the hunt for a lone Portaloo. I was unsuccessful on the loo front, but without going into too much detail, the term “Does the Sync shit in the woods” was used throughout the rest of the day.
First up Saturday on the main stage were death metal band Conjurer from Rugby. These were a nice change from some of the “Punk Pop” and “Screamo” acts we’d seen. Their heavy riffs along with the thumping rhythms had the crowd nodding along but being first on the bill, they weren’t fully appreciated by the hungover bleary eyed early risers. Conjurer appeared in awe of being on the main stage at this pioneering festival and proceeded to confidentially show us their skills, throwing themselves around the stage, with some superb head banging displays throughout their set.
Next up were Scotland’s Bleed From Within. These lads were properly on form and still gushing after their teams decent display against the English the night before. They were very powerful and got the increasing crowd back onto form demanding multiple circle of deaths while their flame cannons blasted to the beat. One of their guitarists jumped into the welcoming crowd for a couple of songs. He was doing well for a while but I lost sight and I thought he’d fallen at one point, but he reemerged slightly shaken up and returned to the safety of the security barriers. Their beaming frontman couldn’t stop staring into the crowd in disbelief at how lucky they were to be back in front on an audience again. He was lost for words and looked quite emotional. At one point he shouted out “Did you see the football last night?”. There were a few cheers from the the crowd so he followed that up with “English Bastards” with a big grin on his face, much to my amusement and I’m sure all our Celtic brothers and sisters in attendance too.
It was around 2pm by now and the queues of blokes holding bog rolls were increasing everywhere and not improving. The bars were absolutely dead with the maze of steel waiting barriers rendered useless in front of the bored onlooking students behind the bar employed there for the weekend. Like everyone else, we were well stocked up on ale, so we decided to sit and drink on the picnic benches between the two stages. This way we could listen out for anything that appealed from either direction. This meant without really watching these bands, we subconsciously listened to Wargasm, Tigercub, A, and Yonaka whilst getting aled up and chatting to other enthusiastic festival goers.
All of a sudden, Evo without talking was glaring at me and pointing his eyes towards something he’d seen under our neighbours picnic bench. When I realised what he meant, I could see what appeared to be a “Back Stage Pass” with the band name printed across the front. The said band member was currently sat chatting to someone at the picnic bench, and hadn’t noticed the pass had been dropped. Me and Evo kept our cool as we continued through our menu of ales waiting for the musician to leave so we could pounce on our prize. Once he’d gone, Evo casually leaned forward and grabbed it. It turned out to be the drummer from Yonaka’s pass. We started to egg each other on to try and use the pass and get back stage, but when we researched other artists coming and going through the security, you needed a special wrist band to get through it as well as the pass. Oh well, it was probably more fun this side of the fence anyway!
During Yonaka’s set, my ears suddenly pricked up as I recognised a section of vocal and guitar combination. Yonaka had supported The Cult in Manchester when me and Evo saw them back in 2019. Back then, their main talking points were the superb guitarist and the female singer’s great voice. Two years on and the band look to have improved their stage image with their frontwoman now sporting a full on fluorescent green Lycra body suit. Very eye catching. The drummer needs to improve on his pass security though.
It was around 7pm now. We decided to make our way back to the side of the stage for While She Sleeps and on our walk over, the blokes with bog roll queues were still as big as ever! The band came out to a hearty welcome and blasted into their energetic set. The obligatory “Circles Of Death”, “Band Members Crowdsurfing”, the words “Download, how the fuck are yer” screamed between songs. It was all getting a bit samey but it was good entertainment all the same.
Enter Shikari were Saturdays headliners and a large percentage of the festival goers were sporting their merch all weekend so I knew they were the main pull for this whole event. I’m sure I’d seen them possibly a couple of times before at previous festivals but I’d never really been taken by them. I’d never liked the blend of “choir boy like” softly sung backing vocals with a “screamo” front vocal combination in songs. That aside, as headliners, I was fully expecting to enjoy their set. They came on to a fanfare and conducted the excited crowd into the first blast of electronic “Prodigy-like” techno sounds and rhythms which come in and out of almost every song they perform. With a stage full of strip lights in various colours and patterns flashing along to the heavy beats, they were very eye catching too. I soon noticed that everyone else around me were singing along to every song making me almost feel like I wasn’t worthy of my front of stage position. When the band are just playing their instruments as a four piece, they sound pretty average and nothing special. When you add in the higher volume electronic break beats, sub base, and synth sounds and noises, you pretty much lose the original instruments in the chaos leaving the frontman to rap over the noise. Some of this stuff sounds really good and on a par with the energy of live performances I’ve seen before from The Prodigy and Pendulum. On the whole, I enjoyed their set, but I’m still not sure about the softly sung backing vocals though.
It had started to rain heavily half way through Enter Shikari’s set. This was OK as we’d expected it and brought our waterproofs for this outcome, unlike a large portion of unprepared “Young Festival Virgins” shivering with pained looks on their faces as it came down. As we walked away from the main stage, we walked past the never ending queue of blokes holding wet bog rolls as we headed towards the campsite. It was 11pm for christ sake! Who wants to shit in a dark portaloo over a full days load!
Sunday morning came. We felt relatively good considering we’d been drinking for the last day and a half. There was only one thing on our minds today. Get home, and prepare for Wales to inevitably stroll through to yet another Euro’s knock out stage. We’d had a great time at the festival and I’m sure there would have been more fun to be had there on the Sunday if we’d stayed. Happy days, the good times are back again. Onwards to the next one. The same goes for Wales. Come on Cymru!