As the British appetite for festivals has grown exponentially, there has also been a rise of horror stories around poor festival organisation, often leading to thousands of disappointed UK punters. Anyone who was around to witness the torrential downpour that nonetheless failed to dampen Massive Attack’s blistering homecoming last year will also remember that bar queues were up to an hour long during the festival’s busiest time, after around 18,000 punters – in hope of the British monsoon easing off – waited until after 6pm to arrive.
Indeed, one of my residing memories from last year was boldly wandering down the human wall tailing off from a bar only to find the end of the queue for the opposite bar. (Ironically) dry mouthed for the following four hours, we were forced to use our latent teenage skiving skills and scrounge wine from a Pembrokeshire proctologist.
The Downs, now in its second year, pulled off a storming festival to close the summer
However, it’s fair to say that The Downs, now in its second year, pulled off a storming festival to close the summer. And not just because the weather held off.
To put this point soundly to bed, this year, there were probably the shortest queues for any festival bar I’ve ever seen. Maybe out of excitement, this was possibly why I ended up brandishing two plastic bottles of wine, screaming Elbow lyrics into the night sky a few hours later. But we’ll come to that.
brandishing two plastic bottles of wine, screaming Elbow lyrics into the night sky
With a colourful helter skelter, acres of food vans and the Information stage – which hosted director Ken Loach among others for a dose of brain food – there was plenty to entertain during the run up to the main attractions.
The music kicked off early in the afternoon, with a hearty dose of genre blending. On the main stage, a blazing rock set from The Districts was followed by 80s R&B legends Soul II Soul, with a rousing rendition of club hit Back to Life, which none of us in our festival high were willing to obey. The peppy Ibibio Sound Machine brightened up the afternoon with their catchy African beats and Eno Williams’ enviable gold lamé catsuit.
Next up, Long Island hip hop trio De La Soul took to the stage, charming the pants of the hyperactive Downs crowd with an entertaining and energetic set. Backed with a live horn section, the three bounded around the stage, conducting the crowds in unison arm-waving and chanting along to Ring, Ring, Ring. It was a shame not to hear more of their most well-known tracks like Me, Myself & I, but no-one was grumbling.
Seasick Steve then directed the tone back to something a little more traditional, rattling through blues hits as fast as his guitars
Veteran rocker Seasick Steve then directed the tone back to something a little more traditional, rattling through blues hits as fast as his guitars, and getting feet stomping as the sun began to set. Meanwhile, those seeking more of a rave flavour headed over to the second stage to catch Groove Armada and Bristol’s own Roni Size, celebrating 20 years of his Mercury Prize-winning album New Forms.
I however hung around to see the mainstage headliners. Hot on the back of their 2017 release Little Fictions and subsequent tour, Elbow were a highly-anticipated headlining act and they did not fail to impress.
The band, described by NME as ‘Doves with narcolepsy’, and front man, the bear-like Guy Garvey – known for his placid Radio 6 DJ shows – were anything but subdued.
Garvey gave old and new fans plenty of chances to croon along
From the outset, Garvey bounced out on stage, leading a call-and-response to the words: ‘Beau-tiful’ and ‘Love love love’ before charging off into a set, which gave old and new fans plenty of chances to croon along.
Inviting the audience into their joyful-melancholy world with The Birds from 2011 hit album Build a Rocket Boys, Elbow’s driving rhythms and lush strings lulled the crowd through old (Station Approach) and new (All Disco). Garvey, who has recently become a father, dedicated Lippy Kids to the younger fans in the audience, acknowledging the childhood-nostalgia themes in his music.
Things got silly when a naked man managed to break onto the stage and display himself proudly as security capered around after him. Garvey even dragged him back on stage for a tender slow dance during The Bones of You until he was bundled off to raucous applause.
Elbow really hit their nostalgia-jerking finale, finishing with the eminently rabble-rousing One Day Like This and Grounds for Divorce
It might have been the two bottles of wine, the joyful crush of the crowd, or the fine evening (‘Just enough cloud to keep us warm’ said Garvey), but Elbow really hit their nostalgia-jerking finale, finishing with the eminently rabble-rousing One Day Like This and Grounds for Divorce.
It’s always a special feeling to be a part of an enormous, inebriated beast roaring an uplifting song into the night sky, but frankly Bristol have never sounded better.
part of an enormous, inebriated beast roaring an uplifting song into the night sky
As they charge rapidly towards their 30th year as a band, Elbow look like they will be sticking around as solidly as Garvey’s proudly-retained Mancunian vowels, delivering a strong and moving set to three generations of fans.
End of the summer it might be, but if The Downs comes back next year as strongly again, festival critics can go to hell – another day like this will definitely see me right.
Words by Sophie Jones
Photos by Paul Box