2nd September | The Downs
Photos: Matthew Fessey
Life’s unfair, isn’t it? You take time and energy to get into your festival swagger – your kit, your queueing strategies, how to ease that mosher with the flailing dreads off your toes, and how to drink steadily without spending the headline set comatose under an amplifier – and suddenly, summer ends. For those who couldn’t invest three canvas-covered days at the End of the Road Festival, The Downs Festival was a fitting last hurrah.
With its helter-skelter and big wheel, it felt like a large fete, with added drum and bass and streaking (more of that anon). 2016 saw biblical rainfall; this year’s festival-goers kicked back on dry grass. After last year’s equally epic bar queues, our quest for liquid gold was free-flowing like the beverage itself. This year’s South-West Line-Forming Championships took place at the food outlets. You can queue an hour for food and still hear Seasick Steve, but he definitely sounds better when not filtered through the sound of the person behind you freaking because the van’s run out of halloumi.
Keir opened before the site had really filled up at all. Entertaining a large expanse of grass must be an odd festival quirk. A select band of in-the-know devotees had made a point of getting there for his set and appreciated every surge and roar of his crisp vocals. I’m sure it was a treat for the grass too – a blast of muscular soul before everyone came and trod it down. Philadelphia’s The Districts kept up the intensity. Playing tracks from Popular Manipulations, they especially reached the crowd with mid-noughties-style indie-rock, ‘If Before I Wake’, the lyric “I’m just a narcissist” at odds with their no-nonsense demeanour.
Soul II Soul made us feel better about getting “back to reality” and the need to harden up for autumn and “get a life.” They still sound soul-strokingly smooth after thirty years in the business. Jazzie B gave a fitting eulogy to former singer Melissa Bell, who had “got her wings” the week before. They finished with ‘Fairplay’, the first song they ever played in Bristol.
Late afternoon gave you a chance to dance. “From London, via West Africa,” Ibibio Sound Machine showcased 2017’s Uyai. ‘Give Me A Reason’ was reason enough to shake off any lingering inhibitions and shake all available limbs. De La Soul presented a smorgasbord from their three decades on the mic. Judging by audience response, ‘Ring, Ring, Ring’ may well be the most liked answerphone message in history.
Evening-wise, you could ramp it up at the Second Stage with the anthemics of Groove Armada, or hunker down with the Main Stage faux-hobo blues of Seasick Steve. He changed his homemade guitars more than Cher has new outfits and sang ‘Summertime Boy’ just as the sun set and a chill set in. Shape-throwing to Groove Armada, aka ‘Superstylin’, was probably the winning warm-up.
Choosing between Roni Size and Elbow to conclude was a genuine first-world problem. The hometown boy, celebrating twenty years of New Forms, took every last ounce of bounce his crowd had left. Guy Garvey was the perfect host – one big hunk of avuncular, bearded bonhomie. He literally embraced the naked man who rushed the stage during ‘The Bones of You’ (oh, the irony) and waltzed tenderly. ‘Lippy Kids’ was cutely dedicated to all the younguns present, whilst the triumphant pairing of ‘One Day Like This’ and ‘Grounds for Divorce’ meant that Elbow’s crowd could leave elated and hoarse.
Check out Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ below.