Festival Report: THE BIG CHILL 2011

Despite new ownership and a confused line-up, the Big Chill remains one hell of a good way to spend a weekend.

I am sat in a cafe with some friends, enjoying a quiet cup of tea, when Elbow€™s €˜One Day Like This€™ starts playing in the background. Nothing out of the ordinary about this situation, until all the staff of this cafe (including the chefs in the kitchen) suddenly start dancing extravagantly choreographed moves to the song, extravagantly miming the violin parts, to the wonder of what is now an audience. Even customers in the queue for food are happy to wait. Small children are mesmerised, mouths agape. My friends and I smile to one another. In real life this might seem unusual, extraordinary even, but this is not real life - this is a music festival, where quirky, out-of-the-ordinary events are enthusiastically encouraged. I€™m at the Big Chill, a relaxed, family friendly music festival in set in a jaw-droppingly picturesque valley in the rolling hills of rural Herefordshire, near the border of Wales, for a weekend of chilled-out (largely electronic) music and leftfield fun. Having grown up nearby, I am something of a Big Chill veteran, this being my fifth or six time at the event, and my group of friends and I have watched with interest as the festival has evolved and changed over the years. Having suffered poor ticket sales in recent years, it changed ownership and is now wholly owned by Festival Republic, which also runs Reading and Leeds festivals, amongst others, and itself is part of Live Nation - the largest music promoter in the world. Many observed a sharp decline in 2010€™s Chill, with less emphasis on atmosphere, more on commercialisation and heavy-handed security. For us, 2011 was set to be the decider on whether we would keep coming back, and it seemed that many people already decided. Whether unhappy with past years, or put off by the steep-for-a-medium-sized-festy £165 ticket price (when for an extra thirty quid you could afford the ten-times-bigger Glastonbury), the Chill was noticeably quieter this year. Tickets were still available on the door all weekend, blank spots littered the camping sites, and the crowds - even for headliners - were surprisingly thin on the ground. Nonetheless, whether it was an improvement responding to feedback - the organisers made a tacit acknowledgement of this in the programme - or whether we found our own fun, the fact is that this year€™s Chill was as good as any year I€™ve been to before. Looking very different this year, there was an excellent array of new and interesting sights, from the delightful White Rabbit Lounge, to the bizarre performance art of the Electric Hotel, to the aforementioned cabaret of the Hurly Burly theatre cafe. The inevitable slide towards crass commercialisation and money-making was ever-present, too, with at least three stages sponsored by drinks companies, and stage times only available via the £8 programme. Musically, the Big Chill remains confused. Once solely the domain of chilled out electronica, roots music and folk, its lineup continues the identity crisis of the last couple of years, keen to maintain the €˜chill€™ element whilst booking pop acts to attract more ticket sales. Thus alongside stalwarts like Mr Scruff and Tom Middleton, we have chart botherers like Kanye West, Chipmunk and Jessie J, attracting a curiously diverse crowd for an apparently €˜boutique€™ festival. West was the least impressive of the headliners, complaining of a dodgy throat and having a ten-minute moan about how unfair his millionaire lifestyle is, to a chorus of boos. Better were the Chemical Brothers on Friday night, and the intrinsically talented guitar virtuosity of Rodrigo y Gabriela on the Sunday. The Mexican duo had a winning combination of stunning acoustic thrash-folk riffs and endearing chatter, their broken English punctuated by swearing, e.g. €œdon€™t be scared to, fooking, do some crazy sheet, man!€ Other musical highlights included DJ Derek (West Country septuagenarian former accountant turned reggae DJ with the most entertaining MCing of the whole weekend), Janelle Monae and Aloe Blacc (both neo-soulsters, each separately dosing up a delicious display of crowd-pleasing brass-infused fun), Jamie Woon (exquisite dubstep-soaked electronica and beautiful voice-sampled beats) and Mahala Rai Banda (opening the main stage on Friday with bonkers gypsy-folk, including a song about Red Bull and the theme from the Borat film). But, like any good festival, the music is almost a sidenote alongside the wacky mini-adventures along the way (and copious drinking). On Saturday evening, bored of Kanye West€™s incessant rambling, we wandered into the gorgeous Enchanted Garden, through the Art Trail, to witness some €˜ghost stories€™. Any fears that we€™d get nightmares were quickly proved to be unfounded, and though the stories (which actually featured no ghosts) were entertainingly crap (we were clearly about fifteen years too old), they provided us with the memory of €˜Tippin Gee€™, a monster in the woods we will remind each other of for years to come. It may seem like an odd thing for grown-ups to love, but then this isn€™t real life - it€™s a festival. And one I€™m likely to return to. www.bigchill.net

I ramble incessantly about film, music, TV, etc.