Boomtown fair – the revolution is here

The latest edition of the Boomtown Fair proves to be the standard by which all festivals should be measured

When I hear marketers talking about festivals as a 'truly immersive experience'  I want to puke. So often what they mean is that you get the choice of camping next to the toilets or the main stage.

Then there is Boomtown - a festival that is so big and so all enveloping that you actually are in it.

If you've not come across the concept before then allow me to elucidate.

Boomtown itself forms a story of a make believe town that has its upmarket area (Mayfair) its seedier side (Wild West) and even a slightly suspect nuclear/chemical plant.

Each year a new 'chapter' is written with events such as last years' election of a glorious leader and this years' subsequent revolution. 

Unlike other festivals the story takes place in the town, the festival goers camp in their particular area and become citizens and what begins as simply a music festival evolves into a story that takes on a life of its own.

What you then see as an impartial observer are a series of vignettes as the citizens decide on actions they'll take like invading another area, attacking other citizens with custard pies or simply having a bit of a dance and seeing what happens.

None of this happens by accident of course. Boomtown employs the normal host of festival makers that you expect together with 400 actors who push the action along with a combination of curation of specific exhibits, impromptu unscripted performances or the more spectacular set piece displays and battles.

The sheer scale of the site, with many of the parts of town separated by a distance and the fact that there are any number of tiny alleyways and doors you can go down to find a dance stage or a weird event means that pretty much every festival goer gets a different experience of the weekend.

The sets are on an epic scale and the sheer effort that must go into getting the festival off the ground is mind boggling. I spoke to one of the workers who had been on site for two weeks building the town centre and other parts of what is a mammoth undertaking.

In fact the site is so large and each are so different that you could spend the entire weekend simply exploring and seeing what happens without even watching any of the music.

But watch music I did.

There are so many stages and so many acts covering a pretty wide range of genres that it's difficult to do justice to the sheer scale of it all.

As well as bands on the smaller stages on Saturday, the two must sees were The Levellers on the Town Centre stage and Madness on Lions Den.

The Town Centre as the name suggests is a large set in the centre of town (ahem) featuring a very good sized performance area at its heart. Providing the focal point for a variety of happenings throughout the weekend, on this occasion it hosted an excellent set from The Levellers.

Legendary purveyors of singable protest (but not folk) that they are, the crowd sang lustily along. Impressive given that most of them were but twinkles when the chaps had their first hit back in the day. Were there "Happy hitchers" there? maybe not but the band's back catalogue proved extremely popular indeed.

The set also hosted what I have to say was the most polite mosh pit I have ever seen. Very British indeed as people were warned that they were going to start something and fallers were picked up and dusted off.

One of the biggest draws for me was the chance to catch Madness once again. The nutty boys, defying the ravages of age and fashion turned out to be the biggest draw of the weekend too.

As I walked around the festival during the day, the one band I heard people talking about was Madness, proving that their renaissance after the early 90s slump is now complete.

Boomtown has a licence for 60,000 music fans and pretty much all of them were sitting, standing, dancing in the amphitheatre that is the Lions Den stage. Formed from a natural bowl/valley the LIons Den is perfect for a large bad appearance and provides enough space and allows everyone to see without feeling cramped or pushed to the back.

Madness did what they did. Professional and engaging front man Suggs kept up the inter-song banter and the band ran through all of their standards. For committed fans there were new songs from forthcoming album 'Can't touch us now' although the set was a little predicable. Understandable perhaps given that it was designed for a festival crowd and not a fan based gig.

The sight of an immense bowl of people singing 'Baggy Trousers' was something special indeed.

Sunday dawned upon some very tired campers and I wandered around taking in the sights and doing my best to capture the atmosphere.

An invasion, a wild west brawl and a pair of posh tightrope walkers spraying those watching with champagne held my attention before I returned again to the Town Centre to see one of the heroes from my two tone days Neville Staple.

Appearing with his band Neville looked relaxed and on form as he ran through an impressive set of ska standards and of course his own back catalogue from The Specials.

I really enjoyed the band and I thought they hit absolutely the right note for a hot afternoon when people wanted some great music and a bit of a dance.

Next up The Selector carried on the two-tone feel for the afternoon in style. With original members Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson who annoyingly don't look a day older than they did when the band released 'three minute hero', they carried on the dance feel for the afternoon.

Truthfully it can't have been an easy set as the attendees had been partying since the Thursday and the hot, bright sun shone straight into the performers faces at this point.

That said they carried it off with aplomb and not a little energy. Songs with a dance feel but a message that is particularly needed in these post brexit times.

A nice bowl of lamb tagine and a coke and I was off to catch Seth Lakeman at the Old Mines.

Never having seen the Devonian folkster live I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the set with a heavy bias towards West Country folk but often with a modern twist. Lakeman switched easily between instruments, which was a pleasure to see after having covered a few mime artists over the last months.

The quality of the music was so good that a large crowd began to gather to what is after all a slightly off the beaten track stage. As the songs went on a cloud of dust appeared over the dancing folks at the old mines and many smiles were seen.

A short interlude saw me take a wander and find an ice cream van that was only selling toons and tightrope walkers entertaining the crowd in Mayfair before I shot back to the old mines to see Imelda May.

Not initially looking like she was relishing the prospect, May soon warmed to the task and showed the quality that made her a household name drawing a good sized crowd and giving me a great end to my festival.

As I wended my way back to the motorbike for the trip home I reflected upon the experience that is Boomtown. For a large festival it has a remarkably chilled and happy vibe. There's obviously something about getting British people dressed up that dissipates the football crowd mentality. Never have I had so many fist bumps, hugs and high fives at a festival.

Although they may not all have the space or resources that Boomtown has, all festivals could learn something from the way these guys do their work.


Background artists at Boomtown Fair 2016
Background artists at Boomtown Fair 2016
Background artists at Boomtown Fair 2016
Background artists at Boomtown Fair 2016
The Levellers appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
Madness appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
Madness appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
The Selector appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
 Neville Staple appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
 appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016
 Imelda May appearing at Boomtown Fair 2016

That there gallery – click on an image for a bigger version


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