Just like any city there are politics, and underneath the surface the nine separate districts of BoomTown are in competition with each other to take control, with more leadership changes and challenges than the Labour Party. Last year the town’s democratically elected mayor, Jose Burrita, was kidnapped at gunpoint by the previously deposed mayor, now the Sheriff of the Wild West district, and persuaded to do his bidding (keep up). This changed the tone of this year’s festival narrative to a slightly more sinister, 1984-esque Big Brother state, encouraging you to become part of the “Brave New World” and pledge your loyalty to the Party.
The focal point for this New Vision was the new, absolutely massive Bang Hai Palace Stage, a behemoth of engineering that towered above the whole of Downtown, spewing fire, lasers and dance music into the atmosphere from late afternoon until the early hours. This monument to the new society was quite breathtaking and was soon to be the scene of the impending revolution.
Throughout the site were clues to the unease felt by the citizens of BoomTown, starting with small acts of vandalism and graffiti and escalating to destruction and ultimately revolution over the weekend. The final celebration of the “Brave New World” was to be a loyalty stirring soliloquy from the glorious leader, Comrade Jose, from the Palace Stage at midnight on Sunday but this was cut short by the mysterious, masked characters from Dstrkt 5 who overthrew the regime with promises of “No Masters” and “Freedom For All”. Who knows what effect this will have on BoomTown, but I know one thing for sure, it will cause trouble, or at least I certainly hope so.
Confused? Thought this was a festival review? Well read on.
Each year something magical happens at the Matterley Bowl, a whole city is built from the ground up, with nine separate districts, to host BoomTown Fair. I know what you’re thinking, it’s just a bit of paint, some half-arsed fancy dress and your imagination, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Each of these districts, from the Wild West and Old Town to Mayfair and Dstrkt 5 is built like a film set, with a level of detail that you just won’t see anywhere else. Turn a corner and you’ll find something new, like a real barber’s shop, or a burlesque peepshow, or a stage you didn’t think was there earlier. And this is one of the many aspects of the site that makes it so amazing; like a real city, some parts open early on in the day, and others, that you had sauntered past without a thought before, become a hive of activity when the sun goes down. It’s exciting and very rare to discover surprises at any festival, but BoomTown seems to do it almost effortlessly.
What adds to the mystique and atmosphere of the event are the masses of performers who are scattered throughout the site. You’ll suddenly find yourself in the middle of a custard pie fight between gangsters and flappers, or press-ganged into some loyalty tests to prove you’re a good citizen, or abused by the BoomTown Bobbies for looking “funny”, or you will come across some of the larger narrative pieces that build the story of the weekend, such as a kidnapping of a major figure, or a gunfight in the Wild West that robs a pistol-toting lady of her husband to the horror of the saloon girls. The whole site keeps in character for the weekend and you just don’t know what you’re going to discover next.
It’s easy to dismiss this immersion as superficial, and a bit naive. I am a hardened festival-goer, I’ve been to loads of them and have seen some sights, many that I would like to forget, and frankly I am a miserable old git of a photo-journalist, who would be appalled at a cellular level at the merest hint of having to use my imagination or, perish the thought, interpretive dance, in order to buy into a themed festival. Seriously, you’d be able to see my disgust from 200m, but at BoomTown, I just believe it, it’s that well done and that’s why we love this festival.
You can feel the change in atmosphere from one district to the next, as each one has their own personality, but you’re completely comfortable with bumping into a pirate ship or having a fat banker dangle notes on a fishing line at you from a balcony or you stop to admire the pole-dancing robots.
Of course it’s not all theatre and sets, music plays a big part of the weekend. There are 22 main stages throughout the site offering a wide range of acts from all over the world, and although it would be hard to say you would know every one of them (or even more than 20% of them), what they all share is that they are great acts to dance to. You’ll get Dub, Reggae, Dance, Gypsy Punk, Pirate Rock, Punk, Dance, World Music, Dance, Techno, Dance, Rap .. There is a lot of dance music, particularly as the sun sets.
If you can find most of your favourite bands in the NME each week, or you’re looking for the latest pop acts and this is the driving force behind your choice of festivals then you’ll be disappointed with the lineup. BoomTown is not about the specific acts, it’s about the all-round entertainment offered. Don’t take this as a dismissal of the music, mind, I saw some great acts that I have never heard of, and some that I definitely had. There is something about the setting and atmosphere that enhances the performances. if you don’t get stirred into action then you should check your pulse.
The main stage, the Town Centre, hosted acts such as Gogol Bordello, Caravan Palace, Flogging Molly, Goldie Lookin’ Chain, the Dub Pistols, Less Than Jake, The Beat and Babyhead. The relocated Lion’s Den stage got a much larger setting in a natural amphitheatre which added to its mystique and this was shown off to the full, ironically, with the first act of the weekend, Stephen “Ragga” Marley, who delighted the huge assembled crowd with hits of his own and his father’s (Bob Marley, of course). The upgraded Wild West District (a strong personal favourite) absorbed the Old Mines stage as a reward for capturing control of the city. Arcadia was replaced by the Bang Hai Palace, and with the scale of this substitute it was barely missed, if at all.
Scattered throughout the BoomTown site are a plethora of mini venues and popup raves as well, like the People’s Front Room, or We Buy Gold, or the incredible Happy Slap Boutique, but you can also party with the 24 Hour Garage Girls, or lose yourself in the Spaceport or Raveyard. Boomtown is absolutely crammed full of musical gems, the list of them would stretch on and on, we’ve not even touched on the venues in the forests, or Chinatown, or the Devil Kicks Dancehall, Boombox, Circo Bassline, Rusty Spurs .. It’s exhausting just trying to remember them.
On the subject of exhausting, it is only fair to mention that the two halves of the site are separated by an absolute monster of a hill, steep enough to give anyone pause for thought at the top. It’s an issue if you have to climb it in a hurry or have any problems with fitness. The same can be said of the huge stairs that stretch up from Downtown to the Sunrise Area where you can get an amazing view of the site (particularly for the sunset). The site is large, but the hills separating the Uptown and Downtown make it feel much larger and you need to take this into account when moving around.
There was a Magic Carpet last year, which was an escalator that you could use and was a godsend, but it did not appear this year. Instead you could buy a Festaxi wristband which would give you a lift around the site if you were lucky enough to be on the route and flagged one down. If you did then you’d be very grateful. We track our mileage at all the festivals we cover on pedometers and Boomtown breaks records each year, more than any other festival (you can see our stats here). The thing is, it’s worth the effort, and if you only did the hill once a day you’d be heartily rewarded.
BoomTown isn’t perfect, no festival is, but it’s pretty damn close to it. If we could have one thing addressed it would be the 10pm curfew on entry. After this time, it doesn’t matter who you are, or why you needed to leave the site, you can’t get back in. Assuming that this is to deal with people trying to sneak in, or bringing in illicit substances, it seems punitive to festival goers who have a genuine reason to arrive after 10pm. All wristbands are barcoded and you are scanned in and out of the site each time you go through an external gate so the festival knows if you are in or out. Try to get in when you haven’t left and I assume you can’t do in. It makes sense and stops people from sneaking out wristbands. However, each time we left there was always a queue of people trying to get in who would have to spend the night in their cars or hiding in the car parks because heavy traffic had prevented them from making the curfew. Surely they could put something in place to allow people who have not been scanned at all to enter (people who haven’t got in yet), but prevent people from returning? Or even have no curfew on Friday, when most latecomers would be likely to arrive? These people have paid a lot of money for their tickets, so the least we could do would be to let them in. A simple check on whether they have been scanned into the system would fix this yet still stop any unwanted traffic. There has to be someone on the gate scanning people out, so I don’t see why they can’t also scan new arrivals in as well. It’s only a small thing, but if you are affected by it, then it would be a disaster.
Finally I would like to acknowledge the amazing crowd that BoomTown attracts. The eclectic lineup and atmosphere of the festival pulls in one of our favourite crowds of the season (some of which we bump into at our other favourite festivals). They will party from midday right through the night, and do it with style and an attention to detail that fits with the effort put in by the festival. They are what keep us going when we’re trying to get up the hills, and keep us as entertained as any other aspect of the site. That’s why we ended up with 750 photos of you all from the weekend (which you can find here).
BoomTown puts more effort and attention to detail into one district than most festivals put into their entire site. It’s controversial, but from a construction point of view it even gives the mighty Glastonbury a bloody nose.
BoomTown really has to be seen to be believed, and, frankly, I would rather keep details down to a minimum so that you can appreciate it all yourself for the first time and experience the magic of it properly. What I would say is that you should take the time to explore every corner, backstreet, balcony and alcove, but expect to miss more than you think and be prepared to be asked “oh, did you not see the...” as you realise that you will never get to see it all, no matter how hard you try, and that is something rare and incredible.
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