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The Big Chill 2011 Review: with Kanye West rants, Jessie J, Lucy Liu, Idris Elba and Robert Plant

Whilst England rioted we spent the weekend at the Big Chill enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, well at least until Mr West came on stage ...

We love the Big Chill but since it had been taken over 2 years ago by Festival Republic it is a festival still in transition, it’s not yet found its new niche in the market but it remains a cracking festival that’s still a bit different and is poised to get even better. The current financial climate has bitten a number of festivals this year, and the Big Chill was not immune. In some ways it's a shame that ticket sales were down this year, we hope that festival organisers won’t let this deter them from putting on the event next year, for many festival goers the notable downturn in numbers was an absolute blessing making the event feel much more intimate than usual and making it really easy to get around and see what was on offer around this stunning site.

The festival is held in Eastnor Castle Deer Park, which is the perfect setting for an event of this nature, the site itself is actually stunningly gorgeous, lending itself perfectly to the many different facets and strands brought to you by the Big Chills. A site like this means that you can have many diverse areas dotted around to cater for an exquisitely eclectic crowd.

The Big Chill does what it says on the tin, it’s one long laid back weekend that steps a little away from the standard expectations and brings you a rather different line-up. Big Chillers don't come for a festival crammed with chart topping acts, they tend to look for something a little more discerning and like to have a melting pot that mixes and mashes up expectations so bringing you a line-up that engages, broadens and encourages new discoveries. Of course there are a few chart topping "of the moment" acts thrown into the mix but overall the Big Chill, despite many changes over the years, remains rooted in a more experimental ethos that appeals to a more avante-guard crowd. It's about catching some new music from around the world just as much as watching your favourites.

Friday at the Big Chill

My entrance to the festival was frankly embarrassing and inelegant, this year organisers had changed the layout meaning that the parking was in a different place so there was quite a walk into the site. The walk in and out unfortunately included a very steep hill, one which anyone who has attended will be more than well acquainted with, so this was perhaps not the best time to discover that the festival shoes you are wearing have absolutely no grip. Day one saw me slither and slide onto the site, thankful that there were no photographers around and relieved that my partner hadn’t been quick enough off the mark to get the camera out! This hill was the bane of our lives throughout the event, to be honest I think organisers missed a trick here, many of us would have paid anything for a lift up that hill, someone could have made a fortune here! Still, having said that, the amount of walking and lack of allergy free foods suited to my diet meant that by the end of the weekend I’d lost 5lb in weight in an unexpected and quite welcome festival bonus!

The first act I managed to catch was the totally engaging, captivating and mesmerizing Zola Jesus. This Russian / American experimental artist is a classically trained opera buff who is uncompromising and takes no prisoners. An early slot on a Friday may not have been the best platform to showcase an artist of this nature as there were a few puzzled crowd members who were left a wee bit unsure. This was a hardcore, gloomy and elegant set that could have been better presented later to get the full effects of an intriguing and beguiling artists who's tipped for great things, and it would appear on the strength of this performance with good reason.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti took to the stage next and unleashed a whole heap of whoop-ass weirdness. Dressed in a frock and looking menacingly butch the set proceeded to confound, surprise, befuddle and leave you in no doubt that this was a Big Chill moment utterly in keeping with the nature of an event whereby the weird and wonderful become the norm.

New Zealand’s Ladi6 took on the Revellers stage providing a bit of vocal soulfulness mixed with a touch of rap, warming up the crowd for the wonderful Horace Andy. Shrouded in a red ensemble which, to be honest, appeared to be wearing him rather than the other way round, Andy brought his blend of roots and reggae to an appreciative crowd, eventually. The band's build up and achingly slow arrival of the man onto the stage was a bit yawn-inducing though. Still, it was business as usual once he got into his stride and began delivering the material we had all been waiting for.

The soulful Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III - aka Aloe Blacc provided a suitably laid back intermission, a solid performance played out to an ever increasing fan base judging by what I saw.

Wild Beasts meanwhile provided a rather more seasoned performance, opening with 'Bed Of Nails' before raising a glass with Hayden Thorpe proclaiming "We're Big Chill virgins, it's good to be here, this is dedicated to our friend Mr. West". They proceeded to pull off a genuinely enjoyable set that surely gained them some new fans, I’d always been a bit indifferent to this band but had to admit that they were on great form today, enough to encourage us to say check them out – they’re pretty good!

Wild Beasts were followed on the Deer Park stage by non-other than legendary Nenah Cherry, although I was stunned to discover that some people had never heard of her! Any doubts they may have been harbored were soon laid to rest as she bounded onto the stage with a storming rendition of "Man Child", showing the crowd just what made her an artist to be reckoned with. Nenah, complete with family members and an outrageous eighties outfit (it must have been a genuine little number) proceeded to own the Deer Park stage and won over the crowd from the start. A stunning version of "Buffalo Stance" and "Raw Like Sushi" highlighted this performance from a strong, independent woman who’s always been something of a positive role model.

Australia's Empire of the Sun were hugely anticipated, opulent, theatrical and visually impressive as they dominated the landscape with a pretty awesome set that somehow seemed to add to the atmospheric nuances that the Big Chill are ever able to conjure up.  Very camp, very extraordinary and very full on, in a cheesy kind of way, Empire of the Sun added a touch of glam and certainly managed to light up the arena.

The Chemical Brothers closed the Deer Park Stage with a headline set that was a total joy for the crowd and a total nightmare for every photographer hoping to snatch a shot of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons and their funny little dances. Undisputed masters of their genre they proceed to smash the Deer Park stage with an awesome set full of visual delights and thumping great beats.

Over on the Revellers stage the young 'uns were staying up way past their bedtime to get a glimpse of their hero, Chipmunk, who for some reason was late on stage. Although he probably saw himself as "gangsta" when he started, Chipmunk has bagged himself the young crowd to whom he is clearly a hero and they were out in force and swooning as the teeny-bop grime performer proceeded to charm the crowd with a cheeky, delightful, fun and a teeny bit edgy for such a young crowd set.

And with that our first day at the Big Chill came to a close, there was still plenty of fun and games going on around the site but there was THAT hill to be faced and I wanted to be left with some semblance of energy for the Saturday!

Saturday: Kanye Day

I walk down the street, and people look at me like I'm f**king insane, like I'm Hitler [no they don't Kanye]

Having enjoyed a blissfully sunny day on the Friday, Saturday was dull and rain threatened. I learned early on that a full day walking miles up hill and down dale whilst not eating anything at all might have been an error as the body was refusing to move! We expected a larger turnout for Saturday with the more popular lineup; Kanye West, Jessie J, Katy B, the Bullits, Example and more, but the site still felt uncrowded. I’m sure that festival organisers may not have been too happy about this but for festival goers the extra space added a dimension rarely found in modern festivals, it just felt nice, laid back easy to get around and very easy to get to see the acts you wanted to.

I felt pretty smug having managed the hill though, even though my body was on strike and threatening not to move for the rest of the day. People were racing off to catch Dionne Bromfield, the goddaughter of recently deceased Amy Winehouse. I’m sure a lot of the crowd and press who had gathered had done so due to her recent bereavement and there sure were a few ghoulish folk there waiting for her to break down thus adding a "newsworthy" photo opportunity.  In the event this young lass pulled off a really nice polished performance, she’s got talent, a great voice and a certain appeal. In the end she did cover Amy Winehouse's "Love Is a Losing Game" having told the crowd "She was an amazing singer. She was not only my godmother, but she was my mentor and my boss as well."  At just 15 years old Dionne Bromfield shows strength, stamina, determination and spirit, she handled it well and had the crowd on side from the off.

Kormac’s Big Band added the Irish flavour for the morning, a neat and fun filled act – this 11-piece orchestra kicked up a storm in the Revellers tent. The eclectic mix of live turntables, samplers, barbershop trio, guitars, drums, double bass, trumpet, clarinet and banjo inevitably brought a touch of real music that made all who were there dance and smile. Hotly tipped Crystal Fighters brought the party to the deer stage early, a cleverly crafted bohemian fusion of sound and visuals - the crowd sure got what Crystal Fighters had to give, an energetic little party seeped from the stage to the crowd.

The Bullitts were high on the agenda, I mean who wants to miss the opportunity to see "Stringer Bell" in action? The Bullitts featuring Jay Electronica, Lucy Liu & Idris Elba are a full-blown illustrated interactive story, turned album, turned film - a bit of an enigma really. It has to be said they didn’t disappoint, this was a full on performance with plenty of eye candy for both guys and gals. You had to get that this was a theatrical performance, with actors and everything - then it all slotted into place. This was a coup for the Big Chill and we’d all like to have had a little longer unraveling the story of Amelia Sparks as portrayed by Lucy Lui. Multi-faceted, multi-layered and thoroughly engrossing.

The Revellers stage was kept busy with The Midnight Beast, The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble and grime rapper Devlin, in true Big Chill style the ever-burgeoning diversity of the event heralded conflict after conflict, what to see and what to miss? It was a continuing theme during a weekend crammed with the opportunity to catch up with some really intriguing acts. We nipped over to catch a typically energetic and forceful Katy B gathering her supporters around her at the Revellers stage, there are no surprises with Katy B but a strong performance that never disappoints the fans.

Leaping back to the Deer Park to catch one of those sophisticated and immaculate performers; Janelle Monae. Here we were treated to a stunning set that actually did surprise. Introduced dramatically by a compere dressed up to the nines in a top hat and tails the scene was set and it was obvious that this was to be a classy performance. Three people arrived onto the monochrome stage, filled with musicians and singers, shrouded in a cloak with their backs to the crowd, turning round it was revealed that the middle shrouded figure was Monae herself.  Swinging into action she didn’t let go throughout with stunning vocals that included a cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back".  Her version of Nat King Cole's "Smile" however, was a masterpiece that perfectly showcased this talented performer’s ability to out sing and out perform others whilst offering a rare glimpse of genuine glamour, style and panache. Monae is effortlessly cool.

Tom Middleton brought the Saturday afternoon DJ set to the Deer Park stage, it was fun and don’t ask me why but Tom Middleton just comes across as such a genuine, nice guy. Metronomy brought their usual solid set afterwards, gentle, soft and achingly good stuff from these guys is always guaranteed, I really loved the mile high cartoon pictures of themselves they used as the backdrop - great touch.

The day really belonged to Jessie J though, limping on stage for her first live performance since she cancelled gigs after Glastonbury and taking to her throne she swiftly proceeded to hold court with her subjects hanging onto every word, and there were plenty of words from Jessie J in between some belting songs. We had a crowd of kids right by us and got as much fun watching them as we did the performance – they were word perfect and knew every move that was delivered with a degree of expertise – they couldn’t have been more than 8! Jessie J herself has been sorely missed since the broken foot incident and it was a real festival moment watching her work that crowd, sickeningly she appears to have it all – the looks, the patter, the talent and oh good grief what an amazing voice – welcome back Jessie!

Closing the Deer Park stage was the hugely anticipated set from headliner Kanye West in his only UK performance this year. This was amazing, controversial and funny – but for all the wrong reasons as far as Mr West would be concerned. All day there had been faffing about at the main stage area, changing layouts, making walkways and more, by the time the allotted hour arrived security had worked themselves up into a major frenzy and for those of us trying to work the ensuing chaos was mind-boggling and security were obviously way out of their depth. Everyone was wondering what the hell was happening as the star himself was half an hour late. When he finally did put in an appearance we could all hear him but we couldn’t see him, the penny slowly dropped as the crowd started to turn their backs on the main stage and look toward the sound tower – here we finally saw a bloke in a white shirt – was it Kanye? We shall never know but shortly afterwards he seemed to materialize from the sound tower onto the main stage. There was a "pfft" in what laughingly passed for fireworks and the stage was set – beautifully and theatrically set up with dancers and all manner of stunning Romanesque type backdrops – it looked and felt truly spectacular.

Now had Mr West concentrated on what he does best and stuck to the script it would have been a full on fabulous performance, but in keeping with so many who suffer from verbal diarrhoea he simply couldn’t resist "chatting" to the crowd. Chatting on it's own would have been fine, Jessie J managed it beautifully, but West decided to run into a "pity poor me" routine; "This is my most important gig of the summer, but I'm really frustrated. I only have half of my voice. I just want things to be right. This is the reason we started half an hour late". He gave a 10-minute rant about a video award he won some years back, which he had to fly for 12 hours to receive seems to have stayed with him in a negative fashion: "I rose from nothing", "I'm not doing this for the money" etc. The piθce de rιsistance, however, would probably have to be the "Hitler" part of the rant - "I walk through the hotel and I walk down the street, and people look at me like I'm f**king insane, like I'm Hitler. One day the light will shine through and one day people will understand everything I ever did." Oh dear, oh dear Mr West – when did you last walk down the street? And when did you last make touch with reality?

For all that the hits were what really counted and the music was great in a two hour set that covered "Runaway", "Touch The Sky", "Stronger", "All Falls Down", "Gold Digger", "Swagga Like Us" and more Kanye West proved his credentials in the music world and finishing with paying tribute to Amy Winehouse, whom he described as "beautiful" and "amazing" he said "Thank you for protecting your artists that are still here, this is for Alexander McQueen, for Amy, for Michael Jackson, and for all the media - can you lighten up on the artists that are still here?" The performance sure divided the audience, some loved it, some were indifferent and some were shouting "fuck off home Kanye West you wanker" amongst boos and cheers. Probably for future reference, Mr West, stick to what you do well, make the music and leave the rhetoric to those who have a grip on reality.

We finished off day two with a couple of great performance on the Revellers stage – Example pulled off a typically energetic set that set the stage alight and drew a huge and enthusiastic crowd, this year he’s been a stalwart on the festival circuit and has never failed to deliver fun. Example was followed by Calvin Harris, another popular act and yet another gloomy DJ set - of a standard but hardly likely to set the world alight unless you're raving the night away.

And so day two drew to a close for us, once again we left the Big Chillers partying hard into the wee small hours whilst we faced the hill from hell…

Sunday

Sunday dawned grey and wet, this was traditionally hang over day and the sparse crowd certainly bore evidence to this, Big Chillers obviously partied a bit too hard the night before and it was going to take a while for those hangovers to wear off. Our fear was that the people who had come for Saturday's lineup would have left, decimating the numbers, and we were not wrong. The only thing missing was a rolling piece of tumbleweed ... However, this exodus had an unexpected consequence: the people remaining were the old school Big Chillers, the people who were here to party, soak up the atmosphere and absorb some great music. Bands that started with low numbers in the audience saw people gravitate towards them to give respectable crowds, and although the site was depleted, the atmosphere remained, if anything, Sunday was the closest day to the normal Big Chill festival vibe.

The talk of the site was, of course, Kanye West's performance, with the crowd still at odds between those that loved it and those that really didn't. Rumours were abounding – specifically just how did he manage to get from the sound tower to the stage so quickly and without being spotted? No-one knew for sure, many thought that the guy in the tower was not Kanye West but a doppelganger, some thought he had run (unnoticed!) through the crowd, others said that security had driven him round in a truck – but our favourite rumour was the most persistent – many, many people believed that he had made organisers build a tunnel under the ground from the sound tower to the main stage and had actually run there! The other top rumour was that Kanye West had booked out the castle at a cost of £45,000 per night! Of course this would fit with the man who would be king!

Time had to be spent chilling out at Mr. Scruffs, always a major feature of the Big Chill, this self-professed tea addict whiled away a few happy moments throughout the weekend at what has become my favourite Big Chill spot. It was also great to see the ‘Smokers Welcome’ sign at the SoChilled area – well done Big Chill – this minority group could do with just a bit of acceptance every now and then!

Organisers, of course, knew that Sunday would be hangover day – so the music and entertainment was carefully crafted to allow one and all to recoup and recover slowly and gently with reggae, dub and world music at the heart of it. The Big Chill Radio stage put on the ever-popular film of PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake" which proved to be a perfect choice.

Norman Jay, a regular at the Big Chill brought an eclectic programme to the Chillers, the thing was he kept disappearing behind his decks – and all I could think of was that he must be going down that tunnel. I kept waiting patiently for him to appear at the top of the sound tower! The North Mississippi Allstars Duo played a very gentle, drawling soft rock set to the Deer Park stage faithful, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Quantic and his Combo Barbaro brought solace to the Revellers stage as we all came to terms with hangovers, exhaustion and the realisation that this was the last day.

Femi Kuti brought exquisite African music to an appreciative crowd with some amazing Afrobeat sounds backed by the Positive Force band and with some extravagant, colourful and authentic African dancers. Beautiful, thought provoking and unashamedly political this was a perfect set for the Big Chill crowd and placed just about right on the programme.

Vid Warren compered for the first few acts at the Revellers, entertaining with an unusual combination of juggling and beatboxing, but mainly just beatboxing. Winner of the Big Chill Bar competition, Alexia Coley, got to play a set, and showed that the judges had impeccable taste by choosing this talented singer. Jamie Woon is beginning to make himself known, the intimate setting of the Revellers tent was a perfect introduction to this gentle, stylish music that simply oozed quality.

Warpaint are an experimental all-girl quartet hailing from Los Angeles, relaxing, deeply chilled and elegant their music builds to a slow crescendo gripping all who hear it and for a short while transporting you off to another planet – totally Big Chill and totally stylish – another delightful musical interlude. 

Robert Plant and the Band of Joy were next up. We have no idea why this exceptional performer should refuse photo access – I mean this is THE Robert Plant for God’s sake, the man is ageing beautifully and has lost none of his appeal – be proud of it Mr. Plant and show it off, you give us all hope. It was a brilliant set, we got plenty of stuff I'm unfamiliar with from the Band of Joy's back catalogue but what won everybody over completely was the Led Zeppelin tracks. "Black Dog" and "Ramble On" reworked and stunningly presented, drawing everyone into Plant's world, and what a world it was. "House Of The Holy", "Thank You", "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp" and "Gallows Pole" gave us all a glimpse into the world of a genius - we didn't want the set to end, it was headline worthy to say the very least.

Talented Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela headlined the Deer Park stage closing the event in style with an exuberant, stunning and jaw dropping set leaving all in their wake wondering just how do they do it? No one should be able to play guitar like that - but boy oh boy - they can and they do - nothing short of total genius.

Conclusion

All things must change – of that there is no doubt, the Big Chill is still in transition following the change of ownership. I love the Big Chill and have been going for years, but I did miss some of the regular and well loved aspects so many of us have seen as an integral part of the event. There was no Big Burn (the burning of the structure with fireworks) this year; in fact there was no structure to marvel at at all. The change of layout took some getting used to, some aspects were good with "Cube Henge" brought into the mainstream but I did miss the full on arts trail and the entertainment that used to stretch up into the hills – it was always a difficult walk up the hill to the arts trail but it was always a proper little festival in and of itself. I missed the Thursday night silliness that used to unite Big Chillers with it’s full on all-inclusive extravaganzas of years gone by and there was no special event, like the mass naked photography from last year. 

I didn’t like the segregation of the children’s area. I love the idea of an area dedicated to children, something which festivals like Camp Bestival do really well, and I understand and get why organisers put such tight security on the access to the area but equally think that exclusion in a festival is not a good idea. The atmosphere that children can add to a festival is a great thing so when it is contained away from the main site (and there was clear distance between it and the Deer Park Stage) something is lost. Of course, you'd have to ask the kids if they thought that it was a great festival for children, we were unable to find out.

Festivals these days need a distinct theme to differentiate them from others in a very crowded market, and this is something that the Big Chill has to make doubly sure it has if it is to survive in this climate. We need festivals like this, and hope that numbers will be much greater next year.

Having said that I simply love the Big Chill, for some reason it holds a special place in my heart, it attracts a really lively, party loving crowd who adore the different, unusual and challenging, and this has always been reflected in the deeply diverse array of music and entertainment on offer. This is not a frenetic race from one thing to another festival, the Big Chill really is genuinely relaxed and chilled out festival offering something special and in the process it genuinely is a bit more "off the beaten track".

The Big Chill has an energy all its own, it’s alive and its cheeky tongue in cheek sense of humour and fun is utterly contagious and compelling, there was always a danger that the event could become a bit artsy-fartsy and avante-guard but its always avoided that route by seeking to introduce some more interesting concepts mixed with solid down to earth entertainment that, as everything falls into place, creates an environment that allows and encourages all artistic expression in all its many forms – and that is its greatest strength.

 

Review Info

Author:
Deborah Rees
Added:
13th August 2011
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The Big Chill 2011 Review: with Kanye West rants, Jessie J, Lucy Liu, Idris Elba and Robert Plant

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