31st August | Clifton Downs
Photos: Callum O’Keefe & Jon Kean
When Woody Guthrie painted “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar in the 1940s, he inspired many an act of resistance in the decades thereafter. There are all manner of methods, theoretically, in which you can eradicate such insidious forces. You can change the moral and political climate that surrounds you by violent means, but days such as The Downs Festival remind you that those that seek to corrode and undermine the fabric of society can be overwhelmed, swamped and smothered. Community and unity reminds us that we’re still here and that we can be joyous.
A lot of the above is, more or less, what Joe Talbot of IDLES reminded us during the first of three consecutive acts on the Main Stage whom you’d easily call ‘headliners’ on any day of the week. “This is an anti-fascist song,” came before almost every song, with increasing levels of unapologetic repetition. We were reminded that we still existed (the sort of thing that the power of an animated crowd can remind us, despite it being forgettably obvious) and we were encouraged to see the breadth, depth and warmth of the crowd as something that could blanket and smother prejudice and division.
Their set was inclusive in many ways. Danny Nedelko was borne on Joe’s shoulders for the song that bears his name, their manager’s son (last seen playing air drums in the wings of the Park Stage at Glastonbury) joined Jon Beavis on the actual drums during Love Song. Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan not only surfed the rowdy crowd, but parted the audience, walked amongst hem and trod the same hallowed ground. IDLES set was of the people, for the people and by the people.
Similar levels of visually-arresting performance came from Grace Jones. Whereas IDLES gave us a more gutsy, brutalist vision, Jones gave us more colour in her costumes (compared to Bobo’s black pants) and more choreographed, movement. It was like going from martial arts to tai chi. There’s something extra that makes sense about the song ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ when you are hypnotised by it in a live setting. If I’ve got that much gumption and gusto about me when I’m 71, I’ll be delighted, as the crowd was on Saturday.
If you read all the ‘miseducation’ jokes ever made about the time timekeeping of our official headliner, Lauryn Hill, you’d probably be there for more than the half hour it took between her set time and when she appeared. There was still plenty of love left for her from the audience, even (no doubt) from the fourth headline-worthy performer of the day, Loyle Carner, whose Avon Stage-closing set was full of compassion, joy and f-bombs. Closing with ‘No CD’, he urged us all to run to the main stage for Lauryn Hill. I hope he didn’t bust a gut himself to get there too quickly.
Hill’s set was stiller and more down-to-earth than the chaos of IDLES or the artful abstraction of Grace Jones, but ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ and her Fugee moment on ‘Killing Me Softly’ were particular high points. Another ‘late but worth the wait’ act was the opening set from Mercy’s Cartel. We were frequently fed suggestion from the microphone that we might not be enjoying the set, which was slightly odd seeing how pleasant a warm-up to the day it provided.
‘White dudes with guitars and quite a lot of hair’ gave a sufficiently strong account of themselves to render anyone who pigeonholes and denigrates bands comprised of such component parts as a excessively grumpy and a bit daft. Fontaines DC gave it everything they had, to vein-bulging intensity if you took lead man, Grian Chatten to be a yardstick. The sound levels weren’t especially kind to them, meaning that vocals and guitar predominated and the rhythm section, despite being there, could be sensed, but not brilliantly heard.
The Information Stage, home to speakers during the day, became ‘Late Night Live’, curated by IDLES, a programme of Milo’s Planes, Ditz, Talk Show, and finally, Heavy Lungs. Maybe it was the IDLES connection (and the resultant AF Gang turnout from far and wide), or maybe it’s the critical reputation that these bands are earning in their own rights, but there’s surely never been such a large, vociferous and energetic crowd on that small side-stage in its short history.
Festival seasons come and festival seasons go, but it’s always a positive to know that a festival season ends with The Downs.
See the video for ‘Danny Nedelko’: