Visiting Boomtown’s annual fair is a bit like walking into Pinewood Studios on a particularly busy day, so busy in fact that the actors don’t even have time to break character. Amidst the food stalls, phone charging points, signposts and seas of tents arranged into insular little groups or massive social hubs, you find yourself in something more akin to some kind of immersive theatre project. Although this year all the well known districts were present and correct, from the rusty techno graveyard of DSTRKT 5 to the pirate infested walkways of Oldtown, up past the affluent pillars of Mayfair and through the ever-lively Wild West, there was a different scent in the air.
Yes yes, after the shocking revelations proclaimed at Bang Hai Palace at the tail of last year’s fair, the volatile aroma of revolution was percolating under the nostrils of many revellers. Not that such a thing put a damper on the Fair’s proceedings, or the entertainment on offer. In fact, this may well have been the best BoomTown roster yet, fronted by Damian Marley, Madness, Leftfield, The Levellers and many more. I hadn’t been to BoomTown since 2013, and I must admit that last time I didn’t exactly get the full picture, electing instead to let my basshead sensibilities take over and spend most of it dashing back and forth between the Boombox and Arcadia stages, both of which have now been replaced with far grander spectacles.
This was different though, I had a vested interest in seeing how it all went down, I’d spoken to Lak Mitchell and even had a personal audience with the Masked Man. Almost from the moment I arrived on site, the atmosphere was overwhelming. The Thursday night is perhaps more important at BoomTown than any other festival, it’s the night when you get your bearings. Once we’d lugged all our camping gear all the way across from the car park to our perhaps unwisely chosen spot in Trenchtown, we spent the evening touring the winding streets and struggling to comprehend the immense attention to detail and craftsmanship. BoomTown is, in conceptual terms, a masterpiece, a sprawling fantasy land of hidden rooms, perching balconies and a fully functioning social eco-system that you cannot help but bury yourself in. And as if it was needed, the cosmos added an extra glimmer of wonderment to the proceedings by hurling a meteor shower over our dazzled heads.
As the Fair shifted into full swing, the music got underway and it complimented the feel of the site almost perfectly. The ever-mesmerising Lion’s Den stage opened at noon on Friday with a bizarre opening show that played like a combination of The Lion King musical and that hallucinogenic dream sequence from Far Cry 3, and it was shortly followed by a blistering performance from Glaswegian dub monsters Mungo’s Hi-Fi, aided by Eva Lazarus, Solo Banton and Charlie P. Later in the evening, after taking in a blistering bite of Asian Dub Foundation’s Town Centre show, we went to investigate the mysterious new installation – the Sector 6 nuclear facility, and found the towering structure under the control of Calibre and DRS, perhaps the most adept drum and bass duo in the history of the genre (yeah, I said it). They were later relieved by Dub Phizix and Strategy, making the whole affair seem like some kind of crazy bamboozled inversion of a heavy night at Antwerp Mansion.
By this stage, black masked spectres were stalking the busy streets, silent and menacing, biding their time. Down in DSTRKT 5 Mala took command of the mind-blowing Robotika stage, and the ever-electrifying Jenna and the Gs kept the Downtown Poco Loco stage in bouncing mode. They were shortly followed by another Mancunian takeover in the guise of The Mouse Outfit and Levelz, a fascinating venn diagram of rapping talent backed by instrumental jazz on one side and blistering dubstep and DnB on the other. As the night closed out, Bang Hai and Sector 6 both glowing like landing beacons beneath the starlight.
On the Saturday, with the sun blasting down on the festival site, tensions started to run high. The Skints did their best (and I do mean best) to keep everyone in a state of chill during their early set, but as we wandered between all the weird and wonderful small hidden stages, it was hard to ignore the thrum of the atmosphere. Affluent cunts (their words, not mine) threw money over the rafters in Mayfair, drunkards stumbled after prostitutes in the Wild West and the less said about what was going on in Barrio Loco, the better. Later into the evening the music once again provided a worthy distraction, as Madness ushered in an astonishingly massive crowd, proving that in this turbulent time, their brass-laden ‘Fuck You Thatcher’ brand of ska still resonates with people of all ages. Speaking of all ages, it would be remiss of me not to point out how heartening it was to see so many children running around the festival site. Despite claims by outsiders that BoomTown is little more than a haven for wreckheads, it’s one of the most balanced, relaxed (yes, relaxed) festivals I’ve ever been to, with plenty of forest stages to chill at, quieter places to camp and other places to go if it all gets a bit too overwhelming. There’s such a broad cross section of people, from hippies to psytrance fans to punks that there’s almost nobody I wouldn’t recommend it to, and that says a huge amount.
Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen to BoomTown now, but we’ll get to that. Madness’s set overlapped with an insane audio-visual display, courtesy of Leftfield, but partway through I noticed some military types hovering around the government building. Buoyed by curiosity, we went over, at which point we were very directly asked if we supported Comrade Jose. Without thinking, I said yes, and was promptly dragged into a 5 stage recruitment process involving physical fitness, examination, flagellation and intimidation, before being spat back out into the streets.
Bewildered, I decided to get the other side of the story, so I asked a passing revolutionary what their current directive was. He was more concerned with dancing at the time, but he did advise me to be at Bang Hai later that night. It was good advice, as several of the Masked Man’s delegates stormed the stage and his image flashed across the screens, a warning of things to come. Once again the highlights of the late evening were to be found at Poco Loco – Reeps One (giving the best performance I’ve ever seen from him), Submotion Orchestra and Swindle, who was flanked by an immensely talented live jazz band.
The last day rolled around, and things were no less edgy. Bewildered revellers were roaming between stages, wide-eyed and worn out from almost 4 days of total sensory overload. We decided that a more relaxing vibe was necessary, so we went to the Old Mines to see Beans on Toast play his yearly 3pm set. If you’ve ever seen Beans on Toast, you’ll know that he only needs about 15 minutes to really tug at your heartstrings, but this time he had an hour. I swear the ground was slick from melancholic tears by the end. Further relaxation was found on the gorgeous Hidden Woods stage, ably provided by reggae up-and-comers General Skank and Brightonian dubbist maintstays The Resonators. Fat Freddy’s Drop were a perfect choice for an early evening set on The Lion’s Den, and a perfect prelude to perhaps the best set on any main stage all festival, courtesy of Parov Stellar.
Almost immediately after they finished, something alarming happened. BoomTown security went into high alert, the broadcast system was shut down and suddenly, the Masked Man himself appeared on the stage, backed by his denizens, all armed with flares. It was my first time seeing him in the flesh, us having been separated by a TV screen when I met him. He glanced down at me, goggles glinting in my eye, and then he addressed the crowd, informing them that the revolution had begun. Across the site, posters of Comrade Jose had been defaced, the officials were in an uproar and all was chaos. Mayfair satiated themselves in the Ballroom by happily bopping away to the Electric Swing Circus, but out there, at Bang Hai and Sector 6, the takeover was complete. Fireworks scarred the night sky, the masked facade peered down on the crowds, and we all knew BoomTown had forever changed.
Changed it may well have done, but it’s still BoomTown, and it’s still a wonder. At one point, shortly before Beans on Toast played his set, a compare observed that some people on the outside are scared of BoomTown, intimidated by it, and she gestured to the crowd and said “You’re not scary! You’re all lovely!”. BoomTown is lovely, BoomTown is wonderful, and no amount of vicious, utterly baseless rumours about barely controlled drug addled lunacy can invalidate that. From organisation to execution to attendance it is, simply put, the best independent festival in the world, completely transcending the very concept of a music festival and becoming something so much more significant, and vital. It brings people together, and as Beans on Toast himself so eloquently observed, it’s the best movement against the reign of the greedy that you’ll find anywhere. Next year, the revolutionaries take charge, and I’ll be there to see what they have planned. If you have any sense, you’ll be there too.
Special thanks to Lou Boyd for her assistance in putting this article together.