Walking into Donington Park on the second day of Download is like walking into a nightclub at 1am – you know all of the best bits are still to come, but everyone else there is already pretty heavily gone. This was the exact feeling I had walking into The Village – the main square in the middle of all the campsites – on Thursday afternoon. It was 2 in the afternoon and honestly, you would have been hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t either holding an alcoholic beverage, or on their way to procure one. The weather was glorious – something that went downhill rather quickly – and people were embracing their first full day of the festival.
It took us twenty minutes to find the people we were to set up camp with and, pretty devastatingly, an additional hour and a half for the five of us to lug three bags and a tent the couple of miles from the car to the camp – no mean feat in the 20-something degree heat.
The Village itself holds everything you would want it to for the three days of Download – showers, toilets, burger vans, fairground rides, various entertainment tents, stalls selling everything from wellies to band shirts, and cash machines – albeit ones that charged £2.50 for a withdrawal. The amount of people milling about the village at any one point instils a sense of community. When the patrons range in appearance from skinheads and tracksuits to dyed black dreadlocks and New Rocks, it’s impossible to find judgment – no one bats an eyelid.
Tent set up in our new home Green Camp and drinks flowing, we set upon our main mission of the weekend: meeting as many new people as possible. This culminated in an exceedingly complex drinking game with around ten total strangers who, within two hours, had left an extremely lasting impression in the form of empty crates, bottles, and a bag of mystery wine left under our camp gazebo. Quickly introducing myself to the group camping next to us at around 11pm, I tagged along to their night in The Pound, one of the entertainment tents located in The Village. It’s nothing special, playing the same music as any club-based rock night in the country, but there is something great about watching a few hundred people, cans of beer aloft, all bouncing around and screaming along to old school Sum 41.
Heading back to camp around 3am called for some food. Unfortunately due to the immense effort it had taken getting half of our things to the campsite, my emergency 24 multi-pack of French Fries was still in the back seat of the car. Fortunately, right at the bottom of Green Camp was a 24 hour breakfast van, a very welcome sight. Hunger pangs battled with a particularly warming sausage baguette, I turned in for the night (morning?)
Anything goes at 9:30am on a Friday morning at Download, which I discovered when a tent neighbour offered me a swig of whiskey the moment my head peeped around the tent opening. A trip to the relatively well maintained portaloos (of which there were large groupings throughout the campsites) at the top of our field, a portion of chips and a few litres of cranberry juice and I felt a little more human, so it was time to tackle the weekend head on.
Walking to the arena was a journey through sea of band shirts and prepared ponchos, despite the rain not having made an appearance yet. Queues into the arena certainly weren’t very long, staff were friendly, succinct and organised, and within a few minutes we were in. The Download Dog statue loomed across the field, music and the voices of thousands of people competing for attention.
Our first stop was The Maverick Stage to catch Hill Valley High, a band I have begun to feel remarkably sentimental about – not only because my chat with them in the press tent later that day was some of the best fun I had all weekend, but because they reside in my own home town of Chester. The crowd in the tent was pretty small – maybe the smallest crowd I would see all weekend – but this was possibly expected, as the band skew more towards the pop rock end of the spectrum than most metal fans will allow. They were, however, exceptionally energetic, and the people that had rocked up to the Maverick Stage to see them were happily bopping and singing along, hands raised towards the roof of the tent – perhaps a testament to the fans of bill-topping pop rockers All Time Low, who would play the Encore stage later that day.
Despite it being 15 years since Alien Ant Farm’s undoubtedly huge album Anthology dropped, this was the band’s first time at Download and they certainly made their mark. Devil horns and clenched fists raised on the beat, the atmospheric ‘Movies’ was a set highlight. For a band who has been around for as long as some of the crowd had been alive, they haven’t lost an ounce of their impact, something that became clear as soon as the opening riff of ‘Smooth Criminal’ rang out from the stage. The majority of the crowd may have been there for one song, and AAF made it count.
AAF departed, and the rain arrived. An interview was coming up, so, retreating to the shelter of the guest bar we listened to Babymetal from afar. They had drawn the loudest crowd up until that point by far – whether that’s to do with the gimmick of three Japanese teenagers in taffeta tutus and with synchronised dancing, or the fact they genuinely produce some great metal that sounds particularly awesome on a festival stage is subjective, really.
From here, the Friday went downhill. Interview over, we headed back into The Village for some food and a drink, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Although the cheeseburger I purchased from one of the many food vans was delicious, the downpour that had happened during and after Babymetal had turned the entire central portion of The Village into what could only be described as a swamp. Some were knee deep in mud, and it seemed many of the festival-goers were not well equipped to handle the downpour. As we discovered on our arrival back at camp, neither were we. With bags of sodden clothes, one abandoned tent, and a hint of ‘Dear Maria, Count Me In’ being sung from the Encore Stage from over a fence, we headed back to the car and made the two hour journey back to Chester and our nice warm beds.
I awoke on Sunday morning after a Saturday filled with sneezes, sniffles, and regret (upon hearing I had missed Nikki Sixx performing with Megadeth), with what could only be described as a second wind. Calling in a favour from my long suffering boyfriend (who’s more into Marvin Gaye than Iron Maiden), we jumped in my car and headed back to Download.
Wellies and poncho on, we headed into the arena. The walk to The Lemmy Stage was dangerous, however, as the entire arena had developed into a brown, streaming mess – the mud was so liquid at this point that I described myself as ‘feeling like Augustus Gloop’. While the mud was no problem for the vast majority of the crowd, it was disheartening to see those in wheelchairs and on crutches struggling to get from the entrance to the viewing platform – one of the few instances better preparedness from the festival was necessary.
Slip N Slide experience over, I found a tiny patch of straw to stand on and was greeted by a band I had never heard of – The Temperance Movement. They had a stomping beat and a country twang, and they’d gathered a large, very animated crowd despite the fact they were on very early in the afternoon on a Sunday. As is the norm with lesser known bands, it was the very front of the crowd who were singing along to every word, but the stony faced crowds nearer the back were no match for the catchy choruses and by the end of the set there were a lot more tapping feet, a lot more smiles, and a fair few more fans of The Temperance Movement.
The moment Lzzy Hale stepped onto that stage I felt like a quivering fangirl. The vocal talent and sheer stage presence that she exudes is enough to make any of their shows incredible to watch. Set opener – the stomping, sexy ‘Apocalyptic’ – gathered a few wanderers over to the Lemmy Stage and once they crowds had stopped to take a look, Arejay Hale blasted a five minute drum solo peppered with some well-known rock covers that had the crowd roaring along with him, culminating in him pulling out some drum sticks bigger than his own torso which surprisingly did not hinder his ability in the slightest. The rousing ‘I Am the Fire’ was an incredible climax of the 40 minutes Halestorm graced the stage, an absolute anthem showcasing some of the best vocals so far that weekend. It’s always a treat to see women grace the main stage at a metal festival – even better to see them rock just as hard as a line-up mostly dominated by men.
We nipped quickly over to The Kennels to catch some of the WWE NXT performers in action. Disclaimer here – I am not a fan of wrestling. Never have been, never will be. My boyfriend, however, loves it. He took it upon himself to explain all the moves for me, which came in particularly handy after a very impressive lifting, twisting and throwing happened. While we cut short our viewing of the second match to catch some Breaking Benjamin, and I still don’t plan on buying the next Smackdown on pay per view, the atmosphere in the NXT tent was one of the best I’d seen and I did enjoy the theatre of it all along with the raucous, chanting crowd.
Breaking Benjamin are another band playing their first ever Download this year. While not as well established on these shores as some other bands on the bill, they’re definitely a crowd favourite and if their set was anything to go by it won’t be long until they’ve collected legions of UK fans outside of the festival circuit. A band for over ten years (admittedly with lead singer Benjamin Burnley as the only constant) their brand of hard rock is nothing new, but the masses of people turned out to the Encore Stage is definitely well deserved.
5pm brought a clash. Don Broco and Disturbed were taking to separate stages at the same time and despite my love for the Bedfordshire rockers, I’ve seen them twice in the last 12 months and thus opted for Disturbed. The crowds had really turned out back at The Lemmy Stage- mud pits as far back as the stalls (a good four hundred meters from the stage, for reference) had broken out even before the opening chords of ‘Ten Thousand Fists’, and lasted well throughout the slow, melancholic ‘The Sound of Silence’. The highlight of the set though, was David Draiman calling out not one, but three special guests: Lzzy Hale, Benjamin Burnley and ex-Maiden singer Blaze Bayley. A medley of U2, The Who and Rage Against the Machine classic ‘Killing in the Name’ followed by Disturbed’s heavy, iconic piéce de resistance ‘Down With The Sickness’ was the highlight, for me, of the entire festival.
There was no band at Download this year who are quite as soaring and atmospheric as Nightwish. Floor Jansen’s vocals are the perfectly haunting foil to the heavy metal guitars and impressive pyrotechnics and they certainly proved themselves deserving of their high spot on the bill. Mixing old and new tracks, there was something for diehard fans and newbies alike and the intro to ‘Shudder Before the Beautiful’ received a loud and welcome reaction from the crowd even before the leather-clad Jansen took to the stage. The band play up to the audience better than most and it’s safe to say that those at Donington were firmly in the palm of Nightwish’s symphonic, metal hands.
Then it was what most of the festival-goers this year were there for: Iron Maiden. The whole day you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing at least one person sporting Maiden garb, or hear the story of Ed Force One (Maiden’s private plane, piloted by singer Bruce Dickinson) landing at the nearby airfield. For the hype surrounding them, however, Maiden don’t come across as well as people would lead you to believe. There’s something there for the fans who have been following them for years, of course, the old school metalheads – but for people who aren’t already massive Iron Maiden fans, the set leaves something to be desired. It’s impressive, naturally, and nostalgic to boot, but for the majority of the Download crowd these days it’s either something you have been brought up listening to, or something that’s just a little bit too ‘back-in-the-day’. They’re legends, and could in no way fit anywhere on the bill other than the headline slot, but when the crowd are only there for the classics, it lacks the freshness that other bands provide in scores.
Would I go to Download again? Most definitely, it is the spiritual home of rock after all and the only downside (the weather) is part and parcel of the festival experience and well worth the atmosphere and crowds. But next time I’m springing for a hotel.