Basement Jaxx, The Fantastic Laura B, Noah & The Whale, James Yuill, Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Simon Jay Catling 06/08/2009

The Big Chill, Eastnor, 6th-9th August 2009

Looking at the line up for the 15th Big Chill beforehand; and as a veteran only of festivals known to attract the type of teenage hoodlums eager to get as sauced up as possible whilst away from the parents; I couldn't help but feel that this weekend was going to be a bit of a step into the unknown. The Big Chill makes no bones about its attraction to the middle classes, and the legions of young families were actually a welcoming site in and amongst some of the more usual suspects that made up the rest of the festival crowd. Fuck it anyway; I'm not a man fussed with class, and if being middle class means you get to listen to the sort of music that turned out to be on offer over the course of the weekend, then sign me right up. This was (one of the) great things about the Big Chill 2009; there were only four or five acts a day that were straight up no-brainers to go and see, leaving most of the time free to explore, sample and experience the sorts of sounds that these lugs may never have come close to hearing otherwise. And so it was with an open mind that I headed towards the rural climbs of Herefordshire.


I miss Thursday. Being a Northern lad, I arrive late at night and so wait until Friday; thus missing the delights of British Sea Power and the more dubious spectacle of Noel Fielding playing host to a zombie fancy dress party. I think I was probably wise skipping the latter. Friday morning it is then, and my word Eastnor is a) a gob smacking place to put on a shindig, and b) as Alan Partridge might say “hotter than the sun”. Apparently it was raining last night, which is why walking on the ground still feels like you're skating across the top of a large fudge cake; but aside from that the place seems to have a certain magic already. The Open Air Stage and Castle Stage are set in front of a sprawling patch of green, be spotted occasionally by the sort of thick trees that could most likely tell many a tale (and this weekend probably do to some of those revellers who are both naturally and chemically chilled.)Large white letters spell out 'The Big Chill', and I half-expect these to be chased off the premises by a Police unit such is their resemblance to the 'Illegal Alphabet' sketch from Channel 4's 'Modern Toss'. Unsurprisingly, they stay there all weekend, as does the sunshine; something that seems to go hand in hand with Madagascan guitarist Modeste Hugues' blissed out set on the Open Air Stage. Yes folks, I've just watched my first set at the Big Chill; although unlike the clamour often seen at other festivals there's very little in the way of traffic on the way to the main stage; a most appreciable trait of the weekend and one that makes moving from stage to stage effortless.

Today the real action- for me at least- is a brief wander along the lake side towards the Castle Stage. My first of many visits to it takes in surprise Mercury-nomination Sweet Billy Pilgrim and solo knob twiddler and guitarist James Yuill. The former garner a generously sized crowd, and the whiff of weed hangs in the air as the alt-folkers drift through an acoustically based set that offers up just two notable highlights; the Elbow-esque 'Calypso' and teasing crescendos of 'Loveless Coup'; a song that threatens to take off but never quite does. Yuill on the other hand is a refreshing surge of energy; the Big Chill lives up to its name- families lounge about on the grass watching their kids run about the place blowing bubbles whilst groups of youths roll joints and drink pints. It's bliss really, but Yuill's schizophrenic mix of pop-tencho and acoustic guitar ballads are a welcome pair of jumpstart cables nonetheless.

Things feel far more orthodox on the Open Air Stage where Noah & The Whale have taken to the stage. Those same teenagers and students that have thus far mingled effortlessly with festival goers, both older and younger, suddenly split from the pack and gather in anticipation of the four piece's indie take on folk. The set itself is unremarkable, but what is remarkable is the way that both Noah and, later on, Friendly Fires seem completely out of place here. In the past twelve months both bands have risen stratospherically into the conscience of the nation, yet at the Big Chill they're rather at odds on the main stage alongside reggae, dance and classical acts. What would normally feel like an event seeing both of bands effectively becomes a mere footnote in the tale of the weekend.

One thing's for sure; with a location set in between a valley, you certainly get to give your legs a good work out. The Enchanted Garden is a slog up the hill facing the Open Air Stage; but once up there, surrounded by bracken and trees, it becomes wholly worth it. One of the best things you can do over the course of the weekend is to grab a pint of cider from the Somerset Cider Bus (3.50 for 6% over 3.80 for 4.2% down at the Amstell Bars on the main site if you're thrifty), and disappear in amongst the trees, find yourself a hammock, and relax in the evening sun whilst the sounds of the Stop The City Stage fill every nook and cranny of the secluded spot with phantasmagorical ambience. Tonight I arrive in time to hear The Fantastic Laura B; a London artist who deals in bleeding tapestries of Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin influenced soundscapes. Around me people hide away in the nooks of trees or sit amongst the overgrowth, taking a moment's respite from the 40,000 or so punters walking from stage to stage below them. This may be the Big Chill, but no matter what festival you're at there's always need for a break and reflection somewhere along the line; the music of Laura B provides a fitting soundtrack.

The skies are darkening as I leave the Enchanted Village; a fact that intertwines with the feeling that the atmosphere has changed as well. Gone are the families, off to put their children to bed; the nocturnal ravers are here now, ready to go on until night becomes day. There's a far more charged aura generating around the slope in front of the Castle Stage; Shackleton provides a thrilling compliment. Big hitting bass lines worm their way under sinister, murky melodies that are as relentless as they are infectious. It's a startling contrast to anything seen so far today, and there's something almost macabre in the way those in attendance have come out of the shadows of the day into the night in order to shake their bits away to the DJs dark undertones.

Macabre is an adjective you'd definitely use to describe the beginning of Chris Cunningham's VJ performance, not that you should be surprised. This, after all, is the man who created the brilliantly horrific video behind Aphex Twin's 'Come To Daddy'. Even by Cunningham's standards though, this introduction is difficult to stomach; if you think you can click here, otherwise continue in ignorant comfort. During this however, Cunningham teases us with electronica so viper like in its attachment to our dancing shoes that we want to dance. But, God, look at the visuals we're dancing too; Are we sick for choosing to dance? Should we be walking away in disgust or holding our hands over our eyes? It's a thrilling clash of mind and soul, and nothing in the rest of the set quite matches it, despite the appearances on screen of Cunningham's Playstation advert (you know, the one featuring the interview of a distorted girl) and a brilliant finale, which sees the VJ mix and mash his brutal rhythms to exist in tandem with the immortal Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fight scene from Star Wars. Cunningham creates imagery to burn itself into your conscience long after you've seen it and to experience it live is a truly visceral experience.

So it comes as no surprise that, back at the Open Air Stage, Basement Jaxx have no chance of competing. The switch from dark to light is too much for me, and the 'Jaxx' cause isn't helped by a quiet sound system. The hits come and go and a part of me does miss the time before Justice and electro when everyone in the dance scene wasn't so damn self-aware. Basement Jaxx were big dumb fun and didn't mind how ridiculous they looked. Big and dumb isn't enough tonight though; a large crowd begins to recognise how jaded the production duo are beginning to look, and the headlining act punches out quickly- a disappointing end that can't tarnish an otherwise memorable Friday. Chilled already and still two days to go.