The ninth chapter of Boomtown Fair went down a storm with the 60,000 attendees, as the festival, which has strong links to Bristol, got underway across a sunny August weekend.
There were a few sunburned bodies on show on Friday afternoon, as punters had queued for up to 11 hours the previous day to be admitted onto the site, but all was forgiven as tents were pitched, glitter liberally applied and box wine quaffed.
Though weeks of rainy weather had threatened to turn the site into a quagmire (and had forced the closure of at least one carpark, leaving it a graveyard of marooned cars), the weather gods were smiling when August 10 rolled around, gifting some beautiful sunshine under which to party.
Known for its immersive, theatrical approach to getting drunk and listening to music in a field, the organisers had once again outdone themselves this year – creating miniature cities across the site, each with its own feel and plenty of Easter eggs to discover, with a choice word in the right actor’s ear. This bibliophile was very excited to be gifted a library card by the nice girls in the Old Town.
As with chapters in previous years, there was a narrative arc running though the weekend: in the chaos following last year’s revolution, multinational corporation Bang Hai Industries had sidled in, ostensibly investing in resources for the community of Boomtown, but in the process threatening to destroy much of the old world and replace it with their own brand of shiny digital consumerism.
The main Downtown stage had been styled with Bang Hai branding – not that many of the spangly leotard-clad teenagers seemed to pay too much attention – and around the site there were faux-official signs (‘Everything is illegal.’) that did nothing to ruin anyone’s fun. The production value was impressive, but it very much felt like a side-dish to the main musical courses.
On Friday evening, all roads led to the Lion’s Den, where Toots and Maytals opened proceedings to a crowd of thousands, all dancing in the natural amphitheatre that makes the Hampshire site so well-suited to a festival of these proportions. Reggae-revivalist Protoje also put in a strong performance as night fell, while those of a certain age were taken back to their wayward teenage days by hip-hop legends Cypress Hill, who enthusiastically sparked up huge joints as they sang about getting hiiiiiiigh.
Coincidentally, the only queues longer than the compost toilets were for the drugs testing tent. Despite the sniffer dogs on the gates and warnings of zero tolerance to those found with illegal substances, hundreds took advantage of the testing service offered by harm reduction not-for-profit The Loop. A huge poster outside their tent showed the reactions certain drugs could have if taken in combination – information that was genuinely useful and interesting. Many snapped photos on their phones to consult later.
The weekend’s sunny vibe continued, with revellers rolling out of their hot tents at midday to the bassy trance of the Psychedelic Forest kicking off. The woodland areas were some of the best on site, with Bristol’s TRiBE of FRoG programming several stages deep in the woods, strung with lights and decorations that glowed under blacklight even in the middle of the day.
The chill-out spaces in the woods, strung with hammocks, where volunteers tended campfires, were also being put to good use by those for whom the partying had got a little too much. Elsewhere, high canopy walks lifted us above the dancers massing in the mud below for a perspective on the festival that you so rarely achieve, and which stopped Boomtown from feeling too big, too crowded or too oppressive.
As night began to fall, the hilltops were the best vantage point to watch the huge, temporary city spring to life in the darkness. Music from some of the 20 main stages meshed as it washed over the site, and 60,000 busy, ant-like people made their way towards the lights of the biggest, loudest stages, drawn by instinct.
Boomtown might not have the musical clout of some of the festival giants, but there was plenty to cover all tastes, from headliners The Specials, M.I.A, Ziggy Marley and Skindred, to the smaller artists tucked away in the myriad fringe venues – Dat Bass entertaining the masses on the Old Town bandstand, Bristol’s Eva Lazarus singing her heart out at Barrio Loco, and Swedes Hoffmaestro on the Town Centre stage, literally leaping with excitement.
From a tiny grassroots festival, Boomtown has blossomed into a major event that seems to cater for misfits from every subculture; a safe space for expression, and a place to happily lose yourself for a weekend. Going back to real life on Monday morning felt like coming back down to earth, having floated through a strange parallel universe of steampunk cowboys having shootouts in Wild West, pole-dancing robots with CCTV faces in Dstrkt 5 and sassy, cross-dressing Boomtown Bobbies making mock arrests in Old Town.
It was a sad feeling to leave a place where anything goes, without social constraints or polite British norms. And with Boomtown 2018 now at its furthest point away, it begged the question: just where do all the steampunks go, when not brandishing their lavish top hats and goggles in a woodland in Hampshire? Here’s hoping I, like them, will be back for more next year.
Read more festival reviews: WOMAD 2017