Festivals in the middle of nowhere are a yin-yang equation of lengthy journey-times and unprecedented access to some of the most beautiful countryside dear Albion has to offer. It’s no different at this year’s Big Chill, which suffers from train malfunctions to the quaint Great Malvern station (some Londoners endure a four hour journey with the same number of bus-train connections), but on arrival, proves itself to be one of the most spectacularly located outdoor events on the roster. Ledbury is lush, green and full of furry wildlife, though the latter make themselves scarce in the face of having their natural habitat overrun with noisy revellers. The festival site is set into the bottom of a huge trough in the landscape. The uphill trek over the hill reveals this jewel of a festival in its full glory – from the peak of the hill, the whole site spreads into the circular dip of the land, lit up by lanterns and stage lights.
Most punters arrive on Friday, in time for Friendly Fires on the main stage at sundown. Theirs is one of those clichéd, meteoric trajectories of success that bursts from obscurity to mainstream acclaim in the space of one album, but they carry the mantel well. Fresh from a Mercury Prize nomination, they pull a huge crowd all dancing in pale imitation of frontman Ed Macfarlane, whose high-energy funk dance fills the big screens just as his impressive vocal fills the air. Continued performances of this calibre have rendered Friendly Fires the festival band of 2009 – they’re everywhere, magnificently polished in sound and image, and well deserving of the recognition they’ve garnered of late, even for those that aren’t huge fans of the music.
From unbridled brassy joy to the depths of video hell, Warp-associate Chris Cunningham unleashes a ferocious visual assault just next door on the Castle Stage a few hours later. Set to remixes of other artists and his own, more recent, musical outings, Cunningham’s artwork remains perhaps the grimmest, most obscenely magnificent exploration of digital craftsmanship available in the UK today – from that famously ominous Aphex Twin grin and the wide-set eyes of the alien-girl in his Playstation advert, to even more obscure and shocking looping images of swollen, tortured aliens and fleeting forays into porn. The industrial din draws a massive audience, who are, without exception, left open mouthed by such a spectacle.
We’re left gaping by Basement Jaxx too, though for sadly opposite reasons. A swill of hacked together commercialism fronted by voluminous black women and including a painful snippet of Kings Of Leon’s ‘Sex On Fire’ does nothing but wound the eardrums. Thankfully Sheffield-native Toddla T has some audio-healing up his sleeve at the Frisky Bison cocktail lounge. His is another kind of hackmanship, drawing upon a plethora of different styles and genres. Eschewing expectation at every turn, the South-Yorkshire wunderkind mashes breaks with techno coated with a gloriously tongue-in-cheek delivery that assuages ravers into the small hours. Tom Bell, we salute you.