FRIDAY – RAPPING ADELE, VIOLET SKIN, AND THE TOPPLING DANCER
It was on Friday that Boomtown 2017 began in earnest for our group. In the morning, led by Miles the self-proclaimed Junglist messiah, we finally roused ourselves and headed up to the Tangled Roots stage to witness a sound system extraordinaire. One of the most famous sound systems “in the world”, as we were informed by Miles, the bass pounded and the stage was tucked away to one side to allow the full focus on the speakers. With Miles leading us to the very front, I could feel the bass buzzing in my breath and between my fingers, and my vision and the streamers overhead vibrated in sync. So loud was the music, and so omnipresent, I felt it catching in my throat from time to time, as though I needed to cough. The program was tucked in my wellies, my festival headband was on, and I had a packet of hula-hoops in my bumbag for energy. We had slept in late and so danced all afternoon, stomping in the mud and the sand, Frank’s flip-flops ripping from the gungiest bits. In the evening, after dinner and more appropriately dressed all in wellies, we strode down to Barrio Loco, losing and recapturing a few of the group along the way. There we caught Seven Seconds of Love, and I broke away just in time to catch the end of “the rapping Adele”’s set, Bobbie Johnson. The crowd was terribly weedy, and near the front I spotted another girl dancing by herself. Catching eyes and recognising the chance for a dance off, we pushed each other to dance more and more outrageously and stomp harder and harder into the mud until, laughing, the song was over.
“She’s great, isn’t she?” I shouted over the last bars of the music.
“It’s such a shame it’s such a small audience,” she said, nodding.
I turned to look at the crowd as the music lulled, and at the back a family entered with several small children, around seven to ten years old. As I danced, I thought about how bizarre it must be to come to such a hectic, immersive place as a child, and wondered who would want to have their children with them at Boomtown. The beat dropped and the music was booming and full volume once more, and I turned again, expecting to see them leaving. At the back, in a ring, the whole family was skanking, the little ones in their tie dye tops bouncing and squatting and waggling their arms perfectly in time to the music, more enthusiastically than the adults at the front.
Wandering back through Chinatown, a woman all in blue with a shopping trolley stopped us.
“Take this sweet!” she told us. “It will turn your skin blue, you’ll be better than new!” She pointed up to the rooftop of the building she was working in front of and handed us a luminous blue sweetie. On the balcony above us, two girls in skintight outfits advertised the sweet with cardboard speech bubbles and lurid expressions. One’s skin was turquoise, and she grinned and bounced and held a speech bubble that said “So good!”, and pointed at us. The other was pale and grumpy and wistful, holding a bubble that said “I wished I looked like her!”.
“One sweet will turn your skin blue in five to ten business days and you’ll be happier than ever!” said the girl with the shopping trolley.
“And what are the returns like?” enquired Frank. “Can we get a refund if it doesn’t work?”
“Ooh, I don’t know about that,” said the girl, popping the sweet into his mouth. It was incredibly sour, and he spat it immediately, his tongue already a startling shade of violet.
In Poco Loco, the place to be this Boomtown in my opinion, we caught DJ Pete Cannon and the brilliantly witty Dr Syntax. Rapping about his “middle class problems”, he took issue with the all-too-related problem of his housemates filling the sink with egg and rice and praised best friends in a fantastic live performance. Later, we headed up the stairs to Trenchtown, where we caught the psytrance stage, Tribe of Frog. Ever the one for a bit of crazed dancing, Frank suggested the group head in, where the lasers and luminous colours made it look as though the sun was coming up behind the trees. Leaves were lit up from below, the trunks bare and black in contrast, and the ridiculously incessant music combined with the butterflies hung overhead was too hilarious not to dance to – even re-energising after the long walk up the hill. We took a quick trip to the viewpoint, where citizens can look over downtown and watch ant-sized people pool and deplete around sights and stages, and see fireballs spurting into the air over the main stages beneath them, the fairground rides spinning and the deepest bass audible, before heading into Old Town.
In the Gypsy Disco we grooved away until the group become tired and the room not quite as packed as it might have been at 2 or 3am. Just as we were about to leave, a dancer came forward and mimed to the DJ, asking if he could have some of his water. The DJ nodded, and the dancer leant towards him over the barrier – leant and leant, while the DJ mimed “Come around the end!” – undeterred, the dancer reached a little further – before toppling face first into the mud, feet held in the air by the barrier. Without delay, two friends were at his feet and swinging him upright in synchronisation. As he swung upright, he grabbed the water, and in one smooth move he was back on his feet, gulping. He returned the water (with only a slight lean this time) and continued dancing, unfazed. It was definitely time for bed.
SATURDAY – YEAH-YEAH, THEATRICALS, AND LOSING YOUR FRIENDS
Saturday advertised Dawn Penn and Soom T, a favourite from last year, in the morning spot at Lion’s Den. Unfortunately what we hadn’t bargained for was Earl Gateshead. A family-looking bald white man in a saggy rasta cap, he wittered on at the beginning of each song, describing the contents of each piece and the meaning several times, before launching into singing that was out of tune and punctuated by, for no fathomable reason, a parrot-like “yeah-yeah!” every few bars. It was quickly decided that every member of the group had to drink at every “yeah-yeah!”. After five minutes and about thirty yeah-yeah!s, the game was pronounced by Miles, of all people, as “unsustainable” and abandoned, most people having already run out of alcohol. The whole gig was ridiculous. Soom T never appeared, and our attention was quickly commandeered by a woman dressed as a watermelon with a beer in one hand and swinging a maize branch in the other. She galloped about the audience menacing strangers with her maize leaves, including caressing a burly security guard in front of the stage with it, and waving the branch aggressively between her legs in the faces of unsuspecting people sat about on the grass. She was the star of the show, and it was almost a shame to leave her and the yeah-yeah!s behind to go and explore Old Town.
One of the most impressive aspects of Boomtown has to be its immersive theatrical quality. As we wandered through throngs of “citizens” covered in glitter and actors dressed to the nines, we were in turns encouraged to come in or to stay out of particular buildings, shops or hidden stages. In the Inconvenience Superstore, the shopkeeper in a weary tone advertised a “fifteen percent off discount… tomorrow” over the tannoy and an unhelpful employee sold three empty beer cans for £3. In the library, enthusiastic librarians created library cards and recommended books about capitalism, and as we strolled through the Port a pair of citizens in front of us were grabbed and ushered through a door that slammed shut behind them, refusing to reopen despite our pleas. Through an aquarium window some sort of sea creature performed magic tricks with a glass ball, and on a balcony outside grotesque water bugs threw squidgy, wet tentacles towards punters, trying to reel them in. The cycling piano player was this year joined by a cycling cellist, who both kept getting stuck in the mud as they slowly pedaled downhill, and in the Wild West a terrifying old woman tried to smell me and and put me in a soup. In Barrio Loco we were invited to take part in a live recording of a game show, and in the complaints center we were categorically insulted through a loudspeaker. In the street there was a ruckus, which turned out to be a blow up pool filled with glitter with people wrestling in it, the bystanders sprinkling them with extra glitter and hitting them with woggles as they cheered them on. I only wish there had been time for us to take in more.
As the day went on, our group swelled and depleted, making friends everywhere we went. At Dizraeli and Downlow’s set in Poco Loco, Dizraeli argued for a more friendly festival, breaking out of little groups and speaking to strangers. It was exactly the right festival for it. As he broke open and took a swig from a can of cider, he encouraged everyone to take a sip and pass it on it with a hug to the person next to them. Right at the back, the man next to us approached us: “We won’t get the cider, but we can share some rum and coke.” We hugged, high on the openness of strangers and the tingling of the drink. Ever the ruiner, I couldn’t help whispering to Frank: “This is the moment where we all get cold sores”.
SUNDAY – IT’S THE CITIZENS THAT MAKE IT
Sunday brought Dizraeli’s afternoon discussion of men’s mental health to Speaker’s Corner; it was touching to watch a very honest man make himself vulnerable in the sunshine at the top of the hill. Later, watching Dub FX and Mr Woodnote from a bustling throng, we were all told to put our arms up straight in the air – and then to lower them around the shoulders of the strangers next to us. At my touch, the girl to my right turned at looked at me blankly – and then smiled, took my hand and began to dance around me, wordless, glowing from the sun and the dancing and the crowd. As the evening wore on, we challenged strangers to knee-breaking how-low-can-you-go skanking, and visited Robotica. “Kat,” Teddy said, swimming through the crowd towards me, “loosen all the muscles in your face.” And so we danced like we were barely clinging on, close to comatosed – before hitting the floor as the beat broke.
It’s like New Year’s Eve at midnight, Bang Hai in the last hour of Boomtown. Everyone’s waiting for the big moment and celebrating up to it, even though they know it will mean it’s over. As I danced, I spiked up my hair with my hands and it held itself, full of sweat and glitter from the weekend. Someone in the crowd next to me whipped a water pistol off a girl in front and hid it. “That’s not the festival spirit!” I shouted, fully immersed in the festival spirit myself, and nabbed it off him, returning it to the very lost looking girl. Behind us was a portaloo, and on top of it a guy in boxers, grinding. It was twenty to midnight and I was desperate for a wee, but it had a padlock, a sign on it saying “not 4 your mates”, and a person throwing up in front of it. I would have to wait.
And suddenly the countdown began, and the fireworks and the shooting fire, and the music and the show. A hullabaloo, and then it was over. We trudged towards the forest, stopped on the way by a polite couple who asked:
“Excuse me, but how many BPM would an egg fry to?”
We considered and came up with a few answers that we thought were likely.
“And on a Sunday?”
Coming out of the compost loos I heard singing. A group cuddle/singalong had evolved, combining our group and a group of strangers, all huddled together and swaying. As it broke apart, everyone cheering, it developed all of a sudden into drum and bass, skanking, most people appearing to know all the words to Shy FX’s Original Nuttah. Leaving, laughing, Miles pointed out a truth – at Boomtown, it goes from soppy to skanking in seconds. Beneath one tented ring of seats nearby, there was a rave, five or six people dancing manically to a speaker in the middle, surrounded by a circle of people sheltering them, stood on the seats and bobbing to the music, only legs and bouncing bums visible from outside the tent. Under the next canopy sat a large group in a ring, all in identical leaning forward poses, knees a flat ring inside the circle, listening to chilled music, most eyes closed. We headed to the reggae forest and stood on the high walk in the trees, watching the drums. A pair of men had set up their airbed there, where they reclined and listened to the banging. As I thought about the weekend and the festival in general, it dawned on me – this festival, for all its backstage work and storyline, is all about the citizens, the punters, the people – for me, all about the group.
Frank and Miles were wrapped in blankets, sharing a camping chair. The rest of us stood huddled nearby, talking, taking it all in. From up on the view point we could focus in on each instrument, each tiny drum stage, see people talking, grinning, helping strangers up. Picking out trends. Reading the speed of the beats rising and falling.
For a group that’s lived so far apart for so long, we’ve stayed incredibly close. It’s the one time of year that many of us still meet – the beginning of a tradition, I hope. And for the rest of you, as Teddy told us:
“I’ve got a man coming from Calcutta next Boomtown. So you should all come along.”
Photo: Courtesy of Boomtown