Boomtown Fair 2017: Music and mayhem gives a welcome break from reality

Immersive theatrical experiences, combined with bands of all types, provides a festival like no other

Will Worley
Tuesday 22 August 2017 12:54
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The industrial steampunk-style Bang Hai Palace stage is a sight to remember
The industrial steampunk-style Bang Hai Palace stage is a sight to remember

I came back down to Earth with a bump on Tuesday, jumping straight back into my day job as a reporter with a story on how the Government needs to prepare for a nuclear war.

A large part of what makes festivals so special is the creation of their own little world for a few days, without the distraction of a mobile phone, and little other purpose than having fun.

Boomtown Fair, now in its ninth chapter, achieves this better than perhaps any other festival on Earth. Priding itself on its immersive nature, the festival is comprised of several districts built across Hampshire's sprawling hills. Every nook and cranny of the site holds a surprise, with costumed actors adding to the experience and confusion.

That's on top of the 20 major stages, hosting one of the best line ups of the summer.

A huge effort goes into preparing the site, and the industrial-steampunk-style stages; Sector 6, Dstrkt 5 and Bang Hai left first-timers open-mouthed when they first saw them. They contrasted with the giant Lion's Den, a huge capacity stage nestled in a valley, perfect for accommodating the weekend's biggest acts.

Fireworks at the Sector 6 stage (Boomtown Fair )

The festival is centred around a storyline. While little attention is apparently paid to this by most revellers, it gives a sense of continuity and the perfect opportunity for some stunning visuals and shows across the weekend, culminating in an epic “system meltdown”, with firework and acrobatic displays at two stages.

Each major stage is accompanied by a town district, like the Wild West or Old Town. Within those districts are smaller street venues, often taking the form of “shops” or other high street amenities. Here you will experience the most hilarious parts of your weekend.

Try the Inconvenience Store in Old Town, but not when too drunk, or you might get roundly mocked by the owner and then wheeled out in a trolley and dumped in the street.

Of course, if you do have issues with the festival, you could always take them to the Complaints Department, in the Barrio Loco district. You'll be guaranteed a friendly and non-judgmental service, right before your form is directed into a shredder.

Later in the evening – much later – the Red Rash Inn opens, treating worn out and sometimes confused revellers to a melange of cabaret delights. Just don't go copying Captain Ruin at home....

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Sunset at the Boomtown Fair (Boomtown Fair )

Shows also appear from apparently nowhere while punters walk through the festival, often brilliantly imaginatively crude, taking people by surprise. That's on top of the more standard festival fare, like Speaker's Corner for more serious debates, an arts and crafts section and kid's area.

A new addition this year was the drugs testing tent, an excellent harm reduction service from charity The Loop. While the festival still operates a fiercely strong zero tolerance policy on the gates, it is still a four-day party, and many drugs will still get inside regardless.

Those who choose to use drugs are able to take them to the tent, drop off a sample, and later find out what it is and how much is sensible to take, depending on the strength of the substance.

Everyone who used the service – run by a team of professional chemists and drug counsellors – had only good words to say about it. It is also believed to have contributed to less drug-related casualties for the welfare team and paramedics.

Incredible costumes were seen across the festival (Boomtown Fair )

The service was pushed strongly by the festival, with folk singer Beans on Toast – who has long advocated for drug reform – telling everyone about it in a speech opening the festival.

He played a couple of sets across the weekend, including to a packed-out Old Mines stage. Despite its size, the show retained an intimate feel, highlighted by the heart-warming love song 'Jamie and Lily' which also serves as an ode to teachers and nurses, "the fabric of society".

The opening speech was shortly followed by ska legends Toots and the Maytals, who naturally played all the favourites: Monkey Man, Pressure Drop, 54-46, and so on. It says a lot about singer Toots Hibert when he can still draw a huge crowd of youngsters – and get them dancing – at 74, despite a couple of ponderous instrumentals at the start.

Another timeless ska act – The Specials – turned out one of the best sets of the weekend. Thousands poured into the Lion's Den valley to see the band open with ‘Do Nothing’, then slam straight into ‘Rat Race’. Following the weekend's events in America, the show also had a political edge, with a speech culminating in chants of 'Black Lives Matter'. But this should be of no surprise coming from a band that came of age in the skinhead era and wrote songs like 'Free Nelson Mandela' and 'Racist Friend'. 'Enjoy Yourself' was a most appropriate end to the show.

Built as Boomtown is on underground music, reggae- and ska-influenced acts permeate the weekend's events, but there truly is something for (almost) everyone, even if the number of punk acts appears to have declined.

From kids bopping away to bassline in the Job Centre to Irish folk in the Wild West, to impromptu jams in unknown tents with unknown people, as long as you stumble around enough you'll find something you enjoy.

Just bear in mind once you go to this festival, everything else will feel a bit tame...

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