From six billion kilometres away, planet Earth resembles a pale blue dot – hence the name of the now legendary photo taken by Voyager 1, and also the annual festival held by Jodrell Bank in Alderley Edge. Thing is, though, from slightly less far away, the Earth looks blue and green. The green is because of all the lush vegetation, and that’s because of all the rain.
All of which is a round-the-houses way of saying that, at this year’s Bluedot, it absolutely f**king threw it down.
It’d be unfair to judge a festival on the weather. It’s nobody’s fault, after all. But when it gets extreme, it’s hard to ignore. The festival kicked off on the Thursday, and it rained heavily during that first night. Turning up on the Friday afternoon, Bluedot new arrivals were being greeted by old hands with phrases like “Haha, welcome to the Somme!”. Truth is, at that point they don’t know the half of it. Really it’s not until the weekend went on that trudging in squelchy mud and wearing wellies became de rigueur. Suddenly, Sunday day ticket holders were being instructed not to attempt to come on site, and many of those already present were planning a hasty exit – the sort of situation that has friends back home messaging to say ‘Hope you’re ok x’.
None of this dims Bluedot’s ability to be a fine, charming, characterful festival. Yes, this time out the festival site is smaller and more compact, with previously accessible areas closed off and the layout jigged around – presumably a sign of our straitened times. Yet the festival remains a sprawling, curious sort of beast, with a particularly great programme of (often science-centric or at least science-skewed) talks that’s far more than a sideline, so the whole thing has as much Hay in its DNA as Glasto.
If anything, this aspect of the festival deserves to be celebrated more. It’s perfectly possibly to perch in the Mission Control talks tent at random and catch a top-notch presentation by an expert in astrophysics or climate change. On the other hand, this seems to be less well planned than it might be. This year most of the guest speakers are listed on the website and programme by their names only, with no clue as to who they are or what they’ll be talking about. Also, there’s a splendid thread of panel discussions celebrating the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who, but they’ve been scheduled to overlap with the Radiophonic Workshop band performing a new musical celebration of, um, the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who. Not only that, but the final panel discussion clashes with the first event presented by Delia Derbyshire Day, a deep dive into the creation of the Doctor Who theme, because – well, don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s the show’s 60th anniversary. It’d be nice to think that the Bluedot visitor’s journey through the weekend had been thought through so that daft clashes like this would be avoided (when playing the main stage, even dance-pop ace Georgia, aka Georgia Barnes, is audibly perplexed that there’s been no kind of tie-in with an earlier set by eminent electronic music duo Leftfield, half of which is her dad Neil Barnes).
With conditions underfoot so troublesome, the question becomes: which of the acts on Bluedot’s main Lovell stage can counter all that and raise the spirits in the circumstances? Actually, there’s plenty, from Django Django‘s spirited, enjoyably dotty set taking in established favourites Hail Bop and Tic Tac Toe, to Teleman’s springy, superior indie-pop, climaxing with a stirring rendition of Düsseldorf. On the Friday afternoon, erstwhile Raincoat Gina Birch does what it says on the tin and plays her bass loud, to a curious, appreciative crowd. On the following day, Bluedot stalwarts Henge repeat their usual trick of brightening everyone’s corners with loopy songs of intergalactic unity, exploration and ecological catastrophe.
Of the main stage headliners, on Friday night Roisin Murphy belts out slinky, idiosyncratic pop, from her solo years plus a dash of Moloko that’s eccentric without disappearing up its own fundament (looking at you from last year, Björk). Sadly, Northern Soul had to escape the quagmire when the chance arose and missed Sunday night’s closer, the venerable Grace Jones – though reports suggest she took the stage after a prolonged delay only to storm it. Equally sadly, Northern Soul was present to see Saturday night’s headliners, aggravating no-tunes Fall plagiarists Pavement, 90 minutes’ worth of which should only ever be deployed in a crime/punishment scenario – mud or no mud.
On the main stage at other times, Tinariwen – Tuareg desert bluesmen from northern Mali – look particularly striking in the environs of the soggy Cheshire Plain. It’s not exactly feel-good pop, but their songs and their playing can pull the listener right in, and so it proves. Likewise, the power of Dry Cleaning’s performance, not least Magic of Meghan, is beguiling, even if some of Florence Shaw’s spoken word vocals get rather lost in the ether.
Over on the smaller Orbit stage, as is often the case at festivals, interesting acts get the chance to flourish. OK, so maybe Gwenno, for all the strength and distinctiveness of her sound, doesn’t quite connect as well as she might, and Leftfield underwhelm slightly too, never quite pushing beyond a slightly flat, generic sound. But TVAM, a revelation when they played back in 2019, somehow bringing to mind 90s rock/electronica outfit Curve if they’d only made an album with J.G. Ballard. In a very good way. And right up there with the weekend’s overall highlights are The Go! Team, whose sheer irrepressible energy and poppy fizz is just the ticket, frankly (and would probably have gone down a storm to a bigger crowd on the main stage).
Above all, though, there’s the aforementioned Sunday afternoon performance by the Radiophonic Workshop – established Bluedot favourites, and here marking both their tenth birthday as a live act and also, stop me if you know already, Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary, with the debut of a new piece entitled Dawn of the Doctors. Among other delights, this takes in the live soundtracking of Tom Baker’s final scenes as the Doctor from 1981 when he plummeted to his doom from a large pseudonymous radio telescope – this performed in the shadow of Jodrell Bank, if you please. Coupled with those aforementioned talks, including a smart, engaging dissection of Delia Derbyshire’s original recording of the Doctor Who theme, this is basically geek crack, liable to prove quite moving for the faithful (*raises hand tearfully*).
And that’s exactly the sort of thing – a bit out-there, a bit left-field (but not you, Leftfield) – that Bluedot at its best does so well. It can offer up a whole panoply of delights, not least annual inflatable fixture the Luminarium (think the balloon exhibition currently running at Manchester’s Aviva Studios, except no one’s saying it’s art). This year the weather didn’t exactly play the game, and perhaps some of the programming choices needed to be considered more thoroughly. But nevertheless, it remains one of the very best, most cherishable festivals of its kind, and it deserves to continue and flourish. Someone just needs to keep an eye on its unique character and guide it onwards with imaginative joined-up thinking and genuine care.
All you need is Lovell, or something.
(with special thanks to Maria Drozdowska)
Main image by Jody Hartley. Projection shot by James Lackey.
Tickets for Bluedot 2024 can be booked here.