It’s been 60 years since the mighty Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank first started looking up towards the stars. So it only seems fair that our own local star, namely the sun, was beaming down on the observatory and its grounds throughout the occasion of the 2017 Bluedot festival weekend.
Bluedot is far from being the only summer festival in the UK, but nevertheless it manages to be special. For a start, there’s that extraordinary setting, right in the shadow of the mighty dish, nestled in the Cheshire countryside. It’s a three-day celebration of music, culture and science, and it doesn’t just give grudging lip service to the ‘science’ bit, either. That’s very much in the limelight. Aside from the Visitor Information Centre being open as usual, there’s a whole array of stalls and spaces which focus on that side of things, including a large, seated Mission Control tent with a full programme of science talks. In fact, the afternoon line-up of acts on the main Lovell Stage is regularly punctuated by brief, illustrated talks on astrophysics, and very engaging they are, too. It doesn’t get much more front and centre than that.
The main stage at a festival can be a tricky beast. Certain things work, others don’t, and it’s not always the ones you’re expecting. Kicking off proceedings on the Friday afternoon is mighty local poet Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh, now something of a Northern hero following his reading of This is the Place in Albert Square after the Manchester Arena attack. But can poetry hold the attention of a modern festival crowd? In Walsh’s case, it’s a resounding ‘yes’. He has the rapt audience in the palm of his hand. Next up, Welsh singer/songwriter Meilyr Jones takes to the stage, apparently wearing a pair of curtains his mum might have bought in unguarded moment one Spring day in the early 1970s. His elaborate, personal songs aren’t really designed to be festival fare, but he gives good value nevertheless and manages to be gently entertaining.
On Sunday afternoon, the Whyte Horses ‘Experience’ set is a mixed bag. The band have plenty of decent songs but their ‘happening’-style stage show, incorporating projections of vintage TV footage and up to 20 people on stage at once (including Badly Drawn Boy at one point), is designed for an indoor venue and gets a little lost here in the open air. To some degree, the same fate befalls Tubular Brass, Hannah Peel’s project whereby Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells album is arranged for and performed by a full brass band. The result sounds like the soundtrack to some great, lost silent sci-fi film set in Lancashire, and although it starts to become musical wallpaper as it goes on, the overall effect is pretty agreeable.
Of the Lovell stage’s headline acts, the Pixies on Friday night demonstrate amply that they can still belt out their best-known material with excoriating energy, Kim Deal or no Kim Deal. Their recent stuff doesn’t quite scale the same remarkable heights, but judiciously they only throw a few of these into the set, whereas virtually no stone from 1989’s Doolittle is left unturned. It’s an unalloyed treat to see them, until they disappear in a tsunami of dry ice after their encore Into the White.
On Saturday, the reunited Hartnoll brothers of Orbital combine to soundtrack the going-down of the sun with a raft of electronica hits from Lush 3 to Where Is It Going? which, at their best, deploy a melancholy streak marbled within hands-in-the-air euphoria. One particularly glorious moment is their stirring rendition of the Doctor Who theme, for which they welcome original members of the BBC‘s Radiophonic Workshop on stage with them.
Earlier in the day, on the site’s Orbit Stage, the Radiophonic Workshop performed a wonderful set for an adoring crowd, whose applause they accept with all the heart-warming joy you’d expect of a team of men, many of whom are now into their 70s, now being championed as pioneering heroes. Needless to say, the Doctor Who theme gets another airing here, as do the likes of Vespucci, The Astronauts and Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO, pieces written for BBC TV and radio programmes and which were never expected to have a tangible legacy. Yet, here they are, and indeed, their new material, including Wireless and We Would Not Be Here (created specially for this occasion, with bespoke narration by Professor Stephen Hawking) is fine, inventive stuff, too.
Elsewhere on the smaller stages, highlights include Japanese electronica artist Anchorsong, aka Masaaki Yoshida, who uses on-stage equipment to conjure magic such as the beauteous, minimal Butterflies before our very eyes. TVAM’s Suicidey squall is impressively done, too. Perhaps best of all, Sunday evening on the Orbit Stage sees Anna Meredith play a blinding set blending traditional instruments – cello, tuba, drums – with electronics to brilliant and highly original effect. There’s an irresistible power to songs like Nautilus and The Vapours, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of a musician who demonstrates the sheer joy of playing music. Hugely infectious it is, too.
Bluedot’s talks programme is another smorgasborg of delights, taking in a freewheeling, inspiring appearance by author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, a lively panel discussion about science fiction from Northern Soul award winners Comma Press, and Dave Prowse, the man within the Darth Vader suit, discussing acting his career and taking questions from the audience – in the process demonstrating, perhaps wisely, that he has absolutely no working knowledge of the Star Wars prequels.
There’s much to appeal to science fiction fans here over the weekend, and Doctor Who fans in particular are in clover. On Sunday, comedian Toby Hadoke goes down a storm with his warm, often uproarious show about the vicissitudes of life as a Who fan. On Saturday morning, the team behind Delia Derbyshire Day present a whole series of discussions, performances and screenings in honour of the 80th birthday of the woman who brought the Doctor Who theme into the world. And it must be mentioned that the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band open the main stage line-up on Sunday with a colourful, spirited set encompassing Bollywood classics and – yes! – British sci-fi themes, from Thunderbirds and Blake’s 7 to – wait for it – Doctor Who. Thankfully, the latter just never gets old, and it’s especially striking to hear it right next to a huge radio telescope very like the one where Tom Baker fell and regenerated into Peter Davison back in 1980.
There’s much more than the above on offer, of course. Notably, here’s saluting Architects of Air’s Miracoco luminarium, part chill-out zone, part bouncy castle (though bouncing isn’t actually allowed). The effect is not unlike being inside a plastic rainbow kaleidoscope with its own ambient soundtrack. Yes, the queue is constantly massive, but it’s well worth making as many visits as possible over the course of the three days.
Everyone is free to create their own festival schedule, of course, but overall Bluedot is curated with real taste and flair. Total duds are few and far between, though Leftfield’s much vaunted set on Friday evening, performing their 1995 debut album Leftism in full, swiftly loses its buzz as it’s revealed that their original dub-dance workouts will be extended way beyond the point where nostalgia makes them appealing. Equally, for all their kinetic light show and out-there time signatures, Sunday night headliners alt-J come across as plodding and flat, which is no way to close such a magical weekend.
Thankfully, on the way out there are night-time installations well worth visiting in the Outer Space arboretum, from the Kazimer’s eye-popping intergalactic garden Night Chorus to Walk the Plank’s firewalk, the latter of which incorporates music tracks by the aforementioned Delia Derbyshire. Actually, that’s typical of the approach, which awful people like to call ‘joined-up thinking’, that marks this festival out as a proper winner. Two years in, Bluedot is a marvellous confection which steers round many of the common hurdles facing festivals and delivers a fetching and substantial confection. The biggest problem facing it is surely a good one: after a fine, genuinely cohesive line-up like this, will future years be able to keep up the high standard? Well, here’s hoping. So far, Bluedot is shining brightly indeed.
With thanks to Maria Drozdowska