Despite severe weather warnings, early August saw 66,000 revellers descend upon the stunning South Downs National Park and throw themselves into the wild, magnificent and often ridiculous five-day adventure that is the mammoth Boomtown festival.
As predicted, on Friday gale force wind and heavy rainstorms threaten to dampen everyone’s spirits as tents are flattened across campsites and one of the main stages is shut down. However, the “show must go on!” Campers pull together to help their neighbours and the organisers reschedule all the acts from the closed stage.
One of the UK’s largest, independent music and theatrical festivals, Boomtown resembles something from the script of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (complete with its own Artificial Intelligence storyline). It is a theme park for adults that pulsates with stupendous sights and sounds blasting your senses all weekend. With so much on offer, here are just five reasons why Boomtown towers above the rest:
Boomtown’s ongoing priority is to protect the environment from the impact of such a large event. One of the key messages is “Leave No Trace”. Green initiatives include no single-use plastic on sale; 100% compostable serveware; WaterAid refill stations and hundreds of recycling bins; reduced carbon emissions from travel and powering the festival; portable pouches for cigarette butts; an Eco Bond scheme to exchange bags of recycling for cash; and encouraging everyone to take everything home with them – 22,000 tents were left at Boomtown last year – a third of the festival’s capacity.
Since the festival’s conception in 2009, the immersive element has always been entrenched in its ever-evolving storyline. The narrative this year, Chapter 11: A Radical City, has a firm focus on the environment, sustainability and activism. The story is 100% interactive and the public are invited to engage with it. There is an Immersive Maze for true gamers allowing players to go on a quest that unlocks secret areas and plot twists taking a journey deep down the rabbit hole. One person I chatted to even has business cards printed for his Boomtown persona, Xander Hawkmaul.
Theatrics and stage design
Boomtown’s fictitious city consists of 12 unique, themed districts that house thousands of actors in full costume who will engage with you and bring the city streets to life whether it’s an interrogation from the Boomtown Bobbies or a Wild West gunfight. In exchange for a toilet roll, we took a spin on the ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ and were drawn into ‘The Sweatbox’ which was the smallest rave I’ve ever experienced, contained in a vehicle that resembles a horse box.
There are 25 main stages and more than 80 street venues to explore at Boomtown. Immense structures dominate the skyline and act as creative showpieces that soar above the cavorting crowds below. Epic towers glow and shimmer with an abundance of multi-coloured lasers, gigantic screens projecting futuristic imagery and florescent acrobatic shows.
A raucous punk-inspired ex-military hanger promises shrieking guitars and trashing drums. Discarded cars piled high form a gritty, dystopian scrapyard. Flames erupt from front of stage almost as if a dragon was lashing out, spewing fire at the audience. An impressive, temple-like set has huge waterfalls flowing down each side – Mike Skinner couldn’t resist climbing up it and cooling off in the cascade mid-way through The Streets show.
Scattered throughout the woodland are forest parties adorned with a cornucopia of colourful, psychedelic decorations; multi-layered treetop walkways; hidey holes to crawl into and a beach-style retreat.
Plenty of smaller venues line the streets from pop-up nightclubs and discos to a plush ballroom, lavish hotel and casino, though to Mr Whomp’s ice cream van, the Inconvenience Store and the much-loved Office Christmas Party at the Job Centre. Sunday’s Carnival Parade is a must-see spectacle that is awash with dazzling costumes and fantastic props.
And, if all this stimulation gets too much, you can escape to the hills and relax at the spa or witness the sunset from the top of Whistlers Green looking down on all the action.
Unlike other music festivals, Boomtown doesn’t rely on big name headliners to pull in the masses, however it can still compete with the “big boys” boasting household names such as Ms Lauryn Hill, The Streets, Groove Armada, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, UB40 and Chase & Status. With over 1,000 artists performing across 80 genres, the music range is diverse to say the least.
There is heavy bass booming out of every nook and cranny covering almost every electro genre imaginable, so for dance music enthusiasts it’s a dream. There are also many other musical delights waiting over every hill from punk rock and metal to reggae and ska, hip-hop and disco to folk and jazz. Boomtown champions underground subcultures so it’s easy to unearth something that you haven’t heard before.
Highlights for me come from raving in the Hidden Woods at the Calypso-inspired Soca vs Jungle Soundclash where DJs and MCs duel for audience votes; an outstanding set from techno heavyweight Carl Cox; and Beans On Toast whose folk song Magic about the birth of his daughter brings a tear to my eye – it’s Sunday by then and I must be tired and emotional.
A final push on Sunday night ends with Prophets of Rage who show they are seasoned pros by working the crowd with mosh-inducing hits from Rage Against the Machine and old school Cypress Hill and Public Enemy hip-hop tracks. Tom Morrello’s guitar skills, as always, blow me away!
As you can imagine the mix of people who attend Boomtown is as diverse as the music on offer, but it works. From bucket-hat wearing Drum ‘n’ Bass kids, through cyber punks and metallers to hippies, geeks and old timers, everyone is there to have fun and party hard! You will see mad and marvellous costumes, sequins and glitter galore and the utterly bizarre.
There is a real sense of community and comradery that exudes from the festival and its inhabitants which makes it very easy to form new bonds (if only a friend for the night). Boomtown is certainly a place to leave your hang-ups at home and join in with the crazy. My only complaint is that my now 40-year-old body and mind take a whole lot longer to recover!