Savages, Skepta, Primal Scream, Massive Attack @ The Downs, Bristol, 03/09/2016

Massive AttackAmbling over the Downs – Bristol’s landmark green area - you’d be forgiven for thinking the random items strewn across the fields are leftovers from one of the many carnivals to grace the area. But as we pass an abandoned section of security fence, knocked over redirection signs and a lone portable toilet (no comment) a resounding thud begins to shake the ground. What’s causing the noise is not yet visible, because it’s absolutely chucking it down. In true British style, today the weather flouts yet another calendar outdoor event and opens the floodgates on 30,000 people, all eager to see Massive Attack perform a home gig for first time in 15 years.

The prospect of seeing the headliners in action no doubt fuels many over the course of the day, but the audible treats do not stop there, as those who bravely turn up on the dot are barraged with musical goodness from start to finish. The aforementioned thud turns out to be a DJ set comprising tracks from Madness and The Clash – but those disappointed by this admittedly pitiful initiation need not fear: two massive billboards in front of the main stage confidently boast the day’s line-up: Savages, Skepta, Primal Scream, and then of course, the piece de resistance, Massive Attacked joined by Young Fathers and fellow Bristol artist, Tricky – all in the space of 7 hours. Gulp.

Despite our best attempts to ignore it, the rain becomes a huge feature of the first quarter of the event. Ducking in and out of the backstage area - the only place to provide any kind of lasting shelter, given security are unhelpfully turfing everyone out of the bar tents as soon as they’ve purchased their drinks - we very quickly resemble drowned rats. There’s really not much socialising to be done, either: the main arena is practically empty until Skepta grab the mic, and then droves of latecomers charge towards the main stage like antelopes on heat. And you don’t mess with antelopes on heat.

Savages

The late arrival of many means Savages crowd isn't large, and their adrenaline fuelled post punk is literally lost to the wind. It’s not that you can’t hear what front woman Jenny Beth has to say as she snarls and punches the air; it’s that without palpably sweaty walls to be thrown up against, the charged atmosphere that usually accompanies the London band is washed away. While the four-piece fail to resonate as well as they might, they still pull off an impressive and well received set to start the day, confirming that it is indeed best to just ignore the rain situation and get on with it.

Skepta are next, and clearly a band popular with the crowd. While it’s not exactly our ‘thing’, there’s no denying the hip hop act’s set is highly energetic. The collective are also better prepared than predecessors Savages to blast away resilient thoughts about how wet our socks are getting and when it’s reasonable to buy a hot chocolate. Now is a good time to mention that Massive Attack and company have brought all cerca 247 corners of the world to the festival site, stocking out the food stalls with every type of sustenance available under the absent sun. There’s vegan, raw, salad, more salad, Jamaican salad, ribs, salted fish, fish and chips, fish with salad, burgers on wheat free bread, burgers on yeast free bread, burgers on bread, tofu with cheese, cheese with salad, noodles with salad… and at least five different brands of cider. Only one type of beer, sorry, you’re in Bristol now.

While we deliberate whether we should a) eat a year’s worth of meals in one go or b) faint in shock, yet more people enter the arena in time for second billed act, Primal Scream. Contemplating just how elasticated our trousers really are, we unconsciously floated towards to the front, and so get an eyeful of Bobby Gillespie in all of his leg flailing glory. As I’m sure anyone reading this review can imagine, Primal Scream get the party started proper in a manner involved dancing with our arms above our heads and wondering when the bar queue will die down (clue: it doesn’t). It even stops raining at one point.

Massive Attach

As enjoyable as the day has been thus far, all of this has been in honour of the reigning kings of trip hop, and the most famous thing to have come out of Bristol since Ribena: Massive Attack. Joining forces with an army of musicians on stage; no less than a staggering 27,000 people watch from afar. This might seem ordinary fare for any large scale music festival, but don't forget, we are stood in the centre of Bristol and the Downs isn’t really designed to accommodate so many people while retaining a clear field of vision towards a pinpoint at the front. For those unable to see the musicians play, there’s a huge screen filled with subliminal messages about current politics and lots of numbers which may or may not be telling us to buy a KitKat at lunch time, we’re not sure. Either way, it occupies our attention well.

Some classic and breakthrough songs are poignantly missing from Massive Attack's set, with the band instead choosing to play underground favourites and new material for the majority of their performance. Most notable are the times when they break that silent rule, blasting out "Angel", "Inertia Creeps" and finally “Unfinished Sympathy” to a crowd so wound up it's a wonder we don't all fling ourselves over the nearby Avon Gorge. Instead, on the last chime everyone charges once more, this time for the exit and the top of Whiteladies Road, which is subject to the full force of 9 hours of cider drinking carnage.

To say this was an important event for Bristol in 2016 is somewhat of an understatement: for better or worse, Massive Attack continue to represent the Golden Age of music in the city and the last time the rest of the UK really listened to what we had to say. For that very reason, that it's been 15 years since they last played in Bristol speaks volumes not just because they've been gone for a long time. Is it time for another revolution yet? Maybe not, but hopefully next time Massive Attack return, we'll at least have a stadium to house them in.

Miss out on the fun? Don't forget to watch BBC One West's documentary on the 25th anniversary of "Blue Lines" - TX Unfinished: The Making of Massive Attack - due to air on 7th September 2016 at 10:45pm on BBC One, or available to stream on iPlayer.

Stephanie Marshall, Head of Regional and Local Programming, BBC West says of the programme:

“This is a great opportunity for the BBC in the West to celebrate the diversity and culture of where we live. It shows us how Bristol’s rich mix of talent came together to leave a musical legacy - changing perceptions about the sleepy West country and stealing the limelight from “that London” and the Northern powerhouses for a unique sound. Unfinished is also an opportunity for those of us who were there the first time round to be reminded of some well-loved haunts with the sound track that accompanied great nights out.”

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