Bluedot festival moves into its third year with its unique brand of music, science and space mashup. There is probably no other festival like it: music fans can take their fill of several stages and science geeks have a wealth talks and workshops with experts, although its fair to say most festival goers dip into a bit of everything. And it all takes place under the watchful eye of the beautiful Lovell telescope, the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world.
This year, the festival ethos is very much about saving our planet. That theme was delivered centre-stage at Bluedot on the Thursday night as Manchester’s Halle Orchestra performed The Blue Planet against a captivating backdrop of the programme’s wildlife shots.
On Friday, Bluedot fully kicked into action with talks, workshops, space and science activities, yoga and wellbeing, and of course, music.
Last year saw Isle of Wight based Plastic Mermaids play an afternoon set on one of the smaller stages – this year they were back in grander style for a main stage appearance – an impressive set suffused with energy and theatricality – a hint of the Flaming Lips set to come.
Mid afternoon, the crowd who had gathered for Professor Tim O’Brien’s address glanced at the sky in bewildered fashion as raindrops fell. O’Brien talked about the scaffolding visible around the telescope. “Caring for the Lovell telescope is like owning a classic car – it needs constant renovation work,” he explained, describing the new outer surface that is being applied. He skyped the Breakthrough Listen Project in California, who search for intelligent life out in space and for a dramatic finale, O’Brien played the ‘sound’ of a star ripped apart as it comes into contact with a supermassive black hole. You can’t really get more dramatic than that.
Public Service Broadcasting are a natural fit for Bluedot and their early evening set was a energising collection of ‘greatest hits’. During the day, festival goers had been busy roving around the huge site – PSB’s opening notes drew the crowd together as one and created the sense of a shared festival experience.
The reputation of much anticipated headliners The Flaming Lips goes before them but nothing quite prepares you for the actual experience of standing in front of Wayne Coyne and his band; there is no let up in the onslaught of party paraphernalia deployed, from confetti cannons bursting forth, balls bouncing off into the crowd, a giant silver sign and later, Wayne singing and zorbing over the crowd to Bowie’s Space Oddity and Starman. Coyne remains the cool front man throughout.
Over the weekend, several strong performances stood out: Baloji, a Belgian Congolese born rapper, currently making waves with his refugee song L’hiver Indien, managed to get the crowd dancing to the band’s mix of funk and African rhythms. They toned down the lyric content for the younger audience members – not something that bothered Coyne and Co.
Nadine Shah delivered a cool and classy main stage set, her warm and gravelly vocals working with the Roxy-esque saxophone of Pete Wareham. She played a mix of material including the title track from her latest, politically-driven album Holiday Destination the brittle vocals conveying her anger at the plight of refugees in crisis.
Gary Numan’s set was exhilarating. Theatricality continues to be a part of Numan’s DNA: the stage a futuristic wasteland, the band members dressed for a punk apocalypse while Numan and his band performed in a constant cloud of dry ice. Numan dutifully rolled out the old hits: Cars, Are Friends Electric? and material from the latest concept album Savage: Songs from a Broken World such as the plaintive and desolate My Name is Ruin. Numan’s lyrics possess a poetic strength, such as on When the World Comes Apart, beautiful but icily doom laden. Numan prowled the stage, those familiar dramatic balletic moves still much in evidence. The only sign that indicated the passing of time was when he introduced his daughter, Persia, to accompany on vocals.
Judging by their Bluedot performance, Leeds-based five-piece Vessels have hit on a magic formula and their dense, dreamy and layered sound found its natural home in the dark confines of the Orbit tent where a hush fell over the mesmerised crowd. Theirs is a compulsive sound that sends out hypnotic waves – it’s a particularly effective live set.
The Chemical Brothers wowed the crowds, swelled by plenty of day visitors just for this performance, with a phenomenal laser show and the volume at maximum level that seemed to send shock waves over the entire site. Those feeling in a more chilled state of mind headed along to see Slowdive who offered a warm, dreamy shoegaze set, with rippling guitars and rich harmonies.
A survey after Bluedot last year asked who people would like to see next year: it was cheering to know that The Orb remains a well-loved favourite, their performances are few and far between and many of the post-Chemical crowd squashed into the tent for some 90s ambient dreaminess.
Combined harmoniously with the music are the science and space-related areas – meandering paths lead to clusters of stalls and activities at various points of the site, where scientists and experts are on hand to patiently dispense their knowledge and enthusiasm. The Women of Science project was in attendance, with the aim of encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects. Local to the festival site, Macclesfield Astronomical Society had brought along high-powered telescopes to view the sun – if only the cloud cover would disappear.
For children there’s enough fun but educational entertainment to keep them busy over the three days and it is particularly thrilling that such a range of experts are in attendance to impart their knowledge. My two test-case children, aged two and eight, found plenty to inspire them. They particularly enjoyed the Star Field area filled with science experiments.
Their favourite activities were: building a rocket and making it fly using a foot pump, making a pulsar, and a coding workshop. At the Wacky Science lab, you could make complex structures from linguine and jelly babies; it was inadvisable to eat the jelly babies, as they had been handled by plenty of tiny hands.
In the main arena’s workshop, The Henry Royce Institute focused on cells and viruses; they had set up a walk-through ‘decontamination unit’ for kids, with special suits to wear. The National Oceanography Centre helpfully explained their deep sea projects, probing the deep on unmanned ‘rockets’ to send back information of oceanic changes.
Unlimited Theatre’s one-man show How I Hacked my way into Space took place daily from a specially designed touring Space Shed, set up in the shadow of the telescope. It tells the tale of a man, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, who has always yearned to go to space from his garden shed.
With the ‘no rubbish going to landfill’ edict issued by the festival team, the site stayed sparkling clean for its duration, with lots of wheelie bins everywhere for all the recyclable food and drink containers and a team of cleaners picking up every last bit of discarded waste. The loos were pretty good throughout too.
The most heart-stoppingly beautiful installation was Luke Jerram’s Earth, suspended above a pathway by the Arboretum (see top of page) with a sound composition by Dan Jones. The project was inspired by the feeling of awe astronauts felt at seeing our world from afar. Seven metres in diameter and printed with NASA imagery of the Earth’s surface, the installation served as a reminder of the beauty and fragility of our ‘blue dot’. It served as a fitting tribute to our planet – and this unique family festival.
Bluedot festival, 19 – 22 July