Since its first year in 2016, Bluedot has carved out a unique place in the festival landscape, curating a music lineup that can rival any other gathering. But it also offers something special – a window into the world of science and space. Talks and workshops are given by some of the top names in science, and if you wander down to Bluedot’s science area, you’ll find clusters of stalls hosted by university, research and exploration teams, eager to share their knowledge. With so much going on, there’s always a ‘science or music’ dilemma.
It has now been three years since New Order wrapped the Lovell Stage at Bluedot 2019. So what has changed for this year? The Roots stage has gone and beneath the beautiful Gaia art installation by Luke Jerram is a new wellbeing area, with massage tents, a yoga tent and a suitably chilled looking cafe. It also looks as if the festival’s centrepiece – the Lovell Telescope – has had a makeover. It’s a dramatic, breathtaking and beautiful structure and as you wander around the festival grounds it is ever present, casting a strangely comforting presence whenever you look skyward. And we find out more about the makeover when Tim O’Brien, Jodrell Bank’s associate director, gives his annual welcome talk.
It has become a Bluedot tradition to mark the festival’s opening with a classical concert on Thursday evening. This year was the turn of Hannah Peel, who has appeared at Bluedot before; she has teamed up with the Paraorchestra, unveiling a live performance of her dramatic piece The Unfolding.
Friday’s music lineup starts with LYR (Land Yacht Regatta), featuring Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. It’s a gentle start to the programme with Simon’s comforting spoken-word delivery.
As the day unfolds, the music ramps up: young artist Kahreign deservedly gets an enthusiastic response from the Nebula tent crowd. She’s a confident and expressive performer and plays her own particular style of Afro fusion, mixing elements from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Manchester. Later, party animals Los Bitchos ramp things up further with an upbeat set, their distinctive twangy guitars and cumbia / Turkish/ global sound getting everyone dancing. It’s one of the best sets of the festival.
Tim O’Brien heads onto the stage for his annual welcome speech. He talks about the James Webb space telescope which launched on Christmas Day, and is delivering data that is changing our understanding of space. In fact every scientist giving a talk over the weekend mentions NASA’s new space wonder. We also learn about the Lovell Telescope’s upgrade: patching it up yet again wasn’t going to work so they decided to resurface the whole thing. And then, as we watched, the telescope almost imperceptibly shifted round; seeing it move is a strange and awe-inspiring sight.
Later, one of the most dramatic and satisfying sets took place at the Orbit stage as Welsh electronic artist Kelly Lee Owens played her shimmering, crystalline and expressive electronica. There’s an intensity and an emotional resonance to her work which brings an added dimension. It was a shame that her set partly clashed with Groove Armada, who were making a Bluedot appearance on what they’ve announced to be their final tour. The band also projected some stunning visuals onto the telescope.
Science talks and workshops were in abundance. British Antarctic Survey talked about surviving in Antarctica on climate change research. At their stand you had the opportunity to climb into one of their (very cramped) two-man tents, and observe the meagre rations of a two-week survival food pack – well at least there’s Marmite. Speaking to one of the explorers was quite an eye opener; she had been there for three months and on returning, found re-adjusting to ‘normal life’ again quite a difficult task, even to the point of seeing the colour green again after seeing nothing but a sea of white. A sea spider (in a glass case) was an interesting specimen – fortunately they only live in very deep waters.
Chris Lintott held Mission Control in thrall with a talk called ‘How to be Surprised by the Universe’. One story caused amusement – a team of scientists at a space centre in Australia were excited – and mystified – to discover a strange increase in radio waves. But only at lunchtime. Further investigation lead to the discovery that their microwave was busy at that time… and some staff were too impatient to wait for the ‘ping’ to indicate their food was ready. Hence the release of waves into the air. Mystery solved.
Tim Peake drew a crowd far bigger than the same capacious tent could hold. He’s a great speaker and made you feel as if you were on that journey with him to the Space Shuttle. Later, Jim Al Khalili talked about the possibilities and possible problems of time travel, whether you’re planning to go back in time or forward.
Lanterns on the Lake opened with the atmospheric Spook the Heard and Every Atom. It was a beautiful and meditative performance. It may have been a more powerful experience if they had played during the evening, or in one of the music tents, in order to distill the full intensity of their music.
But Bluedot isn’t just about music and science. At the Arboretum you could discover illuminated artworks. A Cloud Gazing project by Lorna Rees looked like a tempting choice where participants lay wrapped in blankets on cozy beds studying cloud formations.
I wasn’t sure what the Lush Shampoo bar was going to offer. Shampoo flavoured beer? Free hairwashes? In the end it was a shop and treatment centre but they appeared to be also hosting a stage for climate change awareness talks. Whereas Dyson’s presence seemed a little less in synch with the festival’s ethos.
Metronomy (below) have a recent album out, and they played a mix of old and new material. With their catchy mainly upbeat numbers it was a perfect set for an early evening crowd.
The Star Fields remains a nicely chilled corner with a bookshop and the Notes stage; Tim Burgess hosted listening parties and Helen Pankhurst conducted interviews – I caught poet and writer Nikita Gill who talked about what inspires her to write, and she read some of her poetry.
Calder Valley band The Lounge Society, burst on the scene only a few years ago and propelled by an environment that nurtures its local talent in Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, plus coverage by BBC Radio 6 Music, have had considerable success. They’ve become far more animated and fun to watch on stage.
The Mission Control tent was unsurprisingly full for a talk by Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Her warmth and enthusiasm, and her drive to see women make further inroads into careers in science were utterly inspiring. She talked about her own career journey, relating some amusing tales, such as at 13 years of age, joining a telescope-making club where she was the only female with a group of men, all over 50. It was a heartwarming experience to hear her achievements and witness her enthusiasm, which brought a standing ovation at the end.
W H Lung first played Bluedot in 2017. Their smokey motorik sound filled the tent and it was a mesmerising performance. W H Lung’s star has risen fast and although they’ve shifted their sound in a more dancy direction – notably on sophomore album Vanities – their core feel is still there, immutable, written into their DNA. Statuesque lead man Joe Evans, increasingly flamboyant every time I see them, strides about the Nebula stage which feels almost unable to contain his gangly figure. I think back to that performance in 2017 and it’s gratifying to see how this band are achieving so much and appear to have been able to take the direction they’ve chosen for themselves.
Along with many other fans, I was very sorry to miss Warmduscher. There was a last-minute change and they came on an hour earlier than their intended time of the app.
And so to the headliner Bjork with the Hallé Orchestra, which sounded beautiful. Unfortunately as I was as far back as close to the sound desk I didn’t see her at all, a problem encountered by many others. The Bluedot site is very flat which must be perfect for the telescope (now there’s a question for Tim O’Brien…) but isn’t always so good for a main stage. We could really have done with screens – something for next year hopefully.
It’s been good to be back at Bluedot, giving us that space to drift, enjoy, absorb and learn. And with global problems weighing heavily at the moment, it’s reassuring to discover some of the advances and solutions scientists are involved in to help create a better world for the future. With a final glance at the telescope, we leave the site till next year.
Photography @oliviarosen for gourmetgigs
Bjork credit: bjork wearing Moncler / pierpaolo piccioli @moncler @ppiccioli; mask @james.t.merry, makeup @isshehungry; bjarni frimann wearing @michael.stukan; orchestra @the_halle. styling @eddagud; special thanks to @rhiannonlagden & @elliottjackadcock; photos @santiagraphy