When you’re on the way to Bluedot, that first glimpse of the Lovell telescope is always a ‘wow’, moment. There it stands, on the Cheshire plain, communing with the planets and deep space. Our conduit to the stars and beyond. No wonder that Bluedot, the festival that has grown up around this beautiful structure has such a dedicated fan base with its blend of music, science and space.
On arrival it was interesting to see what the advertised changes to the site looked like. The site has been made more compact and a new area called Future Field, close to the arena, has become home to the science exhibitors, who last year were based in small huts in a quiet corner of the site. Future Field also contains Mission Control – the big tent for science talks – with Luke Jerram’s powerful Gaia artwork, a replica of the Earth, hanging from the middle like the science world’s answer to a giant disco ball.
Overall, most of the site changes seemed to get the thumbs up from those I spoke to. And the changes were mostly positive although I preferred the yoga tent, tea room and therapies in their previous area, a space to discover, nestled in the gardens.
In keeping with Bluedot tradition, the festival kicked off with a classical concert: Max Richter performing Recomposed and VOICES, with Tilda Swinton. It went down brilliantly with the Thursday evening crowd, relaxing in their chairs, basking in the evening sun. And Tilda Swinton remained at Bluedot for the weekend, wearing a blue dot on her forehead.
An associate director of Jodrell Bank and a co-founder of Bluedot, Professor Tim O’Brien gave his traditional welcome talk on Friday afternoon. He recommended a website (Stellarium) and revealed some facts about the Lovell telescope, as well as dropping mind-blowing facts about the universe, such as our galaxy contains a super massive black hole weighing 4 million times as much as our sun. Let me get my head around that. The talk finished with something Tim had been wanting to do for many years – get a ‘Mexican wave’ going, only this was called a Stretch and Squash (to Gravitational Waves) – and the crowd duly obliged.
First band on the Orbit tent was Picture Parlour who I was interested to see but… no, disappointingly the London-based band weren’t able to play as the tent floor had to be ‘woodchipped’ – we’d already had a burst of rain and more was forecast. Next up, Antony Szmierek was an energetic presence on the soggy Orbit tent stage. He introduced a trumpet player onto the stage – the band had ‘discovered’ him in the crowd at their Glastonbury performance, playing along with their songs.
The rest of the day saw a host of female artists: full marks to the bonkers and brilliant Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson aka CMAT. She appeared to have a fair few fans in the crowd too, singing along on the front row with her particular brand of feisty pop. CMAT were a definite highlight of the day. And later was the turn of the mystical and enigmatic Gwenno who played an ethereal set, intensified by the enclosed and dark space of the Orbit tent. Nubya Garcia played a suitably chilled set as the afternoon moved into evening with her cool sax numbers.
Django Django’s latest sprawling and ambitious album called, suitably for Bluedot, Off Planet, got an airing during their set along with some of their older material such as Default and WOR.
And later, Roisin Murphy stepped up to her headline status in perfect style – she changed outfits for almost every song and was a hugely energetic presence, whipping through numbers from her Moloko days to her more recent work.
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was a big draw last year, managing to fill the Mission Control tent to the rafters, and it was no different this time round. She’s an engaging speaker and very inspiring, with a passion to see young people, and especially girls, enter the world of science. And in one of her humorous moments, she showed us the Barbie doll created in her image (yes, it looked like her).
At Future Field, Manchester University students were unfailingly patient, explaining their latest developments – often repeatedly, when dealing with those of us with desperately unscientific minds. At the Graphene stand, a little model of a truck leaving the Carlsberg factory demonstrated an environmentally better way of transporting beer, by condensing it and adding water at its destination. An electrostatic contraption called the Van Der Graaf Generator was demonstrated by another student; he was, unsurprisingly, not familiar with the prog band going by the same name.
Over on the Notes stage, Miki Berenyi, Lush ex vocalist, and writer of Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success was entertaining and disarmingly open about those heady days of Britpop, sexism and lad mags.
The next “In Conversation” session featured Radio 6 music DJ Chris Hawkins and his wife, meteorologist Clare Nasir, interviewing photographer Max Anderson. The main focus of the talk was near-space sustainability. With rockets launching into space every two days and huge amounts of space debris accumulating (33,650 tracked objects actually functioning), we are now polluting yet another place (haven’t we done enough of this on Earth?) and regulation is needed. In the same way we brought in worldwide rules for car travel and then planes, we need to do the same for space. And active debris removal, says Max Anderson, is sorely needed.
We’ve got to the point where it’s almost not a festival unless HENGE show up: the four intergalactic beings (actually from Manchester) played an early set of favourite space-pop greats before stepping off the stage and leading the Space Parade around the arena. The festival crowd came together to enjoy the spectacle. Johnny Lynch, AKA Pictish Trail, took over the main stage afterwards with a rousing set of his mystical, synth pop-folk.
A much anticipated set was TVAM’s thick, juddering fuzz of synths, guitars and muffled vocals. It’s a heady, all-encompassing assault on the senses, akin to a Scalping gig. And it’s a chance to hear their latest album High Art Lite live.
Later, Dry Cleaning took to the main stage. Florence Shaw’s still presence and deadpan delivery is still in evidence however her stage persona has blossomed. She used to look as if she’d had to be pushed out on stage whereas now she seems at ease, using her idiosyncratic expressions to communicate with the crowd. In contrast, the other three members and particularly their storming bass player Lewis Maynard, are a whirlwind of energy around her. They opened with the dramatic Unsmart Lady and it was a shame when the rain came back in full force half-way through their set.
By Sunday morning there was no escaping the effects of the bad weather and the festival organisers made the difficult decision to cancel day tickets. Refunds were offered for those with day tickets, a bitter pill to swallow for the festival as that final day had sold out, most lured by the opportunity to see headliner Grace Jones.
In spite of the conditions, everyone on site appeared to be in great spirits and enjoying themselves. OK there was rain and mud but the attitude was – let’s just get on and enjoy it.
Teleman have shifted their sound from the whimsical indie they tended towards to a more muscular and synthy sound. Numbers from their latest album Good Time/Hard Time, namely Short Life and Trees Go High got a great reception from the crowd. And to cap it all there was even a moment or two of sun.
A new discovery was Lava La Rue. Her music is a blend of mainly hiphop and spoken word – she’s also a captivating and expressive performer. Later, in the lead up to Grace Jones, Young Fathers and their female guest vocalists unceremoniously shambled their way onto the stage. Gradually the pace gathers until the stage is a ball of fizzing energy as the band weave in and out of each other, their tribal, powerful songs projecting out into the far reaches of the crowd. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment it happens, but you suddenly realise you are watching something utterly magical and you can see members of the crowd looking at each other with a ‘what am I just witnessing?” look. Young Fathers are thoroughly deserving of the accolades coming their way. They are the most original, exuberant and breathtaking band working right now.
I’m not sure what it is about Bluedot but those 9pm Sunday headliners seem to attract the rain (remember New Order?). While waiting for Grace Jones to make her customary late appearance, the heavens opened. When the hastily-assembled main stage curtain rolled back and she finally appeared, she did put on an incredible performance. She prowled, snarled and hula-hooped her way through the set, offering up one hit after another (Nightclubbing to open – and William’s Blood sounded amazing).
It’s always good if you can end a festival on a high note and Max Cooper’s inventive spacey, dreamy set at the Orbit tent was a perfect Bluedot fit, and was the perfect way to finish the festival.
Overall, Bluedot confronted a perfect storm this year: there had been some changes within the festival’s ownership, plus the cost of living crisis, the ongoing affects of the pandemic – and some rubbish weather just to top it all off. However the essence of the festival still remains, and the many appreciative and faithful Bluedot attendees.
So it was time to say goodbye to the Lovell telescope but, like all the people I spoke to over the weekend, I’ll definitely be at Bluedot next year for another stellar blast of science, space and music.
Bluedot festival. 20 – 23 July 2023. At Jodrell Bank, Cheshire.