For a festival that has played host to some of the most debauched and notorious bands and stories throughout the last ten years, it was surprising to feel as-if the usual metal festival punter would be very out of place here. From the moment I arrived on site I found myself in the company of well groomed, clean shirted and downright polite people, offering to help me with my bags, passing around bottles of water and sunscreen in the heat and sipping on the odd can while waiting to get in, I was taken aback by how subdued and collected everyone was, but the relaxed nature made it easy to adjust pace; the sun was shining, spirits were high and everyone seemed happy to loiter around in the sun ignoring the woman in a sarong trying to sell a round of Jäger jellies to a family of five.
Download did well to accommodate for everyone staying the weekend, with the drinkers content to bust out those two Bon Jovi songs that everyone knows at the karaoke tent all night, the carnival rides providing enough flashing lights and loud music to distract the wide eyed, sweaty faced pill heads from shaking your hand for a minute, a cinema tent put on a bunch of Will Ferrell films while everyone ignored the no smoking sign and a shisha tent that gave all of those too cool to talk to strangers a place to be seen.
After the fourth rendition of Living on a Prayer I wondered into a surprisingly placid camp-site, the peace only broken by a man ingeniously donned with a couple of sizeable portable speakers hanging off of what appeared to be professional rock climbing gear. Now, you may have heard about the next incident already, but I proceeded to dance through the tents with this innovative partier towards a group of people crowded around three lads on the floor, arms and legs locked together, restricting the movement of the unsuspecting kid in the centre, apparently “self-nominated to display a feat of strength known as a ‘three man dead lift'”, or so it was proclaimed by someone who proceeded to drop trousers and sit bare arsed on the face of the guy trapped on the floor. I honestly couldn’t believe that he fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book!
The Gates by Gobinder Jhitta
The Friday eventually arrived and the arena floodgates opened. Whilst I was glad that the music was about to finally kick off, I was swiftly reminded that I had to walk half of the Donnington racing circuit to actually get to the arena, leaving me no time to booze up on the cheap in between bands like I can at other big festivals. Still, at least this year I didn’t have to make the walk in Wellington boots, leaving me free of vile chafe marks on my calves. Too much information?
The arena layout was all too familiar for me; walk straight down for main arena, left for second stage, and further left and right for the other stages. Beer was always going to be expensive in the arena, but with the aforementioned lack of drinking between bands, I decided to buy some beer tokens, followed by a couple of pints of cider, which turned out to be quite nice, and most definitely intoxicating. By my fourth pint I was definitely ready to sing along to some bands.
Once I witnessed opening act Miss May I shake their metalcore-by-numbers thing, I had the urge to grab some food. As any festival goer will tell you, the food on offer is overpriced garbage, but there is one van, and one van alone that has saved many of my festival food woes throughout the years. Its name is Uncle Gio’s Italian Joint and thankfully it was at Download! Like most of the other food it wasn’t cheap, but unlike most of the other food on offer it was fresh. I must have bought five calzones across the weekend and I make no regrets in making that decision.
Circle Pit by Andrew Whitton
Around about the second time Skindred played the Harlem Shake it was clear that the demographic and ethos of the festival had shifted into more accessible and family friendly areas, with multiple acts throughout the weekend calling out the festival organisers decision to forbid artists from ‘provoking’ the crowd; Killswitch Engage calling for the most responsible circle pit of the weekend and Philip Anselmo openly entrusting the crowd to go wild without his encouragement whilst performing with The Illegals. I even witnessed a couple of instances of bands nearly getting shut down for being too rowdy, why even bother booking The Dillinger Escape Plan or up-comers Baby Godzilla if you’re just going to flip the switch and man-handle members when shit starts to get real.
In fact, there was a noticeable theme that the festival had generally become soft, and It had become none more apparent than the lack of “tit-cam”, you know, the part in between (and occasionally during) bands where some seedy old cameraman focuses on an unsuspecting girl, followed by an onslaught of peer pressure by the crowd which eventually leads to either the girl getting her baps out or the crowd wrongfully booing her. I think the whole idea is sketchy at best, but it is something that has been tradition for as long as I have been going Download (2006 and proud), so to see it absent did come as a bit of a surprise, pandering to the recent pressures outlined throughout the press and social media. Is Download pandering to the politically correct?
Thankfully, the best example of defiance came from Steel Panther‘s refusal to play without maintaining their standard level of slapstick misogyny, overcoming the festivals refusal to show tits on the big screen by simply getting all the girls on stage and letting them dance around topless for the rest of the set. The guitarist nearly even scored a blowy in front of 70,000 people.
Steel Panther by Jenna Foxton
The sedated atmosphere found throughout the campsite and the arena was a welcome change from the obnoxious behaviour expected at the bigger heavy festivals; everyone seemed accommodating, considerate and just happy to be there, a return to the community that I remember from the Download of years gone by. This was probably helped along by the bar staff’s generous distribution of beer tokens; On more than one occasion I was handed four tokens for the price of one, never sticking around to find out if this was a conscious decision or a massive blunder by the staff. I for one would like to think that the staff couldn’t resist my irresistible charm.
Download for me was the festival that, on paper at least, had fallen from grace with an okay set of headliners, and a reasonable under-card, but in practice, delivered some surprisingly outstanding bands and carried by a signature atmosphere that you will be hard-pressed to find at the other big rock festivals. Some of the more memorable moments during my festival experience came from the people around me, with noticeable shout-outs going to the guy who miraculously lost his phone in a portaloo (answers on a postcard), the girl getting it on in a tent near mine who sounded like a donkey (congratulations on making sexy fun time at a festival, no really) and the piggyback jousting tournament over by red camp. The best moment for me came from a Scottish bloke in a dinosaur onesie, who systematically danced on-top of and therefore destroyed seven camping chairs in a row within the space of five minutes – why oh why would you do that?
All in all Download Festival turned out to be a surprisingly good experience despite the line-up not being as strong as it has been in previous years, and I will more than likely go out of my way to return next year in search of antics round every corner.
For more on Download Festival click here.