Bluedot 2019

Jodrell Bank, Cheshire: 18–21 July 2019

Bluedot: it’s the festival where you’ve more chance of finding an alien than someone who’s not white, according to the Sunday comedy stage MC, Danny Mcloughlin. It’s slightly harsh perhaps, but he does have a point. As festivals go this is rather more nerdy than average, and just as comfortably middle-class. Think Latitude (which was happening the same weekend), but with sums, and you’re pretty much there. The big theme of the weekend is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and much is deployed around the place about this, including projections and audio of the transmissions to and from the mission in the early hours as you wander around the area near the Lovell telescope. It’s quite an ethereal, slighty odd feeling to be honest, but rather sweet. Lots of the science and the presentations this year had a quite moony theme and this all seemed to go down really well with the fairly substantial crowds who showed up.

Actually, let’s talk about the crowds. Bluedot has got bigger since it first ran in 2016. and more people always bring problems. The camp sites were very busy, and space was very much at a premium. The weather didn’t help with this, as finding a dry-ish, firm-ish pitch became more challenging. I only had a small two-person tent to pitch, and it was a bit of a struggle to find somewhere even by the time I got there on Friday afternoon. The main stages were busy, but not a problem, though they may be reaching feasible limits. This was also the year of the lay-sac. They were everywhere, especially because the muddy ground meant sitting down wasn’t a sensible option (except on Sunday). And then there were the toilets. There were enough of them, though the presence of chemical free “earth toilets”, while nice in theory, was dar less pleasant in practice by Sunday, when the stench made them near unusable, and very unpleasant experience when passing near them. If the hot weather had been a few days earlier, things may have been worse yet. Another bone of contention was shower and washing facilities: showers cost extra, and I blanched at what the charge was, so flat out refused to pay it. But even then there were no other basic washing facilities. Not cool.

I last went to bluedot in 2016, when Jean Michel Jarre was the Saturday headliner. The big difference this time round was that it was a “bit” muddier. Friday rain made for the perennial British festival experience, though it stopped early on Saturday. Things improved steadily after that, though you wonder if there could have been just a bit more forward planning for that eventuality(1), and the rain held off again until pretty much the start of New Order’s headline set on Sunday evening, of which more in just a second.

By the time I got in on Friday and pitched tent, it was mid-afternoon because the journey across the Pennines took rather longer than expected, so I’d missed one thing I’d planned to check out: James Burke. Bugger. Burke is a bit of a hero of mine, and I really wanted to see him. That said, I spent some time listening to both Jim Al-Khalili talking rather engagingly about the departure it was for him to be writing his first novel, and former University Challenge contestant (and one half of Monkman and Seagull), Bobby Seagull enthusing about maths teaching and maths education. Fair play to Bobby, who’s doing a PhD on the subject part-time, while being a maths teacher in East London. I really hope it works out well for him. Most of Friday was spent mostly in orientation. The night’s headliners were Hot Chip, about whom I can say not too much. They were perfectly serviceable; I don’t know that much of their material, to be honest, and slightly odd covers of Eurythimics Love is a Stranger, and the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage apart, not much of it really stuck with me. That said, the reception for them was generally pretty enthusiastic, so they were clearly doing something right.

Saturday was a proper business day. One nice find for me were HENGE, who are gloriously batshit, and make a rather fabulous noise. The lead singer’s got a nice line in stage chat too. The crowd (me included) loved them — total festival takeover.

But HENGE are just an appetiser. Robert Newman in the Contact tent did a great set. I haven’t seen him perform in 25 years, but he’s still utterly wonderful, including a superb section about the Pythgorean Numerology cult getting arsey with wheelwrights about the value of pi. As he said, “Is this the most bluedot routine I could possibly do?”. (Note to self: make sure to book a ticket for him next time he’s anywhere near here). Paul Foot is also gleefully strange. Who’d have thought that, eh?

Robert Newman in full flow…

The big guns on Saturday though are Jarvis Cocker’s new band Jarv.is, and Kraftwerk. Jarv.is play a lot of new material from the upcoming album, mixed with a couple of (more obscure) Pulp oldies. They are not the obvious festival friendly singalongs, though, and mine the darker recesses of the back catalogue. I find this rather nicely perverse, and it certainly makes me look forward to the upcoming Jarv.is album, which sounds rather promising. The closer is, however, dedicated to the whoever wins the excruciating Tory Leadership race this week (and it will be Johnson [UPDATE: it was 🤬]). So we get the crowd, who seem to be very much mostly in the Remain camp, singing with gusto to Cunts Are Still Running The World, which feels nicely cathartic and palette-cleansing before our dose of Teutonic minimalism.

But for all Jarvis’ fun, it’s Kraftwerk who are the main event (and the principal reason I’m here, to be honest, having missed out on a ticket to see them indoors earlier). And boy do they deliver! You need 3D glasses for the show, and it wasn’t clear where to get them. But a nice, entirely unknown, guy a few yards behind handed me a pair pre-show, so I was all ready to go. The first thing to mention is the sound design. It was pin-sharp and pristine. The bass was almost low enough to make your bowels shake, and was perfectly balanced.

Radioactivity

From the opening Numbers, through to a bouncing Boing Boom Tshack/Music Non Stop, it’s a pulsating set. Tour de France gets an extended run out too. But pretty much all the familiar parts of the catalogue get an airing, with things from Autobahn, Radioactivity, The Man Machine and Trans Europe Express. It’s a nice spread, and the visuals, with the insertion of the 3D elements, just adds to the whole experience. It even works well outdoors, though now I really want to see this in an enclosed, indoor space again!

Autobahn (excerpt)

On Sunday, after a brief sojourn watching Radcliffe and Maconie interviewing 808 State (who were playing a later set), in the BBC Sounds tent, it was time to checkout some other stuff. The little I caught of Anna Calvi on the Lovell stage was dynamic and attention-catching, while in the Nebula tent, Hello Cosmos have a faintly Muse-y feel, and sound pretty impressive. Gruff Rhys in the Orbit tent is, in his usual way, slightly whimsical and rather fun. In both cases, they receive an enthusiastic amount of love from the audience.

Gruff Rhys

I didn’t catch a lot of John Grant, but I enjoyed the last couple of numbers in his set more than I expected to. He’s possibly worth a bit more investigation for me.

Sunday’s headliners are New Order. Just as they come on it starts to rain again, but it’s not too heavy and doesn’t dampen the crowd’s spirit over much. The band seem to be happy to be on something approaching home turf, which takes on an added poignacy towards the close. Early in the set, Barney asks if there are any Joy Division fans in this evening. “Well, he says, We’re not playing any…except these two”, before the band launch into She’s Lost Control and Transmission The back catalogue is mined and generally given a more modern sheen, so we get favourites like Temptation, True Faith and Blue Monday to finish the night.

New Order

Except that’s not how things end, because Barney lied about the Joy Division part. The encore gives us Atmosphere and a beautifully touching Love will Tear Us Apart. Beneath the Lovell telescope, it was a beautiful way to finish the set.

True Faith (excerpt)

The other notable thing about this year was the use of RFID wristbands for cashless payment. Other people have complained about the things not working that well, or updating properly at the bars. I didn’t really have any problems with it. It certainly worked better when buying stuff at the merch tent(1), and even food ordering was easier without having to fiddle around for change all the time. And it was also possibly a nice way to discourage pilfering, with less money floating around. Generally speaking the admin side of things worked quite well for me. I suspect it’s an idea that will stay.

(1) …especially since there’s a Met Office facility there.

(2) the hoodies were decent for the money (£32), though the window to get hold of any Kraftwerk gear was pretty small. I managed to get an Autobahn shirt straight after their set, and they were going pretty quickly even then.

Guardian review: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jul/22/bluedot-festival-review-jodrell-bank-observatory-cheshire#comment-131258195

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