Boomtown Fair 2016 – in review

In mid August, on what turned out to be one of the hottest weekends of the summer We Are Cardiff hit the road, heading for the bright lights and big city of one of the best independent festivals in the south west: Boomtown. In our trusty campervan Daisy, we rocked up onsite and found a slither of space in the camper field, applied lashings of glitter, made friends with the people parked up next to us who were all dressed up as hot dogs, and then danced and pranced our way through the weekend. It was an incredible, absolutely mental, totally wonderful weekend.

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Boomtown has come a long way from its humble beginnings: a couple of hundred people at a secret location in the Forest of Dean, populated almost entirely by party-hearties from Bristol and Cardiff and all those spaces in between. Since 2009, the festival has grown to become one of the UK’s wildest and most inspiring. To get some idea of how the festival has grown, check out our interview with Cardiff boy Kaptin: Boomtown’s Head of Music.

Boomtown is a complete feast for those who love the theatrical parts of other festivals. At Boomtown, theatrics is everything (and everywhere). At times, wandering around the city at night, bleary-eyed and with beer in hand it feels very much like you are actually stumbling around some crazy dystopian metropolis.

All around you are intricately built stage sets: street after street connected together with hundreds of tiny venues and shops and art galleries – even a job centre. NB: at night time the Job Centre turns into a venue, and was my favourite place for dancing throughout the whole weekend. Urban75 have a great piece discussing  the madness of the Job Centre – long may it continue! (Urban75 – The Madness of the Boomtown Job Centre).

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The story of the growth of the festival actually a part of its narrative: something that keen-eyed fans can follow online before the event, and then witness in person throughout the weekend with a series of staged events that progress the storyline.

BoomTown started out as a humble village fair, and this year, in Chapter 8: The Revolution Starts Now, we joined the story as the divide between rich and poor has become ever greater, and with discontent and unrest spreading throughout the barrios and districts of Boomtown. Mayor Comrade Jose has been brainwashed and facing a coup, she introduces conscription and the city is covered in propaganda as she struggles to retain control. Then there’s the Sheriff, struggling to regain his place as the hidden leader behind the regime of Comrade Jose. And THEN there are all the rebels gathering in the shadows to destroy those who seek to rule them …

See? There’s a lot going on. One one hand, you can turn up not knowing a single thing about Comrade Jose or indeed anything about the story and still have an absolutely blinding weekend, enjoying one of the most intricately constructed festivals on a bigger scale than anything you’d probably find anywhere else in the world. On the other, knowing about the story that’s taking place throughout the weekend adds nuanced depths to everything that you see around you. It’s something that you might have only found in tiny corners of other festivals: in the big top, or in the circus field.

But at Boomtown, it’s everywhere: the theatricality and narrative structure are the central heartbeat for why the festival has expanded in the way that it has: with nine districts (that’s nine totally separate areas, with different music policies, different buildings, different venues – completely different!).

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Now we’ve explained the background, Our Boomtown experience went down a little something like this. We tried in vain to make our way around every district and explore fully, but what seemed like hundreds of venues dotted around every corner, it was impossible to get into everything.

With our trusty programme in hand (half set list times, half beautifully designed comic book), we spent most of Friday wandering around in a daze, being absolutely overwhelmed by how amazing everything was and getting repeatedly lost while trying to wander anywhere other than the central drag of the Old Town, Town Centre, Wild West and Mayfair Avenue, which are all linked together.

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On Saturday we made more of an effort to explore the site, and realised that on Thursday and Friday we had barely scratched the surface. We headed straight for the glamorous and beautifully turned out Chinatown, the dystopian future of Dstrkt 5 and the full-on, oversized wonder of Barrio Loco. We tripped over a tiny punk stage, got beeped at by a very slow moving London taxi covered in mosaics, went on fairground rides until we felt sick, danced to techno surrounded by giant shipping containers and bounced around to UK bass and drum & bass. Boomtown is like a giant playground for over sized, over stimulated children.

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It’s really very difficult to get across the scale of Boomtown. I mean, the place is absolutely huge. There are a couple of stages that easily hold in excess of five thousand people (including the Lion’s Den, the UK’s biggest festival reggae stage, which was amazing), but there are so many other stages that even the programme didn’t have all the venues listed.

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One of my favourite accidental venue discoveries was the forest parties. In between the main areas of the festival are a number of stages hidden away in the woods. It was in one of these clearings that we happened upon the Tribe of Frog area, with some incredible pounding beats with live female vocalist. Normally the mention of psytrance makes me run for the hills, but this was amazing. The ground was covered in sand, the trees covered with fairy lights and sculptures hanging from them, and the sun was blazing. Make no mistake – we were at a beach party in Thailand in the 1990s, and Psibindi – this classically trained Indian singer – was our DJ.

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Other highlights of the weekend included seeing Madness on Saturday night, with a full capacity crowd at the Lion’s Den of 20,000 people, and then losing our minds in the Job Centre for a good few hours worth of jigging about to B Squared – actually DJs Mikey B and Krissi B tag teaming on some of the best UK garage, bass and breaks I have ever heard … and I strongly suggest you check them out if driving, pounding UK bass with an underlying hint of techno is your thing. What topped it off was the MC and his slick lyrics: “job centre skankas! pick up ya giro”, and so on. Well played, Boomtown. Well played.

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On Sunday, we spent most of the day at Whistler’s Green, a newly expanded part of the city that’s also the highest point, and makes for an amazing viewpoint down over the other parts. Whistler’s Green has a considerably more chilled out vibe to the rest of the place, with venues like the Lizard Cafe providing a nice mixture of jazz, blues and folk that gave some respite from the automated beats of the bigger venues.

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Wandering around the festival is the most surreal experience, and was my favourite part: almost everyone is in fancy dress. Everywhere you turn there is pop-up street theatre or performance in between the named venues.  We came across fire breathers, sword swallowers, bands singing Irish sea shanties … we were entertained with something new and fabulous with every step we took. It proved extremely difficult to actually get anywhere, and is difficult to report exactly what we saw, as my notes afterwards just consisted of things like ‘awesome bar Wild West balearic house‘ and ‘tiny rum shack Mayfair rock n roll band?’. Which makes for a great experience, but not a very comprehensive review (unfortunately!) – but there in lies the beauty of Boomtown.

There are so many wonderful distractions everywhere: you might want to run off to Sector 6 to see So Solid Crew, but you might amble down there, and be whisked off into some magical alternative reality for a couple of hours instead.

If you love your music festivals with an immersive, theatrical finish, then you will love Boomtown. Watch the Chapter 8 video, and set your alarm for 1st November when early bird tickets for next year go on sale!

Boomtown: Chapter 9 will take place on 10-13th August 2017. Earlybird tickets will go on sale on 1st November via Boomtown website: tickets. Set those alarms, people!

Stay in the loop via social media pages:

Boomtown Facebook

Boomtown Twitter

Boomtown Instagram

Boomtown: Facebook Chapter 9 Event Page

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