September 9, 2022
Words by: Fran Pope
On September 3 and 4, Bristol’s brand-new Forwards Festival saw big names and local talent converge on Clifton Downs for two days of music and talks. Electronic, folk, pop, punk, and jazz all featured on the line-up, and with the festival’s dedicated space for children and families, it was clear the organisers were keen to attract a broad range of music fans of all ages.
I headed up to the Downs on the Sunday under some threatening grey clouds (that thankfully didn’t come to much) and had a wander around to explore the site. Along with the two main stages, there was also the smaller Information Stage hosting talks and panels. A children’s area was set up with activities, and festival-goers also had a thrift clothing stall, facepainting, and a Ferris wheel to keep them entertained. Already this felt like a festival with a difference, and I’ll be keen to see how it evolves and grows in future years.
Post-punk artist Billy Nomates (Tor Maries) fills an amazing amount of space with her sound and relentless energy. Taking her name from a comment she received once while attending a Sleaford Mods gig on her own, Billy Nomates has since closed the loop by collaborating with the band, including by performing with them during their set at Forwards later that day.
In front of a crowd of all ages – many of them dancing as energetically as she was and shouting along with the lyrics – Maries rollicked through a selection of her punch-packing catalogue. In an impressive show of punk spirit for a Sunday afternoon, she barely stood still for a moment.
Blue Bones, her latest single, was comparatively light and bouncy, while Happy Misery crackled with sharp-tongued irony: “Back in my day, we had nothing, we lived in happy misery.” Call In Sick, with its synthy sawtooth buzz and electronic bloops, drew impassioned cheers – “and who goes in on a Friday?” – “I can’t risk it Debbie!”
It was a sentiment we could all get behind, perhaps amplified by the sense of the weekend coming to a close, the end of summer holidays and festival season, and the back-to-school frisson of September. But it was still early in the day, so we weren’t there yet. There was plenty of partying ahead of us, and Billy Nomates got the afternoon’s events going with passion and charisma.
The Comet is Coming
I just had time to grab a drink and catch the end of The Comet is Coming over at the mainstage. The frenetic sax riffs and wild, rippling drums were as epic in real life as I would’ve expected, somehow magnified by the wide sweep of sky and the views of distant green fields up on the Downs. Despite the intensity of the band’s woozy, psychedelic noise-jazz, some tracks – including their new single, Pyramids – were a lot more airy and upbeat in tone. And what a treat, as we were the first to hear this piece played live.
Soon afterwards, I linked up with friends and headed back to Stage 2, a little over-excited about seeing Kae Tempest. A slow-motion stampede of people was doing exactly the same thing, and there was a keen sense of shared anticipation.
From the small amount that I knew of almost a decade of Tempest’s work, I had expected them to be incredible, but I was still blown away by the sheer force, dizzying delivery, and piercing truth of their music and spoken word.
Their set featured several tracks from 2022 album The Line is a Curve, some of which are personal favourites of mine. Hearing Salt Coast live was pretty special, its shivering refrain “leaves, rain, leaves, rain” feeling like a glimpse of the autumn to come. These Are the Days, with its urgent call for presence, was matched in fierce clarity by Move, its repeated “I’ll fight you ‘til I win” like a balled-up fist, and something about its tension reminding me of Eminem’s Lose Yourself. The brazen glory of People’s Faces (“give me your beautiful crumbling heart”) almost had me in tears. And I wouldn’t have been the only one: looking around, I saw that dozens of people had slung an arm around whoever they were with and, by the end, there were more than a few tear-stained faces in the crowd. It was truly special seeing Tempest in person, and not an experience I could forget in a hurry.
Next up, I headed to The Information Stage (now transformed into The Information By Night) to see Bristol’s own Hypothetics, whose skewed-poetic, infectiously punky beats have been taking them from strength to strength this year.
Although it was still daylight, the vibe nonetheless seemed to have shifted from day-festival to night-gig. The intimate stage and more-enclosed space also made it feel more like a show in a bar or music venue, which perhaps had something to do with the ramped-up audience involvement. Or maybe it was just because Hypothetics don’t let you stand on the sidelines. There’s something genuinely fresh and edgy in their off-beat vocal delivery that really draws you in. Immersed in pounding, shifting rhythms and hard-rocking riffs, the crowd loosened up and were soon dancing with abandon. “Are you ready to rock?” lead guitar and vocalist George wanted to know. We most definitely were.
If Hypothetics had had another ten minutes on stage, I’m sure a happy moshpit would’ve started up. As it was, restricted on time, they had to step down. I could’ve listened to them for another hour.
In the interim, I stayed put and chatted to another festival-goer who had come over from Dublin for the event weekend. Apart from making my 20-minute cycle up to the Downs seem like utter luxury, this also seemed like a good sign for the festival, which – still in its first year – was already attracting people from outside the southwest, and outside the country.
As we were chatting, Rozi Plain and her band were setting up. Maybe because of the back-to-back bands playing, they didn’t seem to have had a lot of time for sound-checking. They would have been forgiven for being a little frustrated, as they had to keep adjusting their levels during the first part of their set. But from an audience perspective, they were nothing but calm and amiable, taking the energy down a few levels for a sweet wallow in hazy jazz-pop. Rozi herself avoided the affected on-stage manner that musicians often take on, instead addressing us with warm candour and politeness. (She was trying, she said, not to say “nice” too much, but it was very nice to be there.) The mood couldn’t have been more different from Hypothetics before them, and it was a pleasant shift.
Bristol is familiar turf for Rozi Plain: now based in London, she studied art in the city and lived here for some years. She also began collaborating with other heroes of the folk scene, Kate Stables (of This is the Kit) and Rachel Dadd. Although she and her band have dozens of festivals under their belts by now (including Green Man, SXSW, Glastonbury, End of the Road, and several others), I couldn’t help but wonder if Forwards held a certain cosiness and familiarity for them. Either way, there’s a kind of warm solidity that comes through their music, which found its echo in the slanted wooden walls and birdhouse feel of the Information Stage.
They began their set in daylight; by the end, the sky was dark and the band were bathed in the orange and pink glow of the stage lights. Rozi’s distinctive, fuzzy-edged vocals were accompanied by poised bass and crisp guitar. Her songs amble with a loose-jointed ease, by turns uplifting, twinkling and thoughtful, all tinged with something a little strange and off-the-beaten-path. If we’re reclaiming the word to mean something active and comforting, skilfully crafted and generous, then Rozi Plain’s music really is “nice.” Radically nice.
The Chemical Brothers closed out Forwards with all the neon bombast that anyone would expect from the seasoned big beats duo. An enormous audience was gathered, backlit and glittered by the bright lights from Stage 1. Again, the age diversity of the crowd felt noticeable and welcome. I squeezed between jumping bodies to get closer to the front, feeling the electricity in the closely packed audience.
After 25 years, it’s no wonder The Chemical Brothers have their show down to a tee. Hit after colossal hit from their extensive catalogue kept us pumped, and I was reminded how much fun their music is to dance to. There was a definite feeling of nostalgia, and a lot of people there obviously had their favourites. For me, it had to be Galvanize. Thousands of people joining in with “World… the time has come to push the button” was seriously good fun.
The Chemical Brothers were hardly visible, and we had to assume they were there somewhere; the stage was instead flooded by the glistening visuals displayed on three huge screens. Although technically stunning, some of the visuals, such as the slow-motion woman swimming through sparkling bubbles, were a bit of a throwback that reminded me of a Moby music video. Other aspects of their stagecraft were retro in a much more fun way: a pair of giant, boxy robots descended on the stage at one point, smoke spewing from their heads, which was just joyfully silly. Later, massive orange balloons bounced out into the crowd. Although The Chemical Brothers were on for an hour and a half, this all-out final set of Forwards Festival slid by in what felt like a fraction of that time. It was a no-holds-barred kind of ending, the crowd were on fire, and we definitely came away smiling.