Event: Blue Dot Festival Review

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A few weeks back, The Waveform Transmitter’s Niall Johnston headed to the fields of Cheshire for a weekend of music, science and cosmic exploration. He’s just about made it back down to earth now and is ready to tell us all about his experiences…

For a festival of such relative infancy, Blue Dot really knows how to put on a show. Thinking back on the time I had across those 4 days, the phrase ‘out of this world’ certainly springs to mind. This would surely bring smiles to the faces of the festival organisers; after all it is a festival based on the site of the third largest space telescope in the world.

The Lovell Telescope, at Jodrell Bank, in Cheshire -around 20 miles from Manchester- was built in the 1950s to observe and provide data on the outer reaches of the known universe. During the ‘space-race’ it was the centre of the world’s media attention as the only place in the world able to track satellites such as Sputnik which had been launched into the stratosphere by the Soviet Union.

Although those pioneering days might be over, the telescope is still functional, and it is an incredible site to behold. Arriving by train to a station 2 miles down the road, the structure is immediately visible; a stark figure on an otherwise sparse, rural landscape. This only added to the inevitable pre-festival anticipation as I made the trek over to the site itself. I had arrived on the Wednesday night as I was working early the next day and set up camp a mere 50 metres from the looming presence of the telescope.

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In the two previous years the festival had ran for three days only, but for 2018 an extra evening was added that weekend campers could add on to, or tickets could be bought individually. There were some small bands and artists playing on the smallest stage, Roots, but the main event for the night was The Halle Orchestra.

The 30-strong crew, based in Manchester, performed a rendition of the flagship BBC show Blue Planet, as presented by everybody’s favourite grandpa, Sir David Attenborough. David wasn’t there on the night but the levels of drama and intensity certainly were, as the orchestra moved through scores written for specific scenes from the programme, which were shown on a large screen behind the musicians. A truly magical experience and a great way to start a festival that was to bring plenty of music of a more beat-driven variety.

After a long day of working in the car parks, welcoming in thousands of excited revellers to the festival, my Friday night started at 8pm with a real godfather of the scene, Roni Size. This was the start of an extended tour of nights and festivals across the world for Roni, performing live his album New Forms. Released in 1997, it is often touted as one of the most important dance music albums of all time, and it was a truly great show. Blending jazz and hip-pop into the drum and bass formula, the music is soulful, whilst retaining a gritty rawness that makes it impossible not to face screw up at the sound of it. And like any great music, the album has aged without a wrinkle.

Next I moved on to see my first DJ set of the weekend, at the Nebula stage, with the super talented but perennially underrated selector, Will Tramp! Holding long standing residencies at The Warehouse ProjectParklife Festival, and previously, the legendary Bugged Out! he’s played a great set every time I’ve seen him- this time treating the crowd to some fun Latin, italo-disco and proto-house.

Although I hadn’t really listened to two out of the three headliners – Flaming Lips and Future Islands– I felt it would be good to see them, experiencing something out of the comfort zone and feeling more involved with the overall festival. Both certainly didn’t disappoint. Flaming Lips opened with a nod to the other-worldly aesthetic of the festival with a rendition of the theme music from Stanley Kubrick’s epic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Proceeding this they launched into an energetic 90 minute display of rock, psychedelia and a couple of Bowie covers, with a show that is as much about the crazy visuals as it is about the music – think monsoons of glitter, dozens of huge coloured balloons firing into the crowd, a huge inflatable giant and the lead singer on a fucking unicorn.

The remainder of the evening was spent at the cavernous Mission Control tent, which was hosting a Bugged Out! takeover for the night. Opening with up and coming starlet Holly Lester, followed by Lemmy Aston, I joined as Italian acidic maestro Not Waving was laying down a live set of fiery acid and bleeps using a collection of both vintage and modern hardware. Crowd favourite Joy Orbison then closed out the evening with a style of UK bass-driven, breakbeat selections.

Kicking of things on Saturday evening was the cultish new-wave and synth-pop figure Gary Numan.  Most well-known for his 1979 single Cars, Numan is considered a pioneer of commercial electronic music, meaning a visit to pay homage to him felt necessary.. His signature sound uses strong, spacey synth loops fed through effects pedals, a sound which suited the setting perfectly.

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After some education from a distant dance music relative I hopped forward a couple of decades to join Kerouac, at Mission Control for another takeover. The hosts on this night were inner city electronic, who launched a new Leeds-based day festival back at the start of June.

After a series of warm, chugging house numbers, Kerouac finished on the wonderful 2015 hit Too Much Information (Laolu Remix) from Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra. Curator for the evening and of the ICE festival -as well as figurehead for the Leeds scene- Ralph Lawson then took the reins and continued with aplomb, but the evening was really all about one person.  

Sophisticated producer, insane DJ, feminist figurehead and punk icon Helena Hauff stole the show again, demonstrating why she is one of the most exciting and in demand artists in the world right now. Although well-known to draw for records with bizarre, extra-terrestrial sounds, it felt like this set was particularly tailored for the surroundings that the festival is situated, where machines dominate and cosmic energy is commonplace. Her skill is further highlighted by the way even a crowd somewhat unfamiliar with her identity or style of music (from several conversations I had with crowd members I gathered that many had never heard of her) were in thrall to her performance, moving uncontrollably throughout. Several of the tracks on the night were from QualmsHauff’s forthcoming album on Ninja Tune which we hope will continue to draw her plaudits and new fans alike.

On the final day finishing work slightly earlier allowed me to absorb some of the other activities the festival had to offer, such as playing with robot cats, listening to talks from scientists on black holes and taking part in a Black Mirror-esque, AI-generated VR ‘personal film experience’.

These interesting, quirky and engaging facets really add to the overall experience at Blue Dot, making you feel somewhat closer to the science which is conducted at the site. It also provides respite for tired legs, ears and parents alike; kids and families make up a big proportion of the eclectic mix at the festival. This makes for a fun, light-hearted atmosphere throughout as kids dance and play to the music their parents may have been listening to decades ago.

This was no more obvious than with the show stopping Chemical Brothers, whose music seems to cross boundaries and generations. Emerging on the scene during the height of the rave era, they’ve kept up a fairly consistent production of music ever since, always evolving and updating their sound. This festival finale performance was a selection of some of their best work from over the years, such as Block Rockin Beats and Star Guitar in addition to a rendition of Temptation- originally made by their Manchester counter parts, New Order.

Their ability to sound both nostalgic and speculative shows a real depth of artistic quality and showmanship. It was also a wonderful way to close the festival: looking back but also looking forward. Of course with the telescope -a representation of the forefront of human cosmic exploration- looming over you the entire weekend, it is difficult not to imagine in such vast, futuristic terms. But being in this place, at such a warm and fun festival also jolts your realisation that the most important things in life are right in front of you: friends, family, children.

As a festival Blue Dot fuses music and science in a way that hasn’t been seen anywhere else before. They’ve found a winning formula and it’s set to go from strength to strength. Already pulling in a slew of big acts new and old, it will be interesting to see where the curators go next in their search to bring a little piece of outer space to every single guest of the festival. Over and out Blue Dot, thanks for another great year.

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