Brisfest has made a triumphant return to Ashton Court. Except it’s not a return. But it feels like one. The prodigal son of the Ashton Court Festival is back in its rightful home, and its first day back was a wonderful celebration of all things Bristol, with the cider running out and the music going on until dawn.
This was 20,000 people standing in a field at a festival which may not have had the truly anarchic spirit of Ashton Court in days of yore, but nonetheless was a triumphant first Brisfest taking place on grass rather than concrete, and a sterling testament to the hard work of festival director Poppy Stephenson and her core team of staff, as well as the hundreds of volunteers.
Each stage had its own character, from the audience sitting cross-legged inside the Jelli Records roots tent to the hands-in-the-air madness of some of the dance areas where some of the best parties took place. A mini version of Bristol if you will.
In honour of his location, beatboxer extraordinaire Beardyman opened his set on the main stage with covers of Angel by Massive Attack and Wandering Star by Portishead. There may have been “shit malfunctioning”, but I don’t think anybody noticed.
The main stage was closed by Jaguar Skills playing his cut-and-paste mash-ups, everything from Eminem to the Kaiser Chiefs, with even a snippet of the Countdown theme tune in the mix. There was an unintended minute’s silence and it also sometimes became a bit too gimmicky, more suited to a short burst on Radio One than an hour-long headline set, but it was certainly a crowd-pleasing performance.
Jaguar Skills’ mixing was impressive, but it was nothing compared to the spectacle put on by Glastonbury regulars Arcadia. Lords of Lightning saw men dressed in what looked like chain mail throwing bolts of electricity back and forth to each other using their hands, clubs and even their heads. It was absolutely breathtaking and a performance so astonishing that I thought my eyes must be deceiving me.
In one corner of the site were three tents that brought the true festival spirit to Ashton Court. The Bling Bar even had that smell unique to festivals, a mix of freshly trampled grass and stale beer. “Come on you cunts!”, DJ Tapeworm shouted before dropping some frenetic beats soon after 3pm on a sunny afternoon.
Next door was the rfidome where among the flailing hands and projections on the igloo-like ceiling, I think I caught DJ Scotty, featuring Lauren both singing and MC-ing from within the crowd in front of the DJ booth.
Bedmo Disco from south of the river were among the turntablists playing in Shambarber, not just a tent but a fully-functioning barber, with two chairs inside (men’s cut and style £15) and a Jazzification Station outside, creating glittery facial adornments as well as some splendid moustaches.
Alfresco Disco, organisers of some of Bristol’s most exclusive parties, always in unusual locations, were Saturday’s Shambarber headliners, a tent as unexpected as they come. Signposted by a blow-up black and white moustache above its entrance, it was one of the more obvious examples of Brisfest’s close association with Shambala, the Northamptonshire festival which always has a strong Bristol presence.
The best vantage point of the Brisfest site, in recent years more used to seeing hot air balloons than hearing breakbeats, was from the top of the helter skelter. This was also the corner where the kid’s area was situated, accessed through a multi-coloured lattice of bamboo shoots and featuring among other treats arts and crafts, a bouncy castle, storytelling, swing boats, and an all-important nappy-changing area.
Nearby, graffiti from Silent Hobo accessorised the UWE stall, following in the footsteps of fellow Bristol graffiti artist Acerone who designed the Bristol University prospectus. Other graffiti on site included boards surrounding a pond painted by the likes of Cheo and Andy Council, with live painting curated by Weapon of Choice by artists including Inkie and Sickboy.
The BBC Introducing stage showcased up-and-coming Bristol talent with perhaps the most varied musical lineup of the festival. Eclecticism was the name of the game here, none more so than birthday boy Little Rhys, rapping while dressed as a smiley-faced Christmas tree, accompanied by a beatboxing saxophonist and virtuoso pianist.
It was at the front of this stage, obviously, that I spotted Big Jeff for the first time, a musical consultant to Brisfest and whose blond afro can be seen at all the best Bristol gigs. The man is everywhere.
Jeff’s signature look, however, was nothing compared to some of the other punters, dressed as everything from pixies to the Ashton Court deer. The most astonishing festival chic I saw, however, was a man who from the neck up had the eminently sensible look of a grey-haired accountant, but one who was also wearing a black cat suit with sparkly silver trim, dancing by throwing his head back and forth and using his outstretched hands to stop two invisible walls closing in on him from either side.
In complete contrast, the Jelli Records roots stage was the politest of the festival, decorated with lampshades, vintage clocks and a hat stand, where many of the audience sat cross-legged on the floor. It was in here that I saw Heg Doughty and the Wolf Chorus with their beautifully whimsical songs, singing stories about subjects like Heg’s grandmother Bessy in the form of an energetic sea shanty.
With songs like this, they would have also fitted seamlessly in the Remix tent, also featuring young and up-and-coming Bristol talent, and one decorated in a nautical theme, with port holes and fishing nets rather like the Port of Call off Blackboy Hill.
The permaculture area with its plants and teepees was one of the most enjoyable areas of the festival to while away the time in what felt like a far-flung corner of the festival site.
The reverse for me was the Gryphon tent, where my delicate ears were not able to take more than a few minutes of a tattooed young man screaming into a microphone. So I escaped to listen to more DJs in the Nokia Music tent and become a walking advert by using the free wi-fi for my own Nokia phone.
The outdoor Weapon of Choice stage was a popular area all day, but it only came completely alive at the arrival of darkness, with its black and white decoration being fully utilised by some mesmerising visuals.
We were blessed with glorious weather yesterday, with sunshine bathing the festival in its daylight hours. Today is meant to be miserable, but at least one act from the stage urged ticket-holders still to come to see performers including De La Soul, Roni Size and Hawkwind, and to welcome the arrival of Brisfest to Ashton Court with open arms.