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Three Songs No Flash

Giant Leap: Bluedot Festival 2019 Reviewed
Patrick Clarke , July 26th, 2019 13:20

At Jodrell Bank Deep Space Observatory, Patrick Clarke finds Kraftwerk, Jarvis and more offering a beautiful mash-up of art and science

It’s 3.56 on a Sunday morning, 50 years to the very second since Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon, and under the Lovell Telescope a crowd of thousands is gathered under blankets on the grass. In real time, the dialogue between the astronauts and Mission Control is being played back, as a video-mapped display that incorporates the footage is splashed across the telescope’s imperious 250-foot frame. Neil Armstrong takes his first steps, and a massive cheer erupts over his famous first words. As unique selling points for your music festival go, that’s pretty tough to beat.

The telescope is still the third-largest in the world, 62 years after its construction, and towers over the fourth annual Bluedot Festival at Jodrell Bank Deep Space Observatory. When the headliners play, they’re able to light it up to go along with the performances. The famous Unknown Pleasures pulsar emissions are beamed on the dish when New Order play ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and when Kraftwerk play ‘Tour de France’ it displays a vast tricolour flag. Such moments as these embody everything the festival represents, a celebration of the intersection of art and science, that place where the most wonderful things can occur.

Photo by Scott Salt

In an age where the UK’s medium-sized festival scene is saturated with identikit events, just having a theme as rich as astrophysics gives the performers an added sense of occasion. Take Jarvis Cocker’s Saturday show, in which he presents his new project JARV IS. “The idea here is that you’ve pulled me in from a distant star,” he says in perfect Sheffield deadpan after leaping onto the stage from the audience. In the hands of someone so charismatic the Lovell Telescope becomes a brilliant plaything, with Jarvis using it to send and receive transmissions to extra-terrestrials of his own invention in-between electro-pop bangers like new single ‘Must I Evolve’. He precedes it with a disclaimer, ensuring any scientists in the audience (and there are many), that his interpretation of Darwinian theory must be taken with a pinch or two of salt.

Another example of Bluedot’s philosophy filtering through its artist is a DJ set, or what’s billed as one at least, from none other than Jerry Dammers. To the dismay of at least two bothersome Specials fans in search of some ska standards, this is a specially-curated sci-fi library music special. “It’s not a DJ set, it’s a listening session!” he barks, finally ending their heckling spree to the delight of the remaining crowd. His 90-minute demonstration is, it’s fair to say, not for everyone – he seems a little surprised that so many of us actually stay to the end – but for the dedicated boasts rich, rich rewards. The music he plays, culled from 50s and 60s sci-fi soundtracks from Japan to France via the Soviet Union, is in turns alien, angelic, hilarious, primordially funky and terrifying, and so are the vintage film clips that play behind him – sometimes gorgeously conceptual, sometimes side-splittingly kitsch and preposterous. When covered in mud, aching and exhausted by the third day of a festival, watching Dammers play The Pyramids’ reggae version of ‘Telstar’ under the shadow of the Lovell Telescope, while on the screen behind him a giant tortoise with jetpacks fights a dinosaur with a massive machete on its face is a remedy for the very soul.

Ibibio Sound Machine, photo by Lucas Sinclair

If any single performance embodies the heart, soul, and eccentricity of Bluedot, it is Dammers’. That said, it is Kraftwerk who are the weekend’s centrepiece booking. The site is noticeably more rammed on Saturday, the only batch of day tickets that completely sold-out, and there’s a scramble for the 3D glasses required to fully experience their set (despite assurances that there’s enough to go around, some must sadly go without). It’s a show they’ve been touring for a while now, one that is pretty much identical each time save for a location-specific flourish or two; here, a UFO hovers over Cheshire before descending slowly in front of Jodrell Bank to a huge cheer, just as when this writer saw them in Norway last year it descended over Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral. That is not to say that the set softens in its impact on a second viewing, however. Even on repeated viewing it is a hugely exciting expression of the band’s vision, both as pioneers in the 1970s and as pioneers in the 21st century. And, of course, they have the telescope behind them, which lights up, flashes and beams in time with the music. Again, the landmark injects a sense of extra occasion, an added edge to a well-trodden, though still brilliant, set.

Hot Chip and New Order are the other two headliners. In terms of competing with the Kosmische Musik kings for the set of the weekend, they’re in a tricky position, but the latter can at least boast their show as something of a homecoming. Their Joy Division bandmate Ian Curtis was born and raised in Macclesfield, the nearest town, while the band played the site back in 2013 for Bluedot’s predecessor ‘Live From Jodrell Bank’. They are, it must be said, not on the finest form musically, with Bernard Sumner’s vocals flat and laboured, and the sound muffled from anywhere other than the centre of the crowd. In terms of atmosphere, however, it still hits a celebratory tone, thanks to a deep bond between them and their fans. They play the best of their sizeable arsenal of hits, plus Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ and ‘She Lost Control’, before the cover of Unknown Pleasures adorns the telescope as they close with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. It’s not a perfect set, but it’s a perfect close to the festival.

Hot Chip, meanwhile, aren’t blessed with the kind of instant love that New Order and Kraftwerk enjoy. They have neither the hometown kudos of the former nor the near-mythical status of the latter. What’s most impressive about their opening headline set, however, is that they’re prepared to graft for adoration. They’ve beefed up their sound significantly when it comes to their live show. Both the dreamy pop of their latest record A Bathfull Of Ecstasy and winsome early hits like ‘Boy From School’ are injected with the same steely thump. Lights and laser beams clash and clatter all around them as they demonstrate just how much they’ve crept up to become headline-status musicians, complete with a barmy cover of Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’.

There are plenty of other astounding sets throughout the weekend. 808 State’s hammering late-night rave, for example, or John Grant’s tender, warm and funny Sunday afternoon set that matches Jarvis on charisma. Smaller bands get their opportunity too, like brilliant Liverpool art-rockers SPQR who continue their habit of rising to every occasion with a breathless and charismatic set, and tQ favourites Audiobooks who show off a colossal new song that has mouths watering for the follow-up to last year’s wonk-pop masterpiece Now! (in a minute). Ibibio Sound Machine are irresistibly joyous, and Omar Souleyman offers a strange, but inviting mix of high and low-energy; he claps slowly and calmly with a warm smile, as furious, future-dabke hurtles out all around him.

John Grant, photo by Jody Hartley

For all of that, there is still an overriding sense that science, not music, is the dominating half of Bluedot’s partnership. Lectures by Oxford professor of astrophysics Chris Lintrott and Jodrell Bank astronomer Tim O’Brien are hosted on the main stage, and draw bigger crowds than half of the musicians. Away from the relatively small main arena is a sprawl of scientific stalls and attractions. A giant robot clunks its way around a small pavilion, surrounded on all sides by ecstatic children, while in the woodland on the site’s outer reaches Luke Jerram’s stunning ‘Museum Of The Moon’ – a perfectly replicated, illuminated scale model of the moon – glistens among the trees. ‘Science headliners’ like Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, feel as much like genuine bill-toppers as Kraftwerk and New Order.

Bluedot has a charm and character that feels unique. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else that could host a Clangers DJ set, Kraftwerk, Extinction Rebellion and the actual Moon Landings under the same philosophical banner. It must be said that not everything runs smoothly however – a deluge of rain and subsequent mud is met with an evident lack of forward-planning, for instance. One wheelchair-user at the festival says on Twitter that the failings to provide for disabled fans in such weather forced him to leave after just a day (and that he is still waiting for Bluedot's promised response, one week on). He's not alone in his criticism. The festival does plenty of things right, but there are serious failings in this area too. It's a place where there's an immense amount of things to enjoy - the next step should be making those things accessible to all.