“Musical eclecticism breeds a better crowd” was the mantra uttered by one of the attendees that remained close to this reviewer at Forwards Festival’s debut outing at Clifton Downs. In an era where tribal allegiances are eschewed in favour of a rounded palette – and in the continued absence of an arena in Bristol, limiting the frequency in which acts of a larger size travel to the musically obsessed city – this makes a festival like Forwards less an optional day out and more a complete essential for the discerning Bristolian fans.
Inheriting the legacy of The Downs – which had four intonations between 2016 and 2019 – Forwards was a clear evolutionary leap in ambition and booking. There were two days of programming instead of one and a veritable cast of the contemporary (Little Simz, Fred Again.., Overmono) and the long-established (The Chemical Brothers, Spiritualized and Caribou), with the first day skewing a little towards the former and the second day the latter. With two stages flanking the vast expanse of grass in between, the logistics were not overthought – walk up and down, and catch as much as you can.
Mercifully, the inclement weather that had been persisting on most people’s app of choice decided not to make an appearance. This meant that the thousands of attendees sauntering onto the site on the Saturday were greeted instead by the UK techno-infused stylings of Overmono, which complemented the general arrival euphoria being experienced by the large assembled crowd. Despite their set feeling a little more 3am than 3pm, theirs is a sound adopted by young ravers, keen fans and those wanting to get stuck in early.
Preceding this, the wonderful violist and vocalist Sudan Archives drew on her West African influences in a melange of R&B, percussion and groove. Then it was the turn of London artist Shygirl, whose bawdy and beautiful lyrical twists flowed effortlessly over eminent club beats. Though it was down to former Crack Magazine: The Collections cover star Charli XCX to bring the headline show, the energy, and the first round of bods on shoulders en-masse as she rattled through a short set of bonafide classics, including 1999, Unlock It and Boys alongside music from her latest record Crash. This was the pop star’s first ever festival appearance in the city, and given the energetic response, it’s far from her last.
The attention to detail paid to moving Forwards outside of the usual day festival bracket was another crucial part of its appeal. From installations to independent sellers to the Kids Area, the congenial atmosphere was complemented by a revamped Information Stage showcasing interviews, panels and discussions. Featuring the likes of Travis Alabanza, Jay Rayner and John Barnes, no less, contentious and less contentious topics were discussed with gusto and good attendance. Positive sex, colonialism, the future of festivals and the ethics of stuffing your face all made appearances in an environment that formed a significant part of the event and its ethos. Interspersed around the site were conversation-starting pieces such as “safer spaces, consent matters” which led intrigued minds to this particular corner of the site, acting as prompts. Making this a cornerstone of the event was a welcome and expansive approach.
After a truly memorable performance from Little Simz – another icon in the making, one who stole the remaining day one plaudits – the aforementioned eclecticism hit its heights on day two. In a piece of programming to be savoured, the opening salvo of the jazz-techno fusion of The Comet is Coming followed by the increasingly impressive Warmduscher blew away lingering cobwebs before the afternoon meandered into headliner territory.
The festival’s big finish came initially in the form Róisín Murphy – whose commitment to pairing the brazenness of the catwalk and both her solo and Moloko back catalogue led to many declaring her performance at Glastonbury earlier this summer as a set of the weekend. By the time she finished at Forwards, clothes had been strewn across the stage and Murphy had contorted and danced her way into the affections of all that watched on from the crowd.
Following her, the Chemical Brothers’ first performance in Bristol in 20 years – another big coup for the event – is everything that we’ve come to expect from the most bombastic show in electronic music. Their Sunday set came loaded with re-edits of classic material interspersed with their trademark visual triggers, both deliberately disconcerting in places and utterly elating in others; the sensory overload and their spellbinding fusions of light, music and visuals haven’t dimmed as this show has evolved. In fact, it remains a pinnacle others have yet to hit.
The strong attendance and varying age range that greeted Forwards in its inaugural year was mirrored by the colourful branding and atmosphere. Far from the get ‘em in, get ‘em out style of similar events where commercial concerns are seemingly more paramount, Forwards remained true to the independent spirit present in the city it calls home. A hugely welcome musical elevation for Bristol’s event calendar.