The Downs, Bristol
Events the size of Forwards Festival’s second edition have to traverse a number of the usual pitfalls.
The big-stage, big show, big act bonanzas that define city gatherings can often leave a sour experiential taste in the mouth if the sound is poor, the bar is astronomical, the queues are worse, and you can’t move for brand activations. Luckily, Forwards identified most of these risks and acted accordingly. This subsequently meant the energy for the music was kept at a level that mirrored the exceptional weather at its end of summer iteration earlier this month.
A swagger to the booking gave this edition an identity that should be celebrated. Two legendary headliners in Erykah Badu and Aphex Twin topped a line-up punctuated with class throughout. Emerging legends, including Mercury Prize winners Ezra Collective, Jockstrap and Amyl and the Sniffers, the cream of local talent in Grove, SCALER (formerly Scalping) and Katy J Pearson, alongside festival mainstays in the form of Primal Scream, Goldie and Leftfield, meant there was something for music fans across all demographics. Coupled with the festival’s commitment to discourse through its now-established Information stage featuring the likes of Jeremy Deller, Grace Campbell, Munroe Bergdorf and David Olusoga, there was a noticeable drive by Forwards to expand its reach and remit beyond a plug-in-and-play style event.
Here are five key shows that made Forwards 2023 one to remember.
The first day of Forwards was spent meandering across the verdant site, taking in talks and panel discussions at the festival’s dedicated Information area, checking out art and photography showcases and drifting between the event’s stages. Around sunset, we took our place at the East Stage to watch Confidence Man – the Brisbane-based dance-pop outfit and self-dubbed “portable party” who’ve been festival circuit staples all summer long. The all-too-familiar melody of the Macarena rang out before duo Sugar Bones and Janet Planet stomped into the stage sporting David Byrne-esque shoulder-padded blazers. It’s safe to say that if you’re not ready to take things a little less seriously, then the ConMan universe probably isn’t for you; it’s OTT, camp and ridiculously fun – and the ones who get it, get it. Here, they whipped through all manner of party-starting bangers including a new-ish link-up with DJ Seinfeld, Now U Do. By the end, it felt like we’d spent the entire set front left in a sticky club, as opposed to our more outdoorsy reality.
@crackmagazine Walking into Monday like 🚶♀️cc: @confidenceman_ #forwardsfestival #confidenceman ♬ original sound – Crack Magazine
It was the task of neo-soul pioneer Erykah Badu to round off Friday’s proceedings with a headline set on the West Stage. Badu kicked off her eagerly awaited show a little later than expected, with the artist arriving to stage around 30 minutes behind schedule, however early setlist choices such as a broken down rendition of Baduizm classic On and On – an essential from her catalogue – hit just right with the festival crowd. She turned to her drum machine consistently throughout the performance, which featured a surprise appearance from Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) toward the end. From the freestyling and beatmaking to the stage set-up (at a mid-section – and in Badu style – the background screen lit up with the words “unfollow me!” as the artist implored people “stay out of [her] business” via her dramatic outfit and that voice, Badu’s Bristol debut was truly a moment.
Two key elements made this performance special. The recipient of Viagra Boys’ late cancellation, SCALER’s main stage elevation was a coup for the band and the larger crowd drawn to one of Bristol’s most promising acts in recent memory. Secondly, it was the first time the band showcased their new name beamed onto the screens at the end of their set, a conscious and thought-through decision to disassociate themselves from “the wider context surrounding their previous name, Scalping”. Musically, SCALER’s riotous mix of live industrial techno is a propulsive experience from start to finish and was the perfect mid-afternoon tonic to set the tone for the rest of the Saturday’s music leading up to Aphex Twin. Theirs is a sound that uniquely traverses sweatboxes alongside large stages, the more prominent guitar-indebted elements taking centre stage in this particular arena and winning more converts before the release of future music – which we hope will include a much-anticipated second album.
With the Saturday sun in full beam, British-Nigerian artist Obongjayar brought a healthy injection of energy to our second afternoon spent on the Downs. The crowd – thinner on the ground to start, but sizeable come the end – were totally engrossed, taken in by the charisma and instinctive, commanding stage presence possessed by the Some Nights I Dream of Doors (and, more recently, adore u) musician, who’s spent much of his time touring the acclaimed debut record all over the world. His band, equally passionate and enlivened, provided a dynamic addition to his vibrant Bristol performance that included a mix of heartfelt slower songs and energetic bangers which left listeners buzzing long into the night.
One of the most highly anticipated moments of the weekend, Aphex Twin’s closing Saturday set provided a high-octane hour-and-a-half of sensory onslaught. Delivering the heady, mind-bending sonic wizardry he’s renowned for, Richard D. James played a set that journeyed from squelchy, acid-tinged techno through jungle, dubstep, breaks, drum’n’bass and blasts of feedback culminating in an abrasive finale of skull-rattling, rapid-fire breakcore, noise and gabber. And of course, Weirdcore’s warped, glitchy visuals made it an even more disorienting experience: Aphex Twin’s face superimposed on Charli XCX, SOPHIE, Stormzy, Eminem and a whole host of celebs in addition to nods to Bristol in the form of prolific gig attendee Jeffrey Johns (a.k.a Big Jeff) and Banksy’s Girl With Balloon marking a particularly surreal moment amongst the kaleidoscopically trippy audiovisual show. A suitably monumental set to close out the second edition of Forwards Festival.
@crackmagazine Banksy, Russell Howard and Maisie Williams were featured in the electronic legend’s first time in Bristol since 2006. [flash warning] #aphextwin #forwardsfestival #bristol #weirdcore ♬ original sound – Crack Magazine