The Bristol Downs

The Downs has always had the scope to be a huge event in Bristol’s live music calendar. Taking place on the titular Bristol Downs, a huge expanse of grass in a relatively central location, the festival’s first edition played host to Massive Attack’s first Bristol show in over a decade. This year The Downs reached those heights once again.

With a line-up designed to unite music lovers of all ages and tastes, there was plenty of opportunity for this strategy to backfire – the mantra of hosting something for everyone is an approach fraught with risks. However by keeping the quality high, The Downs proved there’s a common thread that can unite an 80s polymathic rule destroyer, a 90s/00s feminist icon who spoke from the heart and Bristol’s best band to emerge in the last 20 years – and certainly, it’s not the style of music they play.

IDLES label mates and politically astute Irish punk rockers Fontaines D.C. were the best afternoon wake-up call possible before the aforementioned homecomers took an early evening slot. A year to the day since their generation-defining second record Joy as an Act of Resistance was released, IDLES were on blistering form. After two years of heavy touring, the group clearly belong on a stage this size. The war cry from Joe Talbot, who announced before every track “this is an anti-fascist song,” was a clear message that time on the road has only honed their craft; a glorious, raucous homecoming gig for a band whose scope grows with every passing day.

From overtly political messages to quite simply owning her space on the stage, backing herself fiercely and in the process commandeering the Bristol crowd with unmatched confidence, Grace Jones won the day in truly spectacular fashion. A career-spanning set that drew on some of her most personal moments (Williams Blood, My Jamaican Guy), and outright bangers – Pull Up to the Bumper and Slave to the Rhythm – Jones’ set was a spectacle for an hour that felt far too short. There are few 71-year-olds who would walk around the stage wearing a strap-on, and there are none who could match Jones for vocal technique while doing so.

Ms Lauryn Hill, expectedly, arrived late on stage – and her tour DJ filled in the minutes with a buoyant set of bangers that raised the crowd’s levels of anticipation. Whilst Hill appeared agitated, often gesturing to the sound team and her backing singers in an effort to achieve her desired sonics, it’s worth noting that Hill’s versatile vocals appeared to flow effortlessly from her, ranging from tight bars to soaring vocals at a second’s notice.

Hill has certainly still got it, and her band’s musicianship was exceptional. While the Bristol crowd didn’t know how to react to her anger on stage at the sound issues, she brought them back round with a medley of Fugees classics. Name-dropping Bristol frequently, the crowd, finally, felt united during her finale, singing Killing Me Softly and Ready or Not enthusiastically back at the singer. Her closer was what the crowd wanted, and her singular position as an artist left people deeply affected – especially by her tender speeches of practising love and patience and making a better future for the generations to come.

Beyond the headline acts though, The Downs sought to provide a level of political meaning to its home in one of Bristol’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. This year the icons who graced its stage matched this purpose; all political in different ways but nonetheless powerful in their scope to affect, provoke and push.