It’s been around 15 months since the Covid lockdown first scuppered live music events in the UK. In that time the industry has suffered terribly with venues closing and many being forced out of their profession. So to hear that Download Festival, originally postponed for a second time, was going to be running a pilot event was the most welcome of bolts from the blue. Reduced from a capacity of 110,000 to 10,000 and featuring UK only artists this was the opportunity so many had been waiting for. A live music festival with testing allowing no restrictions on site. Hugs could be had, and moshing was very much on the menu. As it turned out the positivity didn’t end there……
It’s a short schedule with gates opening several hours early to allow people to enter the site and pitch their tents rather than get soaked in the almost inevitable rain. Download has become synonymous with water falling from the sky. The pilot lived up to soggy expectations in a near hilarious fashion. Death Blooms kick off proceedings on the second stage with their lively metalcore being greeted with huge enthusiasm and no small amount of emotion, a theme that was to run for the entire weekend. Hot Milk bossed the opening of the main stage, striking their first note just a minute or so after Death Blooms had ended their set. There would be no clashes at all for three days with organisers wisely opting to adopt a rotation policy for the two stages.
Malevolence kept the furious pace going with their hard core pounding out the beats laced with some stylish melody. Boston Manor and Holding Absence take us into the evening. With the skies beginning to clear there’s a real party atmosphere building. Neck Deep lighten the mood with their pop punk a nice switch of pace. Dark doom laden Sleep Token wrap up the second stage. They might not be the most animated act around but they hold your attention well with their theatrics.
Headlining tonight are Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes. The performance is a statement to anyone doubting Carter’s credentials to perform at the highest level. The set is ferociously breath taking. We get a series of guest appearances. The first by Idles‘ Joe Talbot. The second by Essex rocker Cassyette who is also playing later in the weekend. Third to join in the fun is bondage gear clad Lynks. Carter spends a sizeable chunk of his time in the crowd as you’d expect. There’s even a circle pit around the sound tower. Behind all the mayhem it’s notable that his vocals are sounding at their most powerful in memory. Tonight Frank Carter stakes a claim to headline the full festival some time in the near future. By now the rain has stopped and the party is in full swing. The mood is something you rarely feel. 10,000 people are one family. The crowd, the bands, the crew, everyone present are one family. The sense of release is electric.
It may be the lack of any festivals for the last 15 months, or the fact the campsite entrance is next to and effectively a part of the arena itself but the second stage tent is full first thing in the morning. Hangovers can’t stop this crowd from partying as Lotus Eater start the second day with a rip roaring hair of the dog show. The baton is handed to Conjurer on main then back and forth. Each act knows this is something special, they know they’re making history and they play like their very lives depend on it including the wonderful Bleed From Within who are looking good contenders to take the next step up the rock and roll ladder. The Hara also impress both musically and with their stage presence. They whip up a mini storm with singer Josh Taylor looking every inch a future superstar.
Wargasm take things to another level. This a band with a street fighting urban vibe that isn’t so much cool as sub-zero. It’s Vukovi’s Janine Shilstone’s birthday and she admits to the crowd she’s shitting herself playing to such a huge audience. She needn’t have worried. Her vocals are quite stunning reminding you just a bit of Delores O’Riordan. The band perform one of the sets of the weekend. Yonaka have technical issues that force them to play their song ‘Punchbag’ a second time as the sound system blows out for the entire song. With the entire festival put on in record time (four weeks) it’s hardly surprising there are some technical issues, and the speakers are soon working again. They rise above it all though and win many new fans doing so.
While She Sleeps show why they are one of the fast risers on the UK circuit with a pin sharp set that slays on a massive scale. This is a group that have taken metalcore and given it a modern twist thanks to some innovative writing and Loz Taylor’s vocal talent. Creeper have been touted by Andy Copping as ones to watch. He rates them very highly and here you can see why. They have a real handle on engaging with the fans. Their image is quite subtle compared to the full blown over the top stuff you often see, but it’s still memorable. Every aspect of the show they put on has quality running through it like a stick of rock. And most important of all the music rocks.
Enter Shikari end the day with a set that shows that they are clearly too big now for the Avalanche Stage. Picking up new fans all the time Shikari have all the ingredients to move up even further through the ranks swiftly. Their writing is consistently strong without a hint of stagnation that besets so many at this level while their live credentials are impeccable. Tonight they prove to be worthy of headlining and then some. Rou Reynolds produces a masterly show of leading from the front. He works his socks off covering every available inch of the stage. The band are tight too with the rhythm section driving things along with measured power and clinical precision. Enter Shikari have done the leg work over a number of years. Tonight they stake a claim for a headline slot on a bigger outside stage and they’ve done it with one of the the best light shows seen at Download since Muse lit up half of the Midlands back in 2015.
Sunday opens with Static Dress and for the second day running the tent is full early doors. Saint Agnes then take to the main stage for the Sunday Service. It’s an eye opening show culminating with a blood covered Kitty emphasising the band’s entertainment value credentials. With the two stages staggered and clash free the short walk between them means everyone can view every act. The majority make the most of this and at no point over the weekend is the tent less than full. Cassyette might not be that familiar with the fans but they love her on point performance. She’s been on site all weekend and like many has fully immersed herself into the spirit of the event. Employed To Serve are heavy as hell and drive home how diverse the line up is.
Gremlins strike again during The Wildhearts’ set, this time the on-stage monitors cutting out. Then in ear monitors fail as well. Unable to hear themselves the set is cut short, but not before they’ve played the majority of their allotted time. Once again all the artists are giving it everything they’ve got. The Slipknot “sit down and jump up” routine gets what feels like it’s hundredth use of the weekend, but no one seems to care and they’re happy to go along with it as many times as it’s offered. Wargasm make a surprise appearance with the sharply dressed Jamie Lenman. Skindred show why they are the Download house band (see the band Mark and Gary agree on) with a top class set.
Frank Turner closes the second stage with a show that both soothes and rocks. Every time he hits a stage he grows in stature. It’s almost impossible to dislike someone like Frank, he has genuine warmth in everything he does. At the pilot the crowd melt in his presence. He makes the day, now drawing to a close, feel perfect. There have been plenty of people hugging throughout the weekend and in closing the second stage the tall enigmatic Turner provides a musical hug for everyone.
Closing the festival are Bullet For My Valentine who have had their troughs as well as peaks in the past. Their new music is heavier and darker than previous work, especially more recent efforts. It has to be said Bullet sound very much back on track with this newer direction and that’s reflected in this set. They sound fantastic and the crowd, already in party mode, love them. Here at this very special event it would have been easy to fall a bit flat at the end of such an emotional three days but the Welsh rockers own this. They show that they can deliver the goods when needed and then some. Benji Webbe makes an appearance on a cover of ‘Run To The Hills’, a goose bump moment. Bullet For My Valentine for a headline set at the big Download? Based on this effort you’d be foolish to rule them out.
The One We Both Agree On: Skindred
Devolution’s Gary Trueman and Mark Bestford have quite differing tastes but each Download they get their heads together to pick out an act that they can both agree on went above and beyond. This year it’s the mighty Skindred that the pair have chosen.
Mark Bestford: There’s a reason Skindred have been asked back time and time again to play Download and it is simply this: They are the ultimate festival band. They have the perfect mix of great music, spectacle, humour, and most importantly they are consistent. There’s never any doubt that when Skindred play they will give their all. For over ten years they have never failed to impress at any festival and this year is no different. The Newport Helicopter makes its appearance after a jokey interlude including some choice words about Boris Johnson and the crowd laps it up. You can’t accuse Benji of being unable to read the room. The festival wouldn’t be Download without them and for those who want more Skindred after they’ve finished their set there’s also the surprise bonus as Benji joined Bullet For My Valentine for a cover of Iron Maiden’s Run To The Hills.
Gary Trueman: Cometh the hour cometh the Skindred. They are the ultimate party animal and the reasons why lie in the soul of what Benji and the guys do. The call of who was Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English being met with varying cheers followed by “And who here is British?” being met with a euphoric roar shows this off to a tee. Skindred unite people. Their music is so eclectic and joyous that you just have to love them. And at this event with people at times stood in disbelief that they were at a festival, pinching themselves in case it was a dream, it was Skindred who just nailed the mood. We all know they’re a great band but as Mark has already said, Benji can read the room. He knew this was special, he could feel the raw emotion too, and through him and the band everything was channelled into a pinnacle of the celebration that was the Download pilot.
What the fans said
A few topics came up time and again chatting to fans camping just a literal stone’s throw from the arena. Everyone expressed their gratitude for being able to be at Donington. They were amazed that the whole thing had been put together in just four short weeks. The layout with camping within sight of and a very short walk to the stages came in for particular praise. As did the lack of any barriers between the camping and arena. Fans were even allowed to bring their own drink into the arena, another big tick. The 10,000 capacity itself was mentioned as being “perfect” and “just right”. One girl said that social anxiety meant she couldn’t do larger festivals but that she felt safe and happy at the Download pilot. The all UK line up also got a huge thumbs up with many asking if more UK acts and more underground bands could feature in the larger Download festival in the future. There was praise too for the security team and how they conducted themselves often going out of their way to assist people. People also noted and welcomed the high number of women appearing on stage. The Download pilot was praised repeatedly for going some way towards a level of gender balance and achieving it in an understated and genuine manner. Plenty of food for thought from the people that ultimately matter, the fans.
And you have to say those fans were superb all weekend too. Thank you to everyone who made time to chat Devolution Magazine.
A final word or two about the putting together of the Download pilot
Devolution couldn’t really review the pilot without paying tribute to the team who pulled off something of a mini miracle. The festival was put together in just four weeks. The bulk of the artists and build team had been put in place within six days. The artists themselves all played without taking a fee, they received expenses only. The layout cannot be praised highly enough. Simply put it was as near perfect as you could ever wish for. Every single member of staff or person involved in making the event happen and making it run smoothly did an incredible job. We’re eternally grateful to have been able to be there to cover such an amazing ground breaking and historic festival.
Download 2022 now beckons tantalisingly on the horizon. Let’s hope this pilot has helped make that date as well as other festivals more secure.
Roll on next June. We’ll see you in the pit!
Review by Gary Trueman and Mark Bestford
Photos by Gary Trueman