Festival Review – FORWARDS with Aphex Twin, Erykah Badu & more… Bristol Durdham Downs, 2-3/09/23 | Juno Daily

The festival scene saves the best til last

Aphex in full dazzling flow

Can festivals be a force for a good? It’s a question that Team Love, the Bristol events organisation behind the Love Saves The Day and Waterworks festival, started asking themselves a couple of years ago. After diversifying their workforce and founding a community interest company, Big Team CIC, to offer mentorships and other opportunities to young Bristolians from marginalised communities, they decided to relaunch their annual Downs Festival – so called because of its location on the vast expanse of urban green space that is the Durdham Downs in Clifton – as FORWARDS, vowing to put education and activism on a similar footing to the musical offering.

FORWARDS 2022, the festival’s second edition, dialled up this aspect, while offering a mixture of headliners and up-and-coming artists that was eye-catching to say the least. So, alongside two sizeable stages located at either end of the festival site, punters were encouraged to check out The Information, an area comprised of two small stages (one for panel discussions, the other offering a mix of conversations with artists, academics and activists, and evening performances from emerging artists from different backgrounds) and a tent featuring representatives of local and national campaigning groups.

It was heartening to see that the Information stage proved popular with festival attendees, particularly during the daytime portion of the two-day event, and signage around the site reinforced the festival’s positive messaging around expected behaviour on site and environmental policies. There was even a panel discussion aiming to answer the question posed in the first line of this review, in which one of the festival’s directors, Tom Paine, was surprisingly open and honest about funding, costs, environmental impact and where his organisation could do better.

Even so, what those attending will remember is the musical performances, and on that score FORWARDS did well to create some seriously good memories. On day one, the sun began to peep through the clouds during Gabriels’ inspiring, soul-enriching set on the East Stage, and set behind the West Stage as Bonobo emerged. Simon Green and his ensemble of musicians and vocalists delivering a slick set of cinematic house music speckled with occasional bursts of soul. It was the day’s real star attraction – soul queen Erykah Badu – who stole the show, however.

It was, somewhat surprisingly, Badu’s first ever appearance in Bristol, and she made the crowd wait. Her backing band set the scene with a 15-minute blast of mixtape style grooves, before Badu emerged to huge cheers wearing an outfit that sat somewhere between Afro-futurist hippy and steam-punk witch. For the hour and a half that followed, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand, with the biggest cheers greeting her occasional song-starting workouts on a drum machine, the big hits (‘On & On’ getting the show off to a buzzing start), and a surprise cover of ‘Umi Says’ with none other than Mos Def – part of Badu’s celebration of 50 years of hip-hop culture.

The contrast with Saturday night’s headliner, Aphex Twin, couldn’t have been more marked. There was a feeling throughout FORWARDS’ second day that many – though by no means all – had snapped up tickets primarily to experience Richard D James’ infamously intense show. Of course, there were other memorable performances along the way –  Yazmin Bey delivered some superb soul in the afternoon sunshine, Amyl & The Sniffers raised the crowd’s energy levels as they were beginning to sag, Primal Scream served up sing-along hits (book-ending their set with ‘Movin’ On Up’ and ‘Rocks’) and Leftfield got the feet moving as they closed the East Stage – but there was always a feeling that Aphex’s appearance, his first in the city for almost two decades, was undoubtedly the headline attraction.

Two weekends before, James divided opinion with a set at Field Day that enraged far more people than it impressed. At FORWARDS, he had a majority of the crowd – which, as you’d expect, featured a high number of middle-aged men dressed in Aphex Twin merchandise – on side from start to finish. Positioned within a topless metal cage, below a cube displaying intense visuals and flanked by screens that fizzed on and off to reveal his shadowy presence on stage, James charged through his full repertoire of face-melters and brain beaters, mixing up interpretations of his own material (‘Paphat 4’, ‘Vordhorson’, ‘Mangle 11’, and a wealth of unreleased tracks) with choice cuts by others (Ceefax Acid Crew, Eprom, Squarepusher remixing ‘Caz’ by Close Up Over).

It was nothing short of a full-on assault on the senses, with James flitting between breakcore, electro, jungle and – most surprisingly – dubstep rhythms; one minute funky as hell, the next almost overbearingly intense and uncomfortable, with occasional shards of melody and electronic bliss momentarily replacing twisted acid lines and warped electronics. For seasoned Aphex watchers, it was undeniably special and ended – perhaps fittingly given James’ penchant for messing with people’s minds – with waves of increasingly apocalyptic noise. God knows what the infamously well-healed residents of Clifton thought as their windows rattled along to the colossal sub-bass, but the FORWARDS crowd absolutely loved it.

Matt Anniss