In its third year after hometown heroes Massive Attack provided the soundtrack to torrential downpours – and the unsustainable mass surge to the bars as thousands fled for beer and shelter – in their headlining the inaugural event in 2016, the Downs Festival appears to be emerging as a shining staple in the Bristol music calendar. Within the giant fairground visage of helter-skelter, Ferris wheel and merry-go-round sit two main stages, an Information Stage offering topical debate and discussion, a few large beer tents and, among other culinary options, a curious food vendor by the name of ‘Chicken Balls.’
Standing within alcoholic’s distance of the beer tent near the Avon Stage, I’m delighted to see that a gentleman in our immediate circle has adopted the “go big or go home” ethos by opting for a full bottle of red wine as a first drink. He’s 69 years old and drinking directly from the bottle. Rock and roll is alive and well. Local dub reggae outfit Laid Black – performing on the Avon Stage – provide a sonic backdrop to full throttle socialising and what transpires to be something of a school reunion. The sound of ‘My Eyes Are Red’ evokes the relentless march of time as a chap I used to know in class 5C informs me about his recent vasectomy.
Later, Basement Jaxx offer up a DJ set on the Avon stage. ‘Where’s Your Head At’ is a timely reminder for a bit of self-actualisation. It certainly isn’t in this journalism game; someone has drawn an erect penis on my notepad, I’ve scribbled some positive feedback about the portaloos and I’ve largely been distracted by a conversation based around the assertion that no successful rock band in history ever contained a fat lad. Would The Who have been so successful if John Entwistle was a bit of a bloater? Would the Stones have been as popular if Charlie “Who ate all the pies” Watts required a reinforced drum stool?
It’s 8pm and the sun is almost ready to retire for the evening as we head over to the main stage for Paul Weller. He’s already one song in and the chiming arpeggios of 1993’s ‘Sunflower’ are momentarily confused with ‘95s ‘The Changing Man.’ Having turned sixty this year and with his signature mod haircut now a near luminous white, Weller is more seething old man than his former epithet as the “angry young man” of The Jam. His musicianship, though, is as trim and sprightly as ever and – despite Weller being a couple of weeks shy from releasing his fourteenth solo album – he’s mindful of filling his sixty minutes with a crowd pleasing set of favourites.
There are a couple of Style Council tunes – ‘Shout to the Top’ is a joy infused moment as the sun sets over the Avon Gorge – and we’re treated to a triumvirate of Jam songs; propelled by its simple four chord repetition ‘That’s Entertainment’ is Exhibit A in the case for Weller as an underrated lyricist – so poetic (and so typically British) is his lexical élan that there’s something slightly uplifting in the songs sardonic lament of mundane existence. ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ is a less obvious but well received inclusion while ‘Start!’ completes the Jam hat-trick.
Weller also includes some of his solo career highlights – ‘Wild Wood’ has endured as an immaculate pop/folk tune, ‘Peacock Suit’ is a showcase for the ever present crispness of Weller’s guitar sounds and ‘You Do Something To Me’ reveals his dynamic but often latent romantic streak.
Completing the one-two punch of great British songwriters and seeing the former Oasis leader in a rather rare visit to Bristol (Oasis’ single show in the city was at The Fleece in 1994), Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds take to the stage. Though it’s likely that the majority of the audience are waiting for some Oasis classics or perhaps some of Gallagher’s more established solo favourites, the set’s first five songs are from most recent album Who Built The Moon? It was recently nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize so we should perhaps pay attention. It’s a record responsible for Gallagher’s most radical digression to date and opener ‘Fort Knox’ – more attuned to atmospherics and epic sounding groves than anything that could’ve appeared on ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ – is a prime example.
‘Holy Mountain’ – a song that straddles a line of ambivalence between catchy genius and most irritating earworm in history – is a tantalising sugar rush of idiot joy when heard in the live forum. And I’ll only mention the song’s scissor player in the context of it signalling a change in Gallagher’s temperament; one can only imagine how a young Gallagher – so often the sarcastic scourge of his rather more pompous contemporaries – would scoff at the notion of stationery as musical instrument.
A self-professed gobshite, Gallagher is relatively subdued in audience interaction terms (we’re about half an hour in before he says “alright my lovers” in his best wurzel accent) but there’s a typically sly “I can see from all the baldness that there are Oasis fans in the room” in introduction to ‘Little By Little’ – it’s a song that is perhaps the little brother amongst classic Oasis singalongs but, on this evidence, it has aged as an emerging favourite.
As the songwriter of a generation defining band, Gallagher is responsible for penning tracks with a particularly special place in people’s affections and ones that seem tailor made for singing along to while drunk in a large audience with friends. We hear ‘Whatever’, ‘Half the World Away’ and ‘Wonderwall’; all are boisterously and purposeful singalongs but ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ has truly taken on a life of his own. Gallagher steps away from the mic and leaves the audience to sing the choruses – from Barcelona to Buenos Aries it seems a form of alchemy that a blithe lyric like “so Sally can wait/she knows it’s too late as we’re walking on by” can mean so much to so many.
It’s a brilliant performance by Gallagher and his ample band of musicians. However, there’ still time for a crowd-pleasing finale. Gallagher fist pumps Weller as he returns to the stage for a breezy version of ‘A Town Called Malice’ – a song that sees both rock icons share a mic in Lennon & McCartney-esque fashion. Gallagher then salutes the opening phrase of ‘La Marseillaise’ as a cover of ‘All You Need is Love’ provides one more arms-around-your-mates moment. He then affects another West Country accent as he jokingly signs off with “Get off my land!” And we do.