An early September weekend with thousands of Bristolians flooding northwards across the Downs can only mean one thing – Forwards Festival is back, bringing together the city for a brace of line-ups combining heritage acts with up and coming stars.
First up for us on the West Stage is Ezra Collective, the supergroup heaving their headspin jazz funk onto the bulging crowd. “This music is just written for everyone to party and have a good time” claims drummer Femi Koleoso, before the powerful trumpet stabs of Ife Ogunjobi do just that. Victory Dance sends the audience into a frenzy, the fluid basslines of TJ Koleoso providing an ever-shifting foundation for saxophonist James Mollison to play on top of. To finish things off, the band descend into the crowd to conclude the perfect kickstart set.
Next up, the glamourous Raye graces the stage with funked-up RnB, blending danceable crowd-pleasers with fierce, sensitive songwriting. The ephemeral Ice Cream Man explores the emotional and mental impact of sexual assault, before Flip a Switch erects a strong stature against unworthy men. “There comes a time,” explains Raye, “when you have to flip a switch on a prick.” Gabriels, meanwhile, hit the East Stage with chunky soul, the exceptional voice of Jacob Lusk projecting feel-good vibes across a basking audience. Clad in an outfit that would not look out of place on a Lord Mayor, Lusk rattles through hits like Glory and Love and Hate in a Different Time, wrapping up their tour in splendour.As the sun sets beautifully, Bonobo uses a live ensemble to produce a euphoric, shadowy set on the main stage – also the last of their UK dates. Simon Green notes just how sensational the festival looks, and it is hard to disagree as the big wheel is encased in an orange glow and big hit Cirrus sets the crowd moving with electronica. Meanwhile, Confidence Man have leaped onto the East Stage to the Macarena to provide the best show of the day, a hyped-up mix of cheesy house, europop and acid – a cheap, simple and hugely effective combination for an audience ready to party. Singers Janet Planet and Sugar Bones prance across the stage, rattling through Out the Window, Boyfriend (Repeat) and Holiday. Best of all though, are the instrumental breaks of Clarence McGuffie and Reggie Goodchild, which spin the dancers in the crowd through a spiral of acid-tinged beats.
After such a strong penultimate act, it is a sad let-down that is provided by headliner Erykah Badu. She fails to appear on stage for the first third of her 90 minute set – a half hour that is plodded through by her surely-despairing band with a series of dull RnB instrumentals. When the Queen of Neo-Soul finally comes out, it is without any real engagement. First song On and On fails to spark any life into the poor band, shambolic at times, and then she cuts Appletree short. It is only when she presents Unfollow Me that she actually starts to sing properly, but by then she has lost the support of the crowd, many of whom are flocking to the exits early. It is a real shame that what should be a powerful headline set comes across as an hour of contractual obligation, a performance that without her aura would have been nothing.
It’s day two and the hangovers of any party hungry souls opting to double up on their Forwards experience will surely be assuaged by another glorious late summer day, and yet another rich assortment of acts across two stages.
Having first come across their rather bawdy moniker after their support slots at Blur’s gargantuan Wembley shows in July, we get into the Saturday swing of things with Jockstrap‘s performance on the East Stage. Judging by name alone, one feels that the London duo should be scuzzy, rebellious punks armed with guitars. However, their brand of experimental electropop is something rather more elegant; atop Taylor Skye’s electronica manipulations, vocalist Georgia Ellery delivers cooing, whispery vocals. However, the “Ah, ayy, ooh, eee” refrain of ’50/50′ induces a perhaps unfair comparison to The Cartoonies and, later, there’s something akin to a reverse Milli Vanilli type situation when some rap vox are heard loud and clear with absolutely no rapping fellow in sight.Over on the West Stage, Melbourne punk quartet Amyl and the Sniffers are so angry that even singer Amy Taylor’s boilerplate between-song badinage is full of aggression: “How are the fuck are you? It’s a sunny day and it’s fucking beautiful.” She then intros the next song as one aimed at “everyone who tells me how I should be”; when one learns that the song’s title is ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ it feels like rebellion that’s a tad unartful. However, perhaps one is too middle-aged and jaded, as it’s clear that the audience – evidenced by multiple sights of crowd-surfing – are into it. At one point Taylor is face down bellowing angsty sentiments directly into the stage and she headbangs ferociously during the lyrical gaps of ‘Guided By Angels.’ As has become customary in an attempt to curb inappropriate crowd behaviour at gigs, the set concludes with Taylor’s admonishment “don’t touch anyone who doesn’t want to be touched.”
It’s a brief shimmy back to the East Stage for a sample of Arlo Park‘s well received performance. The honey-voiced Parks has a call and response repartee going with the audience during ‘Caroline’. With smooth-as-silk grooves and tuneful singalong choruses – exhibits A and B this evening are ‘Dog Rose’ and ‘Hurt’ – Parks appears to have the material vindicating of her 2021 Mercury Prize victory for debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams.
Then it’s time for a Mercury winner at the polar end of the generation chasm; Primal Scream‘s 7.25pm set on the West Stage opens with the gospel tinged ‘Movin’ On Up’, itself the opener to the Scottish rock band’s juggernaut breakthrough Screamadelica, winner of the prize in 1992. Before ‘Loaded’ there’s a slightly bizzare moment when frontman Bobbie Gillespie’s shout out to “late great, Bristol hero” Mark Stewart is met with a deafening confused silence from the crowd. Gillespie tells us that “we love yous too from the bottle of our rock and roll hearts” and there’s a decent spread across the group’s back catalogue, with the set finishing with 2006’s ‘Country Girl’ and 1994 belter ‘Rocks’.
After the disappointment of Erikah Badu’s Friday night debacle, the headline prestige of this year’s Forwards lay in the hands of ambient, electro stalwart Aphex Twin. Immediately, the ‘Queen of Neo Soul’ has been dethroned by the visuals alone; Richard James’ decks are sat beneath a huge cube, a pulsing three-dimensional prop that hangs in the centre of an ever-morphing, kaleidoscopic lightshow. As crowd pleasing at the lightshow is, James is apparently here to challenge the audience with his choice of tracks. Reports abound that he hasn’t played anything recognisable until ‘Vordhosbn’ from 2001’s Druqks; even his titles are challenging – both sound like the sort of word you conjure when you’re struggling at a Wordle.
It’s hard to get a handle on describing the music, but a fellow festival type takes mercy on me and jots down “303 Acid House basslines” on my notepad. The set is well received – the frenetic ambience of the music in perfect concert with the dazzling light display. Aphex Twin has produced a sonic visual hedonism befitting the tail end of another big music weekend in Bristol.
Conal Dougan & Scott Hammond