Blissfields has always punched above its weight. Since its inception in 2001, its ability to function as a self-contained countercultural hub has belied its modest proportions without abandoning their inherent charms.
The petite main stage, this year (slightly confusingly) christened the Theatre of the Bizarre, has borne witness to several weighty programmes – Bastille, Clean Bandit, Mystery Jets and Marika Hackman all descended upon the same bill here in 2013 - which, had they been booked a year or so later, would have been the envy of bookers of events with profiles several times more prominent. Yet, in a saturated festival market – and, what’s more, in the particularly overcrowded “boutique” corner of said market – the task of making one’s event stand apart from the hordes of competition is an unenviable one. And although this is no Carling-fuelled, obnoxious younger sibling to V et al, Blissfields doesn’t quite have its crosshairs focussed on the Secret Garden Parties of this world either, those who circumnavigate that problem of individuality by ditching the conventional (pop) music festival model altogether and leaning directly into hemp-scented, received-pronunciation “transcendence”. That Blissfields positions itself somewhere between these two extremes is, I think, to its credit, but that mustn’t do much to alleviate that difficulty with establishing a unique voice. Happily, Blissfields 2017 does achieve that considerable feat of separating itself from its numerous rivals; quite how it manages this isn’t easy to pinpoint.
To be honest, these are both very easy, and perhaps this ease is one contributing factor to Blissfields’ aforementioned difference from its near-countless peers. The festival site is nestled in bucolic Hampshire, a 10-minute shuttle bus trip from Micheldever station, which in turn is an hour’s train journey from London Waterloo. Once you’re onsite, the atmosphere is gentle and good-natured; it’s no Waitrose-sponsored cocktail party a la Latitude, but the sizeable family demographic means that, during the day at least, levels of hedonism are kept fairly moderate. There are plenty of hidden features for curious, open-minded types, and all the stages are conveniently located and programmed (with clashes kept to a minimum) for line-up pedants like myself. The facilities are positively luxurious compared to virtually any festival I’ve attended in the UK – the toilet blocks were equipped with lights and sinks – and, partly thanks to the glorious weather, the site was kept relatively clean for the duration. Food stalls were generously numerous and reasonably-priced, and even the bars were less eye-wateringly extortionate than one might find at equivalent events.
In a slightly lopsided booking, the heaviest hitters at this year’s event were Metronomy, The Cinematic Orchestra and, premiering his audiovisual Stranger Things tribute, DJ Yoda. The former were reliably excellent; the previously consistent charm of their records may have waned in recent years, particularly on the decidedly lacklustre Summer ’08, yet their live show is as infectious as ever. Predictably, it’s the older material which shines brightest, “Everything Goes My Way” proving a particular highlight, but the fact that their newer, weaker tracks do not disrupt the set’s lozenge-smooth trajectory is a testament to the group’s ultra-refined talent for constructing a cohesive set.
The Cinematic Orchestra, an incongruous headliner next to Metronomy, allay the doubts of some of the Blissfields faithful with their understated, scientifically-detailed collages; the timbres alone (enhanced no end by the astonishing clarity of the festival’s soundsystem) are rich enough to sate the appetites of the most restless members of the audience, and there are several moments in which their elegant peaks and troughs summon a visceral power of a magnitude that is unrivalled across the whole weekend. The other headliner – albeit the headliner of the second stage on the opening night, before the main stage is open to the public – is DJ Yoda, and his Stranger Things project. Now, it would be dishonest of me to say that I didn’t enjoy his set – I love Stranger Things, and it’d be deliberately po-faced of me to resist letting myself become swept up by his regular sucker-punches of prime new wave and post-punk – but I was left a little agnostic about Yoda’s actual skills as a DJ. The arc of his set was, well, non-existent; yes, there were plenty of great songs, but they were clumsily assembled, with little regard for the emotional ebb and flow of the crowd or even much attempt at smooth transitions between tracks. It was good, wholesome fun, but one suspects its impact could have had a little more longevity had the set been slightly more carefully thought-out.
Possibly the most hotly-anticipated booking of the weekend, Leshurr is a tour de force. Her command of her crowd is consummate, the charisma of her delivery impossible to distance oneself from. There are no big surprises here – “Queen’s Speech 4” is the predictably imperious centrepiece of the set – but this is a masterclass in second-wave grime. It feels all the more refreshing as an antidote to Pumarosa’s preceding set; the glossy avant-pop four-piece are certainly a step above the most of the main stage’s other indie bookings – Black Honey and Sundara Karma are both hopelessly dull – but ultimately their Wild Beasts-indebted posturing lacks the kind of beguiling conviction that would realise their sleek potential. Leshurr blows away any resultant cobwebs with consummate ease. Indeed, one of the strengths of Blissfields’ eclectic bill is that for every performer who falls a little short, a radically different – and, in this case, infinitely more exciting – act is waiting in the wings.
For me, unquestionably the performance of the weekend. There’s so much happening in Bonzai’s music, and yet the cohesion of its presentation is such that it takes real effort to identify any one of the multitude of influences on her work. Much of it sits comfortably in the rich UK bass tradition – the frenetic 2-step beats, grime synth stabs and murky dub basslines – yet these are seamlessly woven into joyous, physical pop music with the help of elements of trap, PC Music and US R&B. Live, she is breathtakingly accomplished, with a sixth-sense ability to engage with an audience. Her backing band have a fantastic chemistry (I can’t stand such use of that word, but it’s difficult to describe the intra-band relationship otherwise), and look genuinely excited by every kick, snare and dub horn.
There’s an effervescent adventurism to Flamingods, a wide-eyed sense of possibility, as well as a bluntly impressive level of technical prowess, that carries them through the kind of set that in lesser hands may grate somewhat. Courting the “world music” (I know, I know) aesthetic can be somewhat problematic, not least due to the relentless drubbing that hi-life and Afrobeat tropes have taken in recent years by cack-handed post-Foals indie no-marks. Yet Flamingods – to a layman at least – seem considerably more artistically invested in and sympathetic to the cultures from which they draw influence than most of their peers in the indie gene pool. This isn’t skinny-jeaned suburban tropicalia, nor is it harem-panted ginger-dreadlock utopianism; their soundscapes are dense, filigreed hives of explorative invention, highly accessible yet bracingly idiosyncratic. It’s entrancing, head-spinning stuff, proof that the channelling of globalist aesthetics into contemporary rock music needn’t tread anywhere near the questionable territories of appropriation or gimmickry.
Sadly not, or at least not in its current form. The official line is that the team behind it are taking a year off from Blissfields per se, but rumour has it that a scaled-down event run in a similar spirit may take place in its stead next summer. Quite what form this will take is unclear, but if the festival retains its present character – one of quiet adventure, unassuming inclusivity and shapeshifting eclecticism – it won’t go far wrong. Indeed, it’s that sense of character, as nebulous and clichéd an ascription as that might be, that I think holds the key to Blissfields’ charm. Unlike so many comparable festivals, it is neither rigidly corporate nor pungently trustafarian. That might sound like I’m damning Blissfields with faint praise, but I’m not. Its virtues are irresistible, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see how they translate to the festival’s future form, whatever that may be.