BACK TO LIVE: (opens in new tab) On the face of it, festivals shouldn’t work. You spend a couple hundred quid to stand in a muddy field, drinking overpriced beverages and watching bands play shortened sets – in the unpredictable British weather, no less. And, well, it’s just magic, innit? Every summer we descend in our thousands to fields around the world – or at least we did, until 2020 hit. But with the Download Pilot providing a shining beacon of hope for the summer festival schedule, we look at the 10 things that make festivals so special.
We’re not talking ‘Metallica are playing third at 2pm’ (though that is nice when it happens). One of the best things about festivals is simply discovering a band who’d previously flown under your radar. Increasingly stacked bills can make festival planning something of a military operation, but there is no purer delight than wandering over to a stage and suddenly being hooked by a massive riff, breakdown or chorus. It’s the kind of thing that can turn a total unknown into a new obsession and exactly why bands don’t just stick to playing their own gigs – each set is a chance to make new fans.
Daft as it is, we love a great festival costume. From the elaborate blow-up ensemble of a Hulk, flailing arm tube-man or T-Rex, to giant bananas, Disney Princesses and plain ol’ pirates and Vikings, costumes capture the ”anything goes” spirit of a festival. There’s something inherently delightful about watching a bearded Elsa charge through a circle pit, or Jesus enjoying a pint to Cradle Of Filth. It’s a level of dedication we can’t help but admire, even if we’d pay good money to never see another Borat mankini ever again.
Cold drinks with mates
It might cost the better part of a tenner, but that first sip of ice cold beer, cider or a slush in the sunshine is worth every penny. Even on the days where the sun doesn’t make an appearance, the very fact we can hit the bar and grab something cold before going to watch a band with good mates (old or new) is incredibly gratifying. Besides, its thirsty work screaming, bouncing and moshing to eight hours+ of music a day – to the point where even the wateriest slop tastes like ambrosia on the tongue.
With most bands on the road for much of the year, a festival spot might be the only time some artists run into each other, lending itself perfectly to a one-off team-up. From Kim Wilde jumping on with Lawnmower Deth to Lemmy and Slash guesting in each other’s sets at Download 2010, these performances feel like a combination of lightning in a bottle and history being made all at once. Just maybe check that your guest actually knows the song… (cough Benji Webbe cough).
Light shows are nice, but then there’s a healthy dose of fire to really kick things up a notch. Rammstein have crafted a reputation for the warfare-like levels of explosives they use in their headline sets, but in truth any set at any time of day that employs a bit of pyro just gives off the sense of spectacle. Besides, sometimes a jet of flame is exactly what the doctor ordered when it’s been pissing down for four hours and you just want to remember the concept of warmth.
It might not be haute cuisine, but sometimes only a greasy, sloppy festival burger will do – particularly when it comes to killing last night’s hangover. Admittedly, festival food has come a long way in the past decade, as more festivals opt in for caterers that can offer delicious options in everything from paella to curry, pan-Asian dishes to pies – the passable mush of old replaced by genuinely tasty morsels to fuel you nicely for the day ahead.
The difference between a good and truly great set can often be measured in the crowd’s response. The most tangible demonstration of the emotional connection between fan and band, a massive sing-along feels like tapping directly into the sense of community at the heart of music fandom. It doesn’t matter how incredible a band’s stage show is – it's the emotional gravitas that comes with hearing a crowd going at it with both barrels and singing the words to a song that feels like genuine magic.
“Who could possibly want to go on a ride?” you might ask, stumbling past the bright lights and blaring tunes of the funfair when first arriving on-site. A dozen drinks later, when all bands are off stage, those same bright lights serve as a siren’s lure, inexorably drawing you towards them with the promise of late night fun. From dodgems to waltzers and swinging pendulums, the funfair often proves the fateful last mistake for many a brave reveller, turning even the most iron stomach into a churned up dizzy mess in rapid need of expulsion.
Cheesy as it is, there is no upper limit on how many times we’ll hear, ‘Scream for me Donington!’ (or any variant thereof) and not lose our shit. While not all acts can hold a crowd in the palm of their hand throughout a show, you’d have to be a cold-hearted bastard to not cheer at least a little when the prompt comes. Besides, there isn’t a metal band around that doesn’t want to see a massive wall of death, and we’ll be damned if we let them down by not obliging.
It sounds like an obvious one, but honestly who doesn’t love riffs? From the riffs that wake you up in a morning to those that will have you howling long into the night, the perfect festival is one that can stack itself wall to wall with enormous riffs and still have you begging for more. Even better, great riffs couldn’t give two shits about the weather, and they'll sound epic regardless of whether it's bucketing rain or blistering sun. And as Download Pilot taught us, after 15 months of no live music, there's absolutely no fucking with the impact of that first riff when the show gets underway.