Most festival organizers would probably think drunk festival-goers plus a disco roller rink equals disaster, but the team that organized Love Saves the Day, or LSTD, would disagree.
Held this past weekend in Bristol, England, LSTD is in its fifth annual incarnation, complete with nine stages of music, an inflatable church that held a rave inside, genuinely affordable food — $5 for enough cheesy chips to maketh a meal is a beautiful deal to me — and yes, a disco roller rink.
With a specially designated platform for people with mobility or standing issues to see the main stage (and seats provided for their mates), LSTD seemed brilliantly planned in many ways, including eight of the nine stages designed for the festival. The Arcadia Afterburner, for example, looked like a giant flame-shooting spaceship, and the Dance Off stage was comprised of a giant periwinkle robot where musicians like Bugzy Malone and Artful Dodger performed out of its “mouth.”
But on the ninth stage, named “Brouhaha,” things felt a little off.
Hosted equally by three Bristol-based companies — label agency Futureboogie, Hold Tight Records, which specializes in dub and rootstep, and Lionpulse Sound System, “a Reggae soundsystem [company]” — Brouhaha seemed to bill itself as one of the stages that most heavily paid homage to reggae and sound system culture.
There’s something that makes me considerably uncomfortable about a festival that charges up to $125 for a weekend pass and caters to a majority white audience in the United Kingdom (or any “first-world” or “developed” country) purposefully designing a stage that capitalizes on and commodifies the culture of economically under-privileged or under-developed areas because it’s “edgy,” — especially when it is portraying the DJ and artists performing on that stage as reminiscent of the musical culture of those often economically underprivileged areas.
By no means am I an expert on any of the cultures Brouhaha’s designers could have been trying to portray or represent with their creation of the stage, but the sight of white uni-aged lads in sportswear and floral shirts throwing shapes to remixes of Bob Marley and the Wailers on the cheerfully coloured and artfully distressed wooden planks of Brouhaha’s dancefloor, with carefully selected and arranged shoes hanging from the faux telephone wires above their heads — well, it just didn’t seem to sit right with me.
Like the other eight brilliantly and creatively designed stages at the festival, Brouhaha could have been designed any way the organizers liked — seriously, two of the nine stages literally shoot fire, and another features a wrestling ring as a platform for the audience. This festival, and the people designing its stages, has shown that they have both crazy amounts of creativity and crazy amounts of cash for this. So what does it mean when they not only choose but consciously design a stage for a sound system and reggae/ragga music that’s not even “inspired by,” but literally is a replica of what they think a nice little developing area must look like — but without its inhabitants knocking about, of course?
At the end of the day, and the end of this weekend, the people who enjoyed this stage designed to look like a village in a less-economically developed area of the world can go home to their regular lives in a very economically-developed area of the world — which include access to healthcare, consistent electricity and running water and secure employment (or secure access to benefits, should they need it). At the end of the day, residents of places that look like this often don’t enjoy all, or sometimes even any, of these things.
When we are cognizant of or appreciate a musical culture of any place, we have a responsibility to try to be cognizant of the social, political and economic culture of that place, too — and posing for photos in front of sound systems that appear to have been painted to look rusted, a can of historically Jaimaican-brewed Red Stripe beer in hand, is not being particularly cognizant at all.
Back on the main stage and closing out Saturday night, Hot Chip performed exquisitely, giving equal exercise to our feet and our feelings with a setlist including “I Feel Better,” “One Life Stand” and a song they’d “never played for anyone before,” according to lead vocalist Alexis Taylor.
As the Nile Rodgers-esque bassline funked, a guitar solo squealed and a vocal sample spoke — first in the original female voice and then in a deep robot modulation, in classic Hot Chip style — two friends in the crowd twisted and swayed their interlocked hands to the music, each doing their own thing, together. “Dancing In The Dark” (and a few bars of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” later) and with a wave they’re out, dispersing the crowds into Bristol on a Saturday night.
Sunday brought even sunnier skies and the New Orleans vibes of Hot 8 Brass Band to the main stage, playing tracks like its cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and “Let Me Do My Thing.” “You say stop, I say go, let me do my thing,” came the lyrics, floating out over the sort of swing that comes only from a band that not only knows each other, but damn well knows what it’s doing, too. “I been doing this thing since I was six years old and I don’t give a fuck and I don’t give a shit … don’t worry about me,” — and even without this tongue-in-cheek assurance, with instrumentation this tight and musical brilliance this bright, worrying about any part of Hot 8’s performance was last on the list for the thousands of people out there dancing and soaking up the sound.
Section Boyz played twice, once on each day, but the environment in the Paradiso tent for its Sunday performance alone was incredible. The six emcees from South London set the crowd absolutely alight: airhorns went off in the audience and teenagers jumped and shouted lyrics like their lives depended on it. At the end of their set, they dropped a brand new music video for their track “Section Music 2,” and while it is a clever marketing move, it’s also one completely born of necessity: the fans in this tent, and the fans out on the ‘net, are insatiable — they can’t get enough of what Swift, Deepee, Sleeks, Knine, Inch and Littlez have to offer, and it’s easy to see why.
Fans eagerly awaited Stormzy’s set on Sunday night, bopping by the barriers to warm-up music and checking their phones for his much-beloved #MERKY on Twitter. Finally bursting on at 8:30 p.m. his energy was boundless, bouncing from corner to corner of the stage. I noticed a young Black fan in his teens whom I had photographed at the barrier get pushed over the barrier and, just before he was carted off by security, Stormzy noticed him too.
“Bring him up here,” Stormzy said, stopping the music, and after a few words of introduction, he and his fan began rapping together so well it was hard to believe they hadn’t been working with each other for years.
After one fan came off, another was pushed over the barrier and caught Stormzy’s eye: a young Black boy, this time, to whom Stormzy said, “Come on, come, my brother,” before announcing to the crowd, “He said he just wants to stand on stage!” The two in almost-matching Adidas gear stood close as Stormzy rapped: knees bent low and arms swinging, each holding a mic, eyes focused only the others’ while 10,000 people watched.
Next was a duet with emcee Nadia Rose, and then Stormzy was alone again and magnificent on stage, launching off “Shut Up” and getting everyone, even the elderly lady in front of me who had been sitting in her chair all set, up on their feet and dancing.
Half an hour later came Dizzee Rascal, whizzing straight into the thick of things pulling out back-to-back bangers like “Jus’ A Rascal,” “Stand Up Tall,” and “Heavy.”
“Bassline Junkie” rolled in, his co-emcee jumping higher than I thought was physically possible for the human body and hyping the crowd up even more each time. “Flex,” “Holiday,” “Dance Wiv Me,” and just like that, Dizzee disappeared.
A few nervous minutes later, he came bursting back out, with fiery explosions shooting from the front of the stage in time to the chorus of “You’ve Got The Dirtee Love” and finally “Bonkers,” doing what he does best: making the crowd just that.
Contact Tyler Adams at [email protected].