The Lore of Big Chill '09
by Joshua P. Ferguson | Photos by Roy Shay
Yearly, our fair windy city transforms, as one of the biggest festival events to take place stateside descends upon Chicago. The musical tornado that is Lollapalooza attracts bands, DJs and flocks of loyal fans—some 250,000—for a larger-than-life weekend of indie-rocking, five-dollar Budweiser swilling, and after-partying like your hipster life depended on it. Little do these hordes of ray-banned devotees and industry slackies know that, a mere continent away, across the pond and up the Great British countryside, a scant three-hour train ride north of London, in a valley (a dedicated deer park), surrounding a castle (Eastnor Castle), in Herdfordshire (a shire, of all places! it's all so very British), a whole other world of music, with a lifestyle and following all its own, is growing out of a quiet English province. Welcome to the Big Chill.
"By the time we got to Big Chill, we were half a million strong"
After a quick bite to eat, a near miss of our evening train and an obnoxiously unnecessary scuffle with two disgruntled commuters for our seats, we settled in for the journey with four cans of "bitter" and ox-tail "flavoured crisps". Stop by stop the suburbanites shed away, leaving a train full of hippies, most of whom looked as if they'd already spent the weekend partying, and here it was only Thursday. In the U.S., the saying goes that we have two seasons: winter and construction season. Given that the English, Irish and Scottish spend three quarters of their lives basking in an overcast grey haze, their seasonal anecdote is something more to the tune of winter and festival season. Many of the revelers encountered had already been to and were fully intending to conquer at least one more festival weekend post the Big Chill. These people dedicated summer after summer to stringing together one musical bacchanalia after another. Brilliant. I, on the other hand, gazed out at the sun setting over the quaint English towns whizzing by, not yet aware of the magnitude of what was to come.
Sunset from the train | photo: Roy Shay
While the Big Chill attracts less than a quarter of the people Lollapalooza does, in every other aspect it far out does anything that finds itself in Grant Park the first full weekend in August. I'll be the first to brag of the beauty of Chicago's skyline. There are few better spots in the city to take in its magnificence than from Buckingham fountain. I'm also a firm believer in the spectacle that is Lollapalooza and the weekend of enjoyment that is to be found there. But, when there's a 300-year-old castle looming on the hillside beside a sprawling valley—complete with a stream running through it—and aged trees scattered intermittently, reaching for a starry sky and full moon, well, the city life fades quickly from memory.
Eastnor Castle | photo: Roy Shay
Lanterns in the distance | photo: Roy Shay
Under cover of an overcast night we slowly navigated the site, making our way to what became home base for the weekend, the radio station, and the world of Big Chill slowly unraveled around me. I had been forewarned that "wellies" were at the heart of a proper UK festival survival kit. "You mean galoshes?" I asked. "Isn't that a Hungarian stew?" was the only response I got. "Wellies"—short for Wellingtons—it turns out, are indeed galoshes and thanks to an incessant rain throughout the evening, they proved to be incredibly handy.
Through the accumulating mud we passed two large stages and row upon row of vendors, food stalls and bars before coming upon a handful of carnival rides and a "caravan" with no less than 10 speaker cones fastened to the roof. Big Chill Radio indeed. Manchester's finest, Mr. Scruff—who's had a signature role at Big Chill for years, playing both the opening and closing sets of the festival annually—was grooving out of the system, well into his set. The lawn in front of the station was crammed with early arrivers, who, upon closer look, bared a striking resemblance to a pale-face-painted pack of zombie wasteoids. I quickly found out that that's exactly what they were. Earlier in the day, a movie—I Spit on Your Rave, as it's so aptly titled—was being filmed and hundreds of zombie extras could be seen eating human sacrifices from the main stage before they dragged their dead legs over to the radio to have one last dance.
Carnival lights | photo: Roy Shay
Big Chill Radio, sometime around 5am | photo: Roy Shay
All told, Big Chill has more than four music stages with five additional stages exclusively for DJs and countless vendors offering up everything from slow cooked Mackerel curry to ladies-only holistic healing to cheap—and increasingly necessary—"wellies." There was also no shortage of libation. DJ tents were often sponsored by a rum, vodka or... rolling paper, something that would never fly stateside. While there, you could take in a 2 a.m. screening of The Fog, get out of the sun the next afternoon with a 2 p.m. comedy routine, then skin up a batch of spliffs and head out to see Friendly Fires sunset set.
Rizla stage | photo: Roy Shay
Friendly Fires | photo: Roy Shay
On Saturday night, hundreds of hot air lanterns were set adrift in the night sky during Orbital's headlining performance. If you stuck around until Sunday night, you caught the annual burning of the silver-tinted effegy while David Byrne and his white-clad dance troupe were "Burning Down the House". With attractions like these, it's no wonder Big Chill attracts repeat business year after year.
A different sort of friendly fire | photo: Roy Shay
Irish Fairy Godmothers, Hogwarts Rejects and Mud Honeys
Bubbles are a big deal at Big Chill. So is alliteration | photo: Roy Shay
With a few drinks had to help numb painful thoughts of the impending camp set-up, we caught a "buggy" ride—evidently golf carts are strictly American constructs; to the English they're distant cousins of the horse drawn carriage—to the camp site. While I'm sure this was not the case, it seemed as if, the moment we stepped off the "buggy", it started raining. Hard. I know for sure that by the time Sunday arrived, we were telling people that we pitched our tent during a torrential down pour. Not true. But we were definitely wet.
Considering, things were going smoothly enough. Tent was up. The first of the air mattresses was inflated. Doh. The second air mattress has no plug? Hmm. Wait? Where's the other sleeping bag? Shit. Uhm...
As if on cue, this cute Irish girl, decked in a black rain coat and muddy cowboy boots, materialized from the ether to grant us three wishes (and free beer). She accompanied us across the way to her tent, an oversize two-bedroom-plus-a-common-area job which she was sharing with two girlfriends. It somehow comfortably sat five. Our hosts: Louise, Sara and Rowena. Our wonderful, Irish fairy godmothers. Post introduction tall boys were passed around, ipods were fired up. Kiwi dub. Turns out they love Fat Freddy's Drop too, crazy. We shared the stories that led us to this gigantic tent sitting in the middle of Great Britain. This, in turn, brought us back to our sleeping bag/air mattress dilemma and our three wishes, which I think we used quite wisely.
1) Can you spare an air mattress? "Of course, we have two that we're not using."
2) Can you spare a sleeping bag? "Shouldn't be a problem. We have a spare."
3) Wanna be friends? "Totally."
What sort of magical, no-strings-attached problem solving is that?! And sure enough, we emerged each morning from our tent and were greated from across the lawn with offers of breakfast: "Oh have some, its gonna go bad if we don't eat it," water: "You probably drank a lot last night, have some, there's a drinking fountain on the way in" and more beer: "We brought too much and would prefer not to carry it back to the car, here, have another one." I praise these ladies for their charity but, in all honesty, more than anything else, they were three of the coolest people we met all weekend. We talked music, travel, work, food, books and spirituality with the greatest of ease and a genuine sincerity. If ever there were kindred spirits to stumble upon, our Irish fairy godmothers were they. And somehow we'd set-up camp right next to each other. Cosmic.
Diamonds in the rough | photo: Roy Shay
The collection of people, spirits and energy at the Big Chill are unlike anything I've seen in any of its American festival counterparts. Subversiveness takes on a whole different meaning. Alternative culture really exists in the U.K., it hasn't been dictated from the latest MTV ad campaign. Parents with neon green streaks in their hair embrace their inner freak, kids in tow. There were more men on the grounds wearing tutu skirts than there were women. I have no doubts about this. Groups would coordinate around themes, sporting nurse uniforms, banana suits and sasquatch costumes for three days straight. A group of dudes wearing tie-dyed felt dunce-cap-looking hats stretching 3 feet off their heads walked by and I overheard an on-looker comment "look, more Hogwarts rejects." The Brits really do love their Harry Potter.
As entertaining as it is throwing around an abundance of verbage to describe the spectrum of spectacle on display over the weekend, pictures really do best to speak a thousand words.
Cops totally love a man in nurse's uniform | photo: Roy Shay
Hogwarts flunkies love the dubstep | photo: Roy Shay
You wouldn't know it without seeing it first hand, but girls are sexy in wellies | photo: Roy Shay
Computer Love | photo: Roy Shay
Was This the Wrong Pill to Take?
How Deep Does the Rabbit Hole Go?
I assumed it was called the Big Chill for a reason. An obvious one. You float around by day, listening to reggae and deep house vibes wafting from the DJ stages. If live music tickles your fancy, the afternoons offer spiritual jazz from Pharoah Sanders and stripped down acoustic sets from Fink. As day gives way to evening, you hit up the Argentinian steak sandwich stall for a bite, grab another round of Tuborgs—there's a never ending supply of these green-canned 16oz lagers everywhere, I probably had 10 a day—and then head back to the stages for the night's main events. Nice and relaxing right? Well... let's just say it was only our first night in and things were about to get interesting.
Friendly Fires had wrapped it up—and rocked it out—so we headed down the way to catch a bit of the Field. Instead we were met with the dark, grinding, techno dub of Shackleton. Evidently scheduling had been bumped up and we had unsuspectingly arrived just in time to get front row seats for Chris Cunningham. A few of us, myself included, needed a quick refresher on who, exactly, Mr. Cunningham is. Remember the delightfully disturbing videos for Aphex Twin's "Window Licker" and Bjork's "All is Full of Love"? Of course of course. Well that's him. Except, for tonight's impending onslaught of audio visual mindfuckery, you can drop the "delightfully" qualifier. Maybe it was because the drugs were starting to kick in, but I'm pretty sure that a completely sober person would have had nightmares for weeks after taking in just ten minutes of the twisted imagery that was about to be thrown at us rapid fire.
After a jovial introduction—even the stage staff kept a straight face till the last minute—the stage went completely black except for a lone green laser beaming into the infinite darkness behind us. A groaning bass sound struggled out of the speakers like a 250-pound man squeezing out of a Mini Cooper. WHOOOMMMFFF. Silence. "Did the laser just flicker?" WHOOOMMMFFF. flicker. Then the screens lit up. Innocuously, or so it seemed at first, images of a birds nest of speaker wires and AV equipment appeared. On a side screen—there were three screens slowly waking to life—a metronome ticked once and vanished. flicker. WHOOOMMMFFF.
Then, again from the ether, two entities—entirely different from our fairy godmothers—emerged. A spotlight, cutting through a sort of liquid space, revealed a couple, naked in a sea of nothing, clutching each other to keep from drifting. Flicker. The laser spread into a fan of kryptonite light that scanned the crowd from bottom to top. "I should have taken the blue pill," I thought to myself. And so it began. The sound system erupted with a machine gun fire of drum hits, undulating bass and off kilter glitch while the onscreen romance dissolved into brutal fisticuffs. It was as if Fight Club, the Matrix and Irreversible had a monstrosity of a deformed offspring together. Those too arsed to fully comprehend the extent of the horror on screen wailed, whistled and waved their glow sticks rave-tastically. A few stood stunned, staring at the stage with dropped jaws. Others were equally frozen in space, with their faces tucked halfway into the collars of their shirts like frying turtles.
The laser show had gone full blown schizophrenic as our sadistic couple persisted with trading punches. One to the gut. One to the face. Drops of blood scattered in slow motion. the twisting metal of the soundtrack screamed and got ever more frantic. And then it stopped. The spotlight from above returned. The violence subsided and the couple was transported back from whence they came, leaving the audience weak and disoriented. And crying out for more!
We were pummeled into complete submission over the course of the next hour. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker attempted to strike each other down in synchronicity with a light-saber-drum-n-bass symphony. Hitler chattered stage right. The metronome ticked. A young girl with eyes eerily far apart spoke in tongues. Breasts bigger than my head bounced to the rhythm. A wheel chair bound mutant child screeched gibberish and fought a laser beam battle using his expert kung fu. Richard D. James' twisted likeness appeared on bikini models dancing in South Beach (the "Window Licker" edit was by far the highlight). It was easily the most disturbing thing that my companions and I had ever seen. And we couldn't take our eyes off it, let alone step away. We stood there, locked in the groove, trying not to blink, awestruck, simultaneously scared for and having the time of our lives.
"After this there's no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." We were Alices. Cunningham was a mad hatter Morpheus. And we were all descending, head first and gaining momentum.
Said laser-blasting disco-ball | photo: Roy Shay
Music Takes Me Up. | photo: Roy Shay
Brackles goes Funke | photo: Roy Shay
Up in this club | photo: Roy Shay
Balloons let loose while Norman Jay stretches out | photo: Roy Shay
Scruff transcending the ether | photo: Roy Shay
Reflections of an overly self-indulgent "writer" and his esteemed colleague, the increasingly masterful photographer, in Paul Noble's shades.
photo: Roy Shay
MASSIVE SHOUT-OUTS, BIG-UPS, PEACES AND LOVE
First and foremost to the crew: Roy, Nadav and Itamar. A genuine pleasure. Of course, our Irish fairy godmothers: Louise, Sarah and Rowena. Very especially to Big Chill Radio, Paul Noble, Andy Smillie, Toby Hilder and the rest of the crew, without you all we wouldn't have been there.