The Downs Bristol
Stoke Road, Clifton, Bristol BS6 5RR

The Downs is a 1 day festival held on the beautiful Downs in the Clifton area of Bristol, which is now in it’s 3rd year.

It’s one of the best family-friendly festivals we’ve been to, and our 5 year old made full use of the crazy golf, soft play, fun fair rides, lego, and even bread making over an open fire, as well as shows for the kids with plenty jokes to keep the adults amused.  The only thing I couldn’t persuade him to try was the Aardman Animations model making tent, as I wanted to make a Wallace and Grommit, sorry I wanted HIM to make a Wallace and Grommit * cough * 🙂  The main stage is just a short walk away from the kids area, so parents can easily take it in turns to watch the bands.

But it’s not just a festival for people with kids, the whole festival emanates those cool vibes that Bristol is renowned for.

From the moment you approach the main gate and show security your ticket, you are met with friendly people and a real community vibe.

The festival consists of 3 music stages – the main stage with the bigger acts, a second stage with slightly lesser known acts, and an “information stage” with poetry/spoken word, polemic and BBC Introducing bands, almost like a festival within a festival with it’s own real ale bar.

Size-wise it’s just right, with stages far enough apart to avoid sound-bleed, but close enough together that you can dash between bands in 5 mins tops, without getting blisters on your feet!

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how some festivals seem to be stuck in the 1950s, unable to see past white male’s with guitars for the bulk of their lineups.  Nothing wrong with white males of course, I’m one myself 🙂 But there’s a whole world of wonderful music out there by wonderful artists, being ignored for no good reason.  The situation is so bad that one festival, in a misguided attempt at addressing the problem, decided to have a “queens stage” where female acts were “allowed” to play – it’s like Wetherspoon’s bringing back the snug!   Port and lemon ladies?  🙂

It was therefore refreshing to see that out of the top 4 slots on the main stage of The Downs were occupied by non-white female acts.  I don’t know whether it was deliberate or just the way it happened, but it certainly didn’t feel like “box ticking”, as clearly a lot of thought had gone in to the choice of artists.

Lineups are always subjective of course, but I’d say that vast majority of people who are into music, would appreciate this lineup.

Any festival bookers who still think there is only a market for white male guitar bands, should take a leaf out of The Downs book and broaden their horizons, as there was a packed crowd who clearly loved the lineup.

Sadly we arrived too late for Mercy’s Cartel.  The funny thing is, we originally thought we’d drive down on Saturday morning, 3 hrs according to Google Maps.  But then we remembered how long things take with a 5 year old, and despite booking an apartment half an hour’s walk away, and arriving on the Friday night and being up before 9am, we still couldn’t get there for 1pm!

The first band of the day I caught was Fontaines D.C. – a band who I keep hearing a lot about, and having seen them live I can see why people are so excited by them!

Neneh Cherry was an absolute delight – delivering hit after hit from her back catalogue, looking and sounding amazing, which some nice remixes of some of her tracks.

Idles are very much the local heroes, and got an outstanding reception from the audience.  Before each song, Joe Talbot announced “This is an anti-facist song” – I like his style!

Ms. Lauryn Hill of course needs no introduction, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” sold over 8 million copies, not to mention her work with the Fugees, The Downs might be a relatively small festival, particularly if you compare it with a certain festival that takes place in the neighbouring county of Somerset at the end of June, but it punches well above it’s weight to get such a global star to headline.

She put on a crowd pleasing headline set, finishing with a an outstanding rendition of “Killing me Softly”.

For me though, the big attraction to the festival was Grace Jones!

I’d never seen her live before, but heard nothing but good things about her live performance – and it was all true!

Wearing some amazing outfits, changing after each song, hoola-hooping all the way through “Slave to the Rythym” – and she’s 72!  I wish I had half her energy when I was in my 20s, let alone now or when I’m her age!

Having influenced so many stars, most obviously Lady GaGa, and even been the subject of a 2 day academic study of her influence, she really is a living legend, and one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.  If you get the chance to catch her live, just do it!

Aside from a little bit of Nightmares on Wax (who were superb) I didn’t catch much on the other stages, with dashing between the kids area and the main stage, but judging by the audience, those acts must have been top notch too.

If I were to briefly summarise the festival in one vignette – well, late on the Saturday I was stood at the square urinals when a guy approached, and broke the ice by asking the guy standing opposite him “Have you had a good day?” the guy smiled and said “I’ve had an awesome day!” and we all kind of nodded in agreement.

In a time when politics have become so divisive , with strangers on social media TYPING IN CAPS, and giving each other abuse, it’s a breath of fresh air to be at an event that brings people together, where strangers enquire about your well-being rather than pick a fight, and when someone says they’ve had an awesome day, you know they aren’t exaggerating because you have too!

At around £65 for a ticket, it was excellent value, and my only regret was that we didn’t book a couple of extra days off, to go and explore beautiful Clifton more thoroughly as it has lots of great little bars, cafes, shops and we had a nice couple of hours in the botanic s before heading back.  Next year we will definitely stay longer!

Incidentally, although it’s a 1 day festival, the next day there was a Madness concert at the same site, so of course we went to that too, rude not to!


Words + Pictures: John W. King

For more photos, check out the Live Music Pix Facebook Page (and give us a cheeky like+share!)