The first major festival to take place since summer 2019
Jessie Atkinson
15:07 21st June 2021

There are several reason to suspect it may not, in fact, be mid-June. The first is that it was just January. The second is that it is two degrees (14, but who’s counting). Then there’s the fact that we’re pre-freedom day of 21 June, and yet here we are: thousands of us standing together on a trampled field as live music plays.

Download Festival, and their owners Festival Republic, had only four-and-a-half weeks to prepare for this moment: a dinky version of the UK’s foremost rock and metal gathering running as a pilot event alongside Public Health England. The weekend they conjure from such a short period of time is nothing short of extraordinary. Everything, with some very minor sound hiccups, comes off perfectly. The site looks magnificent and must have taken a great many pairs of hands to build at such short notice. The food trucks are parked and shelling out chips and giant Yorkshire puddings. Everything sounds wonderful.  Though it’s been two years (“two FUCKING years” Frank Carter howls at his Friday night headline set) since the last summer festival on British soil, it’s as if it’s never been away.

Yes, it’s a miniature version of the ordinarily huge event (10,000, where usually it is 111,000), but actually, many a person - press, staff, artists and punters alike - indicate that they prefer the smaller site…

Perhaps it’s because it meant that you could have easily seen every single band on the bill. No clashes mean that the rock pilgrims on the fields trooped back and forth between a sheltered, cathedralesque second stage, and an impressive main stage kitted out with high-end screens. Travel restrictions dictate that everyone playing here is British, and some of our best get to showcase their music live for the first time in a long time this weekend.

Neck Deep spend a large portion of their set marvelling at the return, and in the glow and emotion of seeing people together for the first time in a long time - and some excellent live mixing - they sound more exhilarating than the 'generic' their tagline purports. Friday headliners Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes take up the mantle of first festival headliners in fifteen months (longer, if we’re talking summer festivals, of course) with remarkable ease, bringing guests Joe Talbot of IDLES, Cassyette and Lynks on stage to sing with him during a set that explores the best of the Rattlesnakes' discography. But it’s anonymous ambient metalcore collective Sleep Token who take the cake on Friday night. Their sound, delivered by the masked group, sounds like a familiar face emerging from the mist.

Saturday emerges out of a joyful night in which silent discos ran into the early hours and punters sang together without the need for social distancing. We were promised heaps of rain by weather apps all week but when the day emerges, it’s weakly sunny. The sun even comes out fully during A’s hilarious 3pm set, in which frontman Jason Perry inexplicably wears a Deliveroo backpack and conducts a walking moshpit for what he identifies as an ‘old’ crowd (gleaned from the percentage of people who had had both vaccines). Theirs is light relief from a back-to-back day of serious music. WARGASM take to the main stage in a blitzkrieg of sound, a little forced in places but powerful nonetheless. Tigercub air new album As Blue As Indigo on the second stage, making the case for quick-quick-slow sensuality and underlying pop sensibilities, while YONAKA slay their set despite sound difficulties that wipe out an entire song from their set.

Headlining the Saturday night, Enter Shikari bring every last person in the place to the main altar, proving as they always do that their music was made for live shows. Creeper, in the tent on the other side of the field, play for a crowd who have been kitted out in their merchandise all day. Will Gould and co. more than earn their MCR comparisons, putting on a pyro-tastic show that mirrors the storytelling of their rich output.

Sunday awakens cold and drizzly - almost as much a characteristic of Download as its ubiquitous dog. It doesn't dampen the music, which excels in main stage openers Saint Agnes, who go balls to the wall to wake everyone up, and pop/metal artist Cassyette who emerges from the pandemic an almost fully-formed superstar. Loathe and Chubby & The Gang also stand out from the pack, making the case for continuing to give 'smaller' bands a big stage early on in their career. 

It's one of the greatest privleges, artists, punters, press, publicists and staff seem to agree, to be at the biggest festival since the pandemic began. The fact that the organisers have also made it feel safe - and clean, remarkably - is something that a lot of people should feel very proud of. The future of festivals seems bright - and near. 

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Photo: James Bridle