FESTIVAL: Sunrise Celebration 2013: “We went to Another World!”
“Sunrise – we came, we saw, we partied hard,” declared the bright red graffiti scrawled on the wall of the compost toilet. It was definitely a fitting summation of Sunrise: Another World, 2013's remixed incarnation of The Best Weekend Ever™ (aka The Festival Previously Known As Sunrise Celebration). We did indeed come. We did indeed see. And although it occasionally took a bit more effort than we were used to – more of which shortly – we did indeed party extremely hard.
Now, I'm going to get a few negative points out of the way first, as a kind of slightly sour-tasting starter before the delicious, positive and nourishing main course (I may even throw in some kind of dessert at the end, if I can work out how to extend the metaphor properly). Previous Sunrises, as I may have subtly intimated with my Best Weekend Ever™ comment above, have set the bar pretty high, as my reviews of the 2010, 2011 and 2012 festivals will attest. And 'pretty high' here basically translates to Surely, This Couldn't Possibly Get Any Better. So the new festival, reborn after some pretty serious financial difficulties following 2012's mudpocalypse, had its work cut out. We were optimistic, though. Just because something's a bit new and different, even something that you loved with all your heart as it was, that's by no means a bad thing. I was excited to see what they'd done, how'd they built on the wonderfulness, what new surprises and areas were in store.
Unfortunately, one of the first major differences we encountered (well, after the weather, which was gorgeous all weekend – thanks, random UK weather patterns!) was the massively increased police presence, apparently necessitated by complaints from local Wiltshire residents, because God forbid a bunch of dirty hippies should dare come and have fun at a disused golf course. Now I'm not a policeman, or a councillor, or anyone whose opinion necessarily means anything, but honestly, the level of police was utterly unnecessary. They were everywhere, regarding proceedings with a vaguely confused, disapproving air (I did see a few crack smiles, but generally they remained stony-faced), and more than once I wondered what would happen if anybody in Wiltshire committed any actual crimes over the weekend.
Imagine the 999 call. “Hi! Police please! There's been a massive crime!”
“Oh, sorry. They're all at Sunrise, making the hippies feel uncomfortable, and wasting massive amounts of time and money.”
“Oh, OK. Well, never mind then. Bye.”
Couple this with the fact that Sunrise was forced to fork out about £15,000 for sniffer dogs in the run-up to the festival – thereby spending all their profit before they'd even managed to make any – and it was impossible to shake the feeling that the authorities felt threatened by this countercultural event, and so were doing everything they could to stop the fun. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but it stank of the same small-minded, calculating bureaucracy that nearly destroyed The Big Green Gathering a few years ago by foisting as many last-minute obstacles on them as possible, although fortunately on this occasion the festival still went ahead. At a time when things are so uncertain and worrying in the UK, what with the threat of far-right extremism, economic disaster and the continuous five-year political pratfall perpetrated by the useless, appalling arse-bin we laughingly call our government, we really needed this weekend to escape from reality, to forget about all the bullshit and let our collective hair down. And arriving at Sunrise and immediately being set upon by sniffer dogs, as happened to a friend of mine who had absolutely no drugs of any kind on her person – not that that stopped the police taking her aside, thoroughly searching her and treating her as though she was both guilty and an inconvenience rather than, say, apologising for wasting her time – was not conducive to this. I understand the need to have a police presence at a festival, but I'm also very conscious of the fact that they should be discreet. They should be next to unnoticeable. Why should we be made to feel guilty the whole time we're there, regardless of what anybody may or may not decide to smoke on a sunny festival Saturday while watching a reggae band? Sunrise is better than that. I even saw a couple of officers carrying guns at one point. I mean, seriously. What. The. Fuck.
But I can't blame the festival for the misguided and heavy-handed approach of the police. Nor can I blame them for the other main bugbear of the weekend, shared by most of the people to whom I spoke, which was the sound licensing. Previous Sunrises have pretty much enjoyed 24-hour music, so that when the main acts finish there's still plenty of random bits and pieces to stumble across in that wonderful wobbly period before the sun comes up. If you don't understand it, it's hard to explain, but partying all night is simply part and parcel of the Sunrise experience. And due to local residents' concerns and, presumably, the edicts of Wiltshire council, every scrap of music had to finish at around 2am, save a few brave and stalwart tents such as the French café that ignored the noise monitors long past the time when they should officially have turned off their music, even if it was still so quiet that you had to stand by the speakers to hear what was going on. It just ended up with lots and lots of partygoers, still extremely keen, sitting around and chatting – not that there's anything wrong with sitting around and chatting, but we did a lot of that during the day when it was too hot to really dance properly – or wandering aimlessly from silent tent to silent tent, searching in vain for something to dance to.
It was a real shame, and I'm happy to hear that the local council were very pleased with how the festival went – as detailed in some typically patronising BBC coverage, the tone of which basically boiled down to “wow, the hippies managed to behave, who'da thunk” - and that there were no noise complaints, which hopefully means that the music will go on much later next year. “Why can't you just go to bed when it all finishes and get up nice and early?” I maybe hear you ask.
“You're obviously not a festivalgoer,” I reply, before showing you the programme's description of the Underworld dance area: Where people never sleep and the darker denizens of the Sunrise Micronation party ceaselessly through the night. I rest my case.
I don't want to dwell on these negative aspects, even if it may seem as though I am, but in the spirit of honesty I felt that I needed to mention them, and to explain exactly why they were so keenly felt. It's not out of churlishness, and I don't want to seem ungrateful for the platter of delights we were offered, and I don't want this to seem like a bad review, because it's not. My friends and I love Sunrise, and it was just upsetting to feel like it was being bullied by people who didn't care for its values, and frustrating to have all the music shut off when you just knew the festival wanted to keep blasting out the tunes until the wee small hours. But despite these niggles, which led to a few tent-based bitching sessions at the start of the weekend (until we remembered where we were and dived head-first into the fun), Sunrise: Another World still managed to pull it out of the bag, and a brilliant weekend was had by all. The essential Sunrise atmosphere, that of warmth and creativity, of inclusivity, of silliness, of good clean fun, of sustainability, of sharing ideas and skills, of indefinable, ineffable somethingness, was all present and correct, and we delightedly stomped and danced and cartwheeled through it in our best and brightest clothes. Although it was a little too spread-out in parts, the new site was lovely, and the new areas added a lot to the atmosphere, particularly the Storyland forest, with its beautiful alien shell sound system and pirate galleon wreck DJ booth, and the aforementioned Underworld dance area, accessed through a monstrous gate and passage. This contained the awe-inspiring Psy-Dance Temple, which boasted some of the finest décor I've ever seen at a festival venue, along with the Beyond the Stars Ghetto Funk Nightclub (accessed through the doors of a TARDIS, natch) and the brand-new 19th Hole Club. The latter venue, a retro-futuristic spaceport club complete with cyborg sound engineers and crazy sci-fi-inspired visuals, was a particularly good addition to the festival, and paid host to one of my favourite performances of the weekend, a brilliant Friday night set of vintage rock'n'roll from Andy Smith, Benjamin, Michael and DJ Rockaphonic.
Music-wise there were plenty of highlights, although I did hear several people grumble that the programme sometimes didn't quite match what was going on. The best main stage action was saved for the Sunday, with non-stop goodness all the way through the afternoon and evening. Sunrise Battle of the Bands winners The Inexplicables, a Bristol six-piece who, despite their acoustic setup, filled the stage with one helluva noise, were a real gem, and boasted the best cover of the weekend, a spot-on interpretation of Roni Size's classic Brown Paper Bag. They were followed by upbeat reggae and dub from Talisman – after which we skipped off to the toilet and caught another wicked cover, a gypsy version of the Tetris theme by Infinite Collective – and then by a band called The Skints, who I'd never heard of before, but who blew me away. This London-based outfit call their mixture of hip-hop, reggae, dub and ska 'East London reggae', and their set, delivered to a crowd of massively up-for-it people avin' it large in the final throes of the evening sun, was bewitching, swapping between heavy dub and bouncy ska, guided by Marcia Richards' gorgeous, ethereal vocals. Closing the festival in magnificent fashion were British rocksteady legends The Beat, who had torn the (invisible) roof off at Sunrise 2011 and now once again commanded the stage with their upbeat, good-time vibes, culminating in a majestic extended version of Mirror in the Bathroom. Grooving to that rubbery bassline will never get old.
Moving backwards through the weekend – I'm writing this review with a kind of Tarantino-style non-linear chronology, check me out – there was further musical excellence: crazy gypsy business from Calico Jack; Beta Civilian's electro-funk strut; bangin' electro and drum and bass from Utah Saints; lovely folk from Carrie Tree; lively funk from the excellently-named Western Super Bear; various shades of dub from The Drop and the legendary Neville Staple; whomping breakbeat action from the Freerange DJs; crunchy psy-breaks from Colour; bouncy psy-tinged swing from Katty Grooves; a seriously toe-tappin', stylish set of ghetto funk and swing from Waggles in the Storyland forest on the Friday night; and a set from turntablist JFB at the Ghetto Funk pop-up shop on Saturday afternoon. Stomping, cider in hand, to his characteristically slick mashup of hip-hop and drum and bass, with the sun beaming down, surrounded by fancily-dressed, grinning people, was a perfect summation of the Sunrise party atmosphere - especially when we all closed in to provide a wind break to aid in his jaw-dropping beat-juggling - and it could only have been improved if the extremely irritating MC's microphone had broken.
My final personal highlight was one of those stumbled-upon times for which Sunrise is renowned. We weren't aware of the Flying Machine, a small venue tucked away at the back of the Storyland forest, and came across it on the Saturday night during our aimless there's-gotta-be-some-music-somewhere wanderings. What a treat! Waiting for us was strutting, knees-up gypsy jazz from Duncan Disorderly and his band of Scallywags, and beatbox-driven Balkan business from Bristol's Ushti Baba (who share a beatboxer with The Inexplicables, fact fans), a double whammy of intoxicating energy conducting its way through the crowd, who leaped and jived and crouched and jumped for the duration; if you'll forgive the cliché, the atmosphere was electric. Hands-down, this was the best random find of the weekend, and is up there in the Grand Pantheon of Sunrise Stumble-Upons with the Spanner Jazz Punks, back in 2011. Note to self – must track those nutters down.
There was more, of course. The costumes. The stalls. The tradespeople opening their vans and yurts to share knowledge; utterly arcane and magical to those new to the disciplines. The never-ending parade of lovely people; some friends, some friends-in-the-making. The customary silliness; pushing one another over at giggle o'clock in the morning, or chatting rubbish with strangers dressed as Bender from Futurama, or cackling as two people who'd never met one another tied their impressively long dreadlocks together to facilitate an impromptu game of Dread Limbo. Gorging on world-famous chickpea curries from the Wide-Awake Café. Watching with delight as Edventure Presents, a crew of 19th century British explorers in full costume, led a group of children through an epic, thrilling adventure of mountain climbing, alien-battling and derring-do. And of course my own personal contribution to proceedings, which was performing a set of spoken word poetry and comedy at the Groovy Movie Solar Cinema on the Saturday evening – huge, huge thanks to Hattie and her crew for having me, and to everyone who came along and made my performance feel like such a success, it was an absolute honour to be there (First And Only Shameless Plug Of The Review – www.facebook.com/stefmowords).
There was so much more goodness, so much more specialness. But I'm conscious that I've been going on for a while now, and it's probably getting close to wrapping-up time. So. That dessert I promised...
Another Sunrise, been and gone. At times, it felt uncertain, unsure of itself, but that's to be expected – in many ways it was a whole new animal, finding its feet, negotiating the labyrinth of red tape and pitfalls through which the authorities seemed determined to force it. The thing is, that apart from the odd spot of disorganisation (next year, I think all members of staff should really know where the camp sites and the medical tent are!), any complaints we had could basically be levelled at outside agencies, who were interfering and trying to mould the festival, this crazy explosion of energy and creativity, into something ordered, something they could control. Something conventional and sensible, where the fun could be fun but not too fun. There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but things might start getting a bit tinfoil hat-y, so I'll leave it.
The point is, that it won't be contained. It won't roll over and do what it's told. It won't compromise its core beliefs. I firmly believe that any hiccups that Sunrise suffered this year were simply part of the growing process, and that 2013 was a stepping stone – a fantastically fun, beautiful stepping stone – to an even more special future. There are a lot of dark forces out there in the world, and the more awake you are, the more you feel it. Of course you can live your day-to-day life well, happily and unselfishly, and be fulfilled. But there comes a point where you have to look outward, at the inequality, the upheaval, the anger, and the corporate and political greed that, I believe, is the gravest threat to our way of life that exists, and it can feel pretty overwhelming. Sometimes it can feel like we're doomed. And that's why festivals like Sunrise are so important, and why we were so angry that interlopers were poking their noses in and working against us, rather than with us. Because it's not just one massive party, as Interdimensional Wizard Ian Moore once said to me in a rather wonky tent at gawd-knows o'clock in the morning. It's proof that we can be better. That there are other ways of doing things. That people can co-exist harmoniously, and productively, and beautifully, regardless of their skin colour or religion or background, regardless of whether they like to wear sandals or smoke marijuana or wander around in the sun naked with a pint of ale in their hand. It's a revitalising tonic for the soul. I'd live there all year round, if I could.
Although I'm not sure I could put up with compost toilets the whole time...
See you in 2014!