Sure I Caught COVID, But A Weekend Of Live Music And Lifelong Memories At Boardmasters Was Well Worth It: Boardmasters 2021 Review

Published on 14 September 2021 at 14:12

Words by Tom Farmer- @tomfarmer5000 @TomFarmerJourno 


Dedicated to the lads who had to put up with me for a weekend. Always appreciated x


At only eighteen, festivals (along with its accompanying jamboree of pleasurable carnage and sleepless nights) had only made one cameo in my life before the world was plunged into pandemic-enforced lockdown. However, after experiencing the first sweet taste of festival life at Reading in 2019, a two year wait for my return to dusty or waterlogged fields (there’s no in-between is there?) had seemed like a lifetime. 


Finally- with a fragile stomach and sweaty forehead fresh from A-Level results day- I descended upon Newquay, Cornwall ready to have a weekend free from adults, see my first live music set in 16 months and hopefully not catch COVID. Or indeed any virus. Whilst this review is overwhelmingly positive (spoiler), there were a couple of problems with Boardmasters Festival: it is miles away from London. If it hadn’t been for my mate’s speaker and playlist filled with 2010s dance tunes, which I relished once I had shaken off the unearthing desire to make the remnants of the night before reappear, the journey would have seemed like months. 


With a sore head, attributable to a concoction of a hangover and five hours of 00s anthems, we thankfully saw the sea and entered through the pearly festival gates. Lugging our bags, which as we discovered on Monday morning were mostly full of cans, we set out on the pilgrimage to find the perfect camp. Not too far from the toilets for the mornings, but not too close for the stench in the evenings. Not too far from the arena, but not close enough to become a sitting target for a drunken festival-goer to fall into You’ve Been Framed-style. With tents up and the first beer in our sweaty clutches, it finally sunk in: we had made it. After two years of fantasising about seeing live music and being among seas of like-minded people, the weekend was upon us. 


As the sun rose on Friday, contrary to what the forecast had predicted, I hid a can of Carlsberg (the cheapest, don’t judge me!) in my bum bag and strutted into the arena to see my first live act in almost 16 months. On the 22nd of February, where Corona was merely a  brand of Mexican beer, Fontaines DC had blown me away at the gloriously sweaty Brixton Academy. Now, on the 12th August 2021, Glasweigian-based lo-fi artist Joesef pulled me back into the beauty of live music. Sure, I only knew one of his songs, which I heard him play as I queued for a beer. Sure, the crowd was small and far from the riotous animosity that I had experienced at Fontaines over a year before. But, my God, it was so good to hear live music. Crisp vocals and smooth guitar lines which sounded so much better live than out of some tinny headphones or my dad’s old record player speakers- which had been my two main ports of call for music as we had been confined by a pandemic. 


After an impromptu trip to the dance tent to see Kam Bu, a bouncy MC with a riotous crowd and a hype man with a hilariously high voice, we returned to the main stage for Holly Humberstone. Humberstone, at only 21, is a member of that not-so-small group of musicians who have had to build their reputation with no gigs or festival appearances. With that in mind, the singer-songwriter was simultaneously enchanting and invigorating, combining indie guitar hooks with a drum machine. An apprentice of live music, still seeming as if she couldn’t quite believe that she was playing on the main stage, Humberstone certainly expanded her fanbase with her melange of indie-dance tracks. 


If Holly Humberstone was the apprentice of live music, Jade Bird was the master. Where Humberstone was contemplative and slightly reserved, the frontwoman was impassioned and emotional. Where Humberstone began her set with a smile and a giggle, Bird began her set with a scream and a rumbling of guitar. It is hard to write anything bad about Jade Bird, whether that be about her live performances or her releases. Her energy and joy is infectious, wearing her heart on her sleeve and her smile permanently fixed to her face. With a band hanging off her every note, it was my first dose of proper invigorating rock ‘n’ roll. Concluding my afternoon notes, it is important to note the fact that Boardmasters had three consecutive female acts play the main stage. Whilst this should be a given, so many festivals fall short of this expectation, so it was refreshing to see the festival give time to a diverse range of acts. Big respect!


As the sun went down and mist from the Cornish sea descended on the festival, there were rumblings from the North-East to keep 60,000 festival-goers warm. It was the first post-lockdown show for Sam Fender, an artist who has quickly become the torch-carrier of indie-pop, and it would be said that he picked off where he left. Beginning with the jangly, bouncy single “Will We Talk?”, followed by the mournful “Dead Boys” (a tearful ode to suicide rates among young men), the young Geordie proved how he can seamlessly intermingle the light-hearted indie with hard-hitting ballads. Ending with anthemic “Hypersonic Missiles”, complete with booming a cappella involvement from the crowd, Sam Fender (although his set had not entirely lived up to my high expectations) had done what he came to do: send emotions high, fill the South-West air with crowd booming vocals put smiles on a sea of faces. 


With a veil of darkness having well and truly descended down on Boardmasters festival, it was the time for the first headliner of the weekend. With electrifying Glastonbury sets, two albums released in 2019 alone and a live reputation that only Rage Against the Machine and perhaps George Best possess, Oxford-based Foals took to the stage. On a personal level, Foals are a band who mean a lot to me, with faint memories of hearing the outfit live at eight or nine years old. Although I could only see the backs of people’s heads (still my main view, it has to be said) I remember distinctly thinking “How can four people control thousands of people so effortlessly”. Almost ten years later, I’m still trying to answer my own question. With a beautifully versatile melange of indie-rock and dance hits, the band have carved out a niche as one of the few modern bands who transcend genres as fluidly as water. As with Sam Fender, my standards were extremely high, leaving space only for me to be minorly disappointed. But, looking back, the combination of the electric atmosphere and raw passion (from those on-stage and indeed of it) shown during set-closer “Two Steps Twice” would make the grumpiest, most puritanical music fan crack a smile and plunge into the mosh. 


With my feet still sore and ears still ringing from the late-night Andy C set (arguably the current king of British Drum ‘N’ Bass), I woke up with the sun radiantly glowing through my tent canvas, gleaming with potential. 

My first dose of music was Inhaler, a band I had mixed opinions about. Given that the frontman is the son of U2 legend Bono, you can’t help but approach the indie newcomers with a sense of apprehension. Yet, whilst nepotism can get you a nice new guitar and (perhaps) a record deal, it cannot give anyone the rock ‘n’ roll swagger and energy that the four-piece oozed into the Cornwall sun. With blistering guitar riffs and crowd-pleasing hooks, all delivered with enviable coolness, Inhaler surpassed my expectations ten-fold; whilst also offering a reminder that guitar music is in good hands. 


The safekeeping of guitar music is also reinforced by the presence of post-punk band Do Nothing. After stumbling across the four-piece at Reading festival playing the BBC Introducing stage, drawn in by the frontman doing his best impression of a singer possessed by unspeakable forces, Do Nothing in the Farmer household has been on repeat ever since. With unique stage presence (aforementioned) and invigorating guitar lines, the Nottingham-based quartet were a thoroughly enjoyable watch. 


Safe in the knowledge that guitar music was going to last forever and ever, I went to the main stage to watch Loyle Carner. For those who don’t know of the South London lyricist, which is a crime of the highest order, it would be no overstatement to say that he is (as Tony Wilson used to call Shaun Ryder) the modern-day Yeats. With sharp wordplay and beautiful cadence, Loyle Carner is certainly the intellectual face of modern-day hip-hop. Although it is well-documented that his songs are emotive odes, often to his mum or his partner, his set was more touching and tear-jerking than I was expecting, whilst also being bouncy and light-hearted with hits like “Ain’t Nothing Changed” and “No CDs”. With passion onstage coupled with a sense of community in the crowd, the South London Shakespeare dropped one of the best sets of the weekend. 


As a light spray from the ocean cooled us all down, the lights came up for the leading spectacle of the evening: Gorrillaz. When Damon Albarn was battling Oasis for Number One with the fairly standard and simplistic Britpop anthem “Country House”, I doubt even he envisaged the path that his career would take. Yet, there are many people who know the “Parklife” singer for his second-coming as the commander-in-chief of rock/dance/hip hop collective Gorrilaz. I have never seen a band which has been so hard to describe, with the first hour of the set leapfrogging from rock ‘n’ roll anthems to riotous rap tracks. There was even a tribute to the Notting Hill Carnival, complete with an Afrobeat track. With tracks like “Feel Good Inc” being immortalised into indie youth culture, Albarn had the crowd hanging on every word and sonic boom. When the lights came back on and we trudged off to find a late-night DJ set, it appears that there are two types of people in this world: people who don’t like Gorrilaz, and those who have seen them live. 


Just like that, it was the final day of Boardmasters 2021. After a quick blast from post-punk quartet Gengahr, we positioned ourselves for the Big Moon. The female four-piece have been making waves in both indie and mainstream circles over the last year, with a debut album adored by fans and critics alike. With a laidback, indie-pop sound, the quartet’s synth-infused set brought smiles to faces and a spring in steps, despite the gentle trickle of rain falling from the sky. With an anthemic cover of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” perhaps the highlight of the set (a highlight of the whole festival, even), the Big Moon lived up to their name with a gargantuan and illuminating set. 


With an interlude from soulful Irishman Maverick Sabre, sending hands in the air for big tune “I Need”, Leicester-based indie wunderkinds Easy Life were next to take to the stage. With their catalogue of hazy yet infectiously good tracks, as well as trumpet interludes, Easy Life are built for a festival like Boardmasters. Yet, whilst you can’t blame him, frontman Murray Matraravers did get over-excited as it was their show back. I love someone running around in their pants as much as the next person (see: my obsession with Slowthai) but Matrarevers did that at the expense of a solid vocal performance. Easy Life were good, but unfortunately fell short of my expectations. 


If Easy Life were slightly underwhelming, Arlo Parks surpassed my (already high) expectations. Ever since her emergence into the mainstream, mostly whilst the nation was on hold due to COVID, the South-West London singer-songwriter has consistently impressed with her upbeat tracks about taboo issues. In a high top filled to the brim, Parks delivered a set with confidence and maturity way above her years. Filing through her (now Mercury-winning!) album with a full band, it would have been impossible not to enjoy Parks’ charisma, charm and remarkable musicianship- both lyrically and sonically. At only 21, the sky (and surely a headline slot in future years???) is the limit for Arlo Parks. 


One of the best things about festivals is the culture shock going from one act to another. There I was, hazily swaying to Arlo Parks’ ballads about love and loss. In the space of 40 minutes, I’m gazing across the abyss of a mosh pit for Dizzee Rascal. With no one quite sure whether he was going to make it, given recent trouble with the police relating to an assault charge (potentially of a woman), the MC ran onto the Cornwall stage and delivered a blinder of a set. With five or six tracks which have soundtracked consecutive generations, Dizzee’s music and live performance is hard to hate. With infinite energy (on the stage and indeed in the crowd) the atmosphere was at its most electric across the whole weekend. Although the jury’s out (literally and metaphorically) on him as a person, it would be simply untrue if I said that I didn’t think he was the standout act of the festival, ending my experience on a high.


I was going to end this review with a simple, unequivocal statement: you can’t put a price on live music. But, given that I’m writing this trapped in my room after testing positive for COVID (seemingly along with everyone else who went to Boardmasters), it’s clear that live music may have to be a bit more give-and-take for the next few months. But, then again, was being back in festival dreamland- singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger” with thousands of people at a silent disco and dancing in a sunny field with my mates- worth a period of enforced quarantine? Absolutely. I would do it all again in a heartbeat- hopefully without a two year gap. And maybe wash my hands more next time. 

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