Nobody can quite believe this. The fans standing shoulder to shoulder with people they’ve had to keep two metres away from for fifteen months can’t believe it, and the artists on stage are similarly incredulous. For ten thousand lucky punters and forty bands, live music is no longer a distant dream. The sheer joy of the whole experience, miraculously put together in a matter of weeks, brings more than one frontperson close to tears. Above all, the Download Pilot feels like an escape from a pandemic-ravaged reality, and a glimpse into a more hopeful future.
Even if festival-goers are unable to see Death Blooms early on Friday evening, they can certainly hear them from the second stage as they put up their tents. The pilot’s more compact site means campers can step out of their tents in the morning and look out over the whole site, which offers quite the atmosphere. The party really starts when Hot Milk take to the main stage, and once they’ve found their footing a couple of songs in, they ooze potential, with Han Mee’s gyrating hips and cheeky grin earmarking her as a performer to watch. Later, Blackpool’s Boston Manor perform with the slickness of a well-oiled touring machine, while Holding Absence more than live up to the hype swirling around them. The cry of “I’m alive,” that opens ‘Celebration Song’ could demolish the emotional defences of the hardest-hearted person, contrasting with the ebullient ‘Afterlife’ that commands a spectacular singalong.
As the sky darkens and the rain continues to pelt the crowd (some things never change), Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes rise to the challenge of headlining a festival. They have everything they need – the energy, the crowd participation and the special guests (IDLES’ Joe Talbot, Lynks and Cassyette) – but where they really stand out, as they always have done, is their commitment to inclusivity. Frank starts a female only mosh pit for ‘Wild Flowers’, encourages the women to crowd surf in safety (“Don’t be fucking cunts,” he warns the men in the crowd) and stops ‘Kitty Sucker’ after the first verse to check on the welfare of someone near the front.
Saturday is a day of winners and losers: WARGASM draws a remarkable crowd both for an early afternoon slot and for an unsigned band playing their first festival. Sam Matlock and Milkie Way fill the stage impressively for a duo, and the crowd’s hunger is never satiated, chanting ‘One more song!’ as they finish their set with a cover of N.E.R.D’s ‘Lapdance’. The biggest surprise of the weekend arguably comes from Vukovi - frontwoman Janine Shilstone’s spectacular stage presence, dancing, lounging on the stage, sitting on the barriers - thrills the crowd to the point where the stewards become a little frazzled running to catch all the crowd surfers. Other bands are less fortunate. Tigercub fail to enthral their audience, the tent emptying as their set goes on, while Twin Atlantic are beleaguered by technical issues leaving frontman Sam McTrusty inaudible.
Saturday’s closing trio of sets threatens to become the stuff of Download legend: While She Sleeps unify, enlighten and create a truly electric atmosphere, while Creeper’s theatrical spectacle is a thing of true beauty, peaking when a singalong of ‘Misery’ led entirely by the crowd leaves frontman Will Gould in tears. Enter Shikari, meanwhile, are the perfect headliners for this event, encapsulating the joy of live music’s return and the poignancy of the tragedies of the last fifteen months with a dazzling light show and rapturous chants of “OH, ENTER SHIKARI!”
The earlier acts on Sunday seem to have drawn the short straw, faced with the challenge of livening a crowd weary from two days of partying. Employed To Serve deserve better than the lukewarm reaction they get given the beast of a set they deliver. Loathe’s gloriously hellish metal fares better until technology fails them during ‘Two-Way Mirror’ but vocalist Kadeem France recovers beautifully, finishing the song, aided by the fans, a cappella.
As the weekend draws to a close, it appears that the final three acts on the bill are in the wrong order. Bullet For My Valentine’s frigid performance feels the least like a headline set out of the three bands topping the bill this weekend, and its most exciting moment isn’t contributed by anyone in the band itself. Fresh from a performance as riotously fun as any fan would expect, Skindred’s Benji Webbe pops up during a cover of Iron Maiden’s ‘Run To The Hills’ to interject with a few lines of ‘Nobody’. It’s a moment of unexpected genius that Bullet’s audience, preferring to slouch on camping chairs than mosh, was crying out for. Frank Turner is a more fitting headliner for the second stage, offering the sunniest punk rock show around that incites moshing one minute and waltzing the next.
The Download Pilot is a weekend of pure euphoria, a showcase of the incredible talent in British rock and metal in 2021, and a chance to feel hopeful at the prospect of a future without social distancing or masks. It’s good to have you back, live music. Never leave us again.
Photos: James Bridle, Matt Eachus