Even four days of monsoon-style rain could not diminish the sparkle or dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd at this year’s Bluedot festival. From ‘Doctor Who’ to the inimitable powerhouse that is Grace Jones, there were so many highlights…

Deceptively sunny skies welcome us at the start of the 2023 Bluedot festival, that magical four-day celebration of music, science and techno-futurism that takes place every July beneath the mighty parabolic curves of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank. Little do we realise that freakishly high levels of rainfall will turn this idyllic Cheshire floodplain site into a vast ocean of mud over the weekend, with organisers eventually taking the tough but necessary decision to ban day ticket holders from arriving on Sunday.

But even if the weather is atrocious, the festival’s core spirit of musical and scientific adventure endures. Are we depleted? Maybe a little. Are we defeated? Definitely not.

In grand Bluedot tradition, the festivities open on Thursday evening in restrained Proms-style mode with a performance by contemporary classical composer Max Richter, backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. This two-part programme begins with ‘Recomposed’, Richter’s 2012 remix of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, which loops, stretches and lightly glitches up these antique violin concertos into more modernist shapes.

Richter’s pastel-shaded tastefulness can be something of a snooze on record, but in a live setting this piece becomes agreeably sharper and fuller, its stabbing string motifs couched in fizzing electronic treatments and sub-bass synthesiser rumbles. This dialogue between the 18th and 21st centuries is mostly fruitful, even if it sometimes creates the disquieting impression of being stuck on the end of a cosmic phone line in an interminable call-waiting limbo zone. 

After a short interval, as the sunset bathes Bluedot in gold and the Lovell Telescope dish becomes the world’s largest video screen, Richter returns with his more recent work, the substantial and sombre ‘Voices’. Originally conceived by the composer and his wife, visual artist Yulia Mahr, this spine-tingling and symphonic poem features spoken extracts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a foundation stone of the United Nations.

Tonight’s live stand-in for the various voices on the 2020 album version is Tilda Swinton, a striking stage presence with ice-blonde hair and wearing an electric blue suit, whose stern affirmation of the rights of asylum seekers and the freedom to protest earn the biggest cheers of the night. With passages of mournful violin and piano interplay, invoking Central European maestros like Krzysztof Penderecki and Andrzej Panufnik, this piece accumulates a quietly devastating emotional force. The otherworldly festival setting helps, of course, but this feels like a spellbinding moment from the high end of the Richter scale.

Fired up by their fabulous second album, ‘Yawning Abyss’, a defiantly bright and funny response to these dark times, synthpop supergroup Creep Show are a captivating early Bluedot highlight. Steeped in chugging, infectious electro-funk, machine-mangled vocals and blazing big-screen visuals, their performance is magnificent – like witnessing an effervescent, rough-edged Kraftwerk in full swing.

The chemistry between alt-pop crooner John Grant and cult electronic veteran Stephen “Mal” Mallinder works a treat, a darkly comic double act trading playful quips and sarcastic lyrics while Ben “Benge” Edwards and Phil Winter provide a lush backdrop of vintage analogue throbs and jittery beatbox chatter.

Despite their shared baggage of fame and considerable acclaim, Creep Show wear their reputations very lightly, radiating the same kind of fuck-you, future-forward iconoclasm as Cabaret Voltaire did almost half a century ago, dancing around the abyss like the four horsemen of the disco-punk apocalypse.

A Celtic priestess in flowing green robes, Gwenno brings deadpan humour and politically charged lyrics to the Orbit stage, trilling and whooping like a Welsh-Cornish Kate Bush. The multilingual Cardiff singer-songwriter soon wins over the crowd with melodious kraut-folk ballads about mythical kingdoms, elemental landscapes, tangled cultural roots and, of course, cheese.

“That was the largest combination of people singing about cheese in Cornish ever seen at Bluedot festival,” she beams approvingly.

Meanwhile, ‘NYCAW’ – ‘Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth’, translated as ‘Wales Is Not For Sale’ – sounds like the most romantic anti-gentrification protest song ever written. Gwenno’s accompanying video backdrop of quirky handmade animation only amplifies this sense of DIY, outsider-artist charm. She’s a rare treasure, a true original voice in any language.

Photo: Lucas Sinclair

The storm clouds return on Friday night, but not even an Old Testament downfall can dampen the irrepressible Róisín Murphy, whose headline set is as much sartorial extravagance as musical delight. The ebullient, avant-disco diva brings high-energy showmanship and countless dazzling outfits, transforming herself into a flesh-and-blood Tamara De Lempicka painting one minute and an exploded box of Quality Street the next.

Her heavily groove-driven set occasionally feels a little shapeless, but extended versions of classic Moloko bangers such as ‘Sing It Back’ and ‘The Time Is Now’ rightly earn a rapturous welcome, while recent storytelling single ‘The Universe’ is an agreeably odd tropical reverie. Murphy also makes inspired use of the Lovell Telescope, projecting live backstage footage onto its vast circular span during the encore before she re-emerges for a thrilling, superbly choreographed marching-band finale.

Of course, Bluedot is not just about household names and established stars. Scattered across the weekend on the smaller stages and quieter time-slots we find an army of great young talents, some already sounding very much like future headliners. Artists such as New Yorker Miss Grit – aka Korean-American Margaret Sohn – whose sleekly melodic studio recordings acquire a more alluringly crunchy texture when played live, laying gnarly avant-rock guitar over pulsing cyborg pop. There’s London electro-percussion trio MADMADMAD, whose bone-shaking set is brief but explosively energetic. And Leeds collective Holodrum, whose dense muscular fusion of polyrhythmic clatter with synths and vocals feels like Hot Chip with a monster hangover. Thanks to emerging performers like these, the fertile crosstown traffic between left-field electronica and post-punk experimentalism is as thrillingly alive as ever.

Mud-surfing around the Bluedot site often means making tough choices between competing stages, and Saturday night’s headline slot is a case in point.

On the one hand, the festival team have scored a major coup by securing the only UK show this year by recently reformed Californian slacker veterans Pavement. Part of a cohort of reunited 90s alt-rock icons currently playing to bigger crowds than they ever did in their heyday, Stephen Malkmus and his fellow wonky-haired 50-somethings share an agreeably sloppy, jokey chemistry onstage. They lurch and trundle at times, but it’s great to hear ramshackle classics like ‘Stereo’ and the hilarious ‘Range Life’, with its prophetically snide digs at pompous clowns Smashing Pumpkins. 

Alternatively, just a short walk away, Brightonian party-funk veterans The Go! Team are almost blowing the roof off the Orbit tent with sheer weapons-grade euphoria. Still amazingly ageless even after two decades as the most hyperactive frontwoman in dance-pop, Nkechi Ka Egenamba (aka Ninja) remains a ferocious force of nature – singing, rapping, dancing and whipping up the feelgood vibes on booty-shaking belters like ‘Mayday’ and ‘Gemini’. Often underrated but rarely understated, this sample-heavy collective bring block-rocking beats, brassy fanfares and welcome sunshine vibes to rain-sodden Bluedot. They even usher their cute toddlers onstage at the end, reinforcing the sense that this is a family affair.

So… Pavement in the muddy main arena or Britain’s greatest party band under a canvas shelter? Sorry, indie-rock dudes – no contest.

Sunday lunchtime delivers a magical only-at-Bluedot highlight as those venerable Jodrell Bank regulars, the Radiophonic Workshop, fire up their sonic screwdrivers and analogue noise generators on the Orbit stage. One of the festival’s umbrella themes this year is the 60th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’, with various ‘Who’-themed talks and events scattered across the site, curated by Manchester’s Delia Derbyshire Day group and comedian/’Who’ devotee Toby Hadoke.

The Radiophonics present a lavish audiovisual show titled ‘Dawn Of The Doctors’, jamming along in cosmic electro-rock mode to vintage Time Lord clips, including the clunky Tom Baker regeneration episode from 1981 (‘Logopolis’) featuring the actual Lovell Telescope. Although, as the band explained, filming at Jodrell Bank was forbidden at the time so this footage was only added to DVD and Blu-ray reissues years later.

Beyond the ‘Who’ material, this “dad’s army” of steampunk synthtronica also drop some vintage ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ tracks and immersive Delia deep cuts, notably her Wobbulator-driven cult classic ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’ from ‘The Prophet’, a 1967 BBC adaptation of an Isaac Asimov story about space robots founding their own religion.

The deliciously retro Scarfolk mood of this show feels at times like an Adam Curtis archive documentary in musical form, but leavened with a healthy streak of self-effacing music-hall humour. Hauntological throwbacks to a more optimistic age of techno-utopian futurism, the Radiophonics remain life-affirming national treasures, and this is a glorious show. Even Dick Mills, a veteran of the Radiophonic Workshop’s early days who worked with Delia on the original ‘Doctor Who’ theme, makes a cameo appearance. Long may they return to Bluedot, their spiritual home.

Packing out the Mission Control tent on Sunday is another bespoke Bluedot highlight, a special David Bowie edition of comedian Adam Buxton’s long-running ‘Bug’ live show, a kind of musical TED Talk featuring vintage video clips and satirical commentary.

Buxton’s huge affection for Bowie, as seen in lovingly detailed animated clips he has made over the years, does not keep him from highlighting some of the Starman’s more pretentious and preposterous mis-steps. As a fan of the immortal “cunt in a clown suit” anecdote from the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video shoot, it feels both moving and hilarious to see this lovely piece of Bowie folklore given the full Buxton animation treatment. This is the best kind of tribute show – rich in fanboy detail but refreshingly free of stifling reverence.

Even as relentless rain and soupy mud thin out the Bluedot crowd on Sunday night, anticipation is still pretty hot for Young Fathers. The Edinburgh multi-genre/rap trio are having a momentous year, earning considerable acclaim for their terrific Top 10 album ‘Heavy Heavy’ and a string of high-voltage live shows.

Young fathers – photo: scott m salt

On previous tours, the band’s core trio of Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham “G” Hastings and Kayus Bankole all jostled for the spotlight. With their live band now expanded to include two extra male musicians and two female backing vocalists, Young Fathers’ new policy appears to be sharing vocals between five or six people at all times, creating an exhilarating gospel-punk clamour. There is also a confrontational edge to their attack which makes this performance more pummelling than embracing. That said, the energy pouring from the stage is electrifying, a 21st century soul music show with real grit and passion.

Sunday night brings another time-clash dilemma as intergalactic artpop superstar Grace Jones gears up to headline the Lovell Stage just as Belfast’s electronic soundscaper Max Cooper sets the Orbit tent ablaze with his high-resolution 3D/audiovisual spectacular. Boasting a PhD in computational biology and a science-heavy conceptual show, which creates dazzling abstract collages from egghead concepts like Penrose tiling and “transcendental tree maps” of pi, Cooper is a natural fit for Bluedot’s boffin-friendly mission statement.

Hunched over his console in semi-darkness, partially obscured behind a giant gauze screen, there’s a pleasing snap, crackle and glitch to his sleek, throbbing IDM, with moments of fierce beauty behind the digital pyrotechnics.

There is probably some atom-smashing scientist on site at Jodrell Bank who could bend the fabric of space and time just enough for us to catch both headline slots by Cooper and Jones. Fortunately, the living legend solves this dilemma herself, arriving onstage almost 30 minutes late. She looks supernaturally young for her 75 years, but human lifespans mean very little on Planet Grace. Kneel before the goddess, puny earthlings.

From deluxe funk-rockers like ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ to a voluptuous ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, Jones transforms Bluedot into a jaw-dropping Dadaist catwalk show of outlandish hats, gravity-defying corsets and buttock-baring, hula-hooping, high-art spectacle. She sticks to her familiar greatest hits, but this avant-glam queen has always been bigger than her songs. Who else would have the audacity to transform the Lovell Telescope into a moon-sized disco mirror ball during ‘Love Is The Drug’? Even when playing to a sodden crowd knee-deep in liquid mud, Amazing Grace never disappoints.

And so, the end is near. After four days of hellish weather, Bluedot could have ended with a whimper, but instead it goes out with a bang. The handful of brave souls still on site after midnight on Sunday gather in the Nebula tent for Acid Klaus, the latest conceptual collective from prolific Sheffield producer Adrian Flanagan, the sweary studio svengali behind The Moonlandingz, International Teachers Of Pop and countless other projects.

“You lot are the hardcore,” Flanagan tells the last few party animals. “Thank you for coming out in this fucking swamp like real British masochists.”

True to the Bluedot ethos, his set ends with new electronic music, ‘Heaven’s For Sale’, a shiny blast of sexy disco-punk sarcasm. 

Frankly, Bluedot 2023 was challenging at times. Yet, even as we slither homewards through squelchy mud slicks stretching to the far horizon, Jodrell Bank still feels like the most magical festival location on this or any other planet. Next year, to be clear, more sunshine would be very welcome.

But meanwhile, why wish for the moon when we have the stars?

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