FORWARDS Festival 2023 review: big names bring summer to a close at Bristol’s fledgling bash

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The British summer redeems itself with the sun shining down on the second edition of FORWARDS festival, following its debut in 2022.

The lineup is impressive, with headliners Erykah Badu and Aphex Twin spearheading the main stage. The careful planning and attention to safety and access are commendable, with first aid and security lining the fences and people such as Safer Spaces are on hand throughout to providing support. Sound quality has also improved notably since last year, making a massive difference to the experience as a whole.

FORWARDS prides itself on its forward thinking in regards to it’s environmental and down to earth boundary pushing campaigns. The website is littered with the phrase “more than just a music festival, it looks to challenge what metropolitan festivals can be today and how they can do good, from the inside out”. Some would argue that FORWARDS are giving themselves a pat on the back for doing what most festivals already do with no clear indication that the they are going an extra mile.

The festival also prohibits re-entry; a policy which FORWARDS justify via their social media by stating that it is “standard across events today.” Challenging what metropolitan festivals can be by doing exactly what other metropolitan festivals do results in exploiting punters like hamsters in a cage. £13 for chips and gravy alongside a ticket price of £75-£100 hinders the progressive image that the event is pursuing.

Following the requirement to eat a contraband banana in front of a disgruntled security guard upon entry, the general atmosphere is undeniably a friendly one ahead of Friday night’s headline performance from the legendary Erykah Badu. You almost forget that you’re standing on the Clifton Downs as the iconic artist enters the stage in a large metallic hat as her hit ‘On & On’ provides the neo-soul that Bristol love.

Highly anticipated Viagra Boys pull out last minute due to Visa complications, so local band SCALER (fka SCALPING) are bumped from their spot on the Information stage to the West stage. The band relish the upgrade and seem unphased as they delivered tracks like 2021’s ‘Monolithium‘; a composition which would hold its own in front of a crowd ten times the size if necessary.

Local band Saloon Dion burst onto the Information stage. Right off the bat they prove to be one of the most exciting bands of the day, the working class Bristol lads whip up a primal response within minutes of their set. The five-piece draw a large crowd with their magnetic energy, notably with ‘I Don’t Feel’ from their 2023 album Muckers.

Prima Queen perform their set to a sundown backdrop, as music peppered with storytelling and nostalgia is anchored by the violin from lead singer Louise Macphail. A standout performance of ‘Invisible Hand’, written about a member of Machphail’s family, is moving and triumphantly joyous.

Confidence Man prove their athleticism and contagious energy with a high intensity set which pulled out all the theatrics (fake blood, dance routines, light up bras) they end the set with their 2022’s ‘Holiday’ which sends the large audience into a frenzy.

Bristol’s very own Katy J Pearson and her band take the West stage, with ‘Beautiful Soul’, from her 2020 album Return, making for one of the day’s highlight. The camera pans across the audience to thousands of people singing along as Pearson’s angelic voice soothes the crowd. The flute adds a special touch, complimenting the guitar and vocals in the early evening air.

As the festival draws to a close, thousands flock to the west stage for Aphex Twin’s momentous set. Presenting inconspicuously as always, he is hidden to the back of the stage by a black veil. The tracks match the riveting set and visuals, which include shots of Mr Bean, King Charles and local hero Big Jeff, before their faces are mutated and merged with the DJ’s own. The personalised live set feels tight and unique, leaving an awestruck crowd in its wake.

Overlooking a handful of poorly thought-out protocols, which threaten to sour memories and empty pockets: FORWARDS is far ahead of its peers and boast a lineup that any day festival would envy, delivering an enjoyable weekend of music and entertainment with some truly exceptional moments.

Additional material from Daisy Kennedy
Photo credit: Cloe Morrison

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