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Mud, Sweat, and Beers: Four Days at Download Festival

Chelsea Smile
Photo by Derek Bremner

In which our correspondent bravely chronicles the exhaustion, rain, and euphoria of one of Europe's biggest music festivals.

Over the past 13 years, Download has grown to be the second biggest festival in Europe. I have attended the last 12 of these and have witnessed first-hand its evolution into a truly significant event. Almost every gargantuan rock and metal act you can imagine has headlined and new bands and artists have been given platforms to showcase their talents to fresh audiences. Now a staple of the annual musical calendar and absolutely unmissable, I have the pleasure in sharing with you, my Download Festival Diary of a Madwoman.

Thursday:

As music does not start until Friday, Thursday afternoon is the perfect time to roll up to Donington Park in Leicestershire and set up my tent, which will be my mobile home for the next few days. The sun is blazing down and the British weather is proving glorious – for once. Having parked the car, it’s time to get my wristband and ‘dog tags’. Download Festival has decided to go cashless this year and is the first major UK festival to do so, LiveNation’s reasons being that it will make security tighter and also be more time-effective. Whether this is the case or not remains to be seen. I collect my wristband and dog tag, which already has funds on it, and head to set up my tent. I return to the car and visually assess if I can take the rest in one or two trips: I decide on one, which proves regrettable as I stagger back to the site like a contestant for the World’s Strongest Man.

As the main arena isn’t open, there’s only one place to go: the Village, an area full of bars, shops, fun fair rides, food stalls and a few large event tents. One of them being the Comedy Tent where an act called Kunt and the Gang are due to perform. I’ve heard of this act before, but never seen it live and boy, am I in for a treat. The tent is completely packed out, but I manage to squeeze in and realize that Kunt and the Gang is in fact one man with a series of puppets including one of deceased nationally known rapist and pedophile, Jimmy Saville. Three words I would use to describe this act are sexist, offensive and (wildly) inappropriate. Another three words I would use are hilarious, entertaining and (definitely) unique. Songs include ‘Period Pants’, ‘The Abortion Song’ and ‘Use My Arsehole as a Cunt’. Delightful. I know I will be seeing them again.

The evening slowly melts into a melange of pints and shots at a rock and metal music club night in one of the tents.

Friday

I awake in what I thought was a straitjacket, but turned out to be my sleeping bag. I appear to have half-eaten a sausage roll in my haze from the previous night. Now, to find the toilets – or “porta loos”. The first one I select is utterly foul and considering it’s only Friday, I dread to think how they’ll be come the end of the festival. I make it back to the tent in time for my first wet wipe bath and nuke myself with deodorant and fragrances and head to the recently opened press area. Electricity! Filter coffee! Cold bottled water! Chairs and sofas! Less than 24 hours since arriving and these items feel like a distant memory. The friendly community of journalists and publicists that see each other every year create an organically warm atmosphere – lots of phones and laptops charging amidst a sea of handshakes, back-slaps and hugs.

From the TV screen in the press area I see that the front gates have opened and punters are making their way into the arena. Slipknot are tonight’s headliner and their fans, the ‘maggots’, rush to the main stage front barrier where they will need to save their premium positioning for a whopping 10 hours if they want to retain the best seats in the house for their favourite band.

At 1:03 PM, the first visible mosh pit of Download Festival 2015 breaks out to All That Remains. The band that follows them is Hellyeah, which features Pantera co-founder and drummer Vinnie Paul. Usually a posse who prides themselves on fun and enjoying the three B’s – booze, boobs and BBQ – today’s performance is much more intense than usual. Vocalist Chad Gray, formerly of Mudvayne, wears Marilyn Manson-esque white contacts and has a red, blood-like substance smeared all over his face which matches the band’s crimson backdrop to promote their latest album, In Blood. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to see a gang of Hulk Hogans pretending it wasn’t them. Naturally. The set ends with Vinnie Paul throwing his drum sticks into the crowd and waving goodbye; it’s very cool to see metal royalty so early into the festival.

The sun is out of sight, but the humidity of summertime is still very present. I decide to get some lunch. The things about festivals in 2015 is that you no longer have to choose between a burger or a hot dog. There is an array of different food to suit your every craving – calzones, pulled pork, churros, fish n’ chips, burritos, you name it. I decide on pizza: stone oven baked with spicy salami, parmesan cheese, black olives and rocket leaves. Bon appétit!

Clutch are about to start, so I grab a beer, because you should always have a drink in your hand when watching Clutch. It’s standard procedure. Clutch are incapable of putting on a bad show, it’s just not possible. The foursome has been together for 24 years, and their own homebrewed brand of blues-infused rock has more sass than you can shake a stick at. Frontman Neil Fallon produces a hefty cowbell and plays it with impeccable rhythm. They tease the crowd with the title track from their forthcoming album, Psychic Warfare and Fallon introduces each member as their respective star sign.

As Clutch’s slot comes to an end, there is light rain. Hang on a minute, this change in weather wasn’t predicted until Saturday. Hopefully it will stop soon.

I manage to catch a few precious moments of progressive post-metal lads Sylosis on stage three before hauling ass all the way to Stage 2 to see Corrosion of Conformity who has recently reunited with Down guitarist Pepper Keenan after almost a decade. As the rain gets heavier, COC’s authentically gut-wrenching sludge metal is almost ironic considering the evolving conditions around us and Keenan tells the crowd that the band first played these grounds 20 years ago, when some of them weren’t even born.

I decide to take refuge in my tent for a short while until the rain stops, which it does. But only momentarily. It doesn’t matter. Black Stone Cherry is on Stage 2 and I’m not missing them for anything. As it absolutely pours down, I hope they start with “Rain Wizard”, the opening track from their first record. They do! Deep-fried Southern boogie is exactly what the doctor ordered to warm the audience up. The Kentucky natives are as energetic as ever and they debut a brand new song, named “Roadrunner”.

SLIPKNOT / Photo: Gobinder Jhitta

Finally, it’s time for the first main stage headliner of the festival: Slipknot. As a kid, I loved Slipknot. When their self-titled debut came out in 1999, it was the most extreme thing I had ever heard. Marry that with the visual of 9 fully grown men in boiler suits wearing terrifyingly contorted masks, each with its own personalised theme and it really was like the stuff nightmares are made of. But as the years went on, their music became progressively more commercial and members were unmasked to support respective side projects. Slipknot’s shock rock appeal had paled and mystery and intrigue slowly evaporated. Then came the death of bassist Paul Gray by way of overdose, which stunned the metal community, artists and fans alike. The remaining members of Slipknot were fractured in the wake of this tragedy, but for me as a fan; it was when they fired drummer Joey Jordison, an original member of 18 years, in 2013 that I checked out. They blindsided not only the fans but also Jordison, one of the most active members of the group, who has lent his hand to production also.

So, I decide to silently protest watching Slipknot in the arena and just watch them on the TV screen in the press tent instead. My decision is affirmed by the now torrential rain and also the fact that the kind PR agency running the area has taken pity on us soggy writers/snappers and has thrown a few crates of beer our way.

As Slipknot take on the most prestigious slot of the evening, it’s clear that they’re electrifying their ‘maggots’ with everything they’ve got. They are still visually impressive, there’s no denying it, and I do admire how they change up their masks every tour cycle to make them more grotesque and obscene, it’s like cooking up a fresh batch of terror. Still, “It’s not Slipknot without Joey,” I mutter to myself continuously. No one else seems to care.

Saturday

The rain from the night before has turned Download Festival into a thick, gooey mud soup. As the rain has stopped momentarily, I decide to make a break for The Village and buy an umbrella. But first I must pull waterproofs on over my clothes in order to brave the elements. This is not a short walk – especially in waterproofs and going against the mud and incoming arena traffic is like short assault course, but I finally make it. The first place I try has sold out of umbrellas, which extinguishes all of my hope at once. But alas, there is another stand, which happily sells me a handbag sized umbrella for the economical price of £5. I snap this up gleefully and head back to my tent where I shed my mud-caked waterproofs and head into the arena.

MUSE / Photo: Richard Johnson

As I walk, I pass only two people wearing Muse shirts, who are tonight’s headliners. Some might call it a controversial decision to book a band like Muse who are largely branded as indie for a rock and metal festival like Download. In fact, when they were announced, you could hear the sound of toys being thrown out of prams all across the country, not to mention an avalanche of irksome whining on social media.

I hear the rumble of Hollywood Undead and their delightful lyrics, “Everywhere we go, bitches always know”. Soon enough it’s time to head to the main stage to see Parkway Drive, who are on the cusp of releasing their fifth album, Ire. It’s raining yet again, but it’s impossible not to be completely swept away by the band’s happy, sun-kissed Aussie faces and ability to exude such positivity and enthusiasm. To lift everyone’s spirits they cover “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine, not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but the guys entirely do it justice. Bravo, chaps.

Just as the mood encompassing the weekend’s festivities threatens to dip, when the sky becomes completely overcast and rain is imminent, queue A Day to Remember, who arrive just in the nick of time with their all-black, patriotic stars and stripes backdrop; complete with a gigantic bald eagle image. A Day to Remember are one of the most relevant bands of our time in my opinion: totally melodic, effortlessly cool and able to bounce genres around as they please. At one point frontman Jeremy McKinnon, walks down the stage’s catwalk into the crowd with an acoustic guitar and tells us he’s going to play a song to show just how much he loves Great Britain. The songs turns out to be “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, which is executed softly with grace and upon finishing, McKinnon publicly urges the Gallagher brothers to reform Oasis. McKinnon also humbly states that he still cannot believe A Day to Remember plays shows for a living and pledges to headline Download Festival one day.

FAITH NO MORE / Photo: Scott Salt

It seems that just as I’ve left the main stage, I have to return. Faith No More have started. I’m running back to the main stage, I’m running! The tons of solidifying mud around the main stage hilariously contrasts with Faith No More’s plain, stark white backdrop and get-up of stark white pants and matching collarless shirts, including their crew. They look like a cross between a luxury spa team and mental asylum staff, plus the extravagant blooms of pastel-coloured flowers adorning the stage only serve to further enhance the surrealness of this experience. Faith No More proceed to smash through their greatest hits. At one point, Mike Patton takes a headset off an unassuming security guard on the stage and decided to instruct the person on the other end – “There are terrorists, we must evacuate!!!” A solid performance from a band that is so unconditionally loved and respected by alternative music fans everywhere. I see a whopping third Muse shirt of the day.

MARILYN MANSON / Photo: Danny North

Before I know it, Marilyn Manson is headlining the second stage and I’m not missing this for all of the tea in China. I purposely haven’t seen him for a few years due to a couple of lukewarm albums and erratic, unenjoyable live performances but his latest record The Pale Emperor, which was released in January, is inarguably his best work in many years.

The performance starts with so much smoke and dry ice that it’s almost impossible to see the stage, let alone Manson. Then he suddenly emerges wearing a long black jacket, head shaved into a short black, impotent Mohawk and face coated in his signature thickly-painted uneven make-up. His black-gloved hands hold a '50s microphone and as he starts to blast through a relatively even smattering of his back catalogue, he shouts out to Ice-T who played with his band Body Count earlier and brings him on stage, crowning him “the inventor of everything, including iced tea.” Manson’s stage set-up is, as always, quite the spectacle. His backdrop constantly changes but, rather narcissistically, it’s mainly of his face and there are several free-standing tall stained glass window props featuring full length portraits of…himself. At one point he appears to be singing to these props and then I notice that the microphone has changed to a knife handle, below it hangs a rigid foot long butchers steel blade. There’s no doubt about it, Manson looks incredible and he sounds even better. He plays old, new and favourites and yes, he does address the audience in between songs with statements that could be misconstrued as unintelligible garbled nonsense, but if he didn’t , he wouldn’t be Marilyn Manson! As the self-proclaimed God of Fuck finishes up, I smirk to myself, he’s back.

With all of this Manson fanfare effervescing and crackling around me, it was easy to forget that Muse is currently smack-bang into their set on the main stage; so I head there along with the mass exodus of Stage 2, to see the last portion of live music tonight. I’ve been lucky enough to see Muse perform a few times, very early on in their career and they were magnificent then, but now, it’s clear to see that their progressive rock wizardry has been promoted to new heights. Matt Bellamy and co.’s sophisticated arrangements and brilliant visual on-screen graphics are in a class of their own. Muse fully deserves their headlining spot tonight and anyone who says differently seriously needs to have their head checked.

Sunday

After three nights of camping I decide that it’s time to pack down and leave at the end of the festival. After heaving all the gear to the car, in two lighter trips now I’m minus food and booze, I feel a fresh ray of hope that in less than 24 hours, I’ll have access to a shower and a bed. Though probably not in that order.

Once again, the sky opens up in the arena and it’s raining. We can’t catch a break! I make peace with the fact that my £5, somewhat shredded and now metal-protruding umbrella is an inevitable casualty. Cavalera Conspiracy is on the main stage playing a collection of their own songs and although predictable, we’re definitely grateful that they throw in the Sepultura classic, “Roots, Bloody Roots”, seeing as both brothers formerly played and indeed co-founded Sepultura. In tribute to the UK, drummer Iggor Cavalera is wearing London team Arsenal’s football shirt. As a supporter of rival London team Chelsea, I’ll just leave it there.

Blackberry Smoke is up next and there are enough sunglasses, bellbottoms and sideburns on stage to almost make the audience believe we’re in sunny Georgia. The Southern crooners set a mellow tone with their laid-back-almost-falling-over demeanour and country swagger as they belt out some unanimously approved honky tonk.

I head over to Stage 2 to see grunge-before-it-was-grunge band L7, who have recently reformed after a 13-year hiatus. Their controversial performances and overt sexuality are something of legend. Considering all four women are in their late 40s/early 50s, they truly own the stage, playing their instruments dominantly with fierce prowess. At one point, members of the crowd are waving tampons by their strings in a circular motion above their heads. I just really hope that they’re unused.

SLASH / Photo: Scott Salt

I’ve seen Slash many times before, but missing him at any festival ever, would be criminal. So I head back to the main stage. There’s been gossip of Duff McKagan, also formerly of Gun N’ Roses, joining him on stage because he’s been spotted onsite, but it doesn’t happen. Instead Slash and vocalist Myles Kennedy and co, play a blistering set of Slash, Guns N’ Roses, and Velvet Revolver songs. The hat, the hair, the signature Gibson Les Paul, always the personification of ‘cool’, and he never hits a bum note. Phenomenal.

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Mötley Crüe are up next, playing their very last UK festival performance after having just announced the final dates of their farewell tour and there’s a lot of anticipation in the air. Tommy Lee, Nikki Sixx and even Mick Mars actually look in pretty great shape; Vince Neil is, ahem, still carrying a few pounds over from Christmas perhaps, and although he’s short of breath at times, boy is he going for it. Regardless of what you think of Crüe live or on record, there’s no arguing that their contribution to the genre of rock music was something unlike the world had ever seen and seeing all four original members on stage, really is nothing short of monumental.

As I head over to see Lamb of God headline the second stage, it really hits me how much we have been spoiled with this incredible line-up. Frontman Randy Blythe humbly thanks the crowd for abandoning the tail end of Mötley to see his band and professes that he and Nikki Sixx are indeed friends. The Virginia natives spare no time in laying the crowd to waste with an avalanche of groove metal selecting tracks from their record releases, which span the past 20 years. Guitarist Willie Adler has lost so much weight that he’s almost unrecognizable. His older brother Chris rocks a Megadeth t-shirt behind his kit, in support of the recent announcement that he will drum on their forthcoming album. As always with Lamb of God, the set is over too soon and they purposefully leave you thirsty for more.

KISS / Photo" Andrew Whitton

It’s the final countdown. KISS is the last band to finish off Download Festival 2015. Their performance starts with a short, grainy black and white backstage video showing them getting ready and heading to the main stage. The excitement and anticipation builds slowly until it becomes gradually, more intense and then it suddenly hits a crescendo as the front stage curtain drops and the Starchild, the Demon, and their hired hands dressed as the Spaceman and the Catman are revealed. Their black and metallic, tightly fitted outfits gleam amidst a sea of pyrotechnics behind them. Kiss is simply incredible as always: bold, loud, iconic. I see Gene Simmons’ pointy demonic tongue threatening to poke someone’s eye out meters away and you just know it’s the real deal. It always amazes me how the standing members of the band can competently dance with such vigor and energy despite being in their 60s and wearing knee-high platform boots.

I can hardly walk in my wellington boots after three days of mud, sweat and beers. The stench of un-showered flesh, body odour and dirt coming off of tens of thousands of people as they stumble around, inebriated from three days’ worth of partying and ethanol consumption in Donington Park, only attracted to something by sound or light at this point, is not dissimilar to a season finale scene from The Walking Dead.

Download, you have broken me. See you next year.

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