Review by Amy McGill with Photography by Cath Dupuy

Nestled within bucolic parklands beyond the bustling edges of Bristol city, The Downs Festival returns for a triumphant fourth outing that brings together the special and the spectacular. This one-day event celebrates a diverse array of performances from both legendary and up-and-coming artists, topped off with a sizeable dollop of political goodwill. And despite the ominous presence of dark clouds and downpours that loom large that morning, blue skies and sunshine eventually triumph in time for the festival’s opening hour.

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Which is just as well, because today’s opening act Mercy’s Cartel perfectly encapsulates the hazy summer vibes we all need. As the slate-grey cumuli retreat, the slowly swelling crowd gratefully warm up to the soulful stylings of vocalist Mercy Sotire and her band. Effortlessly impassioned and elegantly honeyed, Sotire’s voice weaves through a little of everything, from funk and hip-hop to smatterings of afro-beat and R‘n’B. It’s a perfect sonic lift for the people. “We’re Mercy’s Cartel, in case anyone’s wondering who the f*ck we are,” giggles Sotire mid-set. Well, we know now, and we won’t forget any time soon.

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Up next are Fontaines D.C., a completely different musical animal, and one that attests to the emerging eclecticism of the day. This Irish punk quintet take to the stage with a moody rock ‘n’ roll swagger that, on the surface, recalls Oasis or the Vaccines. College casualness may best describe their look, but the sound is raucous and bloody, melding the gut-punching riffage of Fugazi with the murky post-punk keening of Joy Division. The band fire out heavy indie gems from their recently acclaimed ‘Dogrel’ release as singer Grian Chatten prowls the stage like a punch-drunk panther eyeing its prey, summoning his crowd into an airborne frenzy with little more than a look. It’s a fine thing to witness.

From hereon in, the icon sets start to happen as Neneh Cherry launches her show with the harmonious and opulent ‘Man Child’. Set against a backdrop of vibrant urban art, her band’s synths, harps and percussion sweep the soundscape during a showcase that makes her perfectly suited to Bristol and its legendary trip-hop scene. Her political voice also grins through as she entreats us all to come together to bring about change. It’s an uplifting moment before she leads the crowd into a woozy singalong of the swinging, soul-fuelled ‘Woman’. Later, thousands of hands reach for the heavens as the 1994 Youssou N’Dour-penned super-hit ‘Seven Seconds’ soars from the stage. Chart-bangers aside, Cherry is remarkable for her arsenal of sounds as she croons and raps through drum ‘n’ bass, dub and hip-hop, transforming the festival into a dazzling, genre-bending rave.

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“This is an anti-fascist song!” barks Idles frontman Jason Williamson. His words prove a common refrain throughout the band’s whirlwind set, stamping a clear, potent message of social tolerance into the ears of the now 20,000 strong throng. Indeed, Bristol’s own punk-rockers need little introduction as they bring home their toxic hyper-musicality to rambunctious crowd-surfing fans. The raw, tribal anthem is their musical modus operandi, but this band’s raging fire comes with a message of love and unity, exemplified by the rousing pro-immigration anthem ‘Danny Nekeldo’. There are moments of inspired stagecraft, from an audience-dive-based karaoke mashup right through to their sweat-soaked piledriving finale. As a live band, Idles are something else: a weapon of sonic destruction, training its sights on its sun-drenched targets.

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As the sun sets over The Downs, a cloaked and masked figure appears elevated on the stage. Grace Jones has arrived to the strains of reggae-bop of ‘Nightclubbing’, and is of course the stylish, mercurial goddess we’ve come to expect. Adorning an array of weird and wonderful headdresses throughout the show – a Jamaican-deity, steampunk alien, blonde stallion, Medieval knight – her chameleonic vitality keeps us enraptured and our senses sated. But this isn’t just about Grace the fashion icon: her voice is wonderfully on point, ranging from a slow sultry rap to a low-slung vibrato. There is a moment of reflection too as she takes a generous glug of onstage “communion wine” and sings a beautiful gospel rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’. The show is also a reminder of the breadth of her sound, tearing through decades of bass-heavy funk, riff-laden rock and bouncy disco.

Night falls and the best is yet to come. After a brief exit Jones reappears, decked out in glitzy cabaret attire, twirling and gyrating as a hula hoop circles her hips throughout the seven minute outro of ‘Slave to the Rhythm’. At the age of 71, this woman delivers the kind of sheer entertainment that many artists a fraction of her age could only dream of.

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Over on the second Avalon Stage, headliner Loyle Carner is mesmerising with his fusion of hip-hop grooves and indie-rock, drawing a sizeable crowd with plenty of thoughtful lyricism and some rock-steady grooves. It’s a life-affirming set – heavy in tracks from his ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ album – where danceable energy, confessional poetry and hard bass mingle into a fascinating musical assault.

With headliner Lauryn Hill waiting in the wings, DJ Reborn gets the expectant masses undulating with an upbeat and effervescent set of iconic hip-hop tidbits, playing hits from Biggie Smalls to Nicki Minaj. Then, in comes the hip-hop godmother herself, with a gospel-infused intro leading into the R’n’B opener ‘Lost Ones’. This is a show that marks 21 years of the seminal album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’, a five-time Grammy-winning classic. It comes as no surprise then that the set is dominated by tracks from this multi-platinum record. Hill has the crowd bouncing with ‘Doo-Wop (That Thing)’ and singing along to ‘Everything is Everything’ with abandon. Her band add to tonight’s emotional punch, flanked by two soulful backing singers and a lightning-fast guitarist.

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Sporting a black baseball cap and huge diamond encrusted jewellery, Hill looks barely a day older than she did in the ’90s. She has plenty of stories to tell too, recalling the early blossoming of her music career and then, in a meta-moment, singing in front of a video montage of her past performances. She also has plenty to say about politics, referencing police brutality in the US. As a musical presence, she is as commanding as ever, her yearning soul vocals flawless, her rap flow smooth and slick.

Of course, Hill’s musical legacy is inextricably linked to her time as frontwoman of the Fugees. As one might hope, she concludes her set with the holy trinity of ‘Killing Me Softly’, ‘Fu-Gee-La’, and an epic rendition of ‘Ready or Not’, culminating in a glorious light and sound finale.

With this denouement comes a powerful reminder that the festival – and by extension live music at large – offers more than mere escapism. A chorus of incredible voices, led by two iconic black women, makes it a powerful vehicle for activism which, in these turbulent times, offers us a beacon of hope.

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See the full photoset from The Downs Bristol 2019 here.

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