FORWARDS Festival review | A dazzling debut (with room to improve further)

A slightly uneven billing across FORWARDS Festival’s two days and the odd technical glitch couldn’t mar what was otherwise a superb first instalment of Bristol’s latest musical must. 

Little Simz


Little Simz. Charli XCX. Jamie XX. The Chemical Brothers. Not bad for your first party, nestled amidst the greenery of Bristol Downs on a blustery September weekend. Festival season might be coming to a close, but this made for a fine way to see off the summer.

That said, it’s a slight fabrication to say FORWARDS is entirely new. The team behind this new event consists of AEG (responsible for a little-known festival called Coachella, as well as All Points East) and Team Love, who run Love Saves The Day – a festival familiar to the bucket hat-wearing, drum and bass-loving students of Bristol.

For a city with such a prestigious musical history (Massive Attack, Portishead and, more recently, IDLES), FORWARDS is simply a festival that matches its wide-ranging love of music, which on the whole is more Shygirl than Shy FX.


Photo: Giulia Spadafora

Kojey Radical

Photo: Giulia Spadafora

In was, therefore, a slight shame that technical issues still hampered some of the sets. My noticing of it began with aforementioned Shygirl’s early afternoon set on Saturday; the esoteric South Londoner admitting she couldn’t quite hear herself and calling on technical support a number of times.

Overmono’s set on the second stage was troubled not by them struggling to hear it, but by some parts of the crowd finding it quiet; if you were either at the back or on the side that is, leaving the obvious solution to move in further. That’s the moaning out the way – and credit to the technicians who managed to improve the situation over the course of the two days.

Charli XCX proved herself to be the pop darling of Saturday, going full throttle through her chart-topping album CRASH, whilst also paying homage to her PC Music past with the likes of ‘Vroom Vroom’.

Houston’s Khruangbin played out their hugely gratifying psych-rock, the fringes of Laura Lee and Mark Speer flapping in the wind – credit to them for providing a brief take on Michael McDonald’s ‘I Keep Forgetting’ in a way that didn’t make it sound dated.

Charli XCX

Photo: Giulia Spadafora


Photo: Giulia Spadafora

The end of their set highlighted the other slight flaw, however – and one of the biggest backhanded compliments you could give to a festival. The line-up was almost so continuously impressive on the Saturday, you had to choose between maintaining a good spot for one leading act or catching the last twenty-or-so minutes of another. This reporter, reluctantly at the time, missed Fred Again.. for the sake of a front-row view of Little Simz.

I have little regret (although I’ve been told good things of Fred Again..). Little Simz played in-line with setting sun; sometimes she might be introvert, but on this occasion she was far from it. On ‘101 FM’, the Mercury-nominated artist even entered the crowd, walking through like a rapping prophet parting people as she moved.

Jamie XX’s closing set was certainly strong but wasn’t his finest; one or two more moments other than Shanks & Bigfoot’s ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ to lighten the mood from heavy techno would have been welcome – although closing with ‘Gosh’ was an intensity everyone could rally behind.

In fact, rallying, especially behind a common cause, has long-been a key strength of Bristol’s – a city where both the Colston statue was toppled and nationwide ‘Kill the Bill’ protests were spawned within less than a year. An exceptionally liberal city, a speaker such as Jack Monroe, being interviewed by Jay Rayner and talking about corporate greed and rising prices amidst a cost-of-living crisis was always going to play well – and provided plenty of food for thought.


Photo: Giulia Spadafora

Sleaford Mods

Photo: Giulia Spadafora

Returning to the music, navigating Sunday’s line-up was a slightly easier affair. Self Esteem, who I admire but wouldn’t listen to out of choice, heralded the fact this was her 31st and final festival of the summer, the glee evident in the few group hugs she had with her troupe of dancers.

Sleaford Mods induced a Bristol-friendly mosh, with space for people to move aside whilst still allowing for a good ol’ push-and-shove. They were joined at one stage by Billy Nomates, who was on the billing at the second stage earlier, for their track ‘Mork n Mindy’.

Róisín Murphy wound back the time with Moloko hits and her own house-backed anthems – and had more costume changes than Liz Truss on the campaign trail, wearing at one stage what looked like a sprawling lobster outfit.

Are you keeping up? I told you there’d be some big names; a smorgasbord of big hitters, many with headline potential of their own – especially for a festival in its first year.

Roisin Murphy

Photo: Eljay

The Chemical Brothers

Photo: Giulia Spadafora

So when The Chemical Brothers closed Sunday night, with their typically immense, state-of-the-art lighting and stage design, it was a statement of real intent.

Festival organisers had intended for FORWARDS to be slightly different to most. Sure, many say that, but the atmosphere and plentiful recycling bins did you make think twice about simply dropping your rubbish in the hope it’ll be cleaned up.

Indeed, Bristol has a new festival on its doorstep. One it can be proud of, that speaks to its musical history. And the best part is: it’ll probably only get better.

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