"It's nice to see you all here," says Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts, surveying the indolent crowd enjoying the last of the afternoon sun in this picturesque Herefordshire valley. And he's right, it is nice. The Big Chill is perhaps the nicest of all festivals: nice people, nice stewards, nice security. Even the drive up is nice, past prim timbered country pubs offering wild boar luncheons. There are no queues, plenty of room to camp, and even an abundance of toilet paper at the lavatories.

But all this niceness conceals a harsher truth, which is that The Big Chill this year is far from sold out; the touts flogging tickets by the side of the road will have earned themselves a good suntan, but little else. It means that most performers find it tough to drum up an atmosphere.

Among them are Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, who leave the sparse mid-afternoon crowd utterly befuddled. Plenty of Big Chill punters might fancy themselves as a bit wacky, to the extent of wearing a penguin costume or nothing but Y-fronts and a top hat, but they recoil when confronted with a genuine weirdo, Ariel Pink shuffling about the stage in Captain Caveman haircut and a purple dress, lending a genuinely disturbing edge to his band's brilliantly bizarre proggy muzak. The disconnect between artist and audience couldn't be greater; they finish 15 minutes early.

Initially, Wild Beasts fare only slightly better. The face of the heavily hennaed woman at the veggie burger van visible wrinkles in disgust the moment Hayden Thorpe starts belting out his fruity falsetto. "Not very wild, are they?" she observes. But that depends on your definition of the word; at least a decent proportion of the crowd figure that songs about the dark depths of the male ego and premature ejaculation, delivered in the manner of Heathcliff singing up to Cathy's window, are quite wild enough, given the context.

Over on the Revellers' Stage, Horace Andy provides a more reassuring skank, while another of Massive Attack's old muckers Neneh Cherry manages to rouse the crowd with a bassy version of Buffalo Stance. Hercules & Love Affair should be the perfect Big Chill band, their savvy take on classic New York house and disco enhanced by a stocky, gay frontman in a tie-dye smock and a leapord-print turban. But the revelry remains reserved.

Raising the headgear stakes, Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun appears amid the impressive opulence of his stage show in a blue laser headdress. The band look amazing, but there are a few too many dodgy electro-funk numbers between the hits. Walking on a Dream is a winner, however, with Steele reappearing dressed as a camp Norse god.

In the end, though, it's left to two distinctly unassuming performers to unite the Big Chill crowd. The Chemical Brothers have headlined so many festivals that it's easy to take them for granted, but their combination of thumping beats, lasers and psychedelic scree rarely disappoints. There are genuine hits too: for their encore, they mash up Leave Home and Galvanise, before finishing with a pulverising rendition of Block Rockin' Beats. Despite some valiant efforts by Plastician, Cooly G and XXXY in the sparely-attended late-night rave tents, everything else feels like a comedown.


Sam Richards

The GuardianTramp

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