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REVIEW: Download much more than just hairy bikers and air guitar

I'm hardly a festival virgin, having been to quite a few, but Download was something I'd never considered until this year, dismissing it, almost subconsciously, as a get-together for drunken bikers and scary metal heads.

But my 16-year-old son has got into heavier music in recent years and, always up for new experiences even at the ripe old age of 49, I gladly took him to Castle Donington at the weekend to see what all the fuss was about.

And it was amazing. You see I've been to the genteel Cambridge Folk Festival, the 'role model' Beautiful Days in Devon and last year visited the Victorious event in Portsmouth - but none were nearly as brilliant as this.

The packed main stage crowd
The packed main stage crowd

Like-minded people of all ages travel to Castle Donington for this annual rock pilgrimage and the atmosphere they create together is one of happiness, warmth, empathy and unity. It's quite unique and it's lovely.

Another misconception of mine was the type of music on offer, my belief being the genres would gravitate from heavy rock to darker, more Satanic offerings. I could not be more wrong. During my three days, I witnessed thrash-, black- and symphonic-metal, old-school-, hip hop-, ska-, and ragga-punk, good old fashioned rock and roll and other bands that were great but impossible to pigeon hole.


And, although most groups I saw came from the UK or the States, I also enjoyed acts from Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa and Sweden.

Set across two large stages and two tents, there's always someone to see at the festival, so much so that we never even ventured to the wrestling, the air guitar championships, the circus of horrors or any other of the extra events put on for those who were all rocked out.


It's hard to say who stole the show for me on a weekend when I saw more than 20 bands, but I think Slipknot's Saturday night performance just edged it. Their music is loud and it is aggressive but it's also full of passion and energy and Corey Taylor really can sing. And watching them is akin to being at a circus, with the masks and the strobes and pyrotechnics. Wow, just wow.

English electronicore masters Enter Shikari put on an amazing headline set in the Avalanche tent on Sunday evening and we then hot footed it to the main stage, where progressive metal titans Tool put on a hell of a show for their adoring fans.

Enter Shikari
Enter Shikari

Other Sunday highlights for me were American rockers Godsmack and metal band Lamb of God on the main stage, hardcore punk outfit Beartooth on the Zippo Encore Stage and energetic American rapcore band Fever 333 in the Avalanche tent.

Alien Weaponry
Alien Weaponry

Apart from Slipknot, New Zealand alternative metal band Alien Weaponry impressed me on Saturday, with some of their songs on the main stage actually performed in the Māori language. Swedish rockers Royal Republic followed them with a wonderful set but we quickly exited one song into Polish black metal band Behemoth's set. Black, Satanic metal is not for me.


Skindred are an amazing band and no-one seemed to notice it raining during a terrific set that combined elements of metal, alt rock, reggae, punk, dancehall, jungle, ska, hip hop, drum and bass and dubstep. We also enjoyed Canadian rockers Three Days Grace and American stars Stone Temple Pilots on the Encore Stage.

The Interrupters
The Interrupters

Our first day, the Friday, was also packed with great sounds. Tokyo hard dance rockers Man With A Mission put on a fantastic afternoon set in the Avalanche tent, all the members wearing differently designed wolf masks. USA punk rockers Zebrahead followed them with an equally energetic performance before LA ska punkers The Interrupters put on one of my favourite shows of the weekend.

Capping off a superb afternoon and evening in the tent were Me First and The Gimme Gimmes, a California act who play rapid-fire punk interpretations of a wide range of songs, including Jolene, Rocketman, Sloop John B and Uptown Girl.

Me First and The Gimme Gimmes
Me First and The Gimme Gimmes

The whole weekend was wonderful, most of the bands I loved I had never even heard of before and I'll be adding to my music collection as soon a my finances recover from the Download beer tent. And, I'll be back.


Download Festival: Why you should go in 2020

Tickets are already on sale for next year's Download and and, if you're a rock music fan and have never been to a festival, you cannot go wrong with this one.

Set in acres of fields around the Castle Donington race track, it takes less than two hours from south Lincolnshire to drive there.

There are various camp sites and different options, from pitching your tent in a field to staying in a luxury cabin or tipi. We took a four-man pop-up tent for the two of us and were perfectly comfortable for our Friday morning to Monday morning stay.

Early bird tickets for 2020 are on sale now at only £175 but you can pay a bit more and camp from the Wednesday, with non-music entertainment such as comedy shows there to keep you amused.

There's around 12 hours of music in two stages and two tents from 11am to 11pm and loads of other stuff going on too, such as fairground rides, a circus of horrors and wrestling.

There's loads of food tents, several bars and, most importantly, thousands of friendly people.

So those are the positives... what of the negatives? Well, you do usually get mud at festivals...but it's not half as bad as people make out. Despite tales of people leaving before the first band started because of 'Biblical rain' this year, the site held up well.

Mud is cleared away and covered in straw and the camping area we stayed in was still full of lush grass - it's only the walkways that really suffer from the mixture of rain and thousands of feet. Just make sure you bring wellies - you'll almost certainly need them if it's rained.

Camping chairs and blankets are welcome and, if it does rain, we found a £1 poncho works a treat in keeping you dry until the sun comes out again.

There can be a bit of noise after dark in the camp sites, but there are family friendly tent areas and upgrades.

And you might have to rough it a bit...but wet wipes and a toothbrush kept me clean for three nights (my boy said I didn't smell!). Otherwise you can queue for a shower.

But the highs of this friendly, well organised and fantastic value festival far outweigh the lows. I cannot wait to go again.


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