A couple of days before the Download Pilot, I wrote a feature about the importance of the Download Festival family to so many of us. The response to the piece was far beyond anything I ever hoped for or expected; It was great to talk to loads of people who read it about their Download families and how much everyone has missed those people in their lives.
One week later, I find myself in exactly the same spot, laid on my living room floor in the early hours, reflecting on the day spent at the Download Pilot Festival last Saturday (and now finishing it again a couple of further weeks on). Time spent reuniting and reconnecting with friends, witnessing live music for the first time in 484 days, and being back on that hallowed Donington turf. The only way to sum it up in one sentence is – wonderful normality, just for one day.
The drive to Download is thankfully uneventful. Pulling off the M1 and seeing the roads that pave the way to Donington is a little strange. I’m not at all ashamed to say seeing those famous gates was very surreal given the world we’re all currently living in, and a little bit emotional.
In terms of making the event as COVID secure as they could, the Download team did a first class job. It was masks on until you’d made the short journey from the car park through COVID clearance, with friendly staff at a couple of different points to help out and show you exactly where to go. After collecting the necessary press and car park passes and a quick trip back to the car to sort that out, I spy the first of many old friends, in the car park no less (shout out to the tallest man in metal, TesseracT’s James Monteith). I have two further catch up’s before I’ve even made it through the gate into the arena proper. Hugs, remarks about how equally surreal and amazing it is, and catching up on life and the events of the previous day is what it’s all about. And how I’ve missed this – those short interactions you have with friends and colleagues at events like this. It makes you all the more appreciative of where we are and what we are doing.
For the past couple of weeks, I’d been keeping a BIG secret – that two of my oldest Download friends (the couple I referenced in the previous feature) – Jamie and Lauren – were getting married here at the Download Pilot. Having met on the hallowed turf back in 2008 – there was nowhere more perfect for them to tie the knot. I was gutted I’d missed the service – in front of the main stage no less – the previous day, with two of of our other best friends as witnesses, but was very much looking forward to seeing them. We’d been asked to keep it on the down low – but as it turns out, some journalists saw the ceremony happening and ended up watching, so by the time I got to Donington on Saturday morning, they were all over the national press (you can read a sample of that here). That was an extra special reunion in a day full of them.
The last time I experienced live music prior to my day at the Download Pilot was the 22nd of February 2020. I saw Dream Theater play one of my favourite albums of all time, Scenes From A Memory, from the front row of a sold out Hammersmith Apollo. 484 days ago. The longest gap in live music in my life since I started going to gigs in February 2003. My first experience of live music in 484 days was Conjurer’s half hour of earth shatteringly loud, masterful chaos. The bass, I shit you not, had so much power behind it I briefly thought a trip to the bathroom was going to be required. On record, I generally find Conjurer a tad too heavy for my taste, but this was just the most wonderful experience. I’ve known their guitarist, Brady Deeprose, in various roles across the industry for at least a decade, so to see him and the rest of the band having the time of their lives up there added another level of emotion and “feels” to it all.
This was quickly followed by moving from main stage to second stage to catch a band who had been my most welcome surprise of the year, As Everything Unfolds. Their album Within Each Lies The Answer hasn’t left my car CD player or playlists since it was released in late March. Seeing them do some of the songs from that album in the flesh felt like normal music fan behaviour. Band releases great album, fans buy tickets to gigs or festivals to see them, wash, rinse, repeat. They were wonderful. Their frontwoman, Charliee Rolfe, is a shining example of a great band focal point on stage, and an equally great advocate for her band offstage when I talk to her a couple of hours afterwards; The unique and slightly surreal experience of a first in person interview with someone in a band in eighteen months. That most welcome chat takes place in the festival press area – that and the guest area are understandably far smaller than they would normally be at a regular download, but a hive of journalists, PR folk, band members, label reps and other invited guests catching up, hanging out, looking at schedules and having a few beers. It’s worth just taking a minute to look around and enjoy the experience of being able to witness several dozen people spotting friends for the first time in too long, including a couple of interviews being interrupted in the process (standard procedure for any Download).
Around the site across the day, in spite of the “No COVID restrictions”, some evidence of recently learned behaviours remain in action. People queuing for the merch stands, the food trucks and the bars are generally keeping distance between each other, taking turns nicely, not crowding like normal – just general decency, the kinds of things we could do with keeping even when everything is back to normal.
The rest of the afternoon passes by in a blur of more reunions interspersed with a phenomenal performance from Bleed From Within, who really are one of UK metal’s most underrated bands, a bit of a mixed bag from industry favourites Wargasm and some early set sound issues being overcome by Yonaka. Perhaps the set to provide the most pure fun of the day comes from Welsh rock n’rollers Those Damn Crows. Frontman Shane Greenhall is one of the best in the business at working a crowd, and there’s pure joy in the air when they pull out songs like I Don’t Give A Damn, Blink Of An Eye and Rock N Roll Ain’t Dead with a full tent hollering almost every word back at the band.
First live show in well over a year – with While She Sleeps you’d never have guessed it. From the second frontman Loz Taylor storms on stage and utters the words “SLEEPS SOCIETY”, While She Sleeps are in a zone and on a level no other band achieves (though Creeper get bloody close, more on them shortly). Newer songs like Anti Social and You Are All You Need make the band sound absolutely enormous. They’re received equally as well as some of the older material, although things go up another level when we hit Four Walls and the title track from Brainwashed. Reminiscent of their main stage appearance at Download 2014, Loz decides to go for a sprint through the crowd to climb the sound tower – a bit of an easier job in the smaller setting of the pilot. Also it wouldn’t be Download without at least one band initiating a Slipknot “Jump the f*** up” style moment, and While She Sleeps take that on board for their set closing Systematic. An absolutely magnificent performance that made quite a few people around us emotional with the sheer power of it.
Creeper’s performance in headlining the second stage can only be described as a band taking their rightful place at the top of a festival line up. They look like they’ve been playing shows like this their whole career, and thanks to Sex, Death and the Infinite Void (and new single Midnight), they’ve now got enough bangers to fill an hour long set and leave you craving more. New drummer Jake Fogarty and extra guitarist Lawrie Pattison, borrowed from another rising UK outfit, Miss Vincent, are excellent additions to the Creeper family, though as usual its hard to take your eyes off the dynamic duo of Will Gould and Hannah Greenwood.
It’s a wonderful mix between singalongs (Hiding With Boys, Midnight, Poisoned Heart), riffs (Poison Pens, Be My End) or Creeper’s outstanding mix of both (Black Rain, Cyanide, Suzanne). But where Creeper are almost untouchable is when they’re at their most relatable (and perhaps one could say most emo). Hannah belts out Crickets as she never has before in a wedding dress with only a set of spotlights for company, and there’s tears all round for Misery. Totally different from While She Sleeps, but they and Creeper manage to show so many things that are good about both Download and UK rock and metal as a whole with their two very special performances.
To top off what has been an almost perfect day, as I pop into the guest area to say goodbye to a couple of people who is walking through but none other than Mr Andy Copping himself. It’s great as always to get to say hello to Andy, but this time, more than ever, I wanted to thank him for everything he and his team had done, and what they’d pulled off in such a short space of time.
Next week, most of the restrictions are lifting, and live music is going to return. How long for (given the Government’s general handling of the COVID situation, vaccine aside) remains to be seen. But if it wasn’t for the Download Pilot, then it’s very possible festivals like Bloodstock, Latitude and Slam Dunk and all the others wouldn’t be happening over the next couple of months. The Download Pilot was quite possibly a once in a lifetime festival, and it was a privilege to get to experience part of it.