Still rubbing the barely formed sleep from my eyes whilst marvelling at just how I was awake again, having been getting sweaty on a dance floor to Surgeon but only a few hours previous, I stumbled on to my 6.30am train out of Piccadilly, heading off towards Bristol for Tokyo World, a festival that was all set to put on their largest and most impressive offering to date since starting out back in 2001.
Now set in the city’s Eastville Park, the site incorporated six different stages offering a range of genres that best reflected the diverse musical taste enjoyed amongst Bristol’s clubbing community. The sun beamed down, puncturing the occasional whisper of cloud that drifted across the baby blue sky, as we meandered amongst the masses winding their through the affable security checks and on to the site itself. The first act I had wanted to catch had already started their set, so we headed straight over to the Tokyo World stage to catch the remainder of The Beatnuts and Jeru the Damaja. As you’d expect from these consummate hip-hop stalwarts, the performance was tight, as they mined the wealth of underground classics they have at their disposal, serving up a mixture of heavy, jazz-infused grooves and rampantly rugged lyrics, with ‘No Escapin’ This’ and ‘It’s Da Nuts’ going down particularly well with me (I’m sure they’ll be delighted to know!). Unfortunately for them, their early time slot meant that they really had to work a crowd who were still somewhat finding their feet at this point. The biggest reaction came when they ended with ‘Watch Out Now’, though hearing one girl ask her friend, “Wasn’t that a J-Lo tune,” as we wandered away might explain why that was.
Staying put, we watched Submotion Orchestra next, a band I knew fairly little about at the start of the day but was left quite enamoured with by the end of their set. Crafting together a intricate web of soul, jazz and dub, this seven piece from Leeds turned in a beguiling performance that weaved its way through tunes laced with emotive introspection and seductive rhythms, through to tracks that grabbed hold of your hips from the off before leading them on an alluringly elated jig. The impeccable musicianship displayed by the band was matched by the enthralling, soaring vocals of vocalist, Ruby Wood, as their set took us through a powerful narrative journey that wound it’s way from an inviting, charming start to a dazzling, triumphant finish.
After a quick trip to stock up on some booze (and it was quick, with the excellent bar staff ensuring the queues moved swiftly and without fuss) we headed over to the Alfresco Disco stage, and it was clear from the crowd that San Proper was in full flow. Despite there being some issues with sound bleeding between the numerous stages (possibly unavoidable in such relatively tight confines) when you were stood towards the back of them, once you got yourself in amongst it such problems became inconsequential, so it was straight towards the front and the undulating masses for this one. As night crept across the sky, a blend of house and disco based grooves slinked out the speakers, with the Amsterdam-based producer and DJ weaving a web of eclectic electronic delights that all oozed with funk and made sure that nobody was thinking of standing still. Indeed, even the man himself couldn’t resist occasionally abandoning his position at the decks to come in front of them and indulge in a little dance along with the crowd. It’s a rare site these days to see a DJ engage with the crowd as much as San Proper did that day, but his enjoyment was as infectious as his tune selection, the two coming together to create a truly memorable set that was a distinct highlight of the day for me. It was almost a shame when he had to finish.
I say almost, because up next was Derrick May, a man who needs no further introduction. I approached this set with a hint of trepidation, as I’ve seen May deliver both sets that have blown my mind, as well as those that have been, well, distinctly underwhelming. Thankfully, tonight he leaned towards the former, as he threw himself into taking things in a distinctly techno direction, displaying a masterful manipulation of the EQs to work the tracks, and the crowd, steadily into more and more of a frenzy. There were a couple of technical difficulties with one of the decks at the start of his set, but this turntable trouble seemed to both piss him off AND spur him on, as the beats got thicker and the melodies more insistent. This was Derrick May in fine fettle and a wonderful sight to behold.
He was on such form, that I very nearly didn’t bother with Jeff Mills, who by this time was under way on the adjacent Shapes stage. However, after some cajoling from those I was with, I went with them, declaring that I was “giving it ten minutes, then I’m off back to see Dezza.” I feel the need to explain this here. It’s not that I don’t like Mills; I bloody love him. It’s just that, of late, I’ve seen a few too many sets were, for me, he follows his more jazzy inclinations and goes off UFO spotting. Which is all well and good for some people, and I get that Mills is a craftsman who uses techno as an art form through which to express himself. But when I’m at a festival, or in a club at 3am, I’m still of the school who just want him to come along and melt my face off. Anyway, enough of my insignificant preferences and back to how Mills proved me wrong (someone tell him, quick), for prove me wrong he bloody well did! Those more jazzy inclinations had been passed over in favour of the tight, vivid, relentless barrage of slick, intense techno that he wrought out of his 909. Stood front of stage and cast into shadows by the stark purple lights that flared into the night, Mills treated the crowd to the type of performance that demonstrates why, when he’s at the top of his game, there’s barely a soul who can hold a candle to him. Truly magnificent.
Whilst it was admittedly hard to do, I tore myself away from this to venture back to the Tokyo World stage to catch headline act, Roots Manuva. The stage that had stood as dormant volcano during the day was now ablaze with rolling waves of colour and bursts of flames clawing their way deep into the surrounding darkness; an impressive, yet unobtrusive site to behold. I was a little unsure how it would go, switching up from a torrent of techno to a haze of hip-hop so swiftly, but in the safe hands of Rodney Smith I had no need to worry. Approaching nearly twenty years in the game, and with a brand new album under his belt, Roots Manuva’s set fluctuated between the more lively numbers from his repertoire and some of the slower tracks. Whilst ‘Witness’, ‘Again and Again’ and ‘Snakebite’ all had the crowd rocking, when he took his foot off the pedal slightly, he was occasionally at risk of losing them. I feel this had more to do with the continual peaks those in attendance had been lifted to throughout the day than the set itself, which was exceptionally good. This contrast was made all the more stark when, after seeing Roots close out his set with a blissful version of ‘Dreamy Days’, we went back to the Shapes stage to catch Mills’ punishingly superb final barrage, leaving us ever-so breathless when the lights went up.
Tokyo World was thoroughly enjoyable, from start to finish. For an inner-city festival, the setting was as idyllic as they come, the crowd were both friendly and up for it and the variety of artists that I caught throughout the day all delivered, and then some. Indeed, I didn’t even realise just how tired I was until well after the music had stopped, such was the buzz around the day. I’ll definitely be back for more of the same next year!