Balter (verb) – ‘To dance artlessly, without particular skill or grace, but always with great contented enjoyment’. Never was there a more aptly named festival, and this becomes immediately apparent with one look around at the 5,000 smiling faces bopping, jiving, skanking and raving at Balter Festival 2018.
Having popped our cherry last year, our expectations were high en route to the Welsh racecourse and I’m pleased to say we weren’t disappointed with this recent dose of other-worldly madness.
The site layout was pretty much unchanged, with 10 stages lined up and down the inside of the race course, each offering their own selection of ska, garage, disco, dub, drum and bass, hip hop, grime and yes… gabba.
We arrived on Friday evening just as the sun was setting and pitched up right next to the 24hr Garage Girls stage (which turned out to be a very good shout come midday Saturday), and immediately headed down to the Disco Ball stage to loosen up. A slightly different set-up to last year saw the giant rotating disco ball surrounded by four inward facing speaker stacks in each corner, creating a weird little pocket of sound that sucks people in from all around and makes you forget where you were even heading to in the first place.
With a few little forays into some of the inside tents like Jigsore, The Hex and The Drawing Room, we could appreciate again the ingenuity behind the hay bail set up around each of the closely packed tents, which near miraculously magnates to trap the chest resonating bass inside. After a couple of hours, the tone for the rest of the weekend was set and we were sufficiently excited for the weekend ahead.
After a couple of hours, the tone for the rest of the weekend was set and we were sufficiently excited for the weekend ahead.
As we surfaced in the morning, it became apparent the sun had got a weekend ticket and was there to stay. This coupled with our proximity to the crowd the 24hr Garage Girls amassed each morning, we found it easy to motivate ourselves, crack open that first tinny and head out to see what was on offer.
We were first greeted by Pollen on The Caravan stage, with their own genre of skank fodder – ‘Devil Reggae’. This engaging four-piece delivered an eclectic mix of ska, punk, funk, psychedelia and jazz with some stand-out tunes like Wizard Sleeve and Kitty Cat Rat.
Sunday’s daytime entertainment on The Caravan saw acid-punk outfit Bad Fractals deliver a typically dynamic performance, with crunching power chords and mean, thrashing riffs, which gave the crowd something to jump around to.
One of our favourite stages across the weekend was the Irie Bingo stage and its weekend-long appreciation of all things dub. With the average bpm comparatively low and a welcome shade from the beating sun, Plymouth-based sound system No Ice Cream Sound gathered a crowd on Saturday with the help of hype-man/MC Jman and delivered some classics, finishing the set with their own take on Dread Prez – Hip Hop
The Irie Bingo stage on Sunday was graced with the teachings of Brother Culture and his extensive background in the world of reggae. Starting out MCing in 1982 for Jah Revelation Muzik sound system, and going on to be one of the principal artist on the Trojan Sound System album, you can say he’s been around the block and back. His set was an intimate affair and delivered all the sounds and vibes you would expect, interspersed with some snippets of wisdom about love and unity.
Balter is a fiercely independent affair with most food and drinks stalls locally sourced and organic. Some may confuse the abundance of Buckfast tonic wine for a sponsor, but really, everyone just loves the stuff and it’s become a mainstay of the event each year now, with a dedicated Buckfast bar, the Buckyham Palace Stage and walkabout sideshow troupe, the Bucky Brigade. It’s also very nice to walk around the site, have a little game of mini golf, perhaps a go on the obstacle course (with some healthy encouragement from water guns) or the wild west-inspired arcade games, and not have to fork over a single penny. Organiser are more concerned with making fun than making money.
Organiser are more concerned with making fun than making money
Personally one of my favourite things about Balter is the unscripted madness you encounter between stages, where everyone is out to have a good time. This cocktail of weirdness can be exemplified perfectly by a couple we saw erotically feeding each other celery, or the sad, downtrodden clown, being followed around and berated via megaphone by his more sinister clown friend.
Closing the Caravan Stage on Sunday night, Nubyian Twist put on a great show to top off the whole weekend. Dub-infused basslines, a wall of melodic brass, and a myriad of percussion was the perfect foundation for frontwoman Nubiya Brandon’s afro-beat inspired vocals. The 10-piece have almost a hive mind and seem to all be jiving on the exact same funky wavelength. It rubbed off on the engrossed crowd, who had apparently hung up their skanking shoes in favour of a more relaxed and hip-orientated appreciation of the Leeds-based headline act.
Festival organisers should not only be proud of themselves for putting on a great show, but also for gathering such a unique and delightful bunch of people. Literally no one goes to this festival to stand around stroking their chins and look cool – it’s the ultimate celebration of ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think’, and we love it. Fair play Balter, we’ll see you next year.
Photos by Alex Blaby.