Download 20, Thursday 8th June 2023 – A review!

Download 2023

I’d been to Download last year to see KISS, as it was supposed to be the last chance to see them…and then they played here this year again. Still I don’t mind, it was f**king awesome and far better than an arena gig. This year it was the 20th anniversary of Download, and Metallica were playing! So I had to go and give my inner 15 year old the chance to finally see Hetfield et al. Here’s my review of the whole heavy metal festival experience!

I was driving up for the first Metallica day with two friends, Kristine and Kirstie. We were on the road in good time and we spent most of the journey up the M1 discussing Downloads of the past and who we were hoping to see this year.

Of course at a festival with needing to eat and queue for drinks, traipsing around, chilling out and trips to the latrines you can’t see all the bands on the lineup, but you do get a really good choice of bands for the price you pay for the ticket and you can usually pick and choose a handful of the day’s lineup to go and see.

Being a massive Van Halen fan, I had high hopes for what Mammoth WVH were going to sound like, but our journey had slowed somewhat as we got off the M1, so they were probably on and off stage whilst we were still reckoning the congestion we were in was only going to be temporary.

Hundred Reasons were an exciting part of the lineup and I would have loved to experience them, but they were doubtless getting onstage and being enjoyed by the crowd as we were somewhere crawling towards a congested Leicestershire roundabout, joining packed and static dual carriageways with road freight, commuters and other hopeful Downloadees.

Around about the time I’d have been checking out the late afternoon snack options and considering a trip to the loos, the traffic management in the vicinity of Castle Donington was evidently feeling the strain, as we were stuck not much further along and going pretty much nowhere. Actually, no-one seemed to be visibly managing the traffic – no stewards or anything had been spotted since a solitary chap managing the roundabout coming off the M1.

Roadside flashing lights said to switch off sat nav and follow the AA signs. Luckily Kristine had some falafels and shared them with us so we didn’t starve in the gridlock. My car’s air-con was keeping us cool enough to not want to drink a lot, so the absence of any loos nearby wasn’t as dreadful as it might have been either.

As a huge Tool fan I was really hoping to check out Puscifer, but when they were probably onstage we had barely advanced and were still going nowhere in a queue of traffic…so, in keeping with most of the day, we missed them.

I say going nowhere; we were advancing at about 1/3 of a mile an hour. It was a sunny evening. No one else around us was getting into Download any faster. In fact no one in Castle Donington was going anywhere in a car either – heaven forbid the locals had to get to hospital or the chemist for example. Many local commuters were going to be going hungry and dealing with strained bladders too, unable to get home for teatime or out of the car for a loo break. It was difficult not to start feeling cross with the Download team for failing to plan for the scenario they had created.

There had been a taxi behind us for about the previous hour – that started to turn around and I realised the passengers had bailed and started walking. Thankfully Kristine and Kirstie stuck around and kept me company.

Halestorm were the final band I was interested in seeing before the main event of Metallica. I was really looking forward to seeing them, and of course, as it was, we were still stuck nowhere near the event, and inching along towards the site as they were playing, so, guess what, we did not get to see them.

We had resigned ourselves once we got into the site and parked up that it would be a case of “wee, food and rock!”, but having finally got close to the site we’d been guided by hi-viz into a very distant field and once we got walking…we were about 30 minutes away from the main arena. It was getting cold by the time we checked in. At least we weren’t dragging camping gear for that length of time like some poor souls, facing pitching a tent at that late hour.

We did indeed wee, and found food, and eventually met up with others to watch Metallica and rock. From about 250 yards away. So all we really saw were their video screens, since they don’t have much of a stage set and they appeared only about 2mm tall in the grand scheme of things.

Kristine, JSD, Kirsty at Download 20
Enthusiastic for what remained of the day when we finally got there – picture by Kristine

The video screens were impressive as objects, but the sound was out of sync with the visuals at times, so all things considered, with 7 hours of crawling traffic still fresh in the memory, stick-high figures on stage and an out of sync video system it was a real disappointment for the first few songs.

Then they played “Fade To Black” and it all made sense. 15 year old me was woken from my inner core and thanked me for finally watching Metallica. He could only dream of the spectacle of them playing live from the lounge, listening to Ride the Lightning taped by old Bomber Upsall on a Maxell c90 whilst revising for mock O levels.

I don’t have a photographic memory when it comes to setlists, but they were generous with their time, and there were some singalong moments (“Nothing Else Matters” of course) and some classics (“Seek And Destroy”, “Master Of Puppets”). But no “Enter Sandman”. You could hear lars was getting tired towards the end of the set. I had some fun, but was glad it was over.

They finished and we set off towards the exits, along with 100,000 others. It was very clearly sold out and it was a spectacle of some sorts, albeit somewhat perilous trying to walk sideways through a cavalcade of metallers heading in the other direction. We paused in a food zone and chilled a bit before we really left the arena, (via visiting the loos).

Then we tried to get out. It was going to be 30 minutes back to the car, but we were held up in a huge crowd trying to cross the road for a good extra 10, and when we finally found the car and got strapped in for the journey back…we sat for another 90 minutes going nowhere. No hi-viz in this corner of the field at midnight.

Somehow we got out and got on the road and somehow we got home – bedtime was 4am for me after Kirsty and Kristine were dropped off.

I couldn’t stop thinking for the following few days what a mess it really was. Hundreds of thousands of people all driving towards a site in the middle of England. The organisers had sold all the tickets. They knew we were coming. Why had they seemingly completely overlooked our arrival and departure? The state of the traffic made BBC News. Thousands of people paid for a day of music and got to experience one band if they were lucky.

My mind was cast back too to the chest-high piles of rubbish, the revolting loos and the green footprint that going to a festival seems to rack up. I’ve been to festivals before, but I couldn’t look past it this year. International megastars flown in for the events; all their tourbuses and equipment trucks and all the power needed to make multiple stages loud enough for hundreds of thousands of people generating rubbish, filth and C02. It can’t have been a good thing for the planet.

I don’t think I will be going again.

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