What Happened When I Went To Download's Virtual Festival

One K! writer takes working from home to a whole new level with a weekend spent “attending” Download TV’s virtual festival…

What Happened When I Went To Download's Virtual Festival
Sam Law

For the last 17 years, the beginning of June has held a special place in UK rockers’ hearts. It’s been a time to clear slabs of beer from supermarket shelves, to even-handedly shove sunscreen and waterproofs into our trusty rucksacks, and to hit the road with a gang of our best buddies for the weekend of the year down at Donington Park. Always full of late-night shenanigans I'll struggle to remember and landmark sets I'll never forget, Download Festival took a concept laid out by the previous generation’s Monsters Of Rock classics and expanded it into a five-day celebration of all things alternative.

Unfortunately, 2020 has hit pause on that virtually-unrivalled run. Although the temporary hold on mass gatherings (and international travel) necessitated by the worldwide pandemic appears to be wholly justified, the loss of Download Festival hurts more than that of so many other gatherings; not because we’re missing out on epic sets by headliners KISS, Iron Maiden and System Of A Down, alongside lower-profile masters like Baroness, Electric Wizard and The Menzingers, but for the gaping hole left by that communal experience with our friends.

Never ones to be defeated, however – just ask veterans of the 2012 mudpit or 2016’s affectionately-dubbed ‘Drownload’ – the Download family heroically rallied many of the acts on this year’s bill, alongside numerous other industry heavyweights, for a three-day virtual extravaganza to bring the broader community together in this most testing of times and to celebrate the music we all love.

So, how exactly did the 2020 virtual festival stack up?

250 miles north of the hallowed turf, under the heavy clouds of Glasgow, Scotland, I grabbed my laptop, dug out my tent and wellies, pitched-up in the front garden amongst a storm of twitching curtains and cranked the volume for one of the more surreal experiences of my festival life.

By midday on Friday, honestly, I'm normally pretty wasted. Whether I've been pitched-up for a couple of days already, or having just spilled out of Kerrang!'s patented Party Bus after annoying the driver with ridiculous requests all night, I'm damp, beery and rarely in the best of shape.

Rolling out of bed at 10am was a nice change of pace. After which, some metal-soundtracked stretching felt like the perfect warm-up for the weekend ahead. Presented by esteemed specialist DO.OMYOGA – with the aid of some excellent doom, drone and ambient sounds – the mission-statement that “listening to great music will always make you prayerful and whole” had me lighting candles, rolling out the mat in my living room and giving it my (limited) all. Unfortunately, years of mosh pit injuries meant that my Downward (Download?) Dog wasn’t quite up to standard. After facepalming my pathetic effort, a game girlfriend agreed to step-in and stunt-double for the photo below.

Then it was time for the music – and cans – to really start flowing.

An interview with UK alt. heroes (and banter-merchants) Dinosaur Pile-Up was notable for some top desert island Zoom backgrounds, but it was the energy and esotericism of anarchic London electro-punks Black Futures that really stood out early on. Although nothing can match the regular live experience of being prodded by a dancing roadie in a white protective suit, I appreciated the dystopian look of their livestream.

The premiere of new video B12 from Chester Bennington’s Grey Daze – featuring Head and Munky from Korn – provided some real emotion in the late afternoon. Its bittersweetness was quickly replaced by something tastier with BOSH’s recipe for vegan hot dogs properly whetting our appetite. Renowned make-up artist Gemma Stafford’s guide to getting the Gene Simmons’ look was another fail on my part, having quickly realised why The Demon never fully bought into growing a beard, I had to settle for being the Star Man. (Side note: Best not to attempt KISS makeup with the cheapest facepaint available in your local off-license/kebab-shop.) Wargasm and Milk Teeth made for a good soundtrack to, er, ‘perfecting’ the look.

As the beers took hold, the sheer onslaught of content blew my mind, with the likes of party-hearty festival stalwarts Airbourne, Wayward Sons and Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes delivering the perfect soundtrack for sundown beverages. Footage from WWE NXT reminded me it’s not all about the music at Download, too, while cracking open a little bit of the bubbly with Fozzy frontman (and AEW star) Chris Jericho continued a squared-circle theme.

Jumping onto a video chat with a bunch of Kerrang! colleagues, it was a heavyweight close to Friday night, brilliantly rounded-off by Deftones and Biffy Clyro gearing us up for upcoming new releases before headliners KISS dropped by. The mix of interviews and archive footage was, in fairness, scant consolation for fans who had been emotionally bracing for their epic final UK show. Still, I can’t think of more fitting representatives of Virtual Download’s commitment to letting nothing get in the way of rock'n'rolling all night and partying every day.

If Friday morning felt like an unusually sedate open to Download festivities, by Saturday the bangover was beginning to tell. Although I'm normally the first one throwing shapes on the dancefloor for Korn’s Freak On A Leash, Deftones’ My Own Summer and Rammstein’s Engel, I must admit that the hour of power from Rockfit’s Hannah Hawkey was a little much for my fragile head (and stomach) at first. Hell, Benji from Skindred even popped along to get us raiding the laundry basket to take part in a nationwide Newport Helicopter. By lunchtime, though, I had worked up almost as much of an appetite as I'd normally have managed in the pit.

Fortunately, hailing from the land down under, maniac cook Nat (of Nat’s What I Reckon fame) was on hand to demonstrate how to make pasta with blackened vodka sauce off the back of a recycled morgue trolley. Brutal. Full of chat of shredding cheese, bleeding tomatoes and pulverising his sauce, this was the motivation needed to actually make ourselves a healthy round meal. I'd be lying if I didn’t admit my hankering for a filled Yorkshire Pudding, all the same…

A peek into the life of Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach makes for some excellent escapism after that, while Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy just oozes cool.

Then, what’s this?! Employed To Serve covering Lamb Of God’s Laid To Rest?! Fucking hell, even from quarantine the Woking collective sound absolutely enormous. Having thumped my speakers, I'm not sure if the neighbours were quite as impressed.

By dinnertime, it’s started raining, and I'm sheltering my battery-powered setup under a tree, but a smorgasbord of silliness distracts, with a relatively straight-faced exploration of the Download brand’s global reach and some acoustic bangers from Leeds legends Higher Power making way for a shred-through of this year’s scheduled line-up (KISS! Maiden! Deftones! The Pretty Reckless! Volbeat!) from YouTube sensation Sophie Lloyd and some characteristically brilliant (shit)chat from former Turbonegro frontman Hank Von Hell.

My acoustic is out of tune for the excellent tutorial from Sepultura six-string legend Andreas Kisser, but I'm all-in for the air guitar tutorial from world champion Sven Spandex. Glasses up, too, for metalhead Masterchef champion Simon Wood, who teaches me how to make the perfect smoky old fashioned – a refined cocktail which tastes a hell of a lot better than the random concoction I'd normally be swilling out of a plastic bottle on Saturday night.

The evening closes out with a heavyweight run-through, with the likes of Creeper, Poppy, Gojira and Mastodon whetting our appetites for new material ready to showcase live once the show is back on the road, while Funeral For A Friend and The Wildhearts fully stoke the nostalgia.

They’re all just pretenders to the mighty Iron Maiden, mind, with livewire drummer Nicko McBrain and manager Rod Smallwood providing maximum value for money. A selection of live footage making me really hanker for the experience of singing along to Bruce Dickinson’s air-raid-siren vocals as some of his air-freight colleagues swoop in overhead. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s the closing round of traditional outro tape Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – and the outpouring of emotion over social media – that hits hardest in the feels. The feeling of throwing arms around mates’ shoulders for the long slog out of a muddy field can’t come back soon enough.

By Sunday morning, I'm properly worse for wear. Having quickly exhausted the supply of summery fruit cider I'd acquired for the occasion – and in no shape to drive to the shop – I've made the questionable choice of raiding the booze cupboard for a six-pack of beer left over from two Christmases ago, the dregs from seven different almost-finished bottles of spirits, and some special mead contained in what appear to be chemistry-department spherical flasks. This shit has survived through the rest of lockdown, sure, but it’s always something of a sacrificial Sunday at Download, and old traditions die hard.

A 'Mind The Dog' mindfulness session from MUNE provides a soothing backdrop to proceedings that doesn’t last long. Then 10-year-old internet sensation Nandi Bushell makes me feel both inadequate and utterly ancient, jamming through System Of A Down’s Toxicity before a clip from Circus Of Horrors brings the sort of scenes I'd normally associate with the early hours of Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. At least there’s less danger of being followed back to our tent by the weirdo we made the mistake of inviting for late-night drinks last year...

Wage War singer Cody Quistad calms things down a bit, with an impressively chilled rendition of Me Against Myself, but it’s a video message from festival director John Probyn that really intrigues. Walking a group of fans (and, perplexingly, a stray Download Dog) around the deserted site, he explains a series of – pretty significant looking – site changes, including shifted campsites and a central transport hub, that’ll be coming into play next year before tackling a barrage of fan questions on Instagram Live. 2020 might be a washout, but 2021 should genuinely be bigger and better than ever!

The traditional Sunday fatigue is setting in by late afternoon. Clips from Satanic doo-wop weirdos Twin Temple’s Paris show last year and from Californian rockers Cemetery Sun wash over me. By the time fashion blogger Amy Valentine shows up for a tutorial on how to give ageing band merch a new lease of life, I can’t help but wonder whether someone could offer the same for the tired bodies wearing that merch. I get a solution from regular Download mixologists Rocktail Cocktail: more booze.

After a brief collapse in my tent – another precious festival tradition – I'm on the home straight. The sun’s out and the drinks are cold for a final showcase as archive clips from BABYMETAL, The Darkness and the awesome Bowling For Soup keep the party going. A four-way video jam from Baroness proves they’re just the best, while Periphery keep my (sore) head banging. Alestorm singer Christopher Bowes’ self-definition as “stupid music for stupid people” signals that their contribution is the best fitting of the day.

A selection of clips from Korn, and SOAD’s three previous headline sets – in 2005, 2011 and 2017 – smack home the parting sense of bittersweetness. These songs are superb to sit and watch, but so much better with the feel of Fieldy’s bass rumbling out of the ground or someone’s boot in your face while crowdsurfing stageward to B.Y.O.B. All the same, it’s still probably the most fun I've had on a Sunday night since play was halted mid-March.

As coverage ends in time for the 9pm BBC Rock Show afterparty, however, a more positive realisation dawns. My neighbours are finally at peace. The tent is packed up. The laptop is stowed. The 63 empty cans and bottles I've somehow generated have been shoved into recycling. My hot shower and soft bed are calling – and I've made it through a full weekend without fresh injuries or a lost phone. By Monday morning, the countdown to Download 2021 will begin: a sweeter-than-ever showcase that might just be the best ever.

After this year’s holding pattern, I absolutely cannot wait to touch down in the East Midlands once again. See you there.

Download 2021 takes place on June 4-6 at Donington Park. Get your tickets now.

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