Skip to content

Review: FORWARDS Festival 2023

With Aphex Twin and Erykah Badu headlining Forwards' second year in Bristol's festival calendar, Epigram was there to catch it all.

By Susie Long, Music Subeditor

In the midst of their unparalleled set at Forwards Festival last week, Ezra Collective drummer Femi Koleoso explains the motivation behind their music: “It’s joy. Joy is so much more real than happiness - it’s what we should all be trying to find.” I think with this statement, Koleoso summarised not just the recent Mercury Prize winners’ performance, but Forwards Festival as a whole. It was one big bundle of joy.

Heading up on Friday morning excited and fuelled with a fry up, it was obvious from the onset that the weekend was shaping up to be great. Local DJ Steve Rice was providing a smooth soul soundtrack as we walked in, soon followed by the mellow sounds of JIM on the East Stage. Neither were artists that I had previously heard of - but that’s what I love about a festival like Forwards: it really is curated to have something for everyone. As we listened, it was lovely to see how much the festival had to offer in a small space, with Information panels and talks, food and drinks as far as the eye could see, and wonderful representation of small businesses like The Fashpack and Longwell Records.

After a quick pit stop at the bar, we headed back west to see Olivia Dean. Having seen her recent rise to the height of TikTok fame, I was anticipating great things. Dean is a talented performer with a gorgeous vocal tone and a clear natural affinity for songwriting - she went above and beyond every expectation I had. With tracks from her newly-released debut album Messy such as ‘Ladies Room’, ‘Dive’, and her beautiful homage to the Windrush generation entitled ‘Carmen’ - as well as many of her earlier tracks - Dean created an incredible 45 minutes of music that no one in the crowd really wanted to end.

Olivia Dean @ FORWARDS | Ciara Hillyer / Plaster

As the day continued and the crowds grew, the magical atmosphere on the Bristol Downs just got better and better. Ezra Collective then took to the West Stage, with a set that - for me at least - was the best of the weekend. The London jazz band brought an almost indescribable energy to their performance, with drum solos, guitar riffs, and trumpet parts highlighting just how talented this band really is. Making us all a part of their collective, the band hosted the most interactive live experience that I have ever had the pleasure of being part of. From sing-along sections to jumping over the barrier to dance with the crowd, this group has really nailed the art of engaging their audience with their music. Their setlist, whilst being entirely instrumental, resonated with each individual audience member in such a pure, joyful way; it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience.

After the high of Ezra Collective, we stumbled back over to the East Stage to join the congregation forming to watch Gabriels. This US/UK group had an incredible stage presence - and the most amazing music to back it up. With gospel, R&B and soul influences, Gabriels’ music was hypnotising. As the sun set over Bristol, front man Jacob Lusk delivered an electrifying performance; it was impossible to take your eyes off him. Technically speaking, Lusk had more vocal control and talent than any other artist which I have ever seen live, and the whole band’s energy matched this level of sheer skill and musicality. It was clear to me then exactly why Elton John had picked him as a featured guest for his Glastonbury set: this man truly has it all.

I remember thinking that I wished I could’ve stayed in that place forever, with soaring vocals, golden-hour light and hypnotised crowd, but we ran down to the Information by Night to catch Bristol/Chicago duo Prima Queen. As a (partially, at least) local band, these guys drew quite a crowd which - after an unfortunately long soundcheck - was a great little set. It was really interesting to see the difference between the atmospheres of the two bigger stages compared with the Information - it felt like a whole new place. After a slightly shaky start balancing audio levels, Prima Queen settled into themselves and brought their little stage to life with a classic femme, indie-rock vibe.

Ezra Collective @ FORWARDS | Giulia Spadafora / Plaster

And then, just when I thought Friday couldn’t get any better, it was time for experimental R&B legend Erykah Badu. Eager - and by this point slightly inebriated - festival-goers gathered in their thousands whilst band members and backing singers slowly appeared on stage; you could feel the anticipation in the air. We were all counting down the minutes until she would take to the stage, the backing music slowly amping up to her arrival and then… nothing. Whilst I am a fan of the element of surprise and keeping an audience on their toes, the 30 minute wait that ensued before Badu’s set started felt like it was teetering on the line of entertainment and frustration. Was she worth the wait? Of course she was. But it made for a very confusing start to a set.

When she did appear though, clad in leather, her iconic oversized bowler hat, and the most dramatic neon green leg warmers I think I will ever see, she had the crowd captivated. Almost biblically, everything she did was watched and worshipped; it was genius. As well as extraordinary showmanship, Badu’s vocals were insane - I don’t often use the phrase “jaw-dropping” literally but this made the cut. Alongside her surprise guests - notably a very exciting appearance by Yasiin Bey (fka. Mos Def) - Erykah Badu put on one hell of a show. As the show went on, Badu’s set just got more and more intricate, from her vocals and setlist itself, to the outfit reveals of glittery fringe sleeves and shredded t-shirts. Badu bore her soul for the thousands of us on the Downs that night, and we all lapped it up enthusiastically.

Erykah Badu @ FORWARDS | Giulia Spadafora / Plaster

The next morning, despite being newly equipped with a raging cider hangover and achy feet, I couldn’t wait to get back on site. For Saturday, we had an action plan, a military-esque schedule. Starting the day listening to the beautiful, ambient tracks of Bristol-based TLK, followed by Yazmin Lacey’s sophisticated jazz/soul singing (complete with an on-stage glass of wine because she just is that cool), and fellow Bristolian Katy J Pearson, the vibes for Saturday were already sky-high.

I then headed over to see Nigerian-born, London-based artist Obongjayar. I’ve been a fan of his music for a while, with strong hip-hop, afrobeat and rap characteristics, as well as clever odes to soul and funk, but nothing could have prepared me for the energy that this man brings to a performance. With the mid-afternoon sun blazing down on the Forwards festival East Stage, it became a true ‘dance like nobody’s watching’ kind of moment: it’s music you can’t help but move to, and a very good move from the festival’s organisers to include him in their lineup. Obongjayar is a gem of authentic happiness and joy within the modern music industry, and he was an absolute pleasure to watch live.

After Obongjayar’s wonderful set, the mullet-adorned, Doc Martens-wearing mob began to flock to the East Stage. Next up: Jockstrap. Whilst my personal music taste aligns perfectly with the London-based duo’s music, I admittedly didn’t know their stuff as well as perhaps I should, but this didn’t stop the pair from being entirely mesmerising. The artful interactions between Georgia Ellery’s sultry, whispering vocal performances and Taylor Skye’s genius live music production were phenomenal. As I, my friends, and hundreds of others danced to their blaring experimental-pop tracks, I couldn’t help but think back to Koleoso’s words - we really had found joy that weekend.

Primal Scream @ FORWARDS | Beth Whelan / Plaster

We then ran off to get some food and restock on beer, with the beautiful music of Arlo Parks providing our soundtrack for the evening. Wrestling our way through the crowds quickly assembling at the West Stage, Primal Scream was calling our names. With the Saturday sunset framing the stage perfectly, it was obvious exactly why this band is revered the way they are. Whilst, truthfully, I am yet another surface-level fan of Primal Scream, their performance was insane. Bobby Gillespie seemed so at home on stage, such a natural frontman, and the energy was infectious. We screamed along to ‘Country Girl’, moved on up and got our ‘Rocks’ off with the best of them, and I loved every second.

Fuelled by the rush of Primal Scream, we only had one thing on our minds - the big guns: Aphex Twin. His iconic cube had been dramatically suspended over the West Stage all day, as a reminder of the incredible spectacle that was on its way.

Watching Aphex Twin live was an experience that I’m not sure how effectively I’ll be able to put into words. It was an entirely transformative 90 minutes that felt like it could’ve lasted either 30 seconds or an entire lifetime - it sounds cliché but you really did feel one with the music. We laughed afterwards that this was probably how brainwashing cults started. Clinging onto the barrier and positioned under a giant row of speakers, my senses were completely infiltrated by Aphex Twin - it was undoubtedly the best live music performance that I have ever experienced, and will be hard to beat. In a way, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, being an indie-folk/alt. girl to my core, but that didn’t matter. His music feels like it transports you to a different place entirely, he is so much more than just a DJ.

Aphex Twin @ FORWARDS | Susie Long

The crowd were in the palm of his hand, hypnotised by his music. With his infamous celebrity sequence playing onto the screens, it was amazing to see how easily and quickly he turned a group of thousands of individuals into one entity - we all seemed to act as one. The reel of celebrities and famous Bristolians continued: King Charles, Mr Bean, JK Rowling, The Wurzels, Big Issue Jeff - and along with it our bellowing cries (boos, cheers, more boos, cheers, and a thunderous roar of applause in that order). He was the best possible headliner we could’ve had, and I will remember that performance forever.

All in all, I think that Forwards Festival has cracked the code for how to make a perfect weekend. To fit so much talent into such a short space of time - this article barely scratches the surface of what they had to offer - and to have it all so close to home in our lovely city, it was incredible. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year.

Featured Image: Giulia Spadafora / Plaster

FORWARDS Festival will return to the downs in 2024.