Once in a while something so huge, so iconic and so unmissable comes along that you know that life itself depends on you being able to be there. If you live in Norwich this last weekend was one of those occasions. Not only had our lovely football team taken themselves off to Wembley Stadium and, in front of 34,000 die-hard Canary fans, had seen off the threat from the Teesiders to win a place in next season's Premier League, but BBC Radio 1 had descended on Earlham Park and brought everyone from Foo Fighters to Taylor Swift with them for two days of pop-partying.
It was a time for families and friends to unite in a determined spirit of ticket acquisition in order to attend at least one of these momentous events. When the SeeTickets website went live for Big Weekend at 8.00am on that Tuesday morning back at the end of March I must admit I thought I was in for another one of those frustrating 'refresh' sessions, a repeat of previous unsuccessful attempts to get through for Glastonbury tickets, and that was in competition with folk with £200 to spare. These tickets were free, albeit with a nominal £3.50 handling fee.
Fortunately for me, The Daughter was home for a few days, completing her university dissertation over the Easter holidays. Roping her in to help was my salvation. Whilst I wrestled with desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile phone, she calmly and persistently hammered her refresh button using the same technique used to get through to her university medical centre for an appointment on a Monday moning and, what do you know, not only did she get through, but she did it twice, gaining me a pair of tickets for both days! It therefore seemed only fair for me to sort out tickets for The Son to attend Norwich v Ipswich in the play-off semi-finals, thereby paving the way for Wembley tickets should the Canaries make it through to the final. Which they did!
Coming as it did at the end of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, I was already running on half-empty from doing too many volunteer shifts by the time The Big Weekend came around. I certainly didn't relish the prospect of queuing for a bus ride back into Norwich at the end of each eleven hour session at Earlham Park, so I had scoped out a small dog-walkers' car park at the University end of North Park Avenue, just a few minutes walk from the entrance to the park. By using my motorbike I was able to avoid the parking problems caused by road closures, permit parking and park-and-rides, and had a perfect spot for a quick getaway at the end of each evening. Remember that one for the next Big Weekend in Norwich!
The gates did not open one minute before the advertised time of 12 noon, but that didn't stop a considerable crowd gathering on the grass in front of the gates. 50,000 free bags of Kettle Chips were being distributed from the back of a huge trailer by an army of helpers. Ironically, Kettle Chips had been one of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival sponsors, so we had already been munching our way through endless packets for the past two weeks. Still love them, though.
Programme sellers were asking £7 for a small booklet attached to a Radio 1 lanyard. Seemed a bit steep, especially as it only included details of one day's performances. 'SOME OF US HAVE TICKETS FOR BOTH DAYS, YOU KNOW', I thought, selfishly. Without one, though, you could easily miss your favourite band, as the running order was different to that on the Radio 1 website, and the times were not posted anywhere else on site. Sneaky.
Security was tight, which slowed down our progress through the gates. Some ticket holders clearly had not read the small print, and so were parted not only from their food and drink, but some were forced to abandon their folding chairs as well. I was subjected to both bag search and body search, being made to empty my pockets as well. I still saw plenty of discarded laughing gas canisters and spotted lots of discrete decanting of spirits into Sunny Delight pouches, so some people's ingenuity obviously paid off.
First stop for me was the 'In Music We Trust' Arena, the vast circus tent at the top of the hill. New punk pair from Kent, 'Slaves', were due to open so, on the basis that 'The Vaccines' were playing Latitude in July, I cast my vote accordingly. Although this Kent pair look a bit like escapees from an EDL rally, they have a wonderful humour to their punchy pop tunes that makes them totally lovable. Song titles like 'Cheer Up London', 'Where's Your Car Debbie' and 'Feed The Mantaray' have sing-a-long addiction that persists way beyond the end of their set.
Curiosity dictates that I hold position at the front just in order to see the legend that is bad-boy and just so MoneySuperMarket.com superstar Snoop Dogg. Every one else seems to want to catch a glimpse as well, and it is only a few minutes before 'Tent Full' notices are being carried to the entrances. When the man himself emerges wearing a Norwich City football shirt, complete with 'DOGG 20' emblazoned on the back, the place goes mental. Say what you like about the man's music, but he is undoubtedly a legend.
Back out into daylight, and it is time to start my assault on the main arena. The plan is to end up as close to the front as is possible before Muse come on stage at around ten o'clock. This, therefore, involves foregoing food, drink and toilets for the best part of eight hours. Hope you appreciate the effort, Mr Bellamy.
Charlie XCX makes a lot of noise and in spite of her monochrome outfit, puts a lot of colour into her performance, including a confetti-cannon blast finale of pink and purple. We all sing along with 'I Love It' and 'Famous', before being left to pick out the confetti from our hair. Her giant inflatable guitar brings back memories of an infamous night out in Nerja a few years back.
Ben Howard restores a semblance of piece and calm with a set that draws heavily from the new album, although he indulges us with 'The Wolves', the first single to be released from 'Every Kingdom'. Not a lot of animation or movement from Howard, although there is some unusual guitar work employed. At least he doesn't tell us all to Fuck Off this time round in Norwich.
Fall Out Boy are the first act out of the blocks today that really act and look like a festival band. Unfortunately, the random allocation of free tickets to the good folk of Norfolk mean that a lot of the audience are a little bemused by their Fine City being compared to Pete Wentz' home town of Wilmette, Illinois as 'another small town that no one has ever heard of '. What he was trying to say was, 'your dream of fame and fortune can and will happen, wherever you come from'. Just didn't quite come out right. Those that do know know and love Fall Out Boy try desperately to get a mosh going, but are heavily outnumbered by those who stand back and tut. 'All that pushing and shoving should be stopped before someone gets hurt'. FFS.
Gallic superstar DJ David Guetta is the very man needed to kick some ass into the Big Weekend crowd and get us all moving. I have always been slightly sceptical of disc jockeys headlining festivals, but sometimes it needs a few good choons to really get things going. Monsieur Guetta sure knows how to push the right buttons, and it is time for me to break out my arthritic joints into a euphoric spate of wild jumping, bouncing and arm-flailing. I know I'm going to regret this in the morning, but who gives a shit? Lots of pyrotechnics, and paper streamers, and this time orange confetti are shot into the audience. The streamers mostly drift in the wind and entangle themselves into the left hand speaker stack, meaning that the riggers have to scale the dizzying heights to remove the before Florence and The Machine can play. We pick the orange confetti out of our teeth, but at least we are all smiling.
The lovely Florence Welch hobbles onto stage, apologises for having broken her third metatarsal, and asks us if it is OK if she sits on a stool for the duration of her set. Florence, you can do the whole thing reclined on a La-Z-Boy armchair if you wish. We are just so pleased that you are here, and did not cancel. At least you have an excuse to sit still. We don't, and so she instructs us to jump and bounce. We jump and bounce. She almost gets herself into trouble with her younger brother JJ, who is a student at the next-door UEA. Not only does she set about trying to find him a girlfriend, but she lets the cat out of the bag and discloses that he is having a party later back at halls, and she will be going along. Got to love her.
And finally, the moment I have been building up to, and edging forwards for. I have managed to get within five rows of the front, and Muse are due on stage any minute. To say that their set is an assault on the senses is an understatement. Huge video projections at times threaten to overshadow the band themselves, but the music is undeniably Muse. Over the next fifty minutes we are blasted by a set that includes 'Supermassive Black Hole', 'Time Is Running Out', 'Knights of Cydonia', as well as four tracks from the new album, 'Drones'. Magical and awesome. By the time they finish we are totally shell-shocked. So much so that when the PA starts to play out with Greg James' amended version of 'I live in Norwich, and I'm Going Home!', that's exactly what we obediently do.
I am on my motorbike and safely home within forty-five minutes of Muse leaving the stage. A few hours sleep, and then back on Sunday to do it all again.
Sunday is going to prove an even bigger challenge for stomach and bladder, for I desperately want to be as close to the front as possible for the Foo Fighters, but I have an army of Taylor Swift fans to get past first. In spite of the rain, and the thought of having to stand and watch Olly Murs, I head straight to the main stage, armed only with a 500ml bottle of water, and a packet of mints. This could be a long ten hours.
Say what you like about Olly, but he sure as hell is one great entertainer. Even I am grooving along with his funk medley, and love it when Ella Eyre comes on to duet with him on 'Up', and squirm only slightly at Grimmy's appearance on 'Wrapped Up'.
Clean Bandit have become massive since I first saw them on the tiny Lake Stage at Latitude a few years ago. This year they play to a massive crowd, despite the rain, and even bring on dance diva legend Elisabeth Troy to help out on vocals for 'Stronger'. Later Rae Morris appears to sing 'Up Again'. The inevitable 'Rather Be' closes the set for a crowd who have been whipping their waterproofs on and off, but have lapped up every minute.
Catfish and The Bottlemen are a buzz-band at the moment, and I have been waiting to see them for some time. The Welshmen turn in a credible set, confounding those who are expecting some kind of quirky folk band. The name apparently comes from a Sydney street busker who plays an improvised glockenspiel constructed out of beer bottles strung from a wire. All their tracks played are from their debut album 'The Balcony', but I don't care as it is the first time I've seen them perform live.
Imagine Dragons are my big surprise of The Big Weekend. Hailing from Las Vegas, they have just released their second album, 'Smoke + Mirrors', which duly topped the album charts over here. I guess they just missed my radar, but their personable and honest lyrics, and enthusiasm for embracing the crowd wins me over. Put that one on my shopping list for next time I'm in HMV.
I love George Ezra's voice, but there is just something that I don't quite like about the guy. I saw him last year at the Waterfront Studio in Norwich, and I remember some misogynistic comment he made about dumping a girlfriend, and admitting that he wrote the song Budapest even though he never actually made it that far on his InterRail ticket. Not that you should damn a man and his entire career over two throwaway comments, but that is my prerogative. He doesn't bother saying much to the Big Weekend crowd. Perhaps it's just as well.
The stage has still not been cleared of all Rita Ora's confetti, so there is a bit more frantic sweeping and heel scraping to get rid of the last of it before the perfectly packaged form of Taylor Swift hits Earlham Park. From the sparkly bling of her outfit to the perfectly coiffured hair and bright red lipstick, this is one amazing show-business phenomena to witness in the flesh. Every pose and pout, every flick of the hair, and every strut and turn is choreographed to within a whisker's breadth of impeccability. Whatever you think of her records (and I don't think that they are that bad), you cannot help be impressed by her consummate professionalism on stage. Even the way she holds each pose for a second makes it virtually impossible to take a bad photograph of the woman. Respect.
As Taylor Swift finishes her set I witness an extraordinary scrummage at the front of the stage. As her fans turn to leave (they don't want to see Dave Grohl?) they are met by a wave of Foo Fans surging forwards to take their place. One man, who has been standing in front of me for the last nine hours without moving (if he had been lying down, I would have checked for a pulse hours ago), stood motionless throughout Taylor's set, but was obviously one of her biggest Norwich fans, now turns to attempt to leave. He appears slightly concerned for his own safety. What are his prospects of escape before the first chords of the Foos opening number claim him as one of the Devil's own.
No such worries for me. I end up in the second row, directly in front of centre stage. Just far enough back to avoid my ugly mug from photo-bombing the television coverage.
What can you say about Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, apart from the fact that Grohl once played here at the Norwich Arts Centre with his previous band, Nirvana? The man is a rock and roll god, who knows and loves music so much that he really deserves his own show on Future Radio. Once their set is under way I keep having to pinch myself to believe that at times I am less than twelve feet away from one of everybody's rock and roll heroes.
The set is amazing, albeit, I'm told, about two hours shorter than he will sometimes play for. Four days later, and after just one hour, my neck muscles were still aching with all the violent head-shaking. He mockingly, but with endearing good-humour, thanks his support band for warming us up, and dedicates virtually every track after that to Taylor Swift. He goads us into embracing the Foo Fighters' mission (to play rock and roll), teases those of us that have never seen the Foo Fighters before, and invites all Foo Fighter virgins to attend a proper Foo Fighters show at some point.
There are fireworks at the end, but this was not about the special effects. It was all about the music. Foo Fighters, we salute you.
So, there you have it. Two days of the greatest musical event to visit Norwich in recent memory. When I was a kid we used to follow the Radio 1 Roadshow, with the likes of Tony Blackburn, Peter Powell, Gary Davies and others doing their bit for Won-der-ful Radio One. Then, it was all about the presenters, and far less about the music. This time around, almost forty years later, the DJ's were still around - Grimmy, Scott Mills, Greg James and Annie Mac (surely the most desirable record player since the Bang & Olufsen Beogram 4004), but this time it was definitely all about the music. The way it should be.