REVIEW: Forwards Festival 23, Day 1

And just like that, Forwards Festival 2023 is once again at an end, with another stellar lineup and lots of memories made. I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to capture the one and only Erykah Badu, alongside a variety of huge names, as they gathered at the Downs for an evening of magic.

Words & Images: Libby Smith, @myfavouritedays


That Friday feeling couldn’t come soon enough, as I made my way through the entrance with ease, thanks to the friendly staff. I was immediately met by music booming from both stages, the smell of some great local food vendors and lots of happy faces. It took me a minute to get my bearings, but soon enough I was welcomed into the evening by the soothing sounds of Ezra Collective on the West Stage.

Although I had missed the beginning of the festival, Ezra Collective were the perfect introduction to the event, and their incredible ability to fill the air with their jazzy beats truly set the bar high for the rest of the night.

Erykah Badu

Goldie’s live ensemble was next on the East Stage, and he successfully hyped up the growing crowd as classic drum and bass and jungle flowed around him from the band. He’s one of the pioneers of the rave scene in the UK, so there was something magical about seeing those old school songs being performed live in the sunshine, and it was easy to feel the music bringing everyone together as the visuals of Goldie in the ’90s and 2000s flashed on the stage behind him.


Next was Raye, who was easily my favourite performer of the night. It was immediately clear to me that she had an incredibly warm presence on the stage, reminiscent of Amy Winehouse in both her songs and her demeanor throughout her set. Her voice was nothing short of powerful, as she bonded with the crowd, allowed herself to be vulnerable, shed some tears, and also played some of her biggest dance tunes which got everybody moving and smiling. It was definitely a performance I won’t forget anytime soon.


As the sun began to set, the sky burst into hues of pink, orange and purple, creating the perfect background for Bonobo’s chill jazz blended into club genres. Bristol suddenly felt like Ibiza, and the thousands of happy people swayed under the beautiful sky, preparing for the main act of the night. 

In between eating and wandering around the surprisingly large site, I caught a glimpse of Confidence Man. Their incredible costumes and choreography mixed with their funky acid-house music resulted in something truly weird and wonderful that I’m glad I didn’t miss, but soon enough everyone was swarming to the West Stage for the biggest performance of the night, Erykah Badu.


I rushed to the West Stage, eager to not miss a single second of the Queen of R&B, but unfortunately was stuck in the pit for over half an hour as Badu’s backing performers tried to keep the vibes high. The audience and staff quickly grew impatient, until suddenly, the legendary singer graced the stage in a beautiful coat and large hat. The impatience dissolved almost immediately, as her voice melted the hearts of everyone there. Her soulful voice hadn’t changed at all, and thousands of guests danced and merged into one like a charmed snake. As if it couldn’t get any better, surprise guest Mos Def then arrived and heightened the vibes alongside Badu. 

The eclectic combination of artists and genres, combined with the perfect weather and the generally incredible organisation from the Forwards Festival 2023 team, meant that the first day had shaped up to be perhaps more memorable than the year before. So although I wouldn’t be there, I was incredibly excited to see how the rest of the weekend would play out, and I left the Downs with a huge smile, a full belly and lots of new memories.

Libby Smith is a freelance photographer & writer with the Freestyle Bristol team and the in-house photographer for @justbehq You can find more of her work on TikTok & Instagram