All sorts of late-night delights and mischief take place in Block9’s NYC Downlow. There’s nowhere like it — for five nights a year it becomes the world’s best pop-up nightclub, bringing first class DJs, drag performers and a delirious atmosphere to Glastonbury. And with 2023 marking the Downlow’s coming of age 16th year, naughtiness was guaranteed.
Styled on a New York bathhouse-cum-meatpacking warehouse in the early ‘80s, it’s every bit as loose, seedy and queer as that theme demands. Make your way in with a moustache upon your lips and - ideally - fishnets over your chest (anything heavier you’ll be tearing it off in depths of the sweatpit anyway), and you’ll find yourself immersed in a space that truly lives up to Block9’s MO of creating ‘Temporary Alternative Realities’.
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Call Super plays the first set in the main room on Thursday - AKA Leather Night - treating the keen early birds, who queued round the block for hours before opening, to a sultry house set while performers clad in everything from harnesses to crotchless chaps to metal strap-ons whip up the crowd, setting the tone for a weekend-long frenzy from the off. ‘Beardy Drag Barbarian’ Oedipussi Rex storming the stage for a Russian-style dance performance — think Rasputin on a runway — sends the room into raptures, and soon fellow drag performers are pulling topless people from the crowd to join in the action.
Beyond Leather Night, 2023 expanded on the Downlow concept with a specialist theme for each new day, including a Night of a Thousand Lily Savages (RIP Paul) and the climactic Elton-fuelled Rocket Glam Night — the only way to follow his end-of-an-era-defining Pyramid Stage headline slot.
Across the weekend, flawless sets from international favourites such as The Carry Nation, Midland, Mood II Swing, Cinthie, Gideön, Moxie and Timmy Regisford in the Downlow - and the likes of Michael Upson, NIKS and Dungeon Meat in the more intimate, adjoining Meat Rack room- keeps the energy at overload. Accelerated by the flawless hosting and vibes conducting of drag performers and go go dancers such as Shigella Problem, Cocokolin Darling and Courtney Francis, being as cheeky, provocative and titillating as they desire.
“The atmosphere inside the Downlow is truly unmatched. It's joyful, defiant, chaotic and beautiful,” says Midland. “Every person who is involved from the bar staff to the drag queens to the DJs bring their own unique energy and it comes together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.”
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Grace Sands makes a triumphant return to the Downlow on Saturday night, drawing for appropriately smutty cuts such as Kevin Aviance’s ‘Cunty’ while cutting shapes behind the decks. The spot holds an important place in her heart, for many reasons, one being that in 2016 she blew Shay Malt away with her set, landing her a residency at his beloved queer party ADONIS.
“Last year in the Downlow, I partied the Wedsnesday, rocked the house Thursday, and skipped to play San Francisco Pride 9:AM on the Friday - so it was great to be back the full clip this time!” exclaims Grace. “The atmosphere was a riot as always! Bicurious , LGBTQIA+ crew, allies, pals old & new lost their minds!”
“Glastonbury is a mini city that aims to represent the UK and all its scenes,” says Block9 co-founder Gideön. “The queer underground needs a place at the festival as our culture, music and identity are a central wellspring for the rest of music, fashion and creativity in this country and internationally too. Ask Beyoncé!”
“It is important for so many reasons, but above all it exists as a true sanctuary for all the LGBTQ+ attendees of the festival,” says Midland. “A place we can come together and not only celebrate but celebrate each other and be the most honest version of ourselves. There is no competitiveness in here, no headliners, no VIP ego massaging. Everyone wants everyone to succeed, be it in their DJ performance or the drag shows and as a result the atmosphere inside is that of mutual respect, love and a gentle reminder that queers simply do it better.”
Grace Sands points out: “The Downlow is super important at Glastonbury for representation and also for a lot of people it’s their first inclusive queer experience” — it’s primarily a safer space for the festival’s proud LGBTQI+ contingent, but being located within the far-reaching treasures of the UK’s largest festival with a cross-section of society present, it’s also a potentially life-changing experience for people who have not previously been party to such a freeing, liberated atmosphere.
“Glastonbury without the Downlow is unthinkable for me as it is so in tune with the values of the festival,” says Prosumer, who's bestowed the honour of closing set for 2023, standing in Horse Meat Disco’s Luke Howard who has held down the slot for a number of years. “Not to go fully spiritual here, but I think the message of love, care and connectedness that lies behind the festival is beautifully expressed throughout the whole site. One of those expressions is the Downlow. It will not be the right expression for everyone, but for some it will be to the point that it will change their lives. You can learn a lot about love and freedom on that dancefloor.
“I see so many people in the Downlow just looking incredibly free and open, that always gets me and that is contagious, I think. The ‘Try it, you might like it’ sign over the building speaks about that. Allow yourself to shine. Or, in the words of Sylvester ‘You are a star, everybody is one, and you only happen once’.”
Dancers want to be there, DJs want to play there. But ‘mainstream’ interest has come with its issues. Every night at the Downlow is a roadblock with queues snaking round the South East Corner, which is not ideal for accessibility. “The NYC Downlow was conceived as a queer club for LGBTQI+ but now it's such a major attraction to the broader festival it’s difficult to figure out how to prioritise access for the community it was created for. The queues are just so damn long!” admits Gideön.
That’s something for the organisers to ponder. As it stands, there’s no doubt that once you’re inside, they’ve perfected the formula for a thriving, queer utopia at the UK festival calendar’s leading institution. That deserves celebrating.
Prosumer’s masterful set is a fitting end, delivering an exultant 90 minutes of pumping house music, closing out the temporary paradise with Gideön’s ‘Brighter Days’, a track he says “reeks of the Downlow”. Then with applause, whoops and a few tears, the Downlow prepares to hibernate for another year.
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“The Downlow is a huge highlight of the year for me, so getting to close it was mildly terrifying and very inspiring,” says Prosumer. “I have so much love for the Downlow family, so many people who have dedicated their lives to music, nightlife and performance who want it to be the best club in the world and bring their A game. And the audience showing up with so much joy, people just express themselves and that is welcome and celebrated. I had an amazing five days there and tying a bow around this at the end is something I will hold precious for the rest of my life.”
As the clean-up operation begins, a crew member's T-shirt says it best: There’s no place like homo.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Editor & Digital Director, follow him on Twitter