On the 5th of September, Bestival celebrated its 10th birthday. Josie and Rob da Bank originally curated the festival back in 2004, and have since watched it develop from the alternative festival for their Sunday Best’s record label acts, into one of Britain’s most varied and championed events, boasting some of the most notable names in the music industry. Gathering crowds nearer to 60,000 these days, we made the trip to the Isle of Wight to join in the festivities.
Thursday – Muscle Memory
It was always going to be impossible to refrain from comparing this time with the last. Somewhere between the lull of the afternoon and the beginning of the evening, we stood at the entrance to Robin Hill – on the spot where we’d stood back in 2011 – and admired the exhibition. I looked down, half expecting to see my footprint from two years ago, before remembering that I wasn’t Neil Armstrong and this wasn’t the Moon.
Given the similarities, however, you could have certainly been forgiven for making that mistake: the strange, euphoric heights we’d reach, the plethora of stars we’d see – and the extraterrestrials we’d undoubtedly meet along the way – the weekend was a rocket and three spacesuits shy of an expedition.
But already round two had begun very differently, with broad daylight ensuring that Robin Hill’s neon paradise of weird and wonderful was distinctly absent of the mystery that had clouded it on the evening we last washed up on these shores. Still, the visual glory of Bestival was no less impressive.
It’s good to be back.
Friday – The View from the Afternoon
A swarm of limbs and smiling faces jolted like a multi-coloured ECG to the sound of Parisian Electro Swing band, Caravan Palace. The sun was rampant, but her efforts to find a way past the shades and sunblock only made the crowd-like heart beat faster and stronger.
Girls were stood in familiar circles – their bags and jackets in the middle like some ancient God they danced for – littered with face paint and glitter, while boys pointed one hand to the sky, nursing their beers in the other, amid shouts of boisterous approval.
Bestival’s tenth birthday party was well and truly underway.
Far from any formal black-tie affair that some milestones would encourage, the view at Robin Hill Park was a vibrant, extraordinary one, full of happy-go-lucky people and informality. Some people choose the security of life, but for now – even if only for the weekend – this multitude had chosen their love of music.
And it was a love that not even a depleted Wu-Tang Clan, who lost members RZA, GZA and Method Man to a customs complication, could shake, as they valiantly soldiered on in true Wu-Tang fashion. While the crowd’s disappointment at the missing parties was noticeable, they did their best to cheer on the East Coast hip-hop legends, Wu-Tang W’s held high in the air, pints wedged between grinning teeth. We could only imagine the scenes that must have unfolded at customs some twenty-four hours earlier…
Grabbing some beers – after a quick pit stop at a crêperie (lemon and sugar, of course) – we took a wander into the Ambient Forest, weaving between the green masses before stumbling across a rare sight: the lesser-spotted vacant hammock. A relaxed drink and a chinwag later, we decided to continue our Isle of Wight safari.
The lively acoustic sounds of Bombay Bicycle Club were enough to lure us out of the Ambient Forest and back to the main stage, providing a welcome injection of energy to the afternoon. Often pigeon-holed as a timid folk band, the four-piece from Crouch End, London delivered their brand of toe-tapping indie rock, doing little to slow down the BPM of this multi-coloured ECG.
We took another break from the action and slinked back to our tents for some respite – the combination of a long day and the urge to sit down with a few beers and no hassle was too great.
On the way, we discovered that the path by one of water taps – the one route back to our tent, naturally – had slowly become a muddy trench, sporting a healthy collection of individual trainers, sunglasses and other abandoned garments, no doubt sacrificed by the owners for safe passage to the other side; the festival graveyard, it seemed.
R.I.P. Air Max.
Later that evening, we returned to the main stage to witness The Flaming Lips. This particular band held a place of great sentiment within me, reminding me of the musical teachings my father gave me during my youth; he had never seen them live, so I felt a duty – if not a personal need – to see them with my own two eyes. And what a spectacle it was.
Visually, aurally, psychologically, The Flaming Lips stole the day. With a performance that was truly astounding, they evoked deep emotion from the crowd – one particularly beautiful moment including a fan caught on the big screen shedding a tear to ‘Do You Realize??’ – also helped by some powerful visuals from their remarkable stage design.
The sheepdog rain herded us from the Main Stage to the Big Top, where we stumbled upon Belle & Sebastian’s set, which was a pleasant surprise.
Then after the rain died off, we walked by Main Stage and Fat Boy Slim; we’d seen Mr. Cook back in 2011 and as it seemed more like ‘Fat Boy Slim the DJ’ rather than ‘Fat Boy Slim the Artist’, we kept on walking.
The air of happiness outweighed the chill of the night, as drunken hipsters and woozy damsels swayed through the twilight, the evening’s intoxicants complicating their motor skills.
“James?” a girl shouted, arms open, smile wide.
Fuck it, why not? I thought, I’ll be James, responding to her question with the smile and embrace she was looking for. Her mind was already fragile, I didn’t want to push her towards The Fear.
As I hugged this complete stranger and watched her fill up with joy, I couldn’t help but wonder where the real James was, and whether or not some girl was humouring him in a similar fashion.
Let’s hope so.
We finally stopped in at the Wagamama Lounge, where DJ Yoda rattled through a show that can only be described as effortlessly mesmerizing, coasting from genre to genre, stringing hits together and never once stumbling across a mix he couldn’t blend.
Saturday – “Warning: Adult ‘ent”
Two remarkable bacon butties and two even more impeccable cups of tea later, we were ready for day three.
We made our way to the Amphitheatre, which played host to Scroobius Pip’s much-celebrated Satin Lizard Lounge, bringing together a number of talented spoken word artists.
Pip opened things up, highlighting that they had license to free roam courtesy of a sign, which should have read ‘Warning: Adult Content’, but had since slipped from it’s perch, the ‘Cont’ being hidden from sight.
Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose.
The cunning witticisms, clever anecdotes and sometimes close-to-the-bone insights into the lives of performers Jack Rooke, John Osbourne, Zia Ahmed and Tim Claire were enough to distract us from the mediocre weather, which had already caused an overly enthusiastic audience member to slip, throwing two pints in the air and making a swift acquaintance with the floor,
The human in me thought about a gasp, before my sub-conscious gagged and bound him, letting out the most menacing of laughs.
Old Dogs, Old Tricks?
We’d been eagerly anticipating the performance by Philadelphia hip-hop legends, The Roots.
They walked on stage, an abundance of cool and charisma radiating from them. Sporting two sets of percussionists, a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, sousaphonist and lead singer, they had come well prepared.
The highly energetic performance from the band – coupled with their impossibly happy aura and musical tightness – induced an irresistible fun and entertainment.
And the overflow from the HMS Bestival parade seemed to agree, with Captains, sailors, boats, fish and crustaceans – along with more subtle nods like the red-beanie-clad/light blue uniforms of the crew from ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ and a plethora of David Seaman costumes – were all captivated by the scenes.
Next up: Johnny Marr in the Big Top.
Standing at centre stage, channeling the ghost of The Smiths, Marr enthralled his followers, blending old with new, resurrecting Smiths’ tracks ‘Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before’, ‘How Soon Is Now’, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’. It was a very powerful set, which left us yearning for a Smiths reunion, but celebrating what a fantastic solo artist Marr had become in his own right.
Franz Ferdinand then reminded everyone of how good they actually are, belting out their hits on the Main Stage through a testing bout of rain, with ‘Take Me Out’ and a cover of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ proving to be the highlights.
Snoop Dogg’s profusion of commercialism and sampling of his verses from the pop and dance world (California Gurls put the nail in the coffin for me) suffocated his real quality music; it was almost as if he’d come to the UK and diluted his performance, as if we couldn’t handle Snoop Dogg in his purest form; or maybe he was just pandering to the Radio One enthusiasts among us, but either way we parted company after twenty minutes, only to typically hear the echoes of his songs we loved the further away we got from Main Stage.
Fuck it, I thought, stick your California Gurls up your arse, mate.
As the early morning haze began to loom, we stormed a bar and reloaded. Armed with fresh beers and looking for the antithesis to Snoop Dogg’s ‘hip-pop’, we headed over to the Polka Club – the smallest tent at the festival – to see The Strypes, a band we’d heard a little about, but wanted to know if the hype was justified.
If this band are so good, I thought, what the fuck are they doing in this tent? A clerical error, perhaps?
The MC for the night quipped ‘Why this band are on this fucking stage, I don’t know! It’s a fucking joke that they’re even here, but let’s hear it for The Strypes!’
Four young Irish lads – a mixed bag of sixteen/seventeen year olds – walked out on stage, lead singer donning sunglasses and the swagger to match; not a short-back-and-sides between them, each sporting long hair, three wearing suits, while the bassist rocked a leather jacket.
It’s an easy comparison – and no doubt one that will be made many times – but the only way I can possibly explain how good they were is to say it was like watching loud and furious echoes of footage from The Beatles playing at The Indra Club or Kaiserkeller during their tenure in Hamburg. Here they were, four teenagers who looked like they’d been doing this for centuries, as we spotted their corresponding Beatle one by one. The confidence, the presence, the eloquence… they had the lot. Each one as talented as the last, it’s hard not to romanticize something that you’ve been dreaming of ever since dance became the dictator of the charts. Another cliché, I’m sure, but perhaps we were witnessing the revolution of a new rock ‘n’ roll era.
Time will tell.
We’d gone in hairy and been spat out bald, dripping with saliva, in a state of utter astonishment. We looked amongst ourselves for an explanation, but soon realised that none of us even knew the fucking question, never mind the answer.
I’ve heard about these moments, the ones where you witness something so incredible that mind and body become some fucked up oxymoron – the anatomy crippled, the psyche fervent – but I’d never experienced it.
We spent the next half an hour staring in our teas and shuffling crepes into our mouth, hoping it would set us straight.
Sunday – Treat Me Like You Did The Night Before
Where do we go from here?
My heart was still racing from last night, like my eyes opening had triggered a shot of adrenaline that was now coursing through my bloodstream. I thought sleep might have calmed me down, but I still hadn’t been able to digest it. I opened my tent to see my friend perched outside his, the mirrored image confirming that we were both in the same boat.
Returning to the Satin Lizard Lounge for round two, my animated mind was thirsty for clever lexis and intelligent humour, and it was delivered once again by another brilliant collection of performers, most notably the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ‘Best One-Liner’ winner, Rob Orton (who lived up to his reputation).
The rest of the late afternoon consisted of whistle stop tours, pulling in at Main Stage to catch the funky disco of Chic and Nile Rodgers – before leaving them astern and setting sail to the Bollywood tent, where DJ Greg Wilson mixed together his repertoire of soul and dance (sadly not showcasing his trademark ‘reel-to-reel’ style of mixing on this occasion).
It was then a return to the Big Top to catch The Strypes second outing of the festival; they’d managed to secure a slot on a much bigger venue, and not surprisingly they more than accommodated the larger stage, as the crowd turned from slight and enthusiastic to plentiful and wild the further into their set they went.
Our secret’s out.
The iconic Sir Elton John was next on the agenda, providing a fitting candidate to close the main stage.
Predictably twinkling his way to centre stage, like a mass of stars forming the shape of a man at the piano, the red-tint glasses stared back, before a precession of teeth greeted us, the keys on his trusted instrument the only thing whiter.
‘Madman Across the Water’ read the back of his suit, and I couldn’t help but think anyone else wearing that get up – shy of Bowie – would have been sectioned, never mind ‘Across the Water’.
Two hours of timeless hits poured from the fingers and throat of the sixty-six year old, and half way through, I’d noticed a beautiful girl coyly edging closer towards me from the middle of the crowd, before she eventually plucked up the courage to lean in and speak.
“I’ve lost all my friends,” she shouted, wrestling with ‘Yellow Brick Road’ for my ears attention, “d’you mind if I stay with you?”
Well, who am I to deny a young lady some company?
There’s something about a festival that brings out the good in people, and once again I found myself obliging to the request of a female, perhaps saying more about me than the festival.
We jokingly debated who ‘Your Song’ was written for, both of us staking our claim, before linking arms and crying out the lyrics to ‘Rocket Man’, the feel-good factor in full bloom.
Perhaps it was his forty-four year absence from the festival scene, or maybe a new perspective on life after his recent scare with appendicitis, but Sir Elton was genuinely taken aback by the incredible reception that the Isle of Wight crowd had conjured up for him.
And in a somewhat appropriate encore, the Grand Finale timely swooped in, a multitude of fireworks bursting over the Bestival landscape.
My new friend and I admired the beautiful explosions, while I could feel the moment slowly taking hold of me.
I don’t mean to be so forward, love, but I don’t suppose you fancy sharing a kiss under the fireworks? I mean, you have to admit, it’s not every day you get a chance to kiss a stranger under fireworks…
Sadly, that conversation was only taking place in my mind, as I stole a glance at my attractive new friend behind my sunglasses and debated whether to turn my thoughts into speech. Maybe it was all in vein, but for all I knew she was doing the same behind hers. Either way, I decided against taking the risk, choosing to just enjoy the moment for what it was, already feeling more than content with how the evening – and, in truth, the entire weekend – had turned out.
One for the Road
Two years on, older and wiser, Bestival had come to an end. Whether it was the immediacy of it all, or maybe it was the fact that we’d accrued some experience in this department from last time round, I’d personally enjoyed this one a lot more than my first venture.
In terms of festivals, it was definitely in my top two (alongside Benicassim 2012), but I couldn’t decide if the experience as a whole had been better. That said, I think in terms of the quality of music – and the performances of the artists – this was probably the best I’d ever seen. Everyone we saw delivered, everyone we wanted to see turned up, and the musical talent on display was truly staggering; the variation of genre and style made for a nice contrast between acts and each musician’s individual ability was truly incredible.
As for audience, I think I’ve definitely been amongst more enthusiastic, part-taking crowds in my time. At some points, particularly during the hip-hop performances, it seemed like they weren’t giving enough back, although maybe that was a reaction to disappointment (Wu-Tang’s missing members) and disapproval (Snoop Dogg’s unnecessarily diluted, commercial act). That’s not to say it was a bad atmosphere – there was certainly a harmonious unity throughout – I’ve just definitely been amongst more powerful, completely-immersed-in-the-acts kind of crowds.
Altogether, the curators Josie and Rob da Bank managed to once again put together a truly spectacular, imaginative festival, which maintained the Bestival brand of weird and wonderful that we’ve all become so accustomed to. The evolution, even in the two years that had passed since my previous experience, is patent to see, and it seems they’ve taken the inroads made last year in Glastonbury’s absence and built on them. They’ve clearly strived to find that balance between adding the changes needed for improvement, but still managing to stay the same, without sacrificing the heart and meaning that was the original catalyst for this beautiful spectacle back in 2004.
Click here for more information and tickets, see our Bestival Guide.
Illustrations by Vincenzo Clores (@vinnyclores)