In a relatively short space of time (the first event was staged in 2004) Bestival has established itself as the three-day festival of choice for those looking for something easier on the feet than Glastonbury. It’s by no means perfect: 4 is an unjustifiable amount to charge for a can of cider, and it’s hard to discern the reason for positioning the Big Top stage at the top of a not-inconsiderable slope. But only the meanest of spirits could fail to be cheered by this friendly, life-affirming festival of food, comedy and, crucially, music.
Although billed as the festival’s first full day, Thursday at Bestival is really just a selection of hors d’oeuvres preparing attendees for the feast of music ahead.
The most enticing of all these musical morsels is Janelle Mone. As the author of one of the year’s best albums, Mone’s set in the Big Top rightfully attracts a fair amount of buzz. Unfortunately, her performance is blighted by some wretched sound – a recurring problem in the Big Top for much of the weekend. It’s not disastrous by any means, but Mone – a powerful performer given the right stage – ends up sounding like a budgerigar trilling away inside a bass bin. The band is tight and Mone is energetic, but the sound did her absolutely no favours.
With their dark suits, portly frames and short hair, Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory of Thursday night’s headliners Heaven 17 now resemble low-rent nightclub owners. Their music has aged much better though – its synth-driven sturm und drang sounds utterly contemporary when heard alongside 21st century stars like Hurts and La Roux. Indeed, the latter turns up for a duet with Ware on a cover of Terence Trent D’Arby‘s Sign Your Name (produced by Ware himself back in the day) and, inevitably, Temptation gets the whole crowd dancing like it’s 1983 all over again.
Bestival begins in earnest on Friday with Level 42‘s midday set on the main stage. A sign above the band advertises a forthcoming career retrospective box set and proclaims cheerfully, ‘Friends For 30 Years’. While that slogan might successfully describe intra-band relations, it doesn’t adequately sum up the relationship between Level 42 and the British public, synonymous as the band is with the least fashionable type of ‘white sock’ eighties funk-rock. Fortunately for Level 42, there are few more forgiving environments than a festival stage bathed in sunlight. As it happens, Mark King and company deserve the crowd’s generosity – they’re pretty good. Reassuringly, the first sound of note is a vigorously slapped bass, the band is super-tight and Lessons In Love sounds really rather slinky, 24 (!) years on.
During the afternoon there’s something of a murderer’s row in the Big Top: a succession of critically-fted acts in a variety of musical colours. Following a no-show by Ulrich Schnauss (he forgot to book his ferry, apparently), Kieran Hebden – aka Four Tet – plays a blinder. Four Tet makes beautiful music but, live, Hebden resembles the IT guy who’s come to fix your laptop. He probably realises this too as, a few songs in, he’s joined by four women dancing with fluorescent hula hoops. They provide a suitably entrancing visual accompaniment to a terrific set that’s lapped up by an appreciative audience.
Following Janelle Mone’s disappointment the previous night, Mercury Prize-nominated Cumbrians Wild Beasts also succumb to the Big Top’s bass-saturated sound. It means that the opening Fun Powder Plot ends up sounding muddied when it should be resplendent. Fortunately, however, the likes of All The King’s Men and Two Dancers are potent enough to burst through the sonic quagmire.
Fresh from their Mercury Prize victory, The xx draw a predictably huge crowd to the Big Top early in the evening. It’s been pointed out by critics several times before, but their crepuscular, introverted sound really isn’t suited to the environs of a festival. Still, it’s hard to know what else they could do: the trio make a decent fist of replicating the songs from their debut, and the crowd laps it up enthusiastically.
Back at the main stage, Hot Chip don’t put a foot wrong. Joe Goddard – the beardy, deep-voiced foil to the bespectacled Alexis Taylor – has just become a dad, so he’s represented this evening by his disembodied head projected on to a video screen. Elsewhere, it’s eminently danceable business as usual for the ‘Chip.
Dizzee Rascal headlines the main stage. These days he makes such brazenly hedonistic music it’s easy to forget that he was once a purveyor of difficult, dark music that was more suited to desolate council estates than sunny evenings on the Isle Of Wight. But Dizzee’s metamorphosis into an entertainer par excellence is now complete, and it suits him.