The proliferation of London city centre festivals has grown apace in the last few years, paralleling the expansion in the festival industry as a whole. One-dayers have a clear attraction to those who can’t, or don’t want, to leave home for a treacherous long weekend of camping. However, with so many emerging, each needs to establish some uniqueness. Hard Rock Calling has set its stall up catering for an adult contemporary audience; Lovebox has established itself as a destination for young trendy things, and Wireless, now in its sixth year has … well, from looking at this year’s lineup, it’s not clear what Wireless has set itself up as.
With the three days at the Barclaycard-emblazoned Hyde Park site getting an impressive set of headliners in P!nk, LCD Soundsystem and Jay-Z, things were set up nicely for rock, dance and urban themed days. And while we’d be the first to support a genre-surfing lineup at most weekenders, a series of three one-dayers, such as Wireless, needs to be treated differently. It would, for starters, benefit from having daily orders that hang together. What we ended up with was so random, it’s impossible to decipher what the organisers were thinking.
That’s not to say there weren’t some great sets scattered around the site’s four stages. We caught a short gig by laid-back charmer Alan Pownall on the Third Stage, although he struggled to beat the sound deficit caused by competing against the noise of Bowling For Soup from the Main Stage, their 38-year-old singer still dealing with his teenage angst through the medium of dreadful rock.
But while that stage suffered from being drowned out by unfortunate positioning, there was no such misfortune for acts appearing on the Pepsi Max Stage. Playing host to some of the biggest urban rising acts, it struggled to cope with its popularity at times. The likes of Plan B and Professor Green both deserved slots on the Main Stage, the latter’s set running out of capacity and being closed off on a packed-out, sold out Sunday. Meanwhile Jamie Liddell, whose Compass album has broken new ground for him this year, was in superb form in a woefully empty tent as he fell victim to some unfortunate scheduling.
The Main Stage also threw up some great moments, but also too many weak ones. The Ting Tings were a ludicrous choice of second headliner on a weak, disposable and underwhelming Friday. Only P!nk really stood out on that day, having pretty much perfected her no-fear Funhouse show complete with stuntwoman entrance, trapeze wizardry and crowd zorbing. She pulled it off again here, racing through her impressive run of hits.
Saturday’s main stage line up was again less than it should have been, although Example got people on side with his early afternoon set of upbeat urban-pop (rock chick princess Daisy Dares You could take his lead in charming the audience rather than yelping angrily at them). But then things got strange on what was promoted as “Dance Day” but included a hopelessly out of place The Big Pink, before a keenly anticipated Missy Elliott appeared from a cheap-looking magician’s box for a trainwreck set. Between a late start and an unceremonious termination which left her floundering on stage after her power was cut, she wasn’t on stage much anyway, preferring to promote her rather fierce but unwanted protg Sharaya. Dressing in the German football strip – in London, after Germany had beaten England in the World Cup – and shamelessly promoting a sports clothing manufacturer’s product range, it was as though she wanted to see how far the audience could be pushed.
A hip hop double bill completed by Snoop Dogg, the pick’n'mix of genres carried on with 2manydjs stood in the middle of the stage mixing and mashing up songs for an hour and a half. Nothing other than crowd-pleasing and fun-filled they were probably the day’s best draw, even if they seemed a strange choice to fill the prime time Saturday night void. LCD Soundsystem however struggled to capture the form that has made them one of the best live bands around. Affected by the undercurrent of aggression that seemed to dent the event all weekend James Murphy threatened to leave the stage unless the relentless bottle-throwing ceased. He carried on and finished the job, but something was missing. In fact, throughout the day it felt like the various acts’ hearts weren’t really in it for this festival.
The undercurrent of inner city attitude tainted the weekend and we witnessed two full on punch-ups. Whether stuff like that is unavoidable is moot, but hopefully the organisers will find a way to address the nastier elements and ensure a more comfortable and engaging festival next year. By the time Sunday arrived, motivation to go back had waned. However it turned out that the best day had been saved for last.
Again, there seemed to be little narrative sense in the Sunday scheduling. Three-dimensional cartoon character Slash was followed by a returning Friendly Fires, Lily Allen and then Jay-Z. But it seemed to work strangely well this time. Perhaps it was simply down to all four putting in superb sets with all making the effort to properly engage their audience.
In what could very well be her last London show for some time, Lily Allen’s songbook revealed itself as one full of diamonds. Adding a few beats to her easily-digestible chart-friendly hits gave them a bit of extra oomph and she went down a storm, with a guesting Professor Green appearing for a spot of rap towards the end. Allen won new fans for standing up to bottle throwing oiks too, dedicating her jaunty little number Fuck You to them.
Then it was time for the day’s big draw, and the likely reason why Sunday sold out weeks in advance. With the likes of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and the missus Beyonce watching, Jay-Z ruled the stage with a staggeringly good performance. Reeling off belter after belter, a previously restless audience became enthralled by their hero.
Wireless would benefit from more astute organisation and a clearer identity – the popularity of the up-and-coming hot young urban stars performing over the weekend points towards that direction. At the very least a more consistent approach to timetabling and theming would be welcome. However the tremendous conclusion to the weekend confirmed that while the event has some deep flaws, it also offered enough good times to warrant the suspension of doubt that it can still contribute to the festival season.