Live Reviews

Festival Review: Bestival 2013

6-8 September 2013


Franz Ferdinand @ Bestival 2013Bestival started out as a boutique knees-up featuring leftfield artists, a smattering of older favourites and a couple of larger names. The festival now entertains over 50,000 people every year on the Isle of Wight with big names aplenty and has become one of the genuine highlights of the festival calendar. Having earned the reputation of being one huge fancy dress party, how would creator and musical curator Rob da Bank and creative director Josie da Bank go about celebrating Bestival’s 10th birthday?

With the site opening on Thursday, proceedings start off on a fairly relaxed footing. Local islander Sarah Close takes to the Bandstand on the hill and plays an acoustic set featuring covers of Daft Punk‘s Get Lucky and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together and touching, original songs like break up number Don’t Love Me and new song Kodiak. Meanwhile down at the temporary pub that is Club Dada & Come Dancing, humourous but straight talking folk singer Beans On Toast can be found singing about giving up cocaine, the corporatisation of music and a potentially treasonable but very entertaining song about Prince Harry and war.

Friday

Following some early morning downpours, Bestival fully comes to life on Friday. A quick trip to the Big Top sees London-based quintet Skinny Lister blast through their own high-energy material as well as some traditional Scottish and Irish folk songs. Then, over on the Bandstand, Jersey singer songwriter Lloyd Yates’ raw, soulful voice powers through songs like Bring Back The Life and the catchy without being cheesy Down By The River. His gruff, distinctive voice is balanced by bittersweet, heartfelt lyrics and his disarmingly candid explanations between songs about his lyrical inspiration prove it’s not just his voice that’s got soul.

On the main stage, a somewhat depleted Wu-Tang Clan begin by making the whole crowd flick the finger and then roll through a wealth of classic material. During a set full of energy, attitude and plenty of crowd interaction, the New Yorkers demonstrate what they’re keen to stress is ‘real hip hop’, giving DJ Allah Mathematics a chance to impress with a lightning fast scratching session, even using his foot on the crossfader, and paying tribute to the late ODB, who died in 2004. Although there’s no Method Man or RZA today, they still manage to spark a moshpit with hits like Gravel Pit.

A quick trip around some of Bestival’s smaller stages is always worthwhile. This afternoon the opulent Bollywood tent sees Prince Fatty and MC Horseman playing a mix of reggae classics. Then there’s The Port where Room Service are playing chunky, driving house from inside HMS Bestival, a huge old converted ocean liner, as a man dances in his Speedos next to its funnel.

Back on the main stage, Jessie Ware is also in the nautical spirit, wearing a sailor’s hat and suit as she runs through No To Love, into which she cleverly mixes Marvin Gaye’s I Want You, slower moments like Wildest Moments and the smooth funk of Running. She looks genuinely overwhelmed as she tells the crowd that she’s been coming to the festival every year since she left university and how special it is to be playing on the main stage.

Sinead O’Connor plays a stripped back version of Nothing Compares 2 U as part of her impassioned set over in the Big Top, which prompts a mass sing-along and even sees a man raise his crutches to the sky to wave them along in time. Jon Hopkins then plays the sweetest, most fragile electronic melodies, before cracking the reverie with broken hip hop beats. A growling, incessant bassline then drives on as angelic, ambient chords float in the background and mini drops create further tension as the track builds, soars and shines. Hopkins takes cues from mainstream dance music but pushes them into the light with more leftfield beats and the results are often stunning, not to mention enthusiastically received by the crowd.

Standing on an elevated platform, The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne shouts “Come on motherfuckers!” a few times to rouse the crowd as he conducts a psychedelic wig out on the main stage. The silver-suited singer is silhouetted against the bright LED backdrop for the lush harp samples and choral chants of Silver Trembling Hands as he clutches what looks like a plastic baby. Emotive, eccentric and passionately supported, the band saves their best-known track Do You Realize, which is stripped back from its usual full-on orchestral sweep, for last. A shot of a man bawling his eyes out beams onto the large screens flanking the stage, summing up the song’s emotional charge but also putting into contrast other parts of the set that fell slightly flat.

Bestival’s headline 10th birthday set comes fittingly from Fatboy Slim, who played in the rain and gales of the first ever Bestival in 2004. He pummels the crowd with a mix of his own tracks including recent acid monster Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat, dance anthems and, on the downside, some donk-heavy EDM monotony. The mix of lasers, fireworks, creative visuals, giant balloons and, of course, Norman Cook’s fine musical selection create one huge pulsating party, while a surprise live piano and choir rendition of Praise You forms a genuinely special ending.

All that’s then left to do is to sample Squarepusher in the Big Top. Donning a full LED mask, he plays a nosebleed-inducing, squealing bleep-fest. Occasional melodies provide the only fleeting moments of light relief before spat out torrents of beats resume. After a smorgasbord of diverse musical nourishment, it proves one course too many however, and we turn our attentions instead to sleep and day two.

Saturday

Day two sees Bastille take to the main stage and fully enter into Bestival’s nautical spirit. With the band dressed in matching fancy dress, singer Dan Smith shouts “Ahoy!” to the massed sailors, squid, pirates and mermaids before running through the vast majority of their Bad Blood album. From recent single Things We Lost In The Fire to the tribal drums of Icarus, Bastille strike the balance between jaunty indie tunes and emotive stadium anthems well.

Smith proves a charismatic frontman, self effacingly appealing to the crowd at one point, ‘My dancing’s shit and I look a bit of a twat, so if you could help me out’, before singing Of The Night, a rendition of Snap’s Rhythm Is A Dancer mixed with Corona’s Rhythm Of The Night. He then jumps into the crowd for Flaws before he allows a stage invasion of crabs and sea captains to join him for best-known track Pompeii, giving one of the weekend’s best sets a party ending.

In contrast, Marc Ronson and Zane Lowe’s DJ set comes across as little more than filler on the main stage but there’s more substance to be found on the Bandstand where Zimbabwe’s Zee Guveya and the Heritage Survival Band are playing Afro-fusion and providing dancing lessons to the crowd.

The soul and smooth love songs from Myles Sanko that follow are sweet but a little too syrupy and a trip to the comedy tent provides a stark contrast. Late Night Gimp Fight get a man up on stage and sing that he’s a paedophile to the tune of One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful, complete with choreographed dance moves and then strip down to elephant thongs, or at least two out of three of them do, for a Full Monty parody. Stuart Goldsmith then gets the crowd group hugging, Pete Cain espouses his manifesto for Great Britain and the awkward Benny Boot works his way through his set.

Arguably the UK’s most successful drum and bass act at present, Rudimental take over the main stage for their hook-laden, vocal take on the genre. Alongside the huge hits like Waiting All Night, which of course gets an enthusiastic reception, the band display their strength in depth. After their trumpet player plays an adept dub reggae solo, they then air a brilliant D&B version of Fugees‘ Ready Or Not. An extended version of number one single Feel The Love closes the set as singer Becky Hill gets overwhelmed and cries.

Chic featuring Nile Rodgers @ Bestival 2013Franz Ferdinand are next up, showcasing their new album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action. New material like the haunted-house strut of Evil Eye and typically upbeat Stand On The Horizon nestles alongside old favourites like Do You Want To and the still excellent Michael. Kings of the indie hook, their new material is somewhat rougher around the edges but remains almost as catchy as their classic material. They also rework tracks such as Can’t Stop Feeling, which is weaved expertly into Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and even ends with the chords from the The KLF’s What Time Is Love. There is a formula to their music and it’s certainly one worth sticking to but the electronic edge of Ulysses brings some much needed variation to a set that perhaps peaked slightly too soon.

Tonight’s headliner is the ever-changing Calvin Broadus, who was better known as Snoop Dogg and now wants to be known as Snoop Lion. He flits between both personas, beginning with a slow reggae tune that sees him flanked by three girls in hot pants and military jackets. He then demands, “Gimme some motherfuckin’ pimp music!” and plays P.I.M.P.

His lengthy career is then sped through with older material like Gin And Juice and Drop It Like It’s Hot performed amid brief splashes of poppier moments including Katy Perry’s California Gurls, on which he featured, and covers such as Jump Around. Snoop Lion meanwhile is limited to the odd song such as his reggae version of Akon’s Tired Of Running. Joined throughout by dancers and the giant spliff-carrying Nasty Dogg mascot, Snoop then plays the crowd-pleasing Who Am I? (What’s My Name?), to which the genuine answer is less clear than ever. He gets the crowd to sing Wiz Khalifa’s Young, Wild And Free with him then adds, “I’ve got some words. Smoke weed motherfuckers!”, before leaving the stage to Bob Marley’s Jammin’.

A spectacle of a very different kind takes place shortly after over in the Big Top. A bearded American screams from the stage, splitting the crowd down the middle to make them shout ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ at each other before making everyone do some yoga moves. As bizarre as it sounds it’s just the introduction for Swedish duo The Knife.

The marquee is then bathed in blue light as Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer come to the stage. A huge glowing ‘harp’ is plucked over menacing chords before Karin’s distinctively otherworldly voice comes in and bass thuds through the crowd’s chests. Part intriguing spectacle, part Mighty Boosh scene, she wears a scaly, sequinned hood as she shimmies and prances energetically around the stage. A manic kick and percussion, which are thumped out on what looks like a giant pentagonal log, then introduce a remixed version of Bird. An eccentric end to another varied day.

Sunday

After a cold and wet night, the strains of Dreams and Go Your Own Way waft across the campsite from covers band Fleetwood Bac, marking the start of Bestival’s third full and final day.

Over at the Big Top, Musical Youth play a selection of covers of reggae classics including I Shot The Sheriff, Money In My Pocket and Good Thing Going, but the biggest reaction is reserved for their own material. Lead singer Dennis Seaton may have a somewhat deeper voice now than in the band’s early 80s prime but Never Gonna Give You Up, which he dedicates to the ladies, and biggest hit Pass The Dutchie still sound great and get the crowd grinning.

Next up are The Wonder Stuff who provide their trademark fun, folk-infused indie. While they may have released a new album earlier this year, it’s their early ’90s hits that get the warmest reception, especially The Size Of A Cow. Singer Miles Hunt must surely be sick of singing after 22 years but the crowd lap it up. Some of the new material also stands on its own two feet though, particularly Be Thy Name, which features Erica Nockalls amazing violin playing and an extended rocky ending.

Over at the Bollywood tent, rave veteran Slipmatt dishes up a nostalgia-heavy party set including anthems from Rozalla, Bizarre Inc, The Prodigy and, of course, his very own SL2 hit, On A Ragga Tip. By contrast over on the main stage Tom Odell performs his typically emotional, melancholic songs, as well as rockier moments like Hold Me. The honky tonk piano of one song serves as a flash-forward to tonight’s main headliner, Elton John.

First of all though, it’s Chic featuring Nile Rodgers’ turn to take over the main stage. Pausing with their backs to the crowd to crank up the tension, they then charge into their own Everybody Dance and I Want Your Love, which comes complete with trumpet and guitar solos. Rodgers makes the point that all of the songs coming up were originally produced or written by him. A medley then follows that includes Diana Ross’ Upside Down, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family (which includes another jaw-dropping lead solo from Rodgers) and Madonna’s Like A Virgin.

They also play Duran Duran’s Notorious and little known Sheila B Devotion track, He’s A Spacer, which sounds remarkably like Electronic’s Getting Away With It. The band’s drummer then sings a version of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (another Rodgers production) that gets the crowd jumping as a rainbow appears overhead.

Every song is delivered straight, just as the beaming crowd want it. Rodgers and his highly talented band end the set with Chic hits Freak Out and Good Times, which sees a crowd of festival-goers take to the stage and inspires some fantastic synchronised crowd dancing. The decision not to perform Daft Punk collaboration Get Lucky seems odd but Rodgers stays to dance with his band on stage while the song is played, bringing to an end one of the festival’s main highlights.

Elton John @ Bestival 2013

Donning a glittering suit, Bestival’s final headliner Elton John kicks his set off with The Bitch Is Back. Playing one of his first gigs since recovering from serious appendicitis, he shows no lack of energy as he hammers the piano to big hits like Benny And The Jets and Tiny Dancer. Some newer tracks verge on a more middle of the road plod but it’s never long before Elton is demonstrating his prowess on the piano and sparking singalongs with songs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Crocodile Rock and I Guess That’s Why They It The Blues.

Lighters, and in one young reveller’s case, a giant church candle, are held aloft for Candle In The Wind before Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me and I’m Still Standing receive a great response. The only encore of the weekend then features new single Home Again, a ballad taken from new album The Diving Board, as the song’s lyrics appear on the giant LED screens. Your Song sparks one final mass singalong before a huge firework display begins, including a blazing birthday cake and glowing number 10, to mark Bestival’s first decade.

There’s little more to do aside from take a wander in the vast and magical Ambient Forest in the torrential rain as Knife Party’s big bass and generic donk-filled EDM filters over from The Port. No better place displays Josie da Bank’s meticulous attention to detail than the forest with its lanterns, lights and sculptures, and that same attitude carries across to Rob da Bank’s musical selections too. Catering for many different ages and tastes from obscure up and coming artists to stadium filling pop stars is no mean feat. While this year seemed more backward-looking than previous years, with the three main headliners all being veterans, away from the main stage there was still a wealth of new and exciting acts, some of which will no doubt be future headliners.

It may have started in much the same vein as the Big Chill with its leftfield musical leanings, but while the Big Chill sold up, sold out and consequently shut down, Bestival branched out, diversified and has become one of the UK’s strongest festival brands. It wasn’t without its problems this year, but Bestival remains one of the friendliest, most fun and richly varied festivals and will no doubt be celebrating many more landmark birthdays in the coming years.


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More on Elton John
Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night
Festival Review: Bestival 2013
Elton John – The Diving Board
Elton John @ Union Chapel, London
Elton John @ Roundhouse, London


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