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theartsdesk at Bestival 2011 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Bestival 2011

theartsdesk at Bestival 2011

He wrote the definitive Glasto report. Now here's the Bestival reality

Main stage crowd at Bestival. Spot the waxed jacketAndrew Whitton

Friday 9th September

A ferry adds to the fun. It may seem rather childish but the fact you have to take a ferry to the Isle of Wight makes the whole Bestival experience seem more of an adventure. Sitting on the open air deck with my youngest brother Enrico, the wind tempered by a warm, bright sun, and a bottle of cider passing between us, the only perturbing issue is the amount of wax jackets making the journey to the festival, Barbours and the like. When did the wax jacket become acceptable? When I were a lad they were only worn by Sloanes and men with shotguns hunting rabbits. The flurry I see throughout the weekend either says something about the Bestival demographic or about how out of touch I am with chic-du-jour. Either way, I can handle the odd one but seeing this many makes me feel queasy.

A short shuttle bus hop and we're on site. I can see Brian Wilson singing about his "California Girls" as we pass the main stage. It looks like a lot of fun, although who knows these days how much is Brian and how much is his lively young band. I ask Rico if I can now tell people, "Yes, I've seen Brian Wilson live," but he looks doubtful.

Two days ago a lady representing Red Bull contacted me and asked if I'd like a pod-pad to stay in courtesy of the energy drink, who are hosting a stage. Cheekily I ask for two pod-pads because, having seen them at other festivals, I reckoned they might be a tad cramped for Rico and me as we're both well over 6' tall. Red Bull agreed to give us just one, which is fair enough. It is, of course, a branding awareness exercise and, look, I mentioned them twice already. That'll have to do, though, as I never made it to their stage. So am I now off Bill Hicks's "artistic roll call"? Am I "a corporate schill"? Or, as was recently suggested in a recent online broadside by the DJ Eddie Temple Morris, has Bestival sold its soul? I don't think so but more on that anon.

The pod-pad looks like a wendy house with a solar-powered light and two little wooden bed-shelves with air mattresses and pillows. It's dinky but turns out to be a great little home for the weekend. Out we go, pick up a pie and a beer and catch the end of the smashing Sound of Rum who I will watch at any opportunity, a raw brew of rock-funk and shouty socially conscious poetics. They are playing the Psychedelic Worm Tent which we can't locate until we see a giant green and, yes, psychedelic worm by a marquee. This gives us a small clue. The Bestival site is a thing of beauty, set in a vale with a wooded hillside, and filled with quirky entities like a giant Tolkien-esque man-made tree, a skate park, a life-size inflatable chapel, a helter skelter, a big wheel, multifarious little tents putting on oddball delights. Is there, as has been suggested, an overweening corporate presence? Borderline. The crux of it is that for every inappropriate marketing car crash - such as the depressingly mall-like Playstation area or, God help us, a space sponsored by TomTom - there are hosts of delightful tea tents, polka tents, curiosities, shacks, glades and detailed fabulous decor. Bestival is now riding the edge of a fine line but they're on this side of it, founders Rob and Josie da Bank's playful vision countered by the hard-nosed business savvy of behind-the-scenes partners. To make Bestival work on this scale they need money. There are aspects I cannot agree with - notably, why make yukky Tuborg beer and lame Gaymers cider the dominant onsite drink and then charge £4 a can? - but the bottom line is there are nearly 600 festivals every British summer and if you want to pay £35 to see Zion Train play to a field of hippies, you still can. Such smallscale enterprises are a great crack too but they're an entirely different beast. If you want to enjoy Bestival's multiplicity of pleasures, then you pay for it and that's that. You won't get much enjoyment out of your weekend if you begrudge every quid and every corportate logo. Then again, it's easy to say that when you're a scumbag journo blagger, isn't it. Enough! On with the show...

After tasting of the forbidden fruit of liveliness in a quiet corner we make our way to the main stage to see Chromeo who efficiently deliver Eighties disco frolics to a happy crowd under warm-ish cloudy skies. Magnetic Man follow, the combo consisting of dubstep heavyweights Skream, Benga and Artwork with a lightshow that, as the evening closes in, turns the trio into disembodied torso-upwards silhouettes against a background of blinding phosphorus flash. They're joined by rising MC P Money and their own hype man, both of whom added momentum to the stew of pop, hip hop and dubstep, with the highlights being the atypical stoned trance hit "I Need Air" and the moments when the packed field, mostly young, headbangs en masse to gigantic dubstep bass-wob as if they were at an ACDC concert. From there a wander takes us for a ride on the big wheel, a rum cocktail and to the Black Dahlia tent at the far end of the site where we catch Ade Edmondson & the Bad Shepherds firing out enjoyable barndance folk versions of old punk songs, all mandolin, fiddle and spirit. By the time they close with a brilliantly off-piste version of Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" and a hoedown attack on The Clash's "White Riot" they have a tent full of dancing, shouting men of fifty-ish - and their partners - going misty-eyed with nostalgia. Edmondson refers to himself as "that twat off the telly" which got a final laugh and they were gone.

A herbal respite in the woods where glowing nymphs and other strange lost souls cavort, and we reach the Bollywood Tent (pictured) in time for drum & bass original DJ Hype who turns all before him into a heaving mass of perspiration. I first saw Hype play over twenty years ago and he hasn't lost a jot of the ability to send a crowd nuts with energy, energy, energy, his hype man icing the cake until I didn't think I could dance more or faster. However, as we passed the Big Top, walls of green lazers drew us in and we found ourselves stepping to the chewy electro-techno rave of Boys Noize. Then that was it. Pod-pad time. Sated.

Saturday 10th September

Horridness. Why is the next day so unpredictable? I fell out of bed in the night too. That made Rico laugh. The inside of my head feels like it's been cauterised. Not for long, however. Ablutions over - and two large men performing the wet-wipe derby in a space little bigger than a dog kennel is something you don't want to ponder for long - or, at least, I don't - then I shave, put on my dinner jacket and tie, and suddenly feel human again  We're going out to lunch. Bestival has invited a group of journos to a free sitting at the Underground Restaurant. This turns out to be quite something.

In the music biz these days no-one's got any money so, whereas a decade ago there was plenty of budget to blow on filling people like me with booze, grub and goodies, nowadays free bars open at 7.30 PM and close at 8.00 and free food is seven Morrisons prawn puffs on a foil tray. Not that I'm too bothered, free is free, no use complaining. Ah, but when someone really makes an effort, well, it's blissful. Kerstin Rogers - AKA foody blogger Ms Marmite - has garnered a rep at the vanguard of the supperclub scene, whatever that is, and she's also written a recipe book to celebrate this fact. She's seems like a live wire as she introduces herself to the rows of journos sat at tables, an uber-yummy mummy with punk attitude and a Fifties fashion fixation. Her pop-up restaurant is on a hill and slants accordingly which gives a nautical impression only enhanced by an accordion player singing shanties (he's cool until he turns his amp up and starts bellowing on incessantly about donkeys). The decor is flowery oversized bras and the waitress service is jaunty country maid chic. The tables are laden with wine which we initially hardly touch as they keep throwing bottle after bottle of Prosecco, red and white, at out flat Babycham glasses. 

As Rico and I tuck into Corn Chowder in Hollowed Pumpkin followed by Stargazy Pie with fisheads poking out, both with an exquisite homemade character, the skies outside open for a brief shower. Dripping anorak-clad festival-goers gaze inquisitively through the door and it reminds Rico of the scene at the beginning of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite when the peasant Rod Steiger watches the aristocrats stuffing their faces. He has a point but it didn't stop me tucking into the Shipwreck Pavlova with Creme de Marron and Salted Caramel, and pouring glass after glass of wine down my neck. Now, if I was a proper music biz slut I'd have just stayed there the whole afternoon getting slowly slaughtered, but there was a festival to see so around 3.00, as the hour of the Village People approaches, we say our thank yous and make our exit.

Fancy dress is now swamping the site, unhindered by the weather which has returned to weak sunshine. There's an occasional violent squall throughout the weekend but - unless you're caught out in it or haven't put up your tent properly - these are a mild inconvenience rather than a mood-spoiler. Rico and I, completely by coincidence, hardly noticed it as we were always in some venue or other when the monsoon outbreaks occurred. There can't have been that much rain anyway as the ground never turned to mud. It was always warm too, nothing like 2007 when 36 hours of wind-blown freezing sleet made the Bestival very trying indeed.

The fancy dress is a treat and probably Bestival's masterstroke. It's very British and a right laugh, everyone making a good-natured exhibition of themselves. The theme is Pop and Rock Stars and, for the record, the most popular choices I noted were:

  1. The Village People.
  2. KISS.
  3. Lady Gaga.
  4. Freddie Mercury.
  5. Michael Jackson. 

I heard a few conversations and, indeed, a stand-up skit in the Comedy Tent, concerned with how appropriate blackface make-up is in 2011. There was quite a bit of it about. Perhaps the least PC outfit I saw was a blackface Stevie Wonder with a white cane - so wrong yet I did giggle, although the benchmark double standards of our age dictate I probably shouldn't write that I did.

At the pod-pad Rico and I transform ourselves. I take the easy option and go as one of the Eagles in tassled suede jacket, hippy wig and cowboy hat, but Rico mutates into Geri Halliwell in full Spice Girl Union Jack regalia and receives comments all day. This is not so surprising as he looks like a navvy tranny in the miniest mini dress with his pants showing - or perhaps a member of Mud. In front of the main stage such outfits are de rigeur. The Village People turn the afternoon into a giant gay club - of course - and their set is - again, of course - all about only three tunes - "In The Navy", "Go West" and "YMCA". The six of them - policeman, cowboy, Indian, clone, G.I. and construction worker - have no backing band; it's a nightclub PA really to tinny disco backing tapes, but no-one cares and, however cheesy, I shall long remember that whole field doing the famous 'YMCA' dance, as will the Village People who seem overwhelmed with the response.

Walking to the Comedy Tent we see another Ginger Spice clone tottering along next to his girlfriend. I make some comment about his sisterhood with Rico. He looks blankly at us with drugged eyes for a moment, then hauls up his dress to display his stretched scrotum, his expression remaining deadpan. "Tommy!" says his girlfriend, sounding like an exasperated mum.

Rico has been trying to get hold of a friend of his for the last 24 hours, a lawyer from Featherford called Maxim, and receives a text saying that Maxim is injured in the Big Top. We head that way and find him collapsed in a heap at the back. He has damaged himself giving a friend a running piggy back and landing badly, snapping his knee the wrong way. He reckons he's torn a ligament and he's in a lot of pain. Using medical skills learnt in the Andes I help with his condition and soon we have him up, propped between us. All this takes place against a backdrop of Ms Dynamite sending a capacity crowd bonkers with her newfound, harder-edged, dubstep-tinted sounds. Practically carrying Maxim between us, and with him emitting the occasional shriek, we make our way down to a decent spot to watch The Cure who play for a mammoth two- and-a-half hours. They start out loose and easy, no between song waffle, but dropping in hits that are impossible to argue with - "Friday I'm In Love", "A Forest", "Inbetween Days", always holding the attention with sheer offbeat pop tunery, then move it up a gear with their poppiest fare - "Lovecats", "Caterpillar", "Why Can't I Be You" - and culminating with the glorious bite of their earliest punk-edged material, notably the final trio of "Grinding Halt", "10.15 Saturday Night" (large portions of the crowd yelping about the tap going "drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip") and a fiery "Killing An Arab".

By the end of the set Maxim really can't walk so we take turns to carry him up to the First Aid tent. At one point we can go no further, we need a third party to take his legs, and I ask passers-by for help. I'm amazed by the way they ignore and avoid us. One fellow even says he'll just get his mate and I see him disappear giggling with his gang. Not good. Finally I collar a grinning teen lad and he assists us. Festival First Aid is where you find the casualties, it can be very miserable but it's not too bad here. Someone's throwing a whitey, someone's twisted their ankle and, initially, the overworked staff are dismissive of Maxim. That is until he pulls up his trouser leg and one knee is about about twice the size of the other with a weird bubble of flesh protruding from his calf area. "You're not going anywhere," says the nurse.

We stay awhile and banter but I'm starting to get itchy feet because Primal Scream (pictured) will be on shortly. They've been playing their delicious Screamadelica album all summer at festivals but I've waited to catch this final show. Maxim is put on a trolley behind a screen and says, "Go, boys, no, really go," or words to that effect. He means it, and Rico and I trot off gleefully, squeezing into the Big Top shortly before it becomes impossible to get in.

Primal Scream's set is ecstatic. Screamadelica is an album that's been too much talked about lately and which I probably listened to too much once upon a time, but Bobby Gillespie leads the Scream through it with unparalleled panache, backed by an explosive lightshow. By the time we reach "Loaded" it's hard to believe it can grow more euphoric but "Come Together" has an acid house gospel punch that's truly overwhelming. We two brothers, noddled to the gills, put arms around each other's shoulders, and sway to glorious Nineties narco-utopianism writ large. Nothing can top that and the encore of non-Screamadelica songs, rounded off with "Rocks" are like a raucous gradual descent from victory. Lovely.

From there it's one long round of herbal fragmentation and Makers Mark whisky in the Bollywood Bar, blathering and wig-swapping with fellow revellers. Eventually Security calls time and kicks us out with the lamest line, "Do you guys have the wristband to be in this bar area?" And we leave. To be fair, though, there are ways - one in particular - in which the Bestival is much more elastic about tedious regulations than the generally easier-going Glastonbury. I'm not going to mention what they are - especially the one in particular - as some spoilsport official may read this and do something predictably dull.

Back at the pod-pad my brother insisted on treating me to a short i-phone DJ set consisting of Matt Monro, Ennio Morrisone, the theme from Zulu, and the addictively funny Charlie Sheen "Winning" song off YouTube. Then dreamless sleep.

Sunday 11th September

The way to start a Sunday is a "Berry Burst" smoothie followed by a decent bottle of red wine, so that's what Rico and I do, sitting in the sun outside our pod-pad, washed down with a tortilla wrap of beans and bacon. All is then well with the world. The Cuban Brothers are always a laugh, built round the concept of two chunky Scottish middle-aged blokes (and their younger pal Kengo Oshima) dressing up as shady Seventies Latino lotharios, and playing funk music with added breakdancing and bawdy comedy. On a sunny Sunday afternoon they don't fail to entertain, especially their guest breakdancer, an oriental guy introduced as frontman Miguel Mantovani's long lost Mongolian son, who can flip his ankle behind his ear while standing up and do other extrordinary bodily contortions.

An hour of chilling to mediocre stand-up in the Comedy Tent, MCed by the pleasant but not very funny Tim Fitzhigham, and we return to the mainstage to see if Kelis is up to much. She's very easy on the eyes in her top hat and basque top, but the music, especially at afternoon volume, is unimpressive. I last saw her years ago when her live show was a kind of shouty amalgam of R&B and heavy rock. I didn't like it much but it was different and certainly had power. Now she's gone all Euro-dance-pop which sounds pleasing enough on the radio but desperately lacks oomph in the live arena. Even her corking raunchy mega-hit 'Milkshake' is reduced to a generic 4/4 bouncer. It seems a shame. 

Rico and I decide to see how Maxim is. Apparently he's bandaged, on crutches, dosed on painkillers, and it took him three hours to make it back to his camper van last night. He has a fractured tibia but sounds as if he'd like things to lively up. What we find on our journey is that - fractured tibia aside - it's not surprisng it took him three hours to get back. The camper van site seems to be halfway across the Isle of Wight. We tramp through fields and down byways, up country lanes and past campsites until we reach an area where the Bestival's arenas are distant territory. Maxim is parked there on a chair with a lawyer friend dressed as Mr T and the lawyer friend's girlfriend. It is time for Rico and I to learn how lawyers like to play. It didn't seem very legal to me but left us both feeling most cheerful. I also located a bunch of scallywags in another van blitzed out of their skulls and selling nitrous oxide balloons so that added to the general feeling of well-being. After a while of this, just like yesterday's meal, it became clear that we must make a move or we'd be there until sundown and beyond.

Rico and I take turns carrying Maxim on our shoulders to the sight. This takes some doing but then, unbelievably, we come across an empty wheel barrow sitting among a group of drinkers by a bar tent. I ask everyone I can find if it belongs to them but it appears abandoned. If it wasn't and it was yours, I hereby apologise but, if it's any consolation, it made our night not only possible but brilliant. Once Maxim is wheeled back onsite we decide to find a space near the front of the main stage and stay there as mobility clearly isn't our strong point. Unhappily The Maccabees are playing and their generic indie stodge is not my bag at all. On the other hand, some very naughty rascals I know appear and join our party, providing further spiritual sustinence - one of them is even a laughing gas balloon lady.

Now it's time for Robyn (pictured above), the Swedish pop star who has lately been pushing into dance music with producers such as Diplo and Royksopp. Her trio of Body Talk albums, while rather passionless, have a Teutonic robot snap that's often invigorating. She arrives wearing a black bomber jacket onto a stage with two drummers at the back clad in white suits. Unfortunately she has the same problem as Kelis, that these songs simper in a festival field, not having the bottle to smash through into rave sonics. That's what I reckon but a large portion of the crowd, mostly young women, clearly disagree.

We're here for Bjork, anyway, and soon enough she appears. Well, in truth, first David Attenborough soothes us all with wise words about nature, then a choir of Icelandic women arrives clad in multi-coloured spangly robes. Bjork herself runs onto the stage topped with a gigantic orange afro, looking like an imp Ronald McDonald as reconceived by Luc Besson, and wearing a metallic blue mohawk hat. Her set is mainly the whole of her new Biophilia album. Wise people don't play the whole of their new album to a festival crowd on a Sunday night at the very end of the summer. Bjork doesn't care and, for our gaggle, she's a success, albeit punctuated with the un-ethereal hiss of nitrous oxide. It takes a while to get into the mood she creates but when I do, it has real beauty, the interaction of the choir with her swooping vocals and gentle interplay of electronic and classical instrumentation. One track silences everyone with its stark loveliness. Happily she ends with "Declare Independence" which means the crowd break the bubble of seriousness and chant "Raise your flag higher, higher," multiple times, which feels great.

Back in the wheelbarrow, we lose our gang and head for an open air clubby area selling rum called Sailor Jerry's. The crowd cheer Maxim and his barrow and his crutch-dancing, but the music is hen party cheese. It was fine to start with, but it's the way they pile on relentless familiarity that's a turn-off. A bit of Motown, a bit of Madonna, but then Lulu's "Shout"? Too much. Happily it's time to head across the way to the Bollywood tent where maverick US house DJ Derrick Carter is playing the final set of the night. Barrowing into the end of Fatboy Slim's set, it's all crazy from here. Maxim propped on his crutches, Rico stomping, and Derrick Carter smashing it with the very best sort of house music, eclectic and ranging through swing-jazz to techno with style and punch, easing the pressure occasionally but never letting up. E'd up girls collapse in a giggling pile in the wheel-barrow, stunning women in polka dot dresses, dripping with sweat, dance around it, and on and on until we decide to take Maxim back across the fields and far away. And, boy, that took some doing. My legs will be having words with me about it for some time to come. Probably until this time next year. I'll be back.

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