Bestival’s status as the UK’s last big party of the summer is now firmly established, even as the festival seems to have drifted further from the end of the season and into the Isle of Wight’s early autumnal flashes. There are more stages this year than ever before - indeed there are more than I actually manage to find - but while its size has detached Bestival from its boutique origins it has been matched by the consistent calibre of its line ups. Meanwhile, the loving attention to detail garnished across Robin Hill Country Park means the site remains one of the most joyous to explore, play about and get lost in that there is.
With the likes of The Cure, Public Enemy, Björk, PJ Harvey, Grandmaster Flash and Primal Scream appearing over the course of the weekend, there’s no shortage of musical legend on the bill. The man amongst them with the greatest legacy takes to the main stage in a relatively low-key slot at 4pm on Friday though. Brian Wilson produced more perfect pop as the leader of The Beach Boys than could be reasonably expected of most independent states: as such it is a privilege to share a field with him. As ever since his successful return to live performance in the past decade or so, it is also a bittersweet experience, for while the harmonies are all in order, the man’s mind never seems to be. It is undeniably great to hear pieces like ‘California Girls’, ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ played by the person who penned them, and his band, The Wondermints, prove themselves fine musicians as they keep pace with Wilson’s notoriously complex arrangements and occasionally iffy vocals (a run through of the instrumental, ‘Pet Sounds’, is a particularly thrilling showcase for the group). However, whatever interviews may state about the pleasure he derives from touring, Wilson never looks at ease, and when the focus is on him alone he often looks lost. His take on ‘I Got Rhythm’ from the recent Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin record falls flat, as, once too often, does his voice.
Wilson could nonetheless still teach a trick or two to recent DiS Neptune award winners SBTRKT whose arrangements up in The Big Top betray a crushing lack of subtlety. Shorn of their minimalist chic, the disco-dubstep duo pursue a policy of high end blare which exasperates where is seeks to hypnotise.
Public Enemy long ago mastered the art of overdriven treble, and it only takes one of Flava Flav’s girlish squeals of “Yea boi!” for everyone to know they’re in the middle of a ruckus. With the bandsmen maintaining a typically icy cool, our heroes bounce about like men half their age: Chuck D must have done more breadths of the stage than any performer of the weekend. Vaguely playing Fear of Black Planet, tracks like ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’, ‘911 is a Joke’ and ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ have the same prescience as they did when PE first dished them out back in 1990. Always an awkward mix of cartoon hustle and serious activism, this is a timely reminder of just how damn fine their tunes always were.
Making good use of the ever-increasing festival site, one of the year’s additions is the Ambient Forest; basically a wood with some gentle musical interventions dotted throughout, where punters were invited to lose a few minutes or hours getting lost or getting high. It was an invitation many took up. Another new idea was the Roller Disco, actually one of the larger tents - thankfully only a small portion of which required a change of footwear. It was here that Loefah’s irregular rhythms kept the crowd moving - and a fair few falling over - before perennial Bestival favourite DJ Yoda took to the stage. Playing with the Trans-Siberian March Band, he seemed to unfurl rigid reams of military beats for hours on end. Then again I may have only hung around for a minute - it was hard to tell at this point.
Appearing as an unbilled ‘Special Guest’, Frank Turner succeeded not only in filling up the outdoor Sailor Jerry’s arena, but stuffing it with a crowd who knew the all the words of his songs to sing back to him. With heartfelt tales like ‘Long Live the Queen’ sending us into the night, Turner’s set proved there is still a place for a man with an acoustic guitar and a howl who means every word he says. An enjoyable adjunct to a heady day.
The crowd at Bestival are dedicated to having fun, so an unpleasant drizzle wasn’t going to stop a fair few thousand donning their fancy dress and stumbling to the main stage to catch comic clothing veterans - and this year’s costume judges - the Village People. No amount of godawful production gloss and cheesy dance routines were going to put them off their good time either. The sea of smiles that greeted the likes ‘Macho Man’, ‘In the Navy’ and, eventually, ‘Y.M.C.A.’, showed that it was a job well done for the Cowboy one, the Indian one, the Builder one, the Cop one, the, err, Recruiting Sergeant one, and, um. Was that just a guy dressed in bondage gear on the end?
Depending on your point of view, A Trak was either killing it or pounding on pained brain cells in the Big Top as the muggy weather made a retreat to the Psychedelic Worm (it’s just another tent, okay?) seem a good idea. There King Creosote and Jon Hopkins were gently easing through a refined collection of folk melodies from their recent Diamond Mine LP. Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, was in fine voice and the set warmed the soul and reminded the sun to shine.
In the week she bagged an unprecedented second Mercury prize, PJ Harvey could have been forgiven a triumphal showcase of ‘difficult eleventh album’ Let England Shake. She could too have taken unkindly to the meagre 60 minutes she was allotted, second on the bill, on the main stage. In actuality she seems as thrilled as she is thrilling. Harvey was ever a consummate performer, but she has never seemed so at ease with herself as she does tonight. The stark staging - Harvey alone on the left of the stage, her band centre right - better suited the concert venues she has been touring throughout the year than the wide open spaces of a festival main stage, but the music is delivered with such passionate intensity that its dark centres nonetheless delight. Just a sprinkling of confirmed classics like ‘The Devil’ (a glory that holds you stock still), ‘Down By the Water’ (a piece of dirty genius) and ‘Big Exit’ (the inevitable finale) pepper the new tracks, but the qualities of songs like ‘The Last Living Rose’, ‘The Word That Maketh Murder’ and the new record’s title track more than justify the Mercury judges’ decision. Considering what is still to come this night, it is the greatest compliment that these songs are the ones that are in my head when I wake up on Sunday morning.
If PJ Harvey’s set was shorter than might have been desired, the two and a half hours put aside for The Cure was certainly ample. They do have a hell of a lot of songs, of course, and even though they get through more than 30 of them here, there are still hits that remain in the bag. In fact, perhaps unwisely, the set never panders to the festival crowd. They open with ‘Plainsong’ and follow it up with ‘Open’ - these are great tracks, for sure, but hardly ones to grab a mix of hardcore fans and interested observers in the way they would an audience who’d all paid specifically to see The Cure. They do show what an odd, luminous and fascinating band they always were; one that took the basic rock template and created something endlessly emulated and entirely their own with it. Fuck it: they’re playing ‘Just Like Heaven’; they’re playing ‘Inbetween Days’; they’re playing ‘Lullaby’ and ‘The Lovecats’ and ‘The Caterpillar’; they’re playing ‘Close To Me’ and ‘Boys Don't Cry’ and ‘10:15 Saturday Night’ and ending with ‘Killing An Arab’. Robert Smith outdoes all those donned up in the year’s fancy dress theme, ’Popstars, Rockstars and Divas', just by looking like Robert Smith; he outdoes everyone else by sounding like him. It’s an epic set, but one more than worth staying every second of.
Primal Scream’s set - playing the whole of Screamadelica in the Big Top - was sandwiched between two DJ sets from that album’s producer, Andrew Weatherall, that appeared as if they could have been an ironic commentary on that 1991 record’s impact: beforehand he provided a guileless selection of offhand hits that did nothing to thrill the dancefloor; his set afterwards was a lithe and supple mix of maximal grooves. In between, the Scream played a blinder. Aficionados may debate the relative qualities of XTRMNTR, but nothing else Bobby Gillespie’s motley crew have come up with has matched the impact of Screamadelica. They blasted through it with gusto - affirmed classics like ‘Movin’ On Up’ and ‘Come Together’ mere peaks in an what remains a surprisingly consistent playlist. And after infamous festival meltdowns back in 2005, Gillespie was on chipper form, adding to the adulation as much as he was soaking it up.
There was still one more startling performance to come for those trapped in the Big Top by a torrential downpour. LFO - or Mark Bell as the Warp act now consists of - brought the big guns of electro beats and acid house squelch to an increasingly muddy dancefloor. Having long ago realised that an effete man fiddling with a laptop does not a live show make, Bell stands afore a mighty LED display flashing bright patterns all based around the letters L, F and O. The blazing visuals are more than matched by an hour of intense bass-heavy techno that stands up to anything else on a truly magnificent day .
Omar Souleyman draws a small but appreciative crowd to the main stage for his midday slot. A consistently magnificent performer, Syrian Souleyman weaves his undulating vocals around the intense compositions of keyboard whizz Rizan Sa'id. It would be nice to know what he’s on about, but in purely musical terms the duo have come up with a consistently startling formula. About a dozen gents on the front row clearly agree, having extended the fancy dress theme to a second day and all come out in Arabic dress as Souleyman - the man himself seems surprised but delighted. The joy continues as, towards the end of the set, a conga line starts up that soon picks up around three hundred people - this is certainly the only sort of human centipede we endorse.
On the hill above the main stage, the Rizlab arena plays host to a series of musical mashups over the course of the weekend. One of the most tried and trusted is that of former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason and Dennis Bovell, the legendary UK reggae musician and producer. Rather than recreating their recent dub rendering of Mason’s last album, Ghosts Outside they provide a set of classic reggae, from rare grooves to Channel 1 smashes, with Bovell toasting and Mason looking like a kid in a candy shop. As a handful of punters discover, it’s a fine place to while away some time on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
It’s certainly more fun than The Drums on the main stage, their staid rock a limp reminder of what an interesting line up Rob Da Bank has pulled together elsewhere. Among the most exciting bookings when it appeared was that of Kelis. When she comes on, professing that she’s there not to entertain her audience, but to pleasure herself, all seems good. In the event it’s all is a bit of a letdown. The drummer and DJ setup fails to fill the field, especially as her voice sounds weak and ragged. There are some great moments, such as when ‘Trick Me’ drops and later as Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’ segues into ‘Milkshake’, but they seem only to highlight that her best work seems some time behind her. When she ends with ‘Acapella’ and says it’s one she "knows everyone knows", the crowd response suggests it simply isn’t. Following the recent furore in which she accused British airport staff of racism after an incident that turned out to have occurred in Spain, Kelis will probably wish she didn’t make the trip.
Big Audio Dynamite made an unexpected return this year, one that they seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed on the evidence of this, their last show. Clash-man Mick Jones hasn’t aged as handsomely as he may have wished, but the odd mix of Jones’ punk rock guitar and Don Letts’ turntablism and rough-edged rap certainly has. Their original tenure from 1984 to 1990 (“We’re a band from the Eighties!” announces Jones at one point) birthed a fairly hefty number of great tracks, the majority of which are aired here. There’s even a new one, ‘Rob Peter, Pay Paul’, which suggests Jones is itching to write something closer to his rock roots than B.A.D’s more hip hop/funk leanings. A welcome return.
When B.A.D. first appeared the idea of infusing dance and rock was still in its infancy, but it’s a natural move for a man like James Blake. His set in the Big Top showcases that extraordinary voice - with all it’s artificial additions - to fine effect. ‘Limit To Your Love’ may bring the biggest round of applause, but there’s a general sense of silent awe throughout his set. Well, for everyone but the projectile vomiting man who parts the crowd like Moses did the Red Sea as his friend shoves him out through the centre of the tent. That sub-bass is not for everyone.
One of Bestival’s longest-standing stages, the Bollywood Bar has always been a destination to dance at, and Hacienda legend Mike Pickering is continuing the long road to making everyone forget he was responsible for M People with a killer set that receives a well-deserved ovation. Meanwhile, fellow Hacienda resident Greg Wilson packs the Rizlab to similar effect.
It is another recent Manchester resident who most people are looking forward to on Sunday, as fresh from her triumphant stint at the Manchester Festival, Björk headlines Bestival’s the night. Effortlessly outdoing everyone’s fancy dress while wearing what you imagine she might pop to the shops in (giant orange Afro, blue clown hat, huge sparkling ruffle and simple silver skirt) the Icelandic superstar appears onstage backed by a excitable choir comprising 30 or so of her countrywomen. The complexity of Björk’s arrangements - always specific her current set up - meant a set largely comprised of tracks from her upcoming Biophilia record was inevitable. One of her more cerebral works, the songs clearly don’t thrill everyone, but anyone willing to engage it treated to an intense performance filled with delights. The strange instruments which appeared in Manchester don’t make it this far south, but the choir are used to great effect throughout, often perfectly describing the role of the string section. And while Biophilia provides the meat of the evening, there’s can be no complaints about a set that also includes ‘Hidden Place’, ‘Hyperballad’, ‘Joga’, ‘Isobel’, ‘Where is the Line?’ and ‘Declare Independence’ In the end, the only real complaint could be that she was only given an hour and a quarter to entertain us.
DJ Shadow wraps things up in the Big Top with a set that fails entirely to grip. His 'Shadowsphere' - a big model of the planet that he is supposed to sit inside, but appears to spend most of the night beside - is an unimpressive prop from a distance, as are his world-based visuals. Over in the Psychedelic Worm, HEALTH are a worthy conclusion to another fine day. Their intricate noise rock inferno inducing all and sundry to burn off the last of their energy. As we stumble into the storm, Bestival’s reputation for fun has been earned once again.
Photos by Mike Burnell