It seems we are being ordained with a traditional English Summer to celebrate the year of our Olympiad. The chaos caused by the mud has been well documented, so you can only salute the pundits who at peak hours, waited up to four hours to get on a ferry (with some people actually stranded on ferries) and then up to fifteen hours to get on a site that looks like a blocked toilet.
As you enter the festival grounds through the main entrance you pass through a series of coloured banners emblazed with song titles. It feels appropriate that ‘Teenage Wasteland’ greets you with a campsite awash with abandoned tents sprawled out like castaway boat sails – and this is on the first day. However, it’s also clear that everyone is determined to have a good time and if you need a constant beer jacket to make a mud bed bearable then needs must.
Friday does indeed bring a good ol’ MOR pop line up to distract everyone from the mess. Noah and the Whale’s transition from twee pipers to radio rock staple see their set welcomed on the main stage as they bring a spot of sunshine. Caro Emerald’s rocksteady pop also brings a few shuffling feet in the Big Top tent, but the festival really starts with Kelis. She blazes through a set of her own hits as though it were a Diplo remix album. Decked in headgear bigger than her accompanying duo of a DJ and drummer, Kelis herself spends much of the set behind a second drum kit with tremendous effect. Starting with ‘22nd Century’ the track fizzes into the clatter of ‘Bounce’. Whether Calvin Harris’ trademark sound is now already dated, Kelis’ vocal is slick future-disco and it makes the music glisten with energy.
Kelis gives Donna Summer a respectful tribute with a faithful cover of I’I Feel Love’ whilst ‘Milkshake’ is unsurprisingly mangled into a mix of ‘Holiday’, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and even a snippet of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It’s partly inspired, but a touch frustrating to the fans, as the ever dominant artistic twist on ‘the big hit’ becomes a staple aspect of the live performance. Thankfully, Kelis has more than one world class song making the set spectacular.
Kelis is followed in the big top by a highly anticipated performance from Lana Del Ray. There’s an undoubted vocal talent to Lana that is accompanied by a rather quiet backing band of a piano, a lone guitar and a string quartet, which kind of fails to fill the tent. Visually, Lana is supported by a more impressive loop of seemingly every American pop and counter-culture reference ever. Moments of Elvis and Vegas pirouette with skateboards soaring through wide suburban roads and sliced fractions of Lana shot in hyper-real digital footage. It weaves an impressive Inland Empire-style tangle behind her death ballads.
Until the final third of the six-song set Lana is stoic to the point of perceived aloofness, her emotions either well hidden or inhibited by nerves. ‘Video Games’ is the sing-a-long you’d expect, with thousands of people chant with gusto, causing Lana to crack a smile and give thanks for being “fucking amazing”. It’s a shame that this song comes so late, being the penultimate song as her closer 'National Anthem' because it benefits from a performance that is injected with confidence. It’s a seductive blaze of fury and sadness that Lana hasn’t been brave enough to reveal until now. It shows how fully she can command her songs. This about turn into swagger is an exciting glimpse into qualities present but not yet readily deployed – it kinda’ feels precious.
Elbow have the dusk slot on the main stage and Guy Garvey’s big heart and touching lyrics (if not sometimes too earnest) are certainly built for large events like this. Whilst their success is deserved for their perservence and commitment, you can track their turn in fortunes through their releases, from their initial beautifully composed slabs of misery to their current gutsy optimisim it’s a gentle ride and they won’t write a ‘Powder Blue’ again, but most festival goers are happy with their musical equivalent of the dodgems, judging by the huge turnout.
Talk to revellers and a good number will question the choice of Friday night headliner in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There’s a certain logic to their apprehension, be it a blinkered logic. Petty’s music is the stuff of American melodrama, watch his music videos and it’s clear you’re watching an American music marketer’s dream as Petty mines all-star romance (‘American Girl’) and grit (‘I Won’t Back Down’). This doesn’t naturally translate into English culture. What the Isle of Wight festival rightly does is to put him on this kind of platform and outside of the remit of VH1. He proves he can command any audience. The guy has songs.
There’s natural grit to Petty’s voice that, despite or because of his demons, has aged superbly. It’s still full and delivered with purpose. To compare this to the recent brief live performances by McCartney and Elton John at the jubilee celebrations show how strong Petty’s voice remains. Early on a slew of his biggest hits are delivered that rightly get the audience warmed up. The afore mentioned ‘I Won’t Back Down’ is something special live, with harmonies that are sharp and whilst it’s now a dad-friendly radio rock sound, it’s a good dad friendly radio rock song and peerless melody writing.
He opens with ‘Listen To Her Heart’ that from the first jangle reminds us that Petty was - is - a huge Byrds fan. His cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ also proof points respect for his contemporaries whilst ‘Handle Me With Care’ is performed in tasteful tribute to his days as a Travelling Wilbury. He’s also (still) eccentric, as well. During said Fleetwood Mac cover and at various points in the evening he shakes a rather large set of maracas with abandon, he adlibs beautifully (but as if he’s playing a mouth trumpet) during ‘Learning To Fly’, and he invites us to ‘headbang’ during an admittedly riff focused ‘I Should Have Known It’.
With an encore of ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane’ and ‘American Girl’ he puts the final nails in the cynics’ coffins and the audience reaction is one of acceptance and joy. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are still a great band and they made Friday, despite the shit storm, a good day.
Saturday starts limply to the point that you move from stage to stage to catch changeovers, but maybe it’s in part informed by a hangover. Stooshe perform in the big top and warrant a mention for making the hangover surreal by attempting a brave though ultimately thin mix of girl group tunes and Mis-Teeq at-it-ood, whilst kinda’ looking like the judging panel of America’s Next Top Model.
The Garden Stage has Sadie and the Hot Heads play folk music that benefits from Sadie’s LA to Shepherd’s Bush migration and the blend of US-UK folk influences it brings. She’s not helped by not really having any knockout lush songs, or at least not performing any with undeniable affect. When Andrew Roachford follows with cheeky banter and an actually decent set of English soul pop numbers, you can only shake your head and walk away quickly, quaking in the knowledge that last statement will be committed to writing.
On the main stage Madness finish their set with ‘Our House’ and ‘It Must Be Love’, which allows me to claim to have seen Madness. Jessie J follows and whilst she may be a starlet, considering she’s a judge on a singing contest, she doesn’t really have a voice. She has ‘voices’, most of them annoying and probably taken from her various guises needed to write for others, but there’s nothing strong there that comes across as being her. The best bit of her set is the closer ‘Domino’, which impresses for being the second best Katie Perry song ever written, or maybe the third.
Katy B on the other hand has vocal talent, a naturally graceful demeanour and tunes by the dozen. With the various citations of Katy as a prominent dubstep-pop crossover, her live show highlights the UK Garage and even fusion elements. With a backing band that is wonderfully locked together, every song churns. ‘On A Mission’ is the dubstep floor pounder you’d expect with the set’s only slight glitch being the Ronson composed Olympic song that’s chorus is a bit too vapid. Ronson may have well sampled athletes to bring elements to the song but those elements sound like drums and the occasional bit of vocal sampling to me – hardly a sonic journey into the biology of pulses racing.
Half way through her set she enters a song battle with her DJ, as they take it in turn to play samples of tracks to get the crowd going. Katy wins of course and it’s fun to take a five-minute stroll through the early Nineties. She uses it segway into a new song called (something like) ‘What Did You Come Here For?’ which is a challenge to DJ’s to not play bad songs and has her heaviest UK garage influence yet. ‘Broken Record’ and closer ‘Lights On’ blip on the off-beat with suitable shell suit swagger.
Biffy Clyro get the main stage crowd going and are, again, a band that clearly work on stage, both as a unit and as a team that exert themselves. It’s great when bands get taken over by their own music, shaking, jerking and flailing to physically represent the notes they are playing. As a result the crowd goes suitably nuts. I was never sure whether ‘Many Of Horror’ was their Faustian pact to turn their axis from a hard working but ultimately limited appeal band into the worshipped act they now are or whether Simon Neil just had a penchant for Journey and pre-empted our current return to the Eighties power ballad obsession. Either way, the song is great, though I spend much of rest of the set wondering why hardcore bands from Scotland and Ireland sing with an American accent? I also wonder could this have been Jetplane Landing up there, if only they’d embraced their inner All-4-One?
Professor Green gets the kids in the big top stage going mental, but for all his cheeky banter and East London knee bending, there isn’t much that grabs. With the current UK pop explosion and estate hip-hop it feels as though much of this is being passed through the industry as required variations to spread bet the genre as temporary entertainment. How much will continue to capture the audiences imagination and therefore get label support? Katy B seemed to be talking to her audience through her music, Professor Green just seems to be instructing them to bob to variations on an eskibeat.
Pearl Jam headline the main stage and are certainly a blessed rock’n’roll. Like Biffy Clyro they’re a band who bring the craft of their work to the forefront of their performances. Edi Vedder’s trademark twitching is a wonderful act of physical drama. Like Tom Petty their music has trickled over the Atlantic into our subconscious so even the unitiated revel in the familiarity of opener ‘Unknown Thought’ and Vedder’s vocals are easily the most powerful to be unleashed at the festival.
Their humility is known and early on Vedder quips “we’re gonna check in on you occasionally as you’re safety is our main concern, but it looks like you’re all having a good time so let’s go.” Past horrors of that magnitude will probably never leave the band. This isn’t to say they’re deadpan non-entities. Their cover of ‘Rain’ goes down well as a more than effective rain dance and displays a charming sense of acquiescence.
Throughout the set there a significant moments. The touching chat on Joe Strummer before covering ‘Arms Aloft’ and Vedder’s seeming hesitance to perform ‘Just Breathe’ since it was covered by Willie Nelson. Nelson was right to cover the song. It’s a beautiful acoustic ballad. ‘Jeremy’ has its rightful place just before the end of their initial set whilst ‘Alive’ comes midway through their final encore. Pearl Jam’s performance is one that tonight brings rain and intimacy to a festival headline slot and is a lovely combination to witness.
Magnetic Man finish off Saturday in the big tent with a display of their very own dubstep foundations. Three men bobbing on stage behind a row of laptops can’t help but summon ‘Kraftwerk’ and ‘i-D’ in the same thought. Playing in the comfort of a covered venue the place gets rammed to their unending loop of deliciously delicate digital build ups into the ever-expected semi-drop, that admittedly gives dubstep it’s rather significant oomph. These implied drops come regularly and whilst a few shuffle out asking where the beat is in response, this current industrial dance sound has the majorative beehive of people jutting and side-hopping with glee. It's a great way to close the night, with the day being won by their co-collaborator Katy B.
After an evening of solid, intense, rain the festival site is now a water park. People have stopped caring now and the sun comes out for the whole day, so there’s an almost delirious sense of happiness present. Most of the day is admittedly, spent in the main stage waiting for the bosses expected near on three hour performance.
Save a brief stop by the Big Top to catch a bit of Spector whose eccentric attire and front man bring a sense of nice video shame about the Vaccines-Babies songs. 'Chevy Thunder' is anthemic but annoying, no one wants to sing an annoying song. Though their inane indie filler is in good company today.
On the main stage Band Of Skulls are the exception to the rule, their songs never seem to change tempo, they just chug gloriously. They stand un-moving, the only thing with any real motion is their harmonies, that are skintight, and frontman Russell Marsden’s constant whooping. As Southern metal hailing from Southampton they’re certainly the best thing to have come out of the harbour this weekend and you’d much rather have them be responsible for getting your car over the water to Cowes than a Wightlink Ferry.
The Vaccines come across as an arrogant group of cocky young men, with singer Justin Young galloping across the stage with even less coordination than Liam Gallagher. Every song they perform seem to have a nod, if not a five finger discount, from some other song from the rock’n’roll cannon. The chorus ‘Tiger Blood’ is ‘Anarchy in the UK’, innit? The Vaccines are certainly nothing to revere, but when you've been sleeping in mud for a weekend a bit in your ears is inevitable.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds trundle on as statesman Noel assumes his slightly stiff stance at the microphone to continue the lad rock anthemia. It seems as though Noel’s happy to now be churning out the guitar plod and whilst there’s nothing to touch the motorway guzzling riffs of Tom Petty, his acoustic chord progressions are perfectly pleasant as the evening shows its first signs of drawing in.
What’s initially pleasantly surprising is the number of Oasis songs wheeled out. Admittedly with only one album released and an hour to fill he was always going to have to bulk it out. Opening with ‘It’s Good To Be Free’, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger is dedicated to the Italians and ‘Half The World Away’ gets the crowd involved. It all sounds the same though, especially without the electric crackle of his long left Oasis band mates. His departure is collectively willed to make way for Bruce.
Bruce Springsteen has been the anticipated highlight for many of the festivals attendees - and for good reason. His shows are famous for their workman like gutsiness and almost endurance contest duration. Tonight is no different. Opening with ‘Badlands’, seeing the audience reaction shows how completely Bruce has been accepted by English audiences as American icon (despite the original controversy around ‘Born To Run’ for its synth pop sound and even claims of a heavy marketing presence around its packaging). The reason Bruce is loved really lies in his song-writing. It hasn’t faltered across his lengthy career, even if it took the Arcade Fire’s ‘Keep The Car Running’ to grant him his current rebirth.
The bulk of his set consists of tracks from his more recent releases, ‘Wrecking Ball’ gets many tracks aired early on and its anger is apparent. Lead single ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ and ‘Death To My Home Town’, paired with Bruce and his band predominantly dressed in black feels like a little bit of a wake after the initial blasts of ‘Badlands’ and ‘No Surrender’. Similarly tracks from The Rising gets a good few airings and ‘Waiting for a Sunny Day’ goes down with immense appreciation.
It’s really the encore that brings Bruce to the Isle of Wight. ‘Born in the U.S.A’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ are must plays, and they bring a series of anthems that soar far and above the football terrace indie of the last 20 years. As he finishes the set with a cover of 'Twist and Shout', to accompanying fireworks, it ties the festival off gloriously, leaving only the journey home to consider.