Bestival - Robyn Hill Park, Isle of Wight - 8-11/9/11

20 Sep 2011

“This year, Rob Da Bank should be applauded for still managing to preserve the festival’s soul in the midst of increased exposure and delivering a charming and eye-opening event once more. His biggest challenge now is how to take the festival onwards, and what he’s going to do with it...”

To quote Green Day, and I’m pretty sure this is exactly how it goes in the song; “Summer has come and passed, the innocence can never last, and I’m dressed up like Colonel Gaddafi in a muddy field dancing away the last vestiges of the 2011 festival season”. Yes, Bestival came and went last weekend in a flurry of fancy dress, frolics and Fatboy Slim (is there any festival he hasn’t played?), and brought the curtain down on the summer in typically heart-warming fashion. Due to the threat of a Sunday night storm that never quite materialised – although this being September the forecast wasn’t exactly St Kitts & Nevis in July stuff – everyone present seemed determined to party that little bit harder before the weather struck and duly turned the Isle of Wight into a Technicolor whirlwind of sound and energy.

Along with the punters, performers by and large obliged in aiding the party atmosphere. The weekend begun on Thursday night in exactly the right vein, with the Big Top tent overflowing for Santigold’s thrilling and infinitely danceable set. Slotting impressive new cuts into an hour-long show peppered with ‘L.E.S. Artistes’ et al and some astonishingly rubber-limbed choreography, it seems the inordinately long wait for a follow-up to her sort-of-eponymous 2008 debut may well be worth it after all.

Indeed, the Big Top provided a large proportion of the weekend’s hands in the air moments with an eye-catching line-up billed every day. Friday brought the delights of, among others, SBTRKT and Groove Armada presents Red Light, the latter in particular impressing with a truckload of big-beat bangers. A stellar Annie Mac Presents… on Saturday that featured the heavyweight talents of Fake Blood, Diplo, Ms Dynamite and what turned out to be the final performance of Carte Blanche (RIP DJ Mehdi) was followed by a triumphant rendition of Screamadelica from Primal Scream, before the aforementioned Slimboy Fat closed proceedings on Sunday. Prior to this, we were treated to a rare UK appearance from DJ Shadow, who chopped and changed genres with the ease and grace you’d expect from the man who made Endtroducing…, and brief Sunday afternoon sunshine was coaxed out by Johnny Flynn’s folky charms. Oh yeah, and I missed Boys Noize altogether. Really, one could have spent the whole festival in that tent and still had one of the best weekends of the summer.

Of course, if one wandered down the hill to the Main Stage there were charms galore to be discovered. The bafflingly poor choice of Pendulum aside, this year’s headliners were as strong as one might have hoped, with The Cure and Bjork both serving up predictably accomplished shows in their own ways – the latter via some truly bewitching visuals and the spectacular ethereality of everything about Bjork, and Rob Smith and the boys via the sheer volume of hits they have, with ‘The Lovecats’, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Just Like Heaven’ etc causing the crown to swoon with every blasting punch of guitar.

Away from the headline slots, there were plenty of strong performances from plenty of strong acts. One of the weekend’s most pleasant surprises was the re-emergence of The Maccabees as A Very Cool Band. Set alongside the like the first album boppers and the relative maturity of the Wall of Arms cuts, the new songs (and there were plenty of them, with the band having the confidence to open and close with fresh cuts) sounded glorious, bold and exceedingly accomplished. Their third record could well be something to get very excited about, and of course in between all of that the likes of ‘Precious Time’ and ‘Love You Better’ still wowed and wooed all who braved the moody skies.

The Maccabees were preceded by an energetic performance from Kelis, whose sleek mix of hits new and old was only slightly tainted by poor sound and a strained voice. Earlier in the weekend, new pretenders mixed it with the big boys as the likes of Yuck, Beardyman and The Drums rubbed shoulders with Toots and the Maytals, Public Enemy and Brian Wilson to varying degrees of success on both sides. While Yuck and Beardyman produced impressive sets in relatively early slots, The Drums were distinctly featherweight in both execution and presence, seemingly devoid of the will or guile to engage the crowd. They’re rapidly losing the goodwill generated by ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, and if they don’t do something about it soon they’re in danger of falling by the wayside. In terms of the old guard, all three were as accomplished and at ease as you’d expect from three groups who have over a hundred years of recording experience between them, though the weather didn’t let Toots’ sun-drenched reggae shine and Public Enemy’s set was about 30 minutes too long. Plus Flavor Flav was just being generally weird and kept promoting his new book to the bemusement of all. Still, they played a lot of … Nation of Millions and … Black Planet which is all we could have asked for.

There was just as much joy to be had away from the main stages though. The Roller Disco stage (clue’s in the name) was obviously loads of fun and was treated to a load of stellar sets from the likes of Joy Orbison, Rinse FM DJs and, err, Goldie Lookin Chain. David Rodigan served up a classic set of dub in geography-teacher threads, and Metronomy and HEALTH mesmerised a packed-out Psychedelic Worm tent in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday respectively. And lest we forget The Heatwave, who treated the crowd to 90 minutes of mad dancehall and bashment, dance moves included, in the mid-afternoon rain for the downright funnest set of the weekend.

One of the charms of Bestival, of course, is that the main stages are not the be-all and end-all of the fun. From the appropriately spacey ambient forest, to the appropriately wacky underground restaurant, to the appropriately breathtaking view you got from the top of the tree-house that overlooked the site, large parts of Robin Hill were devoted to fun, tactile stuff to sink your teeth into. Burlesque and striptease abounded round the back-end of the Bollywood bar; the Glastonbury-aping Arcadia brought the hedonism out in an already pretty hedonistic bunch of revellers; the entrance field contained human fruit machines, snake-charming, the W.I. and pretty much everything between those poles. On Saturday, the fancy dress theme of Rockstars, Popstars and Divas was taken by the horns by pretty much everyone on site, with a pleasing number of Rockfeedback’s own costume choices on show including a very sweet couple in matching Milky outfits. (In case you were wondering – yes, I did actually go as Colonel Gaddafi, and no, I didn’t get attacked by Libyan insurgents).

If one was to level the claim that Bestival had become more noticeably commercial this year (the sheer level of sponsorship around the site was staggering, and not entirely welcome), one could also take heart from the preservation of the festival’s charming and original heart in the midst of increased brand presence. The festival is starting to morph into one of the most eagerly-anticipated mainstays of the British summer. Obviously, as its profile grows, others will want to get in on the act and try and stake their claim on the site. This year, Rob Da Bank should be applauded for still managing to preserve the festival’s soul in the midst of increased exposure and delivering a charming and eye-opening event once more. His biggest challenge now is how to take the festival onwards, and what he’s going to do with it.

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