I feel a fondness towards Bestival. Five years ago, on the Isle Of Wight, I had a weekend that will perhaps rank as my favourite festival experience ever. From start to finish, it glowed with happy colour and was the most perfect of times. Not having made it for a couple of years, I was increasingly perturbed by the emerging stories that Bestival had seen better days and that it could well be on its last legs. The time was right to investigate the accuracy of such claims.
I'm delighted to report that talk about Bestival's demise is strongly exaggerated. Indeed, far from that, moving the festival from the island to Lulworth in Dorset seems to have given things a new lease of life. There's an energy and a buzz across the site; a newfound desire to get things right and to reclaim the 'top of the tree' status. The reduction in capacity, perhaps a temporary measure, gives opportunity to rebuild and to give real thought to what Bestival's place might be within an arguably saturated festival market.
Saturated - that's how we all feel by the end of this weekend. Rain water sits on the surface of the earth and glistens as the sun peaks out from behind a cloud. In areas of the site where more of us walk, the grass has turned into the sloppiest of slippy mud. We take care as we slide around these parts. It's a site equally as hilly as the old one and though this land is capable of taking a fair beating, it's not seen this much welly action before. Indeed after the first night of drizzle, some unprepared campers, pitched near to us, decide to call it a day and pack up their camp to head home. Others abandon their ill-pitched and leaky tents and bunk up with mates. The gauntlet is thrown down early; the elements are determined that this won't be a walk in the park.
By Sunday, things have taken more of a turn. The wind has risen to beastly levels. I make use of my press wristband to gingerly waddle across an empty arena on Sunday lunchtime. It should be open by now but the organisers have rightly decided to delay. By all accounts, there were too many accidents and stumbles last night. Hay is spread across the ground by enthusiastic staff desperate to ensure that the show goes on. Plans are clearly in place. This is no Y-Not.
The arena opens an hour late but the respite is temporary. That wind rises to dangerous levels. Speaker stacks on the main 'Castle' stage sway and there are reports of campsite hoardings falling over. Tents that are not properly pegged bounce across the campsite and end their journey pinned against the outer fences like makeshift curtains. It's only a matter of time before difficult decisions need to be taken and when it comes, it's dealt with efficiently. "The arena's being evacuated", say stewards and security as they sweep through it with military precision. For a while, we speculate this is game over. We feel for the organisers who have put so much into making this work and sympathise with the acts who'll not be able to perform. Not once during the stormy uncertainty do I hear grumbles from punters. They know that their safety is paramount. When news does come through an hour later that the winds are subsiding and the arena is re-opening, we let out a collective cheer. Despite the weather, this has been an unqualified success.
The show goes on and we're glad that it does because Sunday night at the Castle stage has an appealing line-up. The unfortunate Loyle Carner comes on stage to read a poem; he's been unable to play his full set as the windy weather conspired against him. One suspects he'll be back and higher up the bill in future years. Circa Waves do their best as the elements calm. There are still traces of water on the stage but the lads from Liverpool have a fire that burns through the puddles. "This is our last festival gig of the summer", announces singer, Kieran Shudall, and we all feel a tad sad that it's coming to an end.
Words almost fail to describe how incredible the set that follows from Soulwax is. Dressed as mad scientists in white gowns, they have a stage set designed as a creative lab. Things build to a crescendo throughout the set with the three drummers adding to the intensity. As the final tracks kick in and night begins to set in, the main arena is transformed into a dazzling and spinning light fest, a stunning prelude in advance of tonight's headliner.
And The Pet Shop Boys never let you down. "It's the sort of thing my Mum would like", say the kids around us as we wait for Neil and Chris to take to the stage. Such is the hi-tech, artistic design of their show that advancing years, increased wrinkles and a vocal that was never the strongest in pop don't impede our enjoyment in the slightest. It's not a greatest hits set although there are sprinklings of the recognisable to keep the casual observer entertained. Moments are never dull and we're left transfixed as images of Neil bounce around the field. As they leave the stage, we all turn around to Lulworth castle, a square fortress lit up in a neon purple glow. Fireworks surge in all directions from behind and in front of the castle. It's an epic recovery for a festival that hours earlier was looking perilously close to closing early.
Thursday night feels a long time ago but it was then, after pitching our tents, that we got our bearings across this new site for the first time. As is Bestival tradition, the Castle stage is yet to open but the rest is fully operational. There's a robust, pent-up energy in the air. Not quite as muscle-clad and starey as at dance music festivals from yesteryear, there's still a strident determination to have fun on this last big festival weekend of our summer. Nowhere is it more evident than up at the Temple, a visually impressive Aztec-like construction that spits out fire, light and sound as a DJ takes pride of place on a pedestal. It's a Radio One takeover tonight - Annie Mac and Phil Taggart are both scheduled to be introducing something. The grime based sounds coming from the plinth are certainly impressive but, after a few minutes, we wander off looking for gentler pursuits.
We almost find it on that Thursday in the Invaders Of The Heart tent. Programmed to host more of the up and coming acts, I'm receptive as Laucan gently carouse us with a tangled-up falsetto folk that at times wanders close to a strung-out Radiohead moment. If only the silence and pause within their whispers could have had an impact over and above the drum and bass noise that was spitting out from other promotional units nearby. Sound clashes occur at many festivals but this was truly invasive and ruined the enjoyment of a fine set.
It's always been Bestival's way not to shy away from brand promotion (when there's a partnership to be had and it can strengthen the festival experience). It's no different down here in Dorset. Spaces are set aside for Red Bull, Desperadoes, Jagermeister, Samsung, Old Mout, Kingfisher and Sailor Jerry. There might well have been more. I understand why many principled festival organisers run their events as 'corporate-free' and they deserve credit for doing so. But each of these brands offers entertainment to go alongside their marketing campaigns. The punters lap it up and I find myself pragmatically wondering if embracing that hoary capitalist beast is such a bad thing if it helps you to balance your books. It's a thought for further campsite discussion.
Of the brands that make their mark, Sailor Jerry's is perhaps the finest. They've bought a virtual tattoo studio onto site and are encouraging us to test out how some classic designs might look if temporarily etched onto our forearms. I had no idea that the Sailor Jerry who's given a namecheck by this brand of rum was first and foremost a renowned tattoo artist. The free samples whilst sheltering from a downpour under the lip of their serving hatch are most welcome and incredibly tasty; an early afternoon appetiser for some serious consumption later.
Whilst on the subject of alcohol, it's worth noting a small criticism. The choice of drinks from the main bars is a bit limited. In addition, with pints coming in at around £4.50 to £5.00, you'll need deep pockets to get drunk here. Photographer Phil likes a real ale and, from what we can tell, there's not a drop of it on site. There is a craft bar not far from the main stage where you can find some IPA. Lagunitas IPA comes in at a whopping £6.50 and with that Bestival wins the award for the most expensive pint of this festival summer.
If food is your thing you'll have a whopping fine time at Bestival. Stalls dotted around the site offer all sorts of delights. Photographer Phil unearths a bargain at the paella stall where their small portions (that aren't actually that small) retail at £4.50 for a plate. If you want to go a bit more upmarket then there's a wonderful 'Feast Collective' tent, a range of street food vendors all cooking away within one big marquee. Just heading in here for the smells will send any fan of the gastronomic into spasm.
I'm digressing from our Thursday night though. There's a great line up of music in the Box, the Big Top with a new name. It's not been a deliberate ploy but I've somehow managed to miss Blossoms in the couple of years they've been setting the world alight. Tonight, they sub-headline to a jam-packed tent. Maybe, I've not yet settled into the festival because I can take or leave much of what they offer. It's pleasant enough but I'm hardly being shaken to the core or feeling compelled to rush out and buy their album. Contrast this with Jamie T, headliner for tonight. Spirited and energetic, he grabs us from the off and keeps us until the end with his poetic, sprawling indie-punk. There are some young teenage girls standing behind us who delightfully seem to know every word that Jamie T sings. They apologise for doing so but happily shout along in our ears. Far from being annoying, it all adds to the charm of the gig.
Much of our Thursday night (and indeed much of each evening we have at Bestival) is spent in Caravanserai, Chris Tofu's festival experience. Previously a bit hidden away at the Isle of Wight Bestival, it now takes pride of place slap bang in the centre of these fields. The concept's a relatively simple one; a range of vintage caravans, converted into spaces where strangers can sit, chat and watch the world go by. The circus has come to this area with sinewy tightrope walkers and glamorous swing-trapeze acrobats lighting up the night sky. A tent hosts bands and DJs who mostly indulge us with electro-swing, gypsy-folk and Klezmer influenced pieces. For those of us seeking some 'traditional' old-school festival fodder, this is where we feast.
There are other decent late night spaces as well. With most of the areas programmed with entertainment until at least 3AM, some suggest that it's a festival that only comes alive once the sun has gone down. It's not true but the lights and sounds do add an extra magic once they're fully operational. We have a stroll around the Ambient Forest by night and stop to rest by the side of the pond here. It's lit up to look (I'm trying to find the right word for this) 'ambient'. From somewhere in the distance, people play tunes on wind chimes and chant/holler festival mantras.
Another different area that comes alive at night is the HMS Bestival area. Regular Bestival goers will recognise this stage from previous years. Back in the day, it was impressively designed stages such as this that set Bestival apart from competitors. With Boomtown having upped the ante in this area, HMS Bestival now looks like the norm of what you might reasonably expect rather than a world class space to watch DJs mix their stuff. It's still fun to stomp to the beats here though. And it's still possible to marvel at much of Bestival's layout; a giant disco ball, a happy Kanye head and the age-old Bestival letters which people will always insist on climbing onto for the sake of a selfie.
Fundamentally, we're here for the music. Some grumble that the main stages don't pack as much of a punch as they might have in previous years. They might have a point if big names are your thing but for me Bestival has always been about the eclectic variety it offers. This year doesn't disappoint. I'm a bit sniffy about the credentials of The Smiths Ltd, a Smiths tribute band and when their Morrissey takes to the stage I wonder if my cynicism has substance. By the end of their set in The Box, I've become a convert. There's something enormously uplifting about watching a miserable (in outlook) tribute act. The London African Gospel Choir are onto something with their plan to play Paul Simon's Graceland album in its entirety. Talented singers and fine musicians combine to give these classic tunes a new lease of life. It's a shame that their set over-runs slightly so that 'You can call me Al' doesn't get an airing but most punters watching, agog with beaming smiles, have already heard enough to feel enthused.
It makes all sorts of sense to follow this performance of 'Graceland- The Album' by watching Graceland, the band. A new act on me, this post-punk fuzzy quartet from Norfolk have a bit of a Savages/PJ Harvey thing going on. I like their political edge and mark them down as a band that quite possibly have something important to say. But, this is what Bestival does so well. Scratch beneath the surface and you're destined to find new acts who'll do their utmost to impress you. Over in the Jagerhaus, we take a chance on Fur after liking their description on Bestival's comprehensive and really easy to use phone app. It's sixties influenced indie jangle with a dose of the more creative Britpop thrown in. And it's also hugely enjoyable.
Of the more well-known acts on the bill, The XX seem to split opinion with their Friday night headline set. For me, they provide a show of immense strength and power. Yes, it’s laidback to a soporific degree but allow yourself space to wallow within their performance and you’ll certainly be suitably rewarded. They say more in the haunting spaces they leave between musical notes than many acts have ever said. Clearly fond of Bestival, they acknowledge how it’s helped their career. The dark lighting gives way to bright whites as peaks are reached. It’s all overwhelmingly beautiful. Dizzee Rascal is a different proposition when he sub-headlines before A Tribe Called Quest. His style of poppy hip-hop might never be my thing on record but he throws so much exuberant energy into this live show that it’s hard not to be drawn into his bonkers world.
Oh, there’s so much more. We hardly explore Club Dada, the Bollywood stage or the Comedy tent. We don’t even find time to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the legendary Women’s Institute tent. A soak in a hot-tub might have been nice and early morning Tai-Chi or yoga might have cleansed our souls from the late night partying. Stacey’s venue has a fab line up of funk and soul across the weekend but we barely venture into this space because there’s so much more on offer elsewhere. We resolve that these are areas we’ll have to explore more next year.
I’m sitting on a sofa in Pig’s Big Ballroom. It’s late on Sunday and the fireworks have lit up the night sky. Another much-loved Bestival institution, this comfy space had been earlier recommended to us by a lovely couple we met when drinking craft beer. They tell us that it had been a real highlight to listen to DJs from the Shellac Collective playing old 78 records. They’re also perched on this sofa as The Eskies take to the stage. Full of Irish wit and jest, it seems fitting that this’ll be the last band we’ll see at this festival – and indeed of this summer festival season. They’re a perfect act, exceptionally entertaining raconteurs with upbeat folk(ish) tunes. You know an act’s good when Photographer Phil queues to buy their CD post gig. “Best thing I’ve seen this Bestival”, he offers with conviction.
And that’s it. We can ignore the grumbles because this has mostly been a wonderful festival to be part of. We’ve made new friends over this muddy, windy weekend and had a lot of fun. Moving from the Isle Of Wight seems to have worked for Bestival and I, for one, look forward to the continued success of a really important festival.
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