Roll up, roll up - the circus is coming to town. Bestival, the much-loved adult version of Camp Bestival moves from its traditional September slot in the festival season to complete a second year at the beautiful setting of Lulworth Castle on the Dorset coast. And in sweltering summer heat, clowns, ringmasters, lions and the rest of us super-troupers have a belter of a time. We dance under confetti pumped out of the world's biggest confetti cannon and marvel as a human cannonball is shot across the arena whilst trying hard not to run out of sun lotion.
Fears of a few might have been heightened when the unfortunate Camp Bestival had to cancel its Sunday due to high winds and strong rains the previous weekend but here, on the same site, we get through the Bestival weekend without a hitch (mostly). After leaving the Isle of Wight a couple of years ago with some predicting a shaky future, Bestival now seems here to stay. Slightly downsized from those heady days of Stevie Wonder headline sets, Bestival is neatly growing into its new surrounds and confirming that it remains a great place to have fun and party. We had a ball.
And it didn’t start so well in truth. It might have been a condition of their license but the searches to get in (we were all given a good sniff by the dogs) meant that many queued for hours in the hot summer heat. Bestival’s twitter account announced that water was available at the entrance but once you were penned into the queue there was little hope of getting out to get to the tap. It was even worse for the circa one in three who the dogs took a liking too. Despite their inevitable protestations of innocence, they were marched off to an alternative queue to wait for even longer. There must be a way to get a balance here in future years? It meant that for us we never did our second trip to the car for the extra equipment we couldn’t carry on trip one.
Thursday is all about getting our bearings. The main castle stage doesn’t kick into action until tomorrow so we wander about taking in the sights and sounds. There are some subtle site changes from last years event, the most noticeable being that the glorious Temple stage has moved a little and now sits at the base of a considerable hill. It spreads the site out and overcomes any sound bleed that might have been experienced last year. I have a quick dance to a Busted remix on the dance floor of a new ‘House Of Vans’ tent and receive ridicule for doing so from Photographer Sarah. It seems as though, once we’ve bought our alcohol into the campsite, we’re free to carry it around with us over the weekend. This wasn’t something we were able to do last year and the extra freedom once through the initial search is welcomed from these quarters, artly so because Bestival is hardly a cheap festival if you enjoy a beer or three from the bars.
We stop for our first pint of the weekend at the feast collective tent on the lawn and gulp a little when charged £6.50 for a pint of Morretti. Premium lager it might be - and it’s lovely and refreshing on this super-hot day - but it still feels an excessive price to pay. Some bars around the site are simply selling cans of beer. A can of Amstel for a fiver seems similarly OTT. However, after a while we shop around and find craft beer stalls and a local cider and ale bar offering better value. Bars that serve draft pints sell it for £5.50.
Did I mention the heat? It impacts upon proceedings with many taking shelter in the variety of tents that Bestival offers. It means that the main stage, open to the elements, is perhaps quieter than it might normally be until dusk brings a light breeze. Ditto the aforementioned Temple stage and the stage made to look like a ship, HMS Bestival.
We find much refuge in Pig’s Big Ballroom. I’d discovered this tent, draped in shimmering purple curtain and furnished with comfy sofas, last year on a wet and muddy Sunday. DJs play shellac 78’s, the material that pre-dated vinyl. There’s a certain decadence in singing along to rock n’roll classics, swinging to a crackling jazz guitar solo or reminiscing about just how great Johnny Cash was.
After a few local ciders, I’m prone to a bit of Karaoke. Pig’s Big Ballroom has bands in addition to DJs. Here we have a kara-ukulele act performing as a backing band for us . After little persuasion, I jump up to sing a version of Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks. It all seems somehow relevant.
I’m surprised to spot the fantastic Terry and Gerry on the bill in the ballroom. This Lonnie Donegan-esque act were favourites of mine many moons ago when I was a sixth former. ‘They once topped indie music charts’, I tell anybody who’ll listen. And quite a few stop to shuffle to the skiffle. It’s such a dose of nostalgia for me (I can still remember every word) that I choose to miss the first half of Grace Jones’ set on the Castle Stage to hang around and buy a T-shirt.
I’m not going to argue with the widely-voiced opinion heard from photographers in the press room that Grace Jones was simply stunning. It’s hard to believe that she’s just turned 70 given the endurance and energy she puts into her performance. Pull Up To The Bumper and Slave To The Rhythm come right at the end of her set. In a hypnotic extended remix of the latter, she spins a hula-hoop around her waist for what seems like ten minutes, the complete length of the tune. Of the main acts on the Castle stage, she’s definitely the one that most will be talking about once the dust has all settled. For the other headliners, Silk City (Mark Ronson & Diplo), London Grammar and M.I.A., there’s a sense that you have to be a real fan to truly get into their sets. Many wander off to watch the multitude of things happening elsewhere.
Grace Jones is not the only pensioner to impress. Jimmy Cliff and his band take to the Big Top stage soon after Grace has finished and knock the socks off all watching. They begin slowly with all band members seated whilst banging on a variety of percussion. Jimmy's voice still sounds like the sweetest of nectar. He seems genuinely thrilled with the warm response he receives from a packed-out tent. It's a shame that Chaka Khan's voice has seen better days. There's no denying the quality of the Grammy award winners' backing band but you can't escape the feeling that they're carrying their star somewhat. That said, when Chaka launches into the likes of 'I'm every woman', all genders in the crowd sing along in perfect harmony.
The heat encourages us to seek that canvas. We watch more bands in the Big Top than might have otherwise been the case. Open at both sides, a pleasant breeze drifts through the tent meaning that it's a fine place to shelter from the sun. The premise of an Elvis fronted Nirvana act horrifies me initially and, after some shocking opening meshing of grunge and rock n'roll I very nearly leave. But I'm glad that I give Elvana more chance than that. By the end of their uplifting set, I concede that this is one novelty that really does work and I'm singing along to their version of 'Suspicious Minds' with the rest of the enthralled crowd. The lead singer of Elvana is effective in finding the middle ground between Presley and Cobain and he's not shy to prove it with frequent forays into the audience.
He's not the only act to break that fourth wall over the weekend. Beans On Toast throws himself into all festivals he goes to with legendary zeal and Jay's no different here. You lose count of the amount of times you see Jay around the site watching bands, high-fiving fans, selling his new book and getting increasingly intoxicated with alcohol. Yet, you can never tire of his live show. Tender new songs about becoming a Dad mix in with the older classics about taking MDMA at festivals, something Beans on Toast no longer does. He has a minor skirmish with a rude punter when he plays some of his set from within the crowd before using that punters' shoulders as a base for launching into another tune.
Idles are an act that it would be rude to miss. Whether they play sweaty, dingy holes or festival main stages, it would appear that they can't fail to connect. Some might have wondered if an early evening slot on Bestival's Castle stage was a step too far. But far from getting lost on the big stage, they proceed to make it their own. With boyish, cheeky charm, they swagger and strut around the stage with nonchalant confidence. There's not many festivals that can so successfully have such a range of musical styles on their main stage but Bestival pulls it off with aplomb. Punk one minute and funk the next, this crowd can handle the diverse range.
I've not seen Kitty, Daisy and Lewis since they were teenagers and had forgotten just how great this musical family can be. They swap instruments between each song with Lewis, in particular, showing that he's more than proficient in playing drums, keyboard and guitar. They sing classic soul, they touch on reggae roots and wrap it up with a neat nodule of rockabilly in a journey through genres that's perfect in the Big Top on a Sunday afternoon.
Despite being a Bestival institution, I've previously only skirted in and out of the local Women's Institute tent. In calm and peaceful surrounds, women from Dorset sell cups of tea, fresh cheese salad rolls and tasty homemade cakes, all washed down with lashings of ginger beer, for reasonable prices. There's something truly appealing about reading our free copies of the Guardian or Observer in here whilst watching the world go by.
Another fine place to watch the world go by is the Caravanserai section of the Bestival site. We sit ourselves in half shelled-out caravans and pretend we're part of a travelling fairground whilst watching jugglers and gymnasts astound the crowds that have gathered in the space outside. We're entertained by the likes of the Urban Voodoo Machine who play a vivid set in here whilst audience members climb up poles to get better views.
Bestival wouldn't be the festival it is without a couple of surprise appearances. Many phones are dead or cannot connect to a signal on Sunday afternoon and so, somewhat surprisingly, the House of Vans tent isn't packed to the brim when Mike Skinner takes to the turntable to perform a secret set. It's not a secret for many in here; Bestival's twitter account could hardly be more blatant when it announces that you'll be 'drying your eyes later if you miss it'. Skinner meshes a few old choruses from The Streets into a thoroughly modern mix of grime and garage. 'I'm Daniel Bedingfield', he announces, fooling almost nobody, before telling all to rapturous delight that The Streets will be playing festivals proper-like in 2019.
Bestival is also a festival where it's been easy to be ironically flamboyant. How else can my singing out-loud (and almost losing my voice) to East 17's Christmas party at the HMS Bestival stage be explained? The boyband were never one of my favourites but many of their tunes seem pretty firmly lodged in my head. I never had posters of these chaps pinned from my bedroom wall but I'm also pretty sure that the more idolised members of the band (and the one famed for supposedly doing ten tabs of ecstasy in one night) are no longer part of the act. Despite this disappointment, it's still a whole lot of fun as they sing to us over a mixtape, clad in black T-shirts and rolling back the years. Unsurprisingly that Christmas number one of theirs, Stay (another day), is a massive singalong moment when they drop it slap bang in the middle of the set.
Flamboyant in a different way, it's hard not to raise a smile and to feel invigorated for the day ahead when the London Contemporary Voices choir pretty much open proceedings on both the Castle Stage and the Big Top (on Friday and Saturday). Theatrical performances of a range of recognisable tunes culminate in an epic, OTT performance of 'holding out for a hero' by a larger than life man scantily wrapped in a caveman's cloak. It's all deliciously backed by exquisite beat-boxing and the effect leaves us all delighted.
Whilst smiles are never far from the surface and we're encouraged to clown around, there are areas that display a good hearted social conscience. Sensitivities abound and arguably the presence of the drug testing unit, The Loop, is underplayed by Bestival organisers. But it seems obvious to me that such a service should be a mandatory offering at any festival where kids could buy their drugs from strangers on site. The service looks busy and that can only be a good thing. Next door to the Loop tent, Dorset Rape Crisis succeed in getting us all thinking with their informative stall. On the other side of the site, the Witness The Fitness area hosts talks on food waste when not offering yoga and head massages. The woodland area, Ambientland, is perhaps understandably downplayed this year, a place to chill and to quietly reflect whilst lights bounce all around and emit a glow from ponds.
Saturday evening and Grace Jones has just finished her hula-hooping. The stage compère encourages us all to turn around to Lulworth castle behind us. Quirky, moving images about the sea are projected onto the castle whilst the most fantastic fireworks explode around the iconic box of a building. Camp Bestival's misfortune is Bestival's treat. This weekend we're getting two end shows for the price of one. All set and ready to go but not able to be delivered the week before, a slightly adapted but nevertheless brilliant version of CB's end show dazzles and delights.
Sunday evening and we are standing at Cuckoo Clump. At least, we think it's cuckoo clump although no map has guided us here. The lanyard I've worn around my neck for the weekend tells me that it's here that we'll get to see Bestival's biggest ever finale, the high wire spectacular. For forty minutes, we stand gobsmacked as circus skills come to the fore. In remarkable balancing feats, acrobats stride over each other high above us. A choir and a group of dancers twirl colourful umbrellas to make them look like jellyfish down below whilst the most haunting music is played by a lone viola player accompanied by a live drummer. It's epic, emotional and one of the best things I've ever seen at a festival. Bestival knows how to put on a show and here it has pulled out all the stops. Fireworks are released in time to the music.
It's a fitting conclusion to the most wonderful weekend of circus party.
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