Pearl Jam continue to raise the bar for the weekend's headliners

Isle Of Wight Festival 2012 review

published: Tue 26th Jun 2012

Pearl Jam

Friday 22nd to Sunday 24th June 2012
Seaclose Park, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 2DN, England MAP
£160 weekend no camping, with camping sold out
daily capacity: 90000
last updated: Tue 12th Jun 2012

As we arrived on site for the first full day of music (Friday only has a shortened day due to the proximity of the festival to a local school, where students are currently sitting GCSEs), we were surprised to see how well the site was recovering from the deluge of Thursday – a lot of the main arena was still grass-covered, and those areas of mud had almost completely dried up.

It's fair to say that the Isle of Wight Festival has diversified over the past 11 years, when the modern festival restarted, it briefly traded under the name of 'Rock Island' for a couple of years, and although never exclusively a rock festival, any acts announced that didn't fit in would be derided on the forums, under thread titles such as 'Faithless? Thought this was a rock festival?' and similar. I wonder what these people would make of this year's line-up, where there are almost as many acts from the world of dance and hip-hop as there are from the rock and indie circles.

Labrinth
First on the list was Labrinth, an act we hadn't planned on seeing, but just happened to be there at the same time as us. I have to say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his set, don't ask me to name any songs, but his performance was very strong and he built up a good rapport with the crowd.

In contrast to the rappers, in the big top were Hue and Cry, the Scottish brothers who had a few hits in the late 80s/early 90s. The small crowd that had gathered to see them were treated to some sound tracks and the history behind them. Their set opened with 'Fireball' and included their big hits 'Looking for Linda' and 'Labour of Love'.

Madness
After a quick diversion via the Kashmir Café for a pint of real ale, we returned to the main stage for probably the first big draw of the afternoon. There are few bands that are universally loved by all, but Madness must surely rank up there. Last seen performing on top of Buckingham Palace, for the Jubilee celebration, the nutty boys arrived in front of a packed arena (more packed than for headliners Pearl Jam) and immediately apologised for having bought the sun with them. If you've seen them once, then you can pretty well predict their set, starting with 'One Step Beyond' and finishing with 'Madness', and in between a trip through the many hits the band notched up in the 80s, but this doesn't matter – the songs are performed well, and with such a sense of fun that it takes a hard person not to be left smiling and dancing along by the end.

Jessie J
It takes a brave act to follow a band with the stature of Madness, so it probably makes sense to pick someone popular with broad appeal – in this case it was The Voice judge Jessie J, presumably ensuring that the parents who came to see Madness, would be encouraged to stay by their kids for Jessie. Arriving on stage in the most extreme pair of distressed jeans, she immediately launched into ‘Do it like a Dude’. While her performance was strong and her voice is actually quite reasonable, you get the impression that she was merely going through a set of pre-defined motions as decided by some faceless exec that would appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and it just didn’t do it for me.

You have to give respect to any act that can turn in a performance despite having hardly any one to perform to, and this was the situation that Loick Essien was faced with. Despite the big top being the second largest stage on site, the crowd could just about manage to be three deep in the middle of the barrier and quickly fizzled out before even reaching half way to the sound desk. Despite this Loick worked his rather limited crowd well and actually managed to draw a few more passers-by in too. Musically he is a mix of R&B, hip-hop and dubstep – an already pretty congested area at the moment, and you wonder how far he'll go, but he seemed to enjoy himself on stage, as did the small crowd.

Tinie Tempah
Having cancelled his appearance in the big top at last year's festival, Tinie Tempah was lured back this year by a main stage gig. The stage is quite sizable, and for a musician who performs to backing tracks, it's always a dilemma as to how to fill the large space – Tinie's solution was a series of lit columns that left him looking like a child exploring a digital forest at times. Musically Tinie is what he is, a man with a collection of fast delivered lyrics, and a lot of swagger, and while that's okay for his fans, I can't say it grabbed me that much.

Dubstep is the marmite of music at the moment, dividing people clearly down the middle. I can't say I have an overall opinion either way, but a good advert for the pro camp has to be Katy B. Whose pop-take on the genre gives a bit of variety and lightness to what is quite a heavy and intense music. This lightness is reflected in Katy's personality, as arriving on stage she has a similar stage presence to the queen of pop princesses Kylie, and performed her set with enthusiasm and a cheery smile.

Biffy Clyro
Back on the main stage, in contrast to Katy B's style, Biffy Clyro were determined to pull out all the stops with their intense melodramatic rock - with a stage set covered in mirrors, and a full arsenal of pyrotechnics, including fire rain from above, industrial strength smoke machines at the front of the stage, and flame throwers launching blue and red coloured fireballs into the air. If you're going to take the decision to augment your set with showy effects, you really need to make sure that the music is big enough to be remembered, and this was where Biffy Clyro really excelled. Last time I saw the band I was underwhelmed with them, as they seemed to favour rock theatrics over genuine performance. But this time the band was a lot more focussed, and all the better for it. Lead singer Simon Neil's vocals while always strong, now seem to be more full and less raspy. I think this is a band that are on the verge of making it big internationally, and they certainly have the presence on stage to back up the show.

Like Elbow on Friday, Biffy set a high bar for the Saturday night headliners. Pearl Jam are a band that were alongside Nirvana for one of the top grunge bands of the early 90s, but then disappeared under the wave of brit-pop that swamped the UK afterwards. The truth is that they have always been there but, just like one of their inspirations Neil Young, have refused to play the corporate game and instead spent the intervening years avoiding the public eye. Perversely, the more they withdrew, the more desirable they became as a band – and in the past several festivals have fought over the right to add the band to their line-up.

I think a lot of people had decided that they weren't interested in what are often perceived as a metal act, as the main arena was noticeably quieter than it was earlier in the day. Which is a shame as the band are actually a lot less heavy than people think. Certainly they can turn it on for songs such as 'Alive' and 'Blood', but equally they are comfortable performing slower songs such as the touching 'Just Breathe' and 'Better Man' – the former causing frontman Eddie Vedder to comment that, "ever since Willy Nelson covered this song, I struggle not to sing it with his voice." Tribute was also paid to Clash frontman Joe Strummer who died almost 10 years ago, and the band played a pretty faithful cover of the Mescaleros' 'Arms Aloft' in tribute. The tragedy at the 2000 Rosklide festival is clearly something that still haunts them, as Vedder was clearly concerned for the welfare of the crowd telling them at the start that "We'll just check in with you guys every so often to make sure you're okay."

During the second hour of the set the rainclouds once again returned and a light drizzle came over the site, but those who braved the rain were rewarded with one of the best sets of the weekend, by a band who, if anything have only improved over the years, moving from a noisy, energetic grunge band to a highly accomplished rock band who helped the festival along the road to being remembered for the right reasons.

Pearl Jam
review by: Steve Collins / Marie Magowan

photos by: Steve Collins

Friday 22nd to Sunday 24th June 2012
Seaclose Park, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 2DN, England MAP
£160 weekend no camping, with camping sold out
daily capacity: 90000
last updated: Tue 12th Jun 2012


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