Setting up a brand new festival is a brave enterprise at the best of times. Doing so post-pandemic in times of financial crisis might be seen as foolhardy. So when I heard rumours of poor ticket sales, of a main stage rethink, and acts started pulling out, I found myself wondering how much slack the festival should be allowed. I braced myself for disappointment and toyed with how best to sympathetically convey measured criticism. What a pleasure it is, therefore, to report how enjoyable
and delightfully different KITE proved to be.
First off, the campsite was a pleasure to set up in. Surrounded by rolling parkland, with bleating sheep all around bidding the campers welcome, and the imposing edifice of a Palladian house just a stone’s throw away, this was somewhere I’d have happily stayed with or without a festival attached.
The toilets were magnificent – a description that only regular festival goers will understand is said without irony. Proper flushing loos, each with their own wash basin, hand soap and paper towels. I’ve been lucky enough to camp out in supposedly VIP areas elsewhere and not had looks anywhere near as good offered up. Showers aplenty too, and all without the associated queues. Quite why the festival didn’t make more of what they were offering is a mystery to me – perhaps new to the game they simply didn’t realise what other festivals tend to get away with.
It was a bit of a stretch to suggest this was – and I quote - a three day curated journey of cutting- edge debate and a rich programme of ideas with spectacular musical performances closing each day. It may well have been two days of that but Friday was little more than a handful of bands to keep the campers happy. That said, some of the strongest performers of the weekend happened on Friday, so it was a shame there weren’t more people knocking about to see the opening act. Don’t Problem, an eight piece brass band, offered up an eccentric fusion of funk and jazz that was the perfect wake up call for those of us who had just driven a very long way to get there. Next up, the eccentricity went up a notch with two handed Mermaid Chunky. Dressed in their grandma’s nighties, and employing a heady mix of spoken word, drum machine, saxophone and weird noises, they were quite captivating in a Noga Erez sort of way. As were their dancing chums - dressed up like Bill and Ben on acid, and looking like they weren’t sure how they got press ganged into doing this.
Fun those these earlier acts were, it was The Flamingods that offered up the first truly outstanding set of the night. I confess to a lack of objectivity here – The Flamingods were one of the acts that drew me to the festival in the first place – but they didn’t let me down. Delivering a cocktail of western psychedelia, Turkish rock, and all manner of diverse eastern influences, they have a sound like no other – Gong with Ravi Shankar on guest sitar perhaps – that deserved a longer set and a
bigger audience. The same could be said for Nubian Twist, an act with more people than can be easily counted, and a sound that combined Latin, Soul, Reggae and Jazz to produce a tightly choreographed performance. Closing an evening that was far better than I had hoped for I was minded to reflect that – Blimey, this festival might just be all right. Saturday morning, with the crowds filling out a compact and beautifully dressed arena, those initial, hopeful thoughts were reinforced by half a dozen or two tented stages, each one with a distinct personality notwithstanding an overall unified feel to the place. A lot of thought had obviously been given to how the festival looked, and by extension how its patrons reacted to it. Chief among those venues was the huge Forum, packed with rows of chairs that made it clear it meant business. This was where the USP of KITE was going to happen – talks by A list thinking folk on the main stage of a festival.
KITE rather fancies itself as delivering a revisionary shift of what a festival can be, by allocating resource and prominence to something other than music. In doing so, it’s not quite as extraordinary as it thinks it is – Bluedot and Timber spring to mind as festivals that have done much the same for some time – but the profile of the speakers was impressive. From the very first “act” of the day, there were difficult choices to me made. I opted for William Dalrymple and David Olusoga, whose fascinating dissection of the role of history was only slightly marred by Emily Benn’s unnecessary and intrusive moderation. I could instead have gone to see Andrew Neil grill Rory Stewart (the advertised David Miliband was mysteriously absent) in the Town Hall venue, had I turned up early enough for this modest sized, and consequently jam packed tent. Afterwards, having spent ten minutes listening to quiet spoken, reflective Ai Weiwei from outside the Town Hall, craning my neck to catch sight of him, I retreated back to the huge, and two thirds empty Forum, to listen to Delia Smith’s paper-thin philosophy while Jane Sarpong woeful interviewing technique let the Blessed Delia off the hook. We all love a bit of Delia, but twenty-five minutes in I still hadn’t a clue what she was on about. One might argue that it is with the benefit of hindsight that certain speakers were given the wrong sized venue to speak in, but I remain puzzled why first Andrew Neil, and then artist Al Weiwei, were
hosted in such a modest venue, when both had been so prominently advertised as the big hitters of the festival. If you are going to present such folk as the reason for buying a ticket, you are surely obliged to put them in a place where more than a handful of paying punters can enjoy them, especially when others – lower down the bill – are allocated the bigger tent to play in. It was a shame, and it was also odd, but perhaps it was something we can put down to the relative inexperience of the organisers, and cut them some of that slack I mentioned.
The Pod was an even smaller venue, decked out with bean bags of such comfort that I’d have been happy watching anything. Fortunately, what I got was an extraordinary presentation from poet Anthony Anaxagorou - a delightful surprise having simply taken a punt on him. Sensibly concluding that his brief, to explain how to be a poet, was a tad ambitious in half an hour he instead offered up an erudite and persuasive exposition of his own motivation and rationale for what he does and why.
I struggle to bring to mind a more engaging and energising talk. Nearly as good was Grainne Maguire’s ruthless dissection of comedy writing. I’m not sure that, as she insisted, anyone can write comedy as well as she can, but how she does it, and what the building blocks are, was both fascinating and illuminating. To be clear, music was going on all about us – Plumm’s beautiful vocals captivated in the Skylight Social tent, while the Ragged Out String Band on Bloom (the only open air stage) got passing trade dancing to their infectious Bluegrass – but it was always going to be Jarvis Cocker that got the biggest crowd of the day, albeit while talking about things found in his loft. It was only when Mavis Staples took to the stage that the festival shifted on its axis, offering up a string of musicians on both the Forum and Heavenly Presents. Mavis was marvellous and much appreciated by a talked out crowd, notwithstanding the power cut that curtailed her performance. Trouble backstage was alluded to by a grumpy Self Esteem, having come on late, which was enough to send me round the corner to catch Confidence Man. In what was surely the performance of the weekend, Janet Planet and Sugar Bones danced themselves silly while performing multiple costume changes, flirted outrageously with the crowd and, incidentally, sung marvellously disposable pop. Planet’s illuminated conical bra was going to be a hard act to follow, but Grace Jones was up to the task.
With costume changes of her own, an inestimable back catalogue of hits, and surprisingly few diva moments, she provided the perfect close to what had been an astonishing day of information and entertainment. With noticeably less people and early closing, Sunday was never going to hit the heights of the day before, but we nonetheless got some cracking talks to kick the day off. George Monbiot’s thesis that the end is nigh was terrifyingly persuasive. He is such an eloquent and charming man it was almost a pleasure being told we’re all going to starve to death. Armando Iannucci was equally charming, and hilarious with it. Thankfully he had been kicked up to the main Forum to fill a slot vacated by an absent Maria Ressa, a venue he easily filled. It was another example (only really corrected by happenstance) of an odd programming decision by the organisers. What a pity if only a handful of people had got to see this generous spirited, humane satirist in the relatively small Town Hall.
Sandwiched between these two great speakers was Tina Brown talking about the Royals. While not a subject of great interest to me, she did so with sufficient gossipy candour that even hard boiled republicans could find interest in what she said, not least the revelation that if “secrets got out” it would ruin the Royals, and that Epstein was “possibly” murdered. Of all the big ticket speakers, it was only Richard Dawkins that proved a disappointment. Possibly it’s my own fault for expecting another confirmation bias rally cry, but instead of taking on creationists, he rattled on about the wing span of moths. After a while, this got a little dull. Dull isn’t a word you could use to describe Sara Barron, with a comedy routine so edgy she had to stop every so often so parents could escape with their kids. She was followed my Reginald D Hunter, who probably wishes it was only kids he offended. Taking a pop at any number of sacred cows, his routine was, depending on your disposition, either offensive or brave, but it certainly wasn’t dull.
Half way through the comedy I nipped out for a comfort break, only to be mercilessly mocked by Sara Barron for doing so. Incidentally, she also expressed surprise that I, as a bald man, survived Covid, but I digress. My point is that, while outside, I caught just a glimpse of vocalist Gwenno performing in her native Cornish. In hindsight, this was sublime, and (with no disrespect intended to the comedians) I should have hung around longer given the otherwise lacklustre music of Sunday night. Sean Kuti, This is the Kit and Tom Misch obviously all have their fans – I spoke to people that only turned up to see Tom Misch - but I was underwhelmed by this closing string of acts. It’s a subjective point, of course, but I can be objective about when they were on. Misch was done and dusted by nine o’clock, effectively closing the festival before it had even got dark.
The catalyst for this was the unavoidable non-appearance of TLC due to covid, which was fair enough, but I would have hoped – had previously assumed – that they would be replaced by someone of a similar stature. If no one could be found then shuffle everyone up and get a man playing the spoons to open. Do something to bring the festival to a fitting end, rather than have it fizzle out in the most disappointing of ways. It was left to the marvellous fiddle trio, The Trouble Notes, to keep the party going until half nine on the tiny Bloom stage for a few brave souls not ready for their tents. A few more flew the flag for Black Country, New Road, a band that brought to mind early Sea Power, and could well be destined for great things, but were not the act to end a festival with. Past ten and things were all but done, with a DJ playing to no one in one tent, while another played to only a handful. What a shame that a festival that had brought to the table so many great things during the weekend ended so feebly.
Does KITE have a future? I do hope so as I enjoyed it enormously. It had its teething troubles. Those excellent toilets all blew up on the first day, so that punters were left in the dark, sat on unflushing loos. The look of horror on the face of the woman that exited the toilet I was queuing for is etched in my memory. With only two hot drinks sellers, it was literally quicker for me to go back to the tent and boil up a brew than queue up to buy one. The Town Hall venue wasn’t big enough for the
speakers it hosted, and the musical alternatives to those speakers weren’t strong enough to forgive the error. Worst of all, Sunday came to a grinding and precipitous halt, leaving weekenders wandering aimlessly looking for a party. These, however, are issues born of circumstance and inexperience and are fixable. My abiding memory is of an event that got most things right, was curated with care and attention to detail, and was attended by a friendly, approachable crowd that
just wanted to think, as well as have a good time.
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