Following several weeks of hot dry weather, the great British summer has settled back into a more traditional pattern, by variously baking, then soaking us by turn. Victorious Festival, based in the coastal town of Portsmouth, received the full force of this indecisive weather. Friday got the rain end of the deal, with heavy showers a feature of the afternoon and into the evening. This is only the second year that Victorious has had a Friday event, and they're still playing with the format. Although the evening hasn't expanded, they have moved from the (second) Castle Stage to the (main) Common Stage.
Arriving on site just in time to see the worst of the rain lift, we found our spot to watch the three main acts of the evening. First up was 90s band Shed Seven, and a moments alarm when the evening’s compère, Chris Moyles, threatening that he was going to be taking lead singer duties as Rick Witter had damaged his vocal chords. Thankfully unfounded we were instead given a masterclass in band/crowd interaction from Rick, whose comfortable banter and high energy performance rewarding those who braved the rain. For their part the crowd joined in with the set full of hits such as Chasing Rainbows and Disco Down. Their performance would certainly have warranted a headline position at many festivals, and I wonder how long before they start pushing their way up the list.
They were then followed by an as always energetic performance from the Kaiser Chiefs, with Ricky Wilson not just working the crowd but also giving the stage rigging a test by climbing almost to the top of frame. This was a set that felt like it was cut far too short, as it seemed that just as they got into their stride they were waving goodbye.
Headlining were The Libertines but after two fully engaging bands the headliners seemed more intent on showing that there is no animosity between Carl Barat and Pete Doherty than drawing in the crowd and it felt like we were merely spectators of their private show. This doesn't mean that they didn't give a good performance, but lacking the big hits of the previous two left the crowd with nothing much to engage with, leaving the show on a bit of a down point following the last two sets. Nonetheless Victorious has really set the bar high for the weekend and with better weather promised for tomorrow we can't wait to get back.
Saturday sees the sun shining and with it the crowds flowing into the site. The festival has a generous amount of space for the 45,000 capacity and although some areas inevitably get crowded the main areas always seem to have space near the front. Getting crowds into the festival early is always a challenge and Victorious has a fairly unique solution by putting a larger band out of place in the lineup, Saturday it was the turn of Happy Mondays to fill this duty, and a sizeable crowd gathered to see Shaun Ryder, Bez and the band. It was amusing to see how quickly the crowd dispersed — leaving the front of the arena almost as quickly as the band left the stage. Fortunately this meant we were able to get almost to the front barrier for The Southsea Alternative Choir — not your conventional choir but a supergroup of local bands who perform covers ranging from 60s Motown to 90s indie, that all have one thing in common: they're great to sing along with, and as such they managed to recoup a significant number of the crowd that vacated after the Happy Mondays.
Having sung ourselves hoarse we then headed out to see what the rest of the festival has to offer. Victorious is a really diverse festival, both with music, food and activities, and as we worked our way through the world music area we were assailed with sights as diverse as drawing workshops, belly dancers, and interactive sculptures, food is one place that Victorious really excels, and the sheer variety of options around the site that are not your regular festival fare that it's almost a shame it doesn't run longer as you could probably spend a week and still not be able to try everything.
Another strength of the festival is a genuine commitment to providing a great family day out rather than providing a token few attractions that you see at many festivals - the kids area takes up a significant area of the site, and is dotted with several small music stages so the adults still get entertainment while the kids partake in circus skills, climbing walls, craft activities and games.
Our wanderings led us eventually to the Seaside Stage where the sea breeze was a little brisk but the sun still managed to give some warmth and the view across The Solent in this natural Ampitheatre was well worth it. Scheduling a Festival stage is a headache that I wouldn't want to do, however it should seem fairly obvious that putting two Ska covers bands on back to back was a strange thing to do, as their set lists are bound to be almost identical. I don't know how Ska Dogs and Orange Street managed to split it out, but apart from a couple of songs they managed not to tread on each other toes. What probably helped was that while Ska Dogs stuck to the classic staples, Orange Street drew from a wider pool, including reworked covers of Green Day’s Basket Case and Paula Nutini’s 10/10. Out of the two I thought Orange Street came out on top by giving the crowd a much more upbeat and energetic performance.
Returning to the main arena for a typically great performance from Gaz Coombes, including a rare outing for an old Supergrass track - Moving, alongside his solo work. We then darted back to the Castle stage for an unsurprisingly politically charged performance from Billy Bragg before settling back in the main arena for performances from two artists who can genuinely lay claim to the moniker of ‘legends’.
First was Brain Wilson who, despite his age and health being against him leaving him unable to give a physical performance himself, simply lets his music speak for itself. Supported by a dozen musicians, he performed the entirety of the Beach Boy’s era defining album Pet Sounds, then finished it off with a run through of the other classics of the band. While the band are now clearly carrying him for much of the way, when he does take centre stage the sparkle and passion is still present — and welcome to see, as too many artists who've been through far less than he has are no more than hollow shells of their former selves these days.
Paul Wheller is a mercurial performer, with such a large back catalogue you never know which version your going to get. I've seen him perform several times over the years, and have seen him variously: ignore all the Jam and Style Council material in favour of newer stuff; ignore everything apart from his latest album; ignore his latest album and only play music form the 90s; or, simply give in and play something from all eras. Thankfully tonight it was the latter option, and as well as tracks from his last album, A Kind Revolution, we also were taken on a tour through his back catalogue from the early days of The Jam and The Style Council, through his Changing Man era work and back to the more recent rockier work. The pace of the set was exhausting, with barely a break between the 22-song set, Paul delivered all this with his usual vigour and energy, something the crowd picked up on as they danced and sang along with him. Ending on the classic A Town Called Malice, he left the stage without giving an encore or apologising for not doing so - we got what he wanted to give us, and nothing more, leaving the crowd on a high that was only dampened down by the hour and a half long delay getting out of the car park. But this small gripe aside I think this has been one of the best days at a festival in a long time.
What the difference a day makes. Unfortunately for Victorious 2018 this wasn't one for the better. It's not often the weather forecast is spot on but unfortunately this was the case. Sunday started off with heavy rains and high winds. Definitely not the weather you want being on the coast. As you would expect early attendance was low, but those that were as daft as us were in good spirits and not going to be beaten by the weather.
Eventually all festivals will have a weather event to deal with, and Victorious had quite literally a ‘perfect storm’ of wind and rain battering the site for most of the day. Understandably, the larger stages were delayed, particularly as the rain was driving straight into them, while the Seaside Stage was closed completely for much of the day, but again the highly exposed location would have made this untenable. What was surprising was the way some of the smaller areas seemed to shut down completely. The children's area, which had plenty of cover, was almost completely closed, as was the world stage area that was a field full of closed over marquees. This seemed disappointing as it seemed those areas just ‘gave up’ rather than trying to adapt to make it work.
Ultimately though, the biggest issue revealed was that the open site simply doesn't have enough shelter for people to take a break in. Unlike most festivals there's no big top to take a large number in, and so the majority of people were left huddled under the few trees round the site, or put up with the queues outside the few shelters as security operated a one-in, one-out policy. I think that next year, they would do well to reconsider the layout and provide more shelter in anticipation of adverse conditions.
That said, on the stages that were operating, credit had to be given to the stage crews who were really working hard to make it work. Credit has to be given to the acts who reworked their shows to fit — Gomez abandoned their plans to give an acoustic set while huddled in the middle of the stage under the cover of a hastily erected garden gazebo, but I don't think it offered them much of a shelter. Those who braved the weather and came out to see them probably saw one of their best shows ever, as the Dunkirk spirit that had developed meant that the feel was more of an intimate show rather than a large scale gig.
If Gomez scaled down and took shelter against the rain, Dub Pistols took the alternative approach. Setting up the band in the far corner of the stage, frontmen Barry Ashworth and Seanie Tee chose to embrace the rain, and happily got as soaked as the audience, spending almost as much time down with the crowd as they did up on stage. Dub Pistols are a quintessential festival group, and their upbeat Ska/dance/hip hop mashup always goes down well whatever the weather. It wasn't long before the crowd was probably the liveliest it had been all weekend, and get fully into the festival groove. The bands finisher ‘Mucky Weekend’ has never seemed more appropriate in the rain, and helped warm up the damp and muddy audience.
After two acts in the pouring rain we decided that it was time to seek shelter, so after picking up some crumble and custard from a food stall (not the most obvious festival food, but perfect for these conditions) we decided to seek some shelter and headed off to a new venue for 2018 — the comedy stage. Today the tent was showing additional appeal as a shelter, and so after a thankfully short wait for a space to open up, we sat down and waited for the next show to begin. Comedy at festivals can be a strange affair, done right it can become a mainstay of the alternatives to music, but done badly and it can be excruciating. Sadly at this time the venue fell into the latter. Now granted, most of the people in there were more interested in being warm and dry rather than entertainment, which led to a lot of chatter which really didn't help the comedians make an impact, but bigger problems were also in evidence — the amplification wasn't up to the task of reaching the whole tent, so people in the back half struggled to hear. The spacing of the performances didn't help either, with each comedians set lasting about 20 minutes, then a gap of almost 40 minutes of absolute silence. This meant that even if one comedian had managed to get something going, the next comic couldn't build on the goodwill and had to start from a completely cold room each time. I do think that comedy has a place at festivals, and hope that Victorious do persevere, but if they are serious about it then they will need to give serious consideration to the format.
As the afternoon went on the weather slowly improved, but rain was still a feature of the day. Nonetheless the stages slowly started to get back on track, and on the Castle Stage we had one of the surprises of the weekend. I've seen Reverend and The Makers a couple of times at festivals and always been able to take or leave them. This time they seemed to be energised to another level, I don't know whether it was the weather that boosted them, or maybe the smaller stage, or attitude of the crowd, but the show was one of the best of the weekend. Wasting no time in jumping into a hi-energy set, only taking time between songs to gently rib the crowd, threatening them with variously “setting the dog on you” or “coming down there to lump you all” if you “don't all bounce along”. Surprisingly it seemed to work, and by the end of the set even the most reticent was swept up in the show.
It would take a big band to follow a set that energetic, and on paper at least Embrace should have been up to the task, but while musically as good as ever, they just didn't seem to fully engage with the audience, and so we headed back to the main stage for a band who are back on the road after a hiatus. To describe Friendly Fires is a difficult thing, on the surface they are an electro-pop band that owe a heavy debt to the power pop bands of the 80s such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, but they do something to this sound and make it very contemporary while still feeling very retro. Match this with a typically dynamic performance from Ed Macfarlane and you have something really compelling.
With the rain finally cleared away, many people had finally come into the festival and so the main arena was filling up at last for the headline act The Prodigy. Never having been a great fan of theirs, instead we headed off to the Acoustic stage for Chris Helme, best known as being the lead singer of 90s indie band The Seahorses. Since those days Chris has built a reputation as a solo performer, although tonight he decided to treat us all to a spin through all The Seahorses songs rather than his own material. Explaining why he said that earlier in the day he'd somehow managed to be booked to play at an event for the Conservative party, describing it as a set that “both me and them barely managed to survive”, and clearly in need for a more comforting show. Whatever the reason it was a rare treat for Seahorses fans, and soon the stage was packed with plenty of people joining in the singalong.
2018 has certainly been a challenge for Victorious but in all honesty I feel that overall it has been another success. Obviously the weather has shown some of the weaknesses of the site, and there will hopefully be some lessons learned, but it still has been another fantastic weekend with some great bands and performances, and we look forward to next year.
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Victorious Festival 2018 Review