Bestival was born in 2004. It was an ambitious project in a number of ways – the line-up aimed to take out of the clubs some of the biggest names in Dance music and plant them in a Country Park on the Isle of Wight at the arse end of the summer, when everyone has blown all their summer earnings on all the other Festivals, extended lunch breaks and summery after work drinking sessions. Anyone attending would probably be standing in the September rain wondering why they parted with their hard earned cash for such an event, and the organisers wishing they hadn’t made all those vital decisions while on one of those extended lunch breaks!…….but it wasn’t all like that. In terms of music, Bestival 2004 provided some of the highlights of the Festival Season that year, with memorable sets from Mylo, Fat Boy Slim and The Dub Pistols.
As Festivals go though, it was just a baby, and characteristically it showed similar qualities – sometimes chaotic, constantly in need of attention, and generally a bit messy. It had hand-me-downs from its bigger brothers in terms of peripheral entertainment, but it showed it had a personality of its own that could grow to be something special in its own right. The location, at the other end of the world’s most expensive pound per mile ferry journey, was relying on a generous dose of exotic charm being attached to it to entice a large crowd…..and to be honest it failed.
But the organisers persisted, and an obvious effort to be more open-minded about the entertainment on show has resulted in this festival growing at a rate beyond its years. So, 3 years later, is returning to Robin Hill going to be like catching up with your mate you haven’t seen for a while only to find out he’s now married and got 2 kids, and feeling the stark realisation that comes with seeing how quickly things can change? Could this event warrant the label that the name invites? Could it have transformed into the ‘Best Festival’ of the summer season?
The anticipation was certainly there, with tickets selling out months in advance, fuelled by the announcement of the weekend’s headline acts – The Chemical Brothers, The Beastie Boys, and Primal Scream. And the line up in the surrounding tents was definitely not to be sniffed at, with a lot of artists making exclusive appearances at this festival, giving plenty more reasons to back up Sunday Best’s gamble with the unpredictable British summer…….but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, so they say, and having missed the previous two servings my appetite was pretty big. Was the first bite a good one……..?
So, the journey across the Solent then…..let’s get this one out the way early. Whether travelling by car or as a foot passenger, getting to this festival is a nightmare for all involved. How does a pre-booked car ferry crossing that takes less than an hour get delayed by over 4 hours? If 120 people travel on a high speed ferry that goes every 15-20 minutes, why are there only 2 coaches making the 45 minute journey to the festival? Who organised the pick up of travellers from the ferry ports to the festival? And this is on the Friday morning of a festival that starts at lunchtime? Whoever makes these decisions needs persuading that the only way that chaos is going to be avoided in this scenario is by letting people travel over and camp on the site on the Thursday. End of story.
This first taste of the festival was an indication that perhaps the only one biting off more than they could chew was the organisers. A weight was lifted when my tent was eventually set up though, and it was time to explore……and there was a lot to be done.
Arrival on site certainly showed how much this festival has grown, and it seemed like at least as far as the site itself goes, the ambition had been backed up by action – the organisers have seen this site as a potential playground and gone all out to fill it with toys to keep anyone and everyone entertained. The all seated Time for Tease tent is an absolute indulgence, a Come Dancing tent, the surreal Club Dada and the new addition of the Jestival comedy tent, all start to make you realise this isn’t going to be like the other festivals. It’s difficult to tell what makes up the periphery – is it the cabaret or the music?
And then there’s The Village - chill out areas, massage parlours, a Sushi bar, a WI tea and cake tent and even a farmers market are tucked up on the hill behind the forest, along with an interesting choice of acts playing the Bandstand. In fact, even just the noises coming from the woods made the journey an event in itself. It all added to the mystery and intrigue.
The result of all this is that the camping area has been pushed back further away from the Main Arena, but the way stalls were dotted around the whole site meant you never went very far without something to catch your attention, and food stalls banging out music in the early hours in amongst the camping areas was a real bonus for those on auto pilot finally deciding to make their way back to their tents (although perhaps not to those who naively pitched their tents next to them….oops!).
So what about the music then? With so much going on, does it really matter?
Of course it does……and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Rob Da Bank knows it……which is why the number of acts he booked for this festival rose from 250 last year to 360 this year, and when there’s so many people involved you have to look further in order to ‘Increase the Peace’, or at least keep it. But the really important thing to remember is that festivals offer the opportunity to see big acts in a different environment to the ones you would expect to see them in the rest of the year, and the choice of 6 or 7 goldmines in close proximity only increases the chances of striking it rich – finding an act that provides a performance that warrants a bigger crowd, but in the intimacy of a comfortably populated tent. Bestival provided many of these moments, in parallel to the obvious Big Stage moments guaranteed by the headliners, albeit along with some slightly more uncomfortable ones.
The initial hassle of getting to the festival on Friday was quickly forgotten once the music was in full flow, but it did mean the event took a little longer than it should to really get going. Gilles Peterson accelerated the re-orientation with his instantly recognisable festival grooves pumped out from the Bollywood Bar. Situated invitingly between the Main Stage and the rest of the festival this place would be revisited again and again during the weekend, and with enough space to sit outside and soak up the sun, or weave your way undercover for a boogie, it served as a great place to be, day or night.
A short walk to one of the other main tents was next - The Big Top, in search of the first of what promised to be the sort of experience mentioned above. Jah Wobble tested the sound system with his heavy bass sound, before David Holmes let loose some psychedelic sounds and wild drum breaks in a set that reflected some serious distractions in his never ending funk and soul crate digging expeditions. Looking forward to hearing the results in the next studio album….
The Chemical Brothers were first to light up the Main Stage with their amazingly polished live set that sets them apart from the group with their attention to detail, makes them accessible with their simplicity, and fills only the biggest spaces with their huge sound. The visuals consistently enhance the experience rather than detract from it, and their commitment to keep the crowd moving comes through in the way they mix their tracks, with the recent single ‘Do It Again’ and ‘Get Yourself High’ being just one of the highlights. It is an almighty package, that just got bigger with each return to the stage, and they went way over their allotted time in response to the crowd noise - a real masterclass in big stage entertainment.
Wondering how the night could get much better meant returning to the Big Top for Mr Scruff. The range of music covered in his sets is always a joy, and it was the perfect way to loosen up a bit before moving across to the Bollywood Bar to catch up with another religiously buffed DJ set from Justin Robertson. This is someone who knows how to play all kinds of spaces, and was relaxed and at home providing the finale to the first night, whilst everyone listening to him surged with energy as each new track came in. Thumping tunes, old and new, and some truly inspired mixing made this a really memorable end to what was a great days’ entertainment, summed up by a revisit of ‘Do It Again’ to remind us what we’d had, mixed with Plastikman’s ‘Spastik’ to remind us where all this has come from. Awesome!
A beautifully sunny morning and the Isle of Wight’s own Bees Sound System was the inspiration to get up early on Saturday as they hosted and welcomed some seasoned pro’s to Bestival’s Main Stage. Billy Bragg’s distinctive voice echoed around the hills before Gregory Isaacs filled the air with a reggae vibe, ‘Night Nurse’ exercising the crowds vocal chords nicely.
For the majority of people though, the main inspiration Saturday was the prospect of thousands of people coming together to make Bestival the biggest fancy dress party in history! The effort made by everyone was immense, and some of the costumes were beyond belief. Pirates was Rob Da Bank’s set theme, and it seemed like there were enough to populate all the Caribbean Islands, with an entire ship that made it’s way around the festival followed by wenches and the odd pirate eating shark, but it didn’t stop people from sporting all sorts of other mad costumes, including wizards, witches, warlocks, aliens, milk cartons, packs of cards, Rubiks cubes, a team of Red Arrows, and a load of Beastie Boys look-alikes were roaming in advance of their set later (at least I think it was people in fancy dress?).
There is no way you would be able to list all the crazy things we saw that day, and how some of them came up with their ideas I just do not know. The procession in the afternoon was amazing, and was by far the biggest feature of the Festival, making it much more of a Carnival atmosphere than just a music festival. Fair play to everybody who took part, because it was you who made this years Bestival like no other, and I’m sure the spectacle will have an influence on every other festival to come. Like the special guests that followed, it was literally Madness! – quite a few steps beyond anything I’ve seen before!
But it was another one of those gems that had to be sought out in the Bollywood Bar, with an all too rare chance to catch Cornwall’s Luke Vibert in focussed laptop DJ mode. Since early releases on Rising High Records this guy has defied pigeon holing by making records that take elements from the most unlikely sources and blending them to create something most would never imagine would work.
He knows what he likes though, and the common denominators are often amazingly funky drum programming, and dirty 303 acid lines, but when you’re dealing with the only person to record on all of the now legendary labels of Ninja Tune, Mo’ Wax, Warp, Rephlex and more recently Planet Mu, you should just get down there and listen. An early rendition of ‘Funky Acid Stuff’ means the dancing starts early and the afternoon sun means I’m getting sweat on my ‘I Love Acid’ t-shirt way too early in the day, but who cares. A lot of people edge towards the tent wanting to join in, and with classics like ‘LFO’ being dropped in amongst new material it proves to be a great way to find cover from the burning sun - a real highlight of the festival.
A quick trip across to the Big Top sees Ninja Tune’s Coldcut presenting ‘Journeys by VJ’, an audiovisual set that might have been extended and rescheduled to fill one of the gaps that had appeared in the published line-ups over the weekend (more of that later), but nonetheless proved very entertaining. On returning to the Bollywood Bar to hear festival favourite DJ Derek’s reggae ramblings, I was pleasantly surprised to see much more frenetic dancing with Luke Vibert still banging out tunes, but having moved on to hard hitting drum and bass. With a set from Daedelus later on in the same tent this really was an electronic treat.
There was definitely some secret treasure to be found elsewhere in some of the smaller tents and stages too on Saturday, with The Rizla Arena hosting the likes of Andy Votel and Tummy Touch’s Tim Love Lee, while in The House of Bamboo, Arthur Baker was set to spin some legendary breaks, followed by DJ Yoda and The Heritage Orchestra. After some confusion and some technical problems Yoda ended up spinning records on his own in what seemed a slightly impromptu change to the line-up, but the pirate theme stayed strong and Yoda’s cut and paste style provided more hooks per minute than the Pirates of the Caribbean on fast forward, with people queuing for nautical miles to get in.
Those lucky enough to get settled were part of another special moment when the encore began, and the rendition of Knight Rider into The Fresh Prince culminated in the biggest, and maybe the most unexpected sing-a-long of the festival as Yoda cuts the record to leave the crowd outgunning the sound system and the end of each line. He then ended with A Tribe Called Quest asking the question ‘Can I Kick It?’ and the whole tent responded emphatically – ‘Yes you can!’ Hilarious! Someone must have it on YouTube by now……go check it out!
All this before The Beastie Boys even get anywhere near the main stage just shows what a great festival this was turning into, and with The Cuban Brothers supplying a great warm up beforehand, the only disappointment was to find out one of the DJs I was most looking forward to seeing finish the night off had also pulled out. You just can’t expect to adequately replace Detroit legend Carl Craig with anyone, but once The Beasties had done their stuff, the day had been a long one, and there were plenty more great acts on Sunday to look forward to.
The Big Top played host to the Trojan Sound System on Sunday, and the bass was turned up to the max all day long, with sets from dub legends Zion Train and Jah Shaka, while Mixmaster Morris provided a chance to relax and soak up the sun outside the Bollywood Bar, but the sound of the summer was emanating from the Main Stage from Marlena Shaw’s lips. Memories of Spanky Wilson and QSO at the Jazz Café came flooding back as the sweet soul sister performed Northern Soul classics like ‘California Soul’ and ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ like it was yesterday - a real honour to hear the woman who was immortalised when she became Blue Note Record’s first female artist.
DJ Yoda returned to provide some turntablist mayhem in advance of The Beastie Boys Gala Event, which outlined just how much they’ve developed their sound and matured into great musicians. Renditions of ‘Sabotage’ and ‘Sure Shot’ were just a couple that sent the crowd wild and their appreciation was summed up with pirate talk and wishes of making their next party just like this one. There was no need to ‘Fight for Your Right’ - the Bestival crowd had earned it with their dedication. The Beastie’s obviously loved playing at this event, and they gave the impression they just wanted to hang around and entertain the crowd all day.
Beardyman joined in the fancy dress too, coming out in full monkey suit before making jaws drop with his amazing beat boxing skills, doing full renditions of Prince’s ‘Kiss’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’, and repeatedly generating beats that make you go ‘Woah!’. If you missed it, or wanna see more, check the ‘Kitchen Diaries’ post on YouTube and you’ll get the flavour.
We went back to our roots in The Big Top to see Horace Andy give another one of Bestival’s special performances, and the band were so tight and the sound so clean you couldn’t help but marvel at it, and Horace Andy’s voice on ‘Skylarking’ and ‘Money’ just sailed across the sound waves - a perfect sunshine festival act.
As the last night got nearer we were amazed at how much we’d seen and how the flow of great acts had kept so steady, but as we talked with other people it became obvious from their experiences that there’s a definite skill to navigating yourself around these events, and maybe it’s not widely adopted. The Main Stage is at the end of a bit of a corridor on this site, and the ground isn’t flat around it, and there were problems with overcrowding during some of the bigger acts, which of course everyone wants to see – after all, it’s what you pay your money for isn’t it? Maybe. The organisers can’t be entirely to blame for booking such popular acts, and maybe should take note and perhaps consider a relocation of the Main Stage for future festivals, but at the same time there were a lot of great alternatives to the big three at this event, and I might suggest that if you haven’t had a good time at this festival then you need to change your tactics.
One of the best choices to alleviate this was to have The Dub Pistols inject a bit of attitude into The Big Top proceedings in the evening before the last of the Main Stage headliners Primal Scream brought their own enormous egos onto Robin Hill. “F**k The Stones, we’re the best f**king rock ‘n’ roll band of all time” was the claim (not having seen The Stones I couldn’t possibly say), and tracks like ‘Suicide Sally’, ‘Get Your Rocks Off’ and ‘Loaded’ got the crowd rocking as much as anything all weekend and it was a great way for the Main Stage to end the weekend.
No sign of the fat lady yet though, and the dub fuelled Big Top was to provide the final treat, as The Orb tested the sound system once again with pounding bass, pumping rhythms and a kaleidescopic AV show that perfectly complimented the sonic soundscapes that were layered over the top. Continually updating their sound, The Orb have a subtlety to their sets that is matched by few, and favourites such as ‘Towers of Dub’, ‘Perpetual Dawn’ and ‘Blue Room’ sound as good as they ever did in today’s climate, and the vocals by D’Eric the Corporal gave a completeness to their set. I’d looked forward to this all weekend, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Returning to the tent for the last time was hard, but we looked back at the weekend with amazement. The weather was a big factor after the summer we’d had, but by all accounts, Indian Summers are here to stay, and over the last few years Bestival has benefited from this in a way all other Festival organisers would die for – a slot in the Festival Season that gets marked in as a definite for festival-goers early enough to ensure the entertainment can be booked and arranged based on a solid budget, and leave room for a few surprises to keep the punters happy. Otherwise, the risk is that events like these suffer the same fate that saw the demise of the once great Essential Festivals of a few years back where big name drop-outs caused festival goers to demand refunds, something that the promoters were unable to recover from. Amongst those missing from the published line up at Bestival was Andy C, James Lavelle, Carl Craig, 2manyDJs and Jose Padilla – all real attractions that were persuasive reasons to get a ticket in the first place, but with the backing of C4, who have exclusive rights to film the event, and the addition of the BBC Introducing tent, it is unlikely Bestival will ever see such a downturn. As long as the organisers don’t get too complacent with their rise in success, listen to feedback, keep striving to improve the facilities and travel arrangements, and the gamble with the weather continues to pay off, the label of ‘Best Festival’ could be a well earned one, rather than just a name game.
But like all the best parties, it was the people that really did make this festival one to remember. With early bird tickets for 2008 selling out within a few hours, Bestival looks set to attract the same sort of following again next year, so let’s all get our orders in early.
Review and pictures by Matt Cook (unless stated)
For a complete gallery visit the Bestival Costume Gallery on Facebook
Special thanks to Mic Wernej for the Beastie Boys photo - for more of Mic's photos please visit www.micn2sugars.co.uk
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