Elbow, The Big Pink, VV Brown, Kraftwerk, Florence and the Machine - Bestival 2009
Hugh Worskett 22/09/2009
It all seemed a very grand affair, sailing off to some distant isle in order to indulge in music, revelry and the drinks cabinet I was carrying on my back. Of course it turned out that the crossing to the Isle of Wight was little more than a somewhat laboured chug on a ferry and it was closer both in distance and appearance to mainland Britain than I'd envisaged. Still I wasn't about to let go of my imagined version of things too quickly and as I got nearer the Bestival site I pictured a land of giant chalk stacks through which various humans dressed as aliens picked their way in search of the various stages. In case this sounds a little far-fetched I should explain that this year's fancy-dress theme was 'A Space Oddity'. Again, though, I was disappointed. The Bestival site is set in wonderful countryside but at a first glance, despite a few space-age props and giant tulips, it looked like any other festival, not the futuristic spacescape the website had suggested.
As the weekend wore on however, and as people ascended into drunker levels of existence, they transformed into a bizarre cross-section of other-worldly life. Giant aliens roamed the Bollywood Field, huge fluorescent stars staggered sideways through the crowd in the Outer Space Field and various men dressed as Princess Leia proudly hitched up their dresses in the urinal. Even a bunch of bananas and a troupe of gingerbread men managed to make it, although no one was quite sure why. Dave Vader was a personal favourite of mine, being a man of simple but varied influence. Wearing a builder's jacket, a jump suit rolled down to the waist and a Darth Vader mask with the
front taken off to reveal a slightly sun-burnt and chubby face, Dave trundled about, eyes glazed, Stella grasped determinedly in hand.
Whilst the last example might not suggest it, the level of effort and discomfort people were prepared to put themselves through for the sake of the festival was deeply admirable. When giant Scrabble letters were handed out in front of the Main Stage the recipients somehow managed to organise themselves in lines, spelling out offerings such as 'Herpes' before dancing madly to Abba tribute act Bjorn Again. The quirky goings-on did not feel as contrived or organised as some of the other new festivals do in a bid to emulate Glastonbury. Instead Bestival relies upon the humour, good nature and inventiveness of its audience to succeed and is all the better for it.
Problems with sound on the Main Stage on Friday were gradually rectified as the wind died down and the volume was turned up although not before Passion Pit had delivered a somewhat limp affair that failed to convince. Florence and the Machine, on the other hand, pulled off a stunning set. The Machine itself played brilliantly dressed in green and gold costumes complete with matching capes and proved a worthy crew for their charismatic leader, Captain Florence. She being undoubtedly born of great voice, great hair, great legs and an individuality that leaves Little Boots and La Roux wallowing in a dirge of electronica, meant she could easily have been placed
higher up the bill and won over far, far bigger crowds. As it was, her set was well timed to coincide with the peak of people's enthusiasm. Later on as early-evening hangovers kicked in (the result of a somewhat over-enthusiastic first day commitment to the bars) MGMT and the (is this going anywhere?) headline set from Massive Attack were greeted with lukewarm responses.
Saturday got off to a good start with the Planets Suite by Gustav Holst blasting out over the campsite from the Main Stage, calling the space-dressed masses to attendance on what was the most musically diverse day of the festival. Speech Debelle played a rearranged set in the Big Top
tent that left the few who attended wondering why exactly she had won the Mercury Music Prize. As far as I was concerned she was offering very little that others haven't done before. Mika made me feel a little sick and Lily Allen, despite a pleasing (read lack of) outfit, did little to impress.
However, VV Brown's set proved unexpectedly good as she delivered her no-nonsense, up-beat popabilly songs with a minimum level of fuss. Before Jack Penate emerged to fully justify his recent reinvention, an astronaut walked on and planted the Union Flag on stage to the tune of Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra - another pleasing classical interlude.
It got even better when the astronaut took off his helmet to reveal that He was in fact rather a glamorous a She. Now accompanied by something a little more upbeat, she was joined by two dancing green aliens and, to the pleasure of the assembled crowed, took off the rest of the space suit and much of what was underneath.
Kraftwerk were the Saturday headliners and I was expecting to lose interest quickly but, after a storming warm up from Underworld, they won me over with their intricately constructed and engaging music. I hoped for a bigger production but this probably had more to do with Bestival's limited resources than with Kraftwerk themselves. The Big Top was rammed to its 4,000 people capacity for La Roux's midnight set and the resultant perspiration and condensation meant it actually started raining sweat inside the tent, resulting in my hasty exit. This however, paled into comparison at the Bollywood Tent where Erol Alkan's ability to win over even the meanest of listeners meant sheets of water were pouring off the inside of the roof, drenching anyone who managed to make their way in. It was, therefore, a relief to escape to the Red Bull Tent to see a brilliant Casio Kids and a hard-hitting Drums of Death.
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Sunday got off to a slow start. It had to after the excesses of the night before. I woke up wishing I hadn't. The crown of eyeballs that had constituted my costume was looking a little lopsided: at some point I had given a girl an eyeball with my number written on the back. Bet she'll be calling. Weirdo. But no matter. A quick repair job on the crown (I had spare eyeballs) and I was ready to wander off and fall asleep in the Bollywood Field. A little later I made it to the Bandstand only for unconsciousness to hit me again. A little later still, I summoned up some courage and had a very tasty Bestivale whilst watching, and without partaking in, the Pants to Poverty world record attempt in which 200 people stripped down to their
underwear. It was an odd, somewhat unpleasant sight as the only people prepared to do it were the fatter, drunker, maler attendees but it did provide one pleasing moment. The organiser was explaining that the world record for people stripping down to their undies belonged to Cosmopolitan who had paid some models to pose in Ted Baker underwear as a promotional
stunt. Upon asking the assembled crowd what they thought of Ted Baker pants, one particularly enthusiastic woman grabbed the microphone and screamed, 'Fuck you Ted Baker!' You go girl.
That afternoon Delphic provided an enjoyable if somewhat predictable set of warming electro-pop goodness in the Big Top although it was The Big Pink I was waiting to see. In the event their set was good but could have been so much more. There was a surprisingly small crowd present for such a hyped band on the eve of their debut full-length release and standout single 'Velvet' was a little throwaway given they'd chosen to end with it. There were some genuine moments of excitement though suggesting they could become a truly engaging live act.
The real stars of Sunday were the headliners, Elbow. Elbow have been whoring themselves out to festivals for years, so much so that live they had become frankly tiresome. However, with a set dominated with songs from the Mercury Prize winning album 'The Seldom Seen Kid' they are a rejuvenated band more at ease with themselves than I have ever seem them before. The new(est) songs manage to connect with the public in a way that eluded the back catalogue, and this has been achieved without the band having to neuter themselves; all the idiosyncrasies of old are there, albeit in a more digestible, coherent and accessible package. The band looked to be having a ball, and the audience responded likewise. Guy Garvey chatted amiably throughout. He gathered the band round for a quick shot of something strong midway through and when announcing the last song quipped, 'It's not really the last - we all know how this works. You clap and cheer a lot and we'll come back on and play some more'. However, he then announced the band would only come back if the crowd sang the original Star Trek theme. We dutifully did, without anyone really knowing the tune, and back they came with a rousing rendition of 'One Day Like This', which was wholly suitable for a tired but enamoured crowd on a sunny, late summer evening.
As a newcomer to the whole affair, Bestival really was a welcome surprise and contrast to previous grim experiences at the likes of Reading. The alternation of DJ sets with bands on the bigger stages provided a pleasing degree of variety although it would have been good to see a few harder hitting acts on the Main Stage. Security staff were relaxed and friendly and
the crowds reacted accordingly enjoying this last chance to cut loose before the summer's end. The journey home proved the usual curious affair as the strictures of society once again crept in. There was the woman who decided to wear her costume on the train home, gradually losing confidence in her ability to pull it off as fellow festival-goers left and were replaced by
people on their way to work, sneering and thinking she should be doing the same. As she became paranoid so did I as the seat next to me was the only one not taken. Do I smell? Should I have braved the showers? No, because for every person looking down their nose (whilst possibly holding it), there was another wistfully contemplating the fact they missed out. And they, like me should already be planning next year's voyage to Bestival.
VV Brown Interview
Bumping into VV Brown backstage at Bestival I jumped at the chance of a quick interview. She discussed keeping it real, keeping it real some more and the boobs of the lady who interviewed her before me. Honest and straight talking it seems VV is a bit of a purist and err, vv keen on keeping it real.
Having reached the end of the festival season and with plans to go off to America, does this represent some kind of watershed for you?
VV: Absolutely, it felt like both an end and a beginning and I think it was a good show.
You covered King's of Leon's Use Somebody and effectively covered yourself with a reggae version of Crying Blood. Are covers important to you as an artist or is it just a way to have some fun? After all it hasn't always been
fashionable for acts to include covers in their sets.
VV: When it comes to covers I think 'Why not?' I think it's a bit arrogant to just do your own music. There are so many great songs out there and even the biggest artists cover other people's music. I don't have a pretentious bone in my body - I'm just real. I just told that lady her boobs are nice [she did, they were]. That's how real I am. I just do what I do. I love that
Kingıs of Leon song so why not play it?
So is the live setting you and your band's preferred environment?
VV: We absolutely enjoy ourselves live. Live music is better than anything - everything about it is real and about coming to life.
When you are writing do you approach your music from the point of a live setting rather than that of a studio artist?
VV: When I'm writing I don't think about that too much. I don't think about it being live or in the studio, I just try and write a good song and if it feels good I go for it. The moment you start trying to cater your song for a certain market or environment you risk losing the sincerity of the music.
Do you use the live setting and the audience's reaction as a way of testing new material then?
VV: Not really. Anything you give me I can make work live, even Ba Ba Black Sheep. That's the art of being a good live musician- you should be able to make anything work on stage.
Have you had a chance to look around the Bestival site today?
VV: No not yet, I'm dying to get out of my outfit, put on a dress and wander around. This is kind of a space outfit but it's really hot. Iım hoping to get a coat-hanger and make some kind of weird hat to wear about the place instead.
Well good luck with the hat and thanks for taking the time out for a chat.