It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sunny festival with no decent bands on the bill trumps the finest line-up sunk in a slew of rain and mud. That Bestival 2012 was possessed of the kind of cloudless skies under which it made its name as the last big party of the summer meant it was inevitably going to be a good one.
The festival has, of course, moved far from those boutique beginnings: Bestival has long been running with the big boys, and a summer from which Glastonbury absented itself, found it widely touted as the summer’s big (non-sporting) event. Reading and Leeds may have greater capacity, but Bestival has most fully embraced, or effectively aped, Glasto’s connivance to be much more than a music festival.
That inherited ethos – that seeing music is secondary to enjoying the atmosphere – extends to the dedicated efforts right across the site to erect a campers’ wonderland. From the giant mousetrap that forms an entrance to one of the fields, to the retro fairground rides and the inflatable church, through to the record-breaking fancy-dress competition, there is much to see away from the main stages.
And plenty of performances happily play out to tiny numbers of delighted punters too. There are burlesque artistes enacting elegant stripteases in the Time for Tease tent, where you are required to book a seat way in advance or join the lengthy queues for walk-ups. There are cheerily loopy live artists in the Ambient Forest, setting up games of swingball, or teaching synchronised swimming on land to crowds that can be counted on one hand. Or on the porch of the overgrown Swamp Shack you can encounter woozily-rendered Dr John covers or indeed, the actual Chas and Dave.
Chuck in the best selection of festival food that side of the Solent (Meat Liquor’s Meatwagon, La Grande Bouffe and The Roaming Rotisserie all deserve honourable mention), and plonk the Isle of Wight Women’s Institute atop a hill serving tea and cakes at a recession busting 70p a pop and you don’t need to add Stevie Wonder to make this a recipe for success. The great thing is, you get him anyway.
Oh yes: there are some bands too.
The xx have evolved little over their brief lifespan, though this is a consequence of their having arrived so fully formed on the festival scene in 2009, not the lack of creative development they have employed in the time since. As ever, the band took to a darkened stage clad all in black and worked their way through the distressed entanglements of downbeat dance and melodic pop that have, or will, become unlikely festival singalongs. Indeed, in a set that speckles tracks from their Mercury-winning debut across an almost sequential run through of the majority of the new one – on its week of release no less – it is notable just how wholly the new songs have already been embraced by the crowds. Inevitably, the tracks from Coexist have yet to gain quite such sway over the audience as those from the first record that have gradually picked their way into the collective subconscious over the last three years. Their sound may be cavernous, but with a few thousand backing singers the songs fill bigger stages more fully than ever.
Kindness has filled his similarly spacious recorded sound with a solid white funk band fully kitted with a trio of back up singers. It doesn’t work here quite as it has on previous occasions, but opener ‘Cyan’ reminds of the potential this year’s debut showed.
An unprocessed and somewhat more successful take on disco was provided by a depleted Sister Sledge, in the Saturday afternoon slot that has become synonymous with late-Seventies cheese. ‘Lost in Music’ proves it’s still a powerball classic and forms the basis for digressions across their genre before ‘We Are Family’ is delivered with aplomb (strangled a cappella introduction aside).
The sisters Sledge would not have been out of place in the Roller Disco, another of the neat touches laid on by festival head honcho Rob Da Bank – a stage with a skate rink that thankfully only requires rollerskates in one corner. The booking policy is more geared to the late night rave crowd, with Pariah’s atmospheric beats beautifully composed but somehow uninviting in the mid-afternoon sun.
De La Soul can party any time of the day, although they turn up a good 30 minutes late for their own on the main stage. Once there, they put on a magnificent show, never looking back from the opening bounce-a-thon of ‘Me, Myself and I’. The chemistry between Posdnous, Dave and Maseo is radiant as all three delight in the folds of their back catalogue. Last full song ‘Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)’ is as stupidly fun as ever, but a mess around with the band promises a big finish which never happens when the plug is pulled as they cue off ‘The Magic Number’. It’s a disappointing end to one of the weekend’s true highlights.
There is plenty more to get feet moving though. Amongst the plethora of top drawer DJs booked over the weekend, Falty DL at the Rizlab arena produces a consistently high slung attack of shimmering drum patterns, before Actress takes to the same stage to pump out an unashamedly joyous set packed with dance classics.
New Order are neither physically or musically as lithe they once were. There are moments, as when they boldly open with ‘Elegia’, that they flirt with the sensual post-punk of their spindly youth, but there are not quite enough of them. Too often this current line up sound like a stadium rock act powering through beefed up takes on all the hits. ‘True Faith’ and ‘Temptation’ avoid this fate, remaining charged with youthful vigour, but the version of ‘Isolation’ is a travesty, coming across like an all too sincere cover of the song played by Laibach at a first rehearsal. An encore of two more Joy Division songs suggests a dig at ousted bassist Peter Hook, but at least ‘Transmission’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ still sound great.
Some musicians find themselves stifled by one particular early hit and spend their time trying to avoid it. No such fearfulness from Roots Manuva, whose lengthy and distinguished career is unlikely to ever produce quite such a monumental record as it did in 2001 with ‘Witness (1 Hope)’. It’s thrown out 20 minutes before the end to a crowd that explodes on impact. Why would Rodney Smith hide from the song anyway? It appears that like the only thing more fun than being in a crowd jumping up and down to it is being part of the dapper crew onstage singing it to them.
Even masked rapper DOOM succumbs to the celebratory mood, as he elides his well-worn angry demeanour and chuckles his way to the end of a set in the Big Top. Flanked by a pair of similarly be-masked cohorts, DOOM discovers a sound balance for once perfected for his funky Dilla-school basslines.
Onsite paper The Bestival Bugle heralds Stevie Wonder as the biggest superstar to have ever graced the event. With 50 years of hits behind him (admittedly stalled somewhere in the late Eighties) and a defining role in the development of pop, soul and R&B, it is hard to argue with this assessment of the Motown hero; a man whose historical impact spreads beyond his musical legacy. Little wonder then, that the crowd was uncomfortably stacked for the main event.
Whatever the circumstances, Stevie Wonder’s could not help but make you smile. The man exuded just as much sheer joy as his music does. Taking on the role of latter-day preacher, he was always singing to the converted. Opener ‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’ showcased a voice still clear and true over the brand of throbbing funk he helped pioneer. Flawless versions of ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ (one of the night’s five covers), demonstrated the skill of his band as well as that mammoth musical ability as performer as much as composer.
It is by no means a perfect concert. A version of ‘Empire State of Mind’ with lyrics altered for ‘London’ instead of New York, not only suggests he doesn’t know where he is, it’s a terrible missed opportunity when the nearest town is called Newport (“his people need to be briefing him better,” utters my Irish companion). Disquieting flirtations with his daughter delight only those at the piano, and Wonder’s proclivity for the saccharine is noticeable as he closes with a run of ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, ‘Isn't She Lovely’, The Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What's Going On’ and ‘Happy Birthday’. But a show that includes a sublimely rendered ‘Superstition’ by the man who wrote it is always going to memorable for the right reasons. The same goes for Bestival.