The site was nicely spread out, but unlike mega festivals, walking from one side to another did not diminish too much energy or take too long. Unfortunately, the festival’s app didn’t want to show me the 2018 line-up – it instead rubbed in the fact that A Tribe Called Quest had played the previous year – so initially, it was hard to arrange a plan. However, after purchasing a programme, I headed first to the main stage – the Castle Stage – to catch the Church Choir, who were all fabulously fancily dressed in-keeping with the themes of Bestival, which encourages carnival style dress. The fun-loving choir churned out sunny, family friendly, sing-along tunes to wake up the audience.
Afterwards, we went to the Caravanserai Stage, tucked into a make-shift caravan that opened like Doctor Who’s Tardis into two stages, with plenty of seating areas. Here I caught many high-energy, fun-loving bands playing to a mixture of intimate audiences and excited, encouraging crowds. The smaller ‘brother’ stage to the right also hosted many acts in a casual open-mic setting. Here I heard many fun-loving covers, including an unexpected rendition of ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ on ukulele!
I also visited Stacey’s Bar, a multi-coloured discotheque, appropriately featuring a duo of female DJs –notable as there are few female DJs around, let alone a female duo. Both looked as though they had stepped out of the 60s and they played disco tracks until the empty venue filled up. Here, perhaps, I found a spiritual home within the festival, as all weekend Stacey’s was blasting groovy, funky disco music, capable of shaking any and all hips that passed through.
Back at the Castle Stage was The Cuban Brothers’ hilarious, crude, and certainly uncensored show. As Michael Keat (lead singer) hailed the audience as ‘very good, very nice’ ‘Bestival-ites’ while promoting ‘I hate hate’, he reminded all too ‘increase the peace’. Aside from the ongoing ‘sexy favours’ sketch, The Cuban Brothers even had parents laughing hard throughout, as they wove in parental jokes about the presence of children, and how they were supposed to be at last week’s family-friendly Camp Bestival. The mood was high as everyone, from all demographics, relented, danced and laughed. The climax of the performance came with the explosion of ‘The World’s Largest Confetti Cannon’, which, in a rather humorous twist, was facing upwind, so the confetti flew away from the crowd into the trees.
The small and intimate Sunday Sessions label’s rave booth had a fun drum and bass party, booming within its tiny four walls that spilled from the ten-person capacity outside. This provided a fun place for a quick stop-over jig. Other highlights from Friday include a ‘Too Many Zooz’ cover in the cosy tents of Caravanserai, which featured double-headed trumpets and alien-effect pedals. DJs Silk City played hip-hop classics from Dre, Biggie and Snoop in Stacey’s Bar, followed by a disco jazz mix. Django Django brought their live art-rock music to the Big Top Tent, where a drag act finished the evening.
Pig’s Big Record Club was a great way to start the day, with vinyl being spun all day in the small circular tent with sofas surrounding it, and we heard original 1920s sets through vintage speakers. I then made my way to the Castle Stage for the day, which opened with Amsterdam based trio My Baby bringing their funk-rock to the awakening audience. Sadly, the brave compere had to announce an act cancellation due to traffic, but, even after this, the festival goers were happy to soak up the sun and dance freely to the mid-act DJs. The highlight of the day, however, had to be the Castle Stage’s mid-afternoon set, which was completely packed for David Rodigan and the Outlook Orchestra. Rodigan, who is celebrating forty years of broadcasting Jamaican music, gave a comprehensive and fascinating walk through the history of Jamaican music, from roots and rocksteady, to old school jungle and dancehall, all accompanied by a stunningly impressive orchestra and Rodigan’s narration. An array of guests joined in to sing vocals, including South London’s Kiko Bun, the legendary Alton Ellis’s son George Ellis, and the man himself, Tippa Irie, who was fierce and fiery as the party raved to ‘Murder She Wrote’. The energy was goose-bump worthy, as every musician on stage paid an ode of respect to Jamaica, It was seemingly less like conventional covers and more a monumental celebration and appreciation. The compere referred to the audience many times as ‘beautiful sunshine people’, which I think sums up the colourful, eclectic style and demographics of this festival audience.
Next on the Castle Stage was California’s funkiest bass master Thundercat, who brought his unique mix of incredible jazz solos on his six-string bass, soprano singing, electronic drum beats and sincere funky grooves as he played humbly, and gave no-context shout outs to Japan and Tokyo. Later, First Aid Kit followed and pulled a relaxed crowd as they played their thought-provoking tune ‘You Are The Problem Here’, which is about women in sexual abuse circumstances. It proved a powerful political break between their indie-harmonic folk songs. Then, the legendary Grace Jones, who continues to shock and stun audiences, gave an immersive performance that included frequent outfit changes, flamboyant artistic direction, strange phallic imagery, the famous glittery bowler hat, and hula hooping for the entirety of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. Jones’ climactic pop show finale was sprinkled with a firework display behind the castle that sat royally on the Castle Stage.
The after party continued in the Big Red Tent as reggae legend Jimmy Cliff performed stunningly after entering the stage on a throne with a crown upon his head. He opened by singing acapella, followed by harmonies and a djembe drum. He then moved to ‘River of Babylon’ with a powerful sing-along, somewhat reminiscent of a gospel church ceremony with Cliff as our minister. At seventy years of age, and in fantastic shape, Cliff danced and belted the entire set with full power and fine vocals. Of all the old-timers still performing, Jimmy Cliff came across as the most youthful and energetic, and he appears to orchestrate the musicians with his moves. He never strained for the notes he wrote and sang in his younger years. The tent was packed out with reggae lovers dancing and singing along, and included a popular rendition of The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’. Cliff’s showmanship continued to be outstanding until the last song.
The Bollywood Stage and Temple Stage at all times played huge electronic tunes, D&B, jungle, techno and house, ect., while in an incense fog sandwiched between huge sound system stacks in each corner, using some of the best speakers in the industry to enjoy and let go to the dance. HMS Bestival was an awesome installation of a large container ship acting as a DJ booth that boasted a Faithless DJ-set for the ravers on the grass below. A last return to Caravanserai saw another set from My Baby this time, more intimate and with an exploding raving audience, all jumping for space and ‘rocking together’, whilst the Slow Motion Stage in the Ambient Land – found via a forest walk – played an exotic mix of afro-tropical beats and a little of everything, for everyone’s tastes.
The Castle Stage opened with L.A. Salami, who seemed somewhat lack-lustre, nervous, or both. The audience seemed more tempted by the array of food stalls surrounding the stage during the extreme heat that joined the opening set. This was quite the juxtaposition to the explosive Songhoy Blues from Mali that followed, bringing their rock’ n’ roll version of desert blues to the stage. With sounds akin to surfer rock, the band took no time in filling the field with dancing, jumping, singing festival goers. The set was led by frontman Garba Touré who, in turn, led the audience in following his energetic dancing to strange aerobic, chicken moves that had the audience on their feet and laughing. it was a great set to start a festival day. In between sets on the Castle Stage, a promotional video by Amnesty International played a few times. I appreciated the urge of activism.
The energy remained high at the Castle Stage with British dub mavericks Gentleman’s Dub Club roared to the stage singing ‘Music Is the Girl I Love’, playing vivacious dub music on their drum kit, cocktail drums, brass section and various guitars and vocals. Lead singer Jonathan Scratchley was literally unable to stop running around the stage with all his energy. They played all their crowd-pleasing classics including ‘High Grade’, ‘Rudeboy’ and ‘Fire’.
The House of Vans showcased some brilliant talent throughout the weekend, including an 80s style indie band with some nice harmonies. The stage hosted freebie events throughout, including screen printing hats and bum bags for Van’s lovers to queue for, as well as offering free hair braiding every day that beat the going £20 price tag of nearby stalls.
Craig Charles played his fine selection of funk and soul in Stacey’s Bar, which was by far the grooviest discotheque in the festival; a sure firestop for any groove seeking dancers. Plan B on the Castle Stage, although great fun and with the classics, left one questioning if perhaps Plan B’s weight loss had majorly affected his vocals – each note seemed strained and awkward – however, he delivered a satisfying ‘She Said’ to an eager crowd that noticeably thinned after the chart-topping tune. It was also noticed that there were a number of technical difficulties on the Castle Stage throughout the weekend, with artists seen messing with their earpieces and gesturing for mixing edits during performances, so perhaps there was some struggle there.
Sunday evening saw legendary South London resident and Sri Lankan immigrant M.I.A. storm the stage with her unapologetic rude-girl act, playing songs packed full of ‘F yous’ to the powers that be, and her provocative politics surrounding issues of refugees, immigration, borders and Trump. M.I.A’s performance was fully immersive with dancers, a hype gal, and amazing visuals to fit in with all of the above. It seemed all of the festival was in attendance, watching, loving, and being educated.
Before I comment on the last part of the festival, it must be said that whilst speaking to a variety of people – musicians and artists, backstage workers, press, straight up festival goers – it was reflected that there were numerous issues with staff attitude, security and general organisation. It seemed a fair few people had their experiences dampened because of these vibes.
Bestival’s ‘Biggest Finale’ ever seemed somewhat to miss the mark whilst impatient ravers poured from the feisty M.I.A’s set to watch a good 40 minutes of tightrope walking in a romantic depiction of two long lost lovers seemingly going to and fro on a tightrope, accompanied by a choir that one could see, but could not always hear. The show was really beautiful, but it didn’t quite seem like an appropriate finale to an electronic music festival, especially with the act ending on a very strange note, something rarely felt at a music festival; silence, as the stages paused for the finale of fireworks. The situation felt a little off and confusing for sure. ‘What is this? I need music’ could be heard rippling through the awkward and confused crowds.
However, once released from the finale display, a Sunday highlight for me was certainly popping into Caravanserai for one last gander to discover Caravaña Sun playing their stunning fusion of Fat Freddy’s Drop-inspired progressive dub reggae and ska. Each song provided irresistible grooves that demanded funk faces. The varied band journeyed up and down through vibes and had the audience in the palm of their hands. They also earned the only encore I saw throughout the entire festival, and I was thoroughly impressed with what I would call the ‘dark horse’ of the entire festival: their shy and timid keys player, who occasionally left from behind the shelter of his keyboard and blossomed into the most emotional, soulful and stunning trumpet solos, which absolutely exploded with energy, yet were haunting in tone, and were performed often shyly to the drummer and not the audience. He would then quietly sink back behind the keys as though nothing had happened. The band had an ongoing sing-along chant that lasted far longer than any other I have witnessed this season, perhaps seven minutes worth of audience-driven singing. Caravaña Sun were the unexpected treat; the real finale of the festival for me.
The Most Colourful Festival in the World
In terms of theme, Bestival stood strong, however, this could arguably be more down the effort of the participants, in all their glittery, fairy wing, peace and love glory. Costumes boasted imagination, rainbows for days, and certainly as many colours as possible. The Bestival programmes were also well coloured, however badly manufactured as they were loosely connected and thus easily lost, causing much frustration after spending nearly £10 on it. The graphics throughout the festival were consistent, colourful and fun, yet simple and effective.
Stacey’s Bar particularly stood out with stylish and groovy 60s inspired posters that were the only graphics to break into the festival’s merchandise collection. Each evening, a similar selection of classics could be heard from a variety of the dance tents, such as Stardust’s- ‘Music Sounds Better With You’, Sister Sledge’s ‘Thinking Of You’, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Sexy Back’. A disco dance could be found at almost any given point, finely in keeping with the festival theme.
Overall Bestival was boastful, colourful and fun-filled with a reasonable variety of music, however not for those not inclined to dance or electronic music.
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