Bestival arrives at a funny old time – a few days after the Electric Picnic we’re still finding bruises, chasing lost sleep and scraping muck off our boots, while packing for the last big hurrah of the festival season. And we really can’t kid ourselves that mid-September is still summer – two days before Bestival begins, a mate who’s working on the site tells us he’s been sent home for the night because it’s too “dangerous” to work in the Biblical winds. The Isle of Wight has also been given a hurricane warning, or maybe it’s a tornado. Anyway, it’s supposed to be one of those ill winds that could suck up a tent Wizard of Oz-style so we book a hotel in Ryde, the quaint seaside town that serves as the ferry port, after the red-eye journey from Dublin to Gatwick to Portsmouth to Ryde Pier on a wobbly catamaran.
Some 50,000 punters descend on the Isle of Wight every year for Bestival , and by 2pm on the Thursday, queues of wellied-up festival heads are already snaking up Ryde Pier waiting for taxis and shuttle buses, doing a supermarket sweep for booze and gorging on stomach-lining fish and chips. The festival was set up by Radio 1’s Rob Da Bank as one of the first so-called ‘boutique’ festivals in 2004, around the time of Electric Picnic. The annual pilgrimage to Robin Hill Country Park has the same magnetic pull as Stradbally for discerning music fans who aren’t too precious – you won’t find the Saturdays or Black Eyed Peas on the bill, but with 600 or so acts over 18 stages there’s plenty of mainstream or novelties like Kelis or the Village People (!), as an aside to your forays into the Ambient Forest to chin-stroke along to Ulrich Schnauss or learn transcendental meditation from the David Lynch Foundation. Over the weekend, punters can go to country barn dances, learn polka, practice yoga, watch the English National Ballet, get steamboats in a pub with dwarf bar staff, climb a Wishing Tree straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth or attempt a world record for the most people in one place in their underpants. These daft distractions definitely lead you astray and piss all over your muso credentials. On one occasion while we’re supposed to be at Nosaj Thing, we’re being chased by a bouncer for sneaking into the Roller Disco to watch hip-hop eejits Goldie Lookin’ Chain – but we’re really trying to gatecrash a warm-up by 90s keep-fit ‘guru’ Mr Motivator. You wouldn’t get these capers at Primavera. Of course this year’s main draw is The Cure – playing their only European show in 2011, and Bjork’s only outdoor show in the world this year. Apparently Rob Da Bank had been knocking on these two heroes’ doors for years.
The Thursday of Bestival was once a night to pitch your tent, acclimatise to your warm cans and tick off your must-sees with a highlighter, but in recent years it’s morphed into a proper night on the line-up. Comeback ‘kings’ The La’s send punters back to the (still shite) sounds of 1990 indie with ‘There She Goes’, and the Red Bull Music Academy stage and the Bandstand are open for lesser-known electronic acts and local bands. The Big Top hosts some heavy-hitters this time, and it’s where State camps for most of the first night, in between sneaky paella and pints, turning full-blown hippy at the sight of the mist and lights on Robin Hill, and those convoluted text meet-ups with mates that always verge on a ruckus. We also have to thank the Wight Druids who blessed the site in a ceremony earlier – the rain has stayed away (for the time being).
Wall of Sound label founder Mark Jones once again curates this year’s Back to the Phuture showcase in the Big Top, with electro pioneers rubbing shoulders with young upstarts well into the early hours. Eighties synth-pop heroes Blancmange are touring their first album in 26 years, Blanc Burn, and singer Neil Arthur isn’t making a show of himself at all – looking like your cool uncle who hasn’t quite lost it, bouncing around in a tight t-shirt, belting out those deadpan quirky lines like it’s still 1985. The techno stomp of ‘Drive Me’ and the brooding ‘I’m Having a Coffee’ are new tracks that stand up well, but they get the biggest cheer for the sitar-synth riffs in their huge 1985 hit ‘Living on the Ceiling’ and the classic ‘Feel Me Now’, which still sounds like proto-Ministry before Al Jourgensen turned the metal up to 11.
Santigold has always been a conundrum for me. I’ve usually given her slick robo-reggae and big pop choruses a wide berth at festivals, ignoring everyone’s foaming-at-the-mouth praise, but as she pirouettes around the Big Top wearing a crown, high-fiving cheerleaders and bringing a pantomime horse on stage, she’s made an ass of me within a half-hour. The rude girl riot of ‘Creator’ and the punked-up ‘L.E.S. Artistes’ is the first real Bestival kick-off moment, and her rework of Major Lazer’s ‘Hold the Line’ is two fingers to my unfounded reservations. Bestival round one to Santigold then.
New York disco dons Hercules and Love Affair have a tough job following Santigold, and the extended jams on newer tracks from Blue Songs like ‘Falling’ and ‘Classique’ did less off a job here than the last time I caught them at the Picnic in 2009, when their first album was flavour of the month. Still, Andrew Butler’s troupe of dancers and Shaun Wright in his Pharoah hat and ‘BUTCH QUEEN ROGUE FEMME’ t-shirt could give Grace Jones a run for her money at Studio 54, especially when they drop the mighty ‘Blind’ from 2008 – still one of the best singles in years.
So it’s a relatively quiet night on the Isle of Wight, apart from the Big Top’s compere Mark Jones in head-to-toe shocking pink, roaring his appreciation as mash-up maestro Richard X and ‘Planet Rock’ pioneer Arthur Baker tag team between the live acts, spinning classic house, electro and techno, sending us home at the half-respectable time of 2am. It’s a meandering stroll past people climbing on top of the the luminous green Psychedelic Worm, the loved-up heads at the glowing pop art hearts and the odd panned-out chalk-line cases who’ve indulged a wee bit too early. Tomorrow’s another day, but with thousands of people roaring, “all back to my tent,” you just never know.