Neverworld brought out the bright and the beautiful over a sun-drenched three days on John Darling's Farm in Kent. In now the twelfth year of what was formerly known as LeeFest, Neverworld and its 'three immersive realms' played host to a plethora of acts in a variety of venues to the delight of a free-spirited and totally chilled out crowd.
The balance of headline acts and up and coming musical talent mixed with a sense of exuberant theatrical panache obviously appeals to everyone's need to let go, dress up and have some unadulterated fun. There were more mermaids and mermen spotted across the weekend than you'd expect to see at a Disney convention as well as the odd kilt, Banana Man, King Neptune and lots of crocodiles. There were hen parties, painted dogs in pirate outfits and pimped up kids' festival wagons all over the farm. Parasols were de rigueur, glitter a must, something neon a necessity and clothing, at times, seemingly just an optional extra.
The three day festival started on Thursday as people eased themselves into the weekend with an opening party topped out by a performance from Hollie Cook. There was a carnival atmosphere in the circus tent right from the get go with GIRLI giving a lively, somewhat haphazard, set that included new song 'Pink' as well as her better known songs 'Day Month Second' and 'Hot Mess'. Childcare were up next with Ed looking like he'd just stepped off a five-a-side pitch just in time to perform. An altogether tighter performance ensued from the London-based four-piece with a great delivery of 'Magazines' as well as the vaguely reggae infused 'Put Down Your Pen'.
Hollie, after a soundcheck that took an age and an apology to the crowd that she'd not in fact been abducted by aliens, appeared on the circus tent stage to round off a great first night of live performances. Opening with her latest album's opening track 'Angel Fire', she struck up a connection with her audience immediately. The laid-back beats and chilled out vibe were perfect for the balmy summer's evening and there were chants of 'Hollie, Hollie, Hollie' ringing around the tent as the chaps from Childcare came back out to enjoy Cook's show. Hollie's very own blend of Tropical Pop washed over the mesmerised crowd in waves of gloriously arranged rhythms. 'Tiger Balm', and best of all, 'Milk And Honey' capped off a fabulous first night.
The Mermaids Lagoon, including it's very own mini Miami Beach, entertained revellers well into the early hours as cries of 'Oggy, oggy, oggy, oi, oi, oi' were heard emanating as a call and response from the Art Deco inspired DJ booth. The dance amphitheatre was a triumph of design with its golden sand 'dancefloor' and three-tiered platforms. As the bumper cars banged and whirred away, the UV party in The Rainbow Rooms saw in a new day.
As the sun rose and the planes overhead became ever more frequent, the camping fields once again sprang into life with the sound of children playing and bacon sizzling. The few remaining heavy sleepers that can snore their way through anything could be heard intermittently as they provided the early bass beat to the morning. The temperature was in the mid-twenties even before the festival site opened and was only set to rise throughout another scorching day.
All of Neverworld opened up on Friday as the festival where 'you never have to grow old' got into full swing. On the Fortress Stage in the Neverwoods, four men from Norwich got things off to a cracking start. The Isla's delivered a punchy set that included a nice thank you to Lee Denny for putting on an as yet unsigned band. 'Control' and 'Generations To Forget' showcased their own material deftly whilst their cover of Dua Lipa's 'New Rules' was an inspired choice. The Burrito Boys were already doing a roaring trade and the Elderflower Cider was free flowing in Tinkerbell's Tap House as the three realms of Neverland got ever busier.
Streatham's finest, Ferris And Sylvester, got toes tapping and arms clapping Icelandic style on the main stage with songs about arguing with your partner and even a song dedicated to the front of stage staff; 'You Look Better In Yellow'. Over at Skull Ridge, the Hooks Rock tent had opened to cater for those seeking out a heavier, altogether dirtier sound than those of their more polished, immediate and commercial contemporaries. For what was to become a theme of thanks over the two days, locally-based band Orestea, like many other bands, thanked those that endured the stifling heat of the tent to witness a performance. "Thanks for standing in this disgusting tent with us, I've never felt like this before", said lead singer Lisa before giving an electrifying performance of their song 'Elements'.
Over In the Neverwoods, there was a very interactive, amusing and lively performance from The Lottery Winners that included an offer to buy someone's Burberry shirt followed by a lewd suggestion on enquiring about the price (£250 was a bit steep for a shirt even if it was a Burberry! But I'm pretty sure the combined follow-up offer was not a very PC one). We also got to share in the knowledge that the third most attractive man on the stage had wanted a poo all the way down from Manchester (knowledge is not always a good thing) before the band closed out their set with a great version of (crowd chosen) 'Pillows'.
In the circus tent the mood was rather less boisterous but nonetheless enjoyable. Taking us through her post break-up woes, in a Daughter meets London Grammar kinda way, was Fenne Lily and her band. Fenne gave an airing to tracks from her stunning debut album 'On Hold' whilst giving us the back story to each. Starting with a stirring 'What's Good', through an emotive 'Car Park' and even more emotionally charged 'Three Oh Nine' (the date her boyfriend left her), Fenne captivated her audience with her beautiful and beguiling vocal. Penultimately, and already "looking forward to the vodka from her dressing room", she played out a terrific take on the title track of her album before finishing the eight-track set on a high with 'For A While'. The quality in the circus tent was maintained with a strong, tight set from Glasgow's LUCIA. The layered guitar sound and pulsating percussion lit up the tent with more of a raw and explosive energy as Lucia Fontaine and her band treated the crowd to So-Cal flavoured 'When I Think Of You', a fully charged 'Saturday Is Dead' and finally a moody and magnificent 'Melted Ice Cream'.
As the day slowly started to cool just a little and the cold lager began to taste just a little sweeter, an act previously off my musical radar sprang into life on the main stage. As charismatic frontmen go, you'd be hard-pushed to find one more engaging and entertaining than Jeremy Loops. The South African who'd "come along way to be here today" was in fine form and a brilliant addition to the line-up. The crowd grew ever bigger with each song as Jeremy and his band pulled everyone in and made a clear connection. 'Sinner' and 'Shore' were clear favourites and his sing-a-long, looped crowd participation finale a festival triumph.
To the delight of the gathering masses as the sun started to slowly set, Declan McKenna took to the Fortress stage ahead of tonight's headline act. In his new jacket that he was obviously very happy with, Declan performed old and new material as he captivated those, especially of a more youthful demographic, before him. "Always good advice at a festival", McKenna said as he set about 'Listen To Your Friends', the last track from his 2017 album.
We were witness to "narcissism live on stage accompanied by entry level Rock N Roll" according to Declan as he undersold himself. 'Isombard' and 'Bethlehem' rang out across the Neverwoods field as the dancing began to become infectious. 'Paracetamol' was a crowd-pleasing favourite and newer track 'Be An Astronaut' too made for a very entertaining set.
The heavy beats were still pounding out in The Goldmine as the Bristol-biased, bassline heavy sound system delivered some seriously tectonic, shape-shifting tunes which brilliantly warped and played out at ear splitting volume. The eclectic Cabaret was in full swing over at Gentleman Starkeys and it was still incredibly hot in the Hooks Rock tent. You could find a more mellow, Folksy, and altogether fresher atmosphere, albeit one with an exotic tobacco scent, deep in the woods at the Wendy House and the beach party over at the lagoon was still in full flight as Friday became Saturday.
As a new day of entertainment began it was the turn Lissy Taylor to light up the main stage and get the day underway. Lissy's blend of Country-infused music has an element of The Staves and First Aid Kit about it but can also clearly be traced back to her love of Johnny Cash. From Stoke-On-Trent via Kentucky and Manchester, Lissy returned, having played last year, to Neverworld with her band. 'Back Seat Of A Daydream', 'High' and, to end her set, highlight 'Wild Flowers' was an early treat for all those that managed to catch her. Not to be outdone, Call Me Loop delivered an equally impressive, very polished performance shortly afterwards. Regretting her decision to wear Ski pants and boots was the only low point of an otherwise flawless performance that deserved to be higher up the bill. Georgia Buchanan has been described as a 'pop queen in waiting' and it's not hard to see why. Tinged with a Hip-Hop vibe and with a full on Pop sensibility Call Me Loop has every chance of troubling the charts with her soulful slant. Singing songs about break-ups and revenge as well as throwing MJ's 'Human Nature' into the mix worked supremely well. Although 'Give n' Take' and 'Maybe I'm A Liar' were top tunes, it was the upbeat tempo and freshness of 'Love The Lie' that stood out on the day.
Saturday gave rise to many other highlights including an impromptu mud slide for the kids, the paint fight at Miami Beach in the Mermaids Lagoon and over in Tinkerbell's Taphouse, a proper pub quiz. While Elvana, the Elvis fronted Nirvana tribute act, held his crowd transfixed with his take on classic tunes about twenty teams, including The Quizlamic State, battled it out in the drinks tent to be crowned quiz champs. You're A Quizard Harry came close as festival goers guessed, amongst other tricky things, the number of flamingos in the lake, the number of bands at the first LeeFest and the number of acts performing over the three days. The eventual winners, I think, were the brilliantly named Quiz Akabusi. Meanwhile. Elvana sang on, no doubt whilst Elvis Aaron and Kurt were spinning in their respective graves.
A fake northerner, born down the road in Canterbury, was another early evening joy in the form of Lucy Spraggan. Lucy entertained all before her with her little anecdotal ditties and her heartfelt and witty songs. With a song dedicated to her Mum about just how right she'd been ('Dinner's Ready'), a moving story to head up 'Tea And Toast' and a Kate Nash like jamboree in the form of 'Last Night (Beer Fear)', Lucy was a hit with the growing crowd. We Are Scientists weren't far behind her. Having "misinterpreted the costume memo" and "come as a casual businessman", the Scientists whipped up the crowd with the rockiest main stage set of the festival so far. With a sound at times akin to The Arctic Monkeys, We Are Scientists rocked out with 'I Don't Bite', 'It's A Hit' and closed a set delivered at break neck speed by arguably their best song to date, 'Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt'.
Tom Grennan was the penultimate act on the main stage prior to Saturday's headline act. He was disappointed by two things; he hadn't had time to iron his shirt and he couldn't play for longer. Aside from that, his was a terrific performance. 'Royal Highness' kicked off proceedings admirably as Tom played court to the Mermaids, the mums and the merry. There was an instant sense that Saturday's party had just been turned up a notch and that a celebratory, joyous euphoria was in the Kent air. The atmosphere was as heady as the evening's weather as Tom sang his heart out with great takes on 'Aboard', 'Barbed Wire' and 'Lighting Matches'. 'Sober' got the crowd dancing and jumping and then finally he sealed the show with the almost anthemic 'Found What I've Been Looking For'.
Neverworld was not just about the variety and mixture of entertainment on offer or the realms in which to explore it. The numerous DJs, bands, artists and performers all contributed enormously to the enjoyment of the festival but it was the two headline acts on Friday and Saturday that helped elevate it to another level. As with many other acts, both of this year's headliners were returning to the festival that they had played at in previous years. Clean Bandit and Bastille both gave stand-out performances on each night. The polished chart-topping pop of Clean Bandit is hard to resist with its hook-laden melodies and dance inflections whilst Bastille just seem to be able to write, produce and perform very well written and compelling songs with consummate ease.
Friday's performance by Clean Bandit encompassed a sixteen song set that never let the crowd drop. From the opening segue of 'Symphony' and 'Real Love' to the close-out, pyrotechnically enhanced encore 'Rather Be', Clean Bandit whipped up the huge crowd with hit after hit. 'I Miss You' and 'Rockabye' sounded fantastic in the open air and the spliced 'Pieces Of You/Lady' mix was pulled off superbly. I'm not sure I can vouch for the legitimacy of the 'live' cello and violin playing but it didn't matter really. Clean Bandit put on a dazzling show, a piece of theatre and a touch of showmanship. The vocals sounded great and the performance was fit to headline any festival.
Saturday's finale on the main stage proved to be even more impressive. Bastille and, in particular, lead singer Dan Smith stole the show, the night, the day and the festival with a very memorable performance. Starting off with 'Good Grief', 'Blame' and 'Icarus', the band were on fire barely taking a moment to catch a breath. Dan was jumping on his elevated stage blocks for all he was worth and brought the crowd with him too. The light show to accompany the music was magnificent. The supersonic illuminations at the start of 'Warmth' were just awesome and the symbiotic arrangements just dazzling in their technical complexity. 'Of The Night', 'Flaws' and 'Things We Lost In The Fire' were incredible set highlights. At one point Dan even dropped down into the crowd to take the furthest walk from the stage I've ever witnessed, and all the time still singing. He knocked himself down as a bad frontman that couldn't converse properly with his audience but he was doing himself a massive injustice. The crowd loved every minute of Bastille's performance, including the very fine rendition, reserved for the encore, of the ever popular 'Pompeii'.
Neverworld has almost become a metaphor for realising dreams, showing what can be achieved if you try hard enough and is a shining beacon of light to anyone vaguely thinking about making their dream become a reality. Neverworld really is the definition of the phrase: 'From little acorns grow mighty oaks'. From a back garden of friends to a farm of five thousand people ready to party is a success story you can't help but love. The whole atmosphere across the three days was incredible and a real joy to have experienced.