Review of Bestival 2011 held at Robin Hill Country Park, Isle Of Wight from 8-12 September

With so many festivals to choose from nowadays, it's so easy for many of the line-ups to mirror each other and therefore engender a monotonous air of familiarity in the process. Indeed, glancing through many bills up and down the UK this summer has passed for little more than a consultative exercise in déjà vu, so similar are many of the acts on offer all the way up to those claiming headline status. Thank the Lord then for Bestival, the Rob Da Bank curated shindig situated on a remote country park in the picturesque confines of the Isle Of Wight. Despite only launching the event seven years ago, its eclectic music policy coupled with an almost unequivocal anti-corporate stance not to mention rampant quirkiness mirroring the halcyon days when Glastonbury really was a free festival and its easy to see why Bestival has emerged as one of the key dates on the UK's summer calendar.


Despite having increased its capacity from a miniscule 10,000 in 2004 to 55,000 this year, Bestival can still boast at being one of the few events to sell out of all its tickets well in advance. Aside from the music on offer, and this year's line-up really did stand out from the crowd pretty much anywhere you'd care to mention, there's an array of other activities such as Saturday's fancy dress party where the theme for 2011 was rock stars, pop stars and divas. Add such oddities as The Underground Restaurant, Arcadia light show and Ambient Forest as well as performances from the English National Ballet, a roller disco and even a crazy golf course and it only tells a fraction of the story why Bestival is arguably the best of them all.

Having arrived onsite around teatime on the Thursday, Contactmusic is dismayed to realise The Las are playing in the Big Top just as we're about to finish pitching our tent. Fortunately, we manage to catch the sarcastic synth pop of Lancastrians Blancmange which flatlines for the first fifteen minutes before reaching its peak on the sublime 'Living On The Ceiling' and 'Blind Vision'. Although a lot of the site is closed at present due to the adverse weather of the past few days - Thursday is seen as more of a "pre-show" rather than part of the main festival itself - there's a fair old riot going off in front of Santigold's M.I.A.-plays-pop schtick. Although not Santi White's biggest fan on record, there's something heart-warmingly pleasing about her overly energetic set, and 'L.E.S. Artistes' raises the sweatbox level one extra notch.

Having spent the rest of the evening boogying away to eighties rave classics to The Disablists and Crazy P in the ornate wooden creation known as The Spiegeltent, we surprise ourselves in rising bright and breezy the next morning to catch Yuck open the main stage to a surprisingly large crowd. Although still visibly shy on stage, the London-based four-piece play a near flawless set of slacker rock that matches the belligerent mood of those hungover in the midday sun.

Later, Cut Copy provide a much-needed bout of limb loosening ambience to proceedings, even if their afternoon slot of 3:20pm feels perhaps a little too early. However, 'Lights & Music' reminds all and sundry why their Hot Chip meets MGMT groove thang is so contagious, such is the prowess of its execution. Meanwhile, over on the main stage, Beach Boy extraordinaire Brian Wilson puts in a more than feasible claim for Back Catalogue Of The Weekend such is the effortlessly endearing quality of his set. Nevertheless, while its always a pleasure to hear the likes of 'Good Vibrations', 'Barbara Ann' and 'Fun Fun Fun' whatever the time, place or day, Contactmusic are even more impressed at the fact he managed to cram what must be anywhere between twenty and thirty band members up on the stage with him without even the faintest signs of claustrophobia setting in.

Continuing the eclectic theme are Public Enemy, who mix the sublime and ridiculous in a way no one else manages over the course of the entire weekend. 'Don't Believe The Hype' and 'Fight The Power' still sound as super-charged and threatening as they did when first released nearly twenty-five years ago, while Flavor Flav's claim at having lost his virginity when just six years old has us chortling and spluttering more in disbelief than anything else. Nottingham five-piece Dog Is Dead have enjoyed something of a rousing summer this year having slayed many a festival with their intelligent, quirky guitar pop, and their performance in the excellently named Psychedelic Worm tent is no different. While 'River Jordan' and 'Young' are received like old friends at a school re-union, its newer songs like forthcoming 45 'Hands Down' that have us hot under the collar. The main stages of 2012 await.

Mazes slacker pop seems quite out of place on the normally buzzing Sailor Jerry stage and we head back to the Worm in need of a desperate dance fix. This is provided and so much more by the excellent Asian Dub Foundation, a collective written off by many almost a decade ago after 'Community Music' briefly dented the mainstream charts. Reinvigorated here, 'Real Great Britain' and 'Fortress Europe' bring the house down, literally, and we feel humbly apologetic for any band that has to follow suit. That dubious honour belongs to Los Campesinos! and despite their shambolic lo-fi pop being totally out of kilter with what came before, they emerge triumphant against all odds, the closing triplet of 'You! Me! Dancing!', 'The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future' and 'Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks' culminating in both band and audience ending in numerous sweaty heaps on and off stage. By this point, suitably lubricated and physically drained, we scuttle off to bed eagerly awaiting what Saturday holds in store.

Wandering around the site early doors we catch the last five minutes of The Cure's soundcheck whilst waiting for Mr Motivator to motivate us, which he effectively does. The now familiar tones of Dionne Bromfield don't seem to have the same effect on those that have made the effort to see her in the Big Top judging by the less than impressive turn out, which we calculate as having barely left double figures. Monumentally excited by a rare outing from industrial shoegazers Cranes, the soundman has other ideas as two songs pass before he realises singer Alison Shaw's vocal monitors aren't turned on. When they do finally get into their stride the five-piece resonate ethereal beauty in droves, 'Adoration' and 'Jewel' standing out like impeccably dressed soldiers about to enter the field of battle.

Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip also like a confrontation every now and then, and their politicised rants set to Casio programme beats have drawn a surprisingly large crowd to the Big Top, which brims over at the sides with people in all manner of fancy dress costumes from Rolf Harris and Lemmy to Slipknot and several GaGas and Slash's to boot. They play the one that lists about thirty artists as being "Just a band". We leave gracefully for the main stage where Katy B is about to make her entrance. Again, having seen Miss Brien grow as a live performer at various events throughout the summer, Bestival should be a breeze and yet her early afternoon slot on the main stage feels beset by nerves.

The arrival of Village People complete with de rigueur G.I., police officer, construction worker, native American, biker and cowboy outfits matches the days fancy dress theme to a tee, not to mention bringing a spot of communal karaoke thanks to 'Go West' and 'YMCA', which must be watched by at least 9/10s of the entire site's population. Gaggle's short but sweet set in the Rizlab reminds us why they were one of 2010's bright young hopes while legendary hip hop DJ-cum-producer Grandmaster Flash plays a set on the turntables that reminds us of Nottingham Rock City on a Thursday night, Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' followed by The White Stripes 'Seven Nation Army' then Blur's 'Song 2'. Bizarre.

Over on the Sailor Jerry stage, Wolf Gang do an impressive take on Roxy Music and ABC in equal measure while David Rodigan's fiery performance behind the decks in the sweaty Bollywood Arena packs a history lesson in the development of roots, ska and dub into ninety action packed minutes. We catch the end of PJ Harvey's set, mainly because we feel obliged to having witnessed her graciously crowned 2011 Mercury Music Prize winner earlier in the week and she does not disappoint, ending with a resounding blast from the past in 'Meet Ze Monsta' from 1995's 'To Bring You My Love'.

As exclusive headliners go, there aren't many that fit such a description in the same way as tonight's closing showpiece. One has to go back to early 2008 for the last time The Cure played a show of any kind on UK soil, and even further to 2004 for their last festival appearance in Britain, so their slot at the top of the bill this evening was always destined to be a special event. Two-and-half hours and 32 songs (including 12, yes TWELVE during the encore) later and Contactmusic along with the other 40,000 or so spectators can unashamedly claim to have witnessed one of the greatest live performances they're ever likely to see. Now a four-piece of Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Roger O'Donnell and Jason Cooper, they trawl through their back catalogue with impeccable poise and grace, hardly any stone or era left unturned. Highlights come and go almost immediately, but that closing whammy of 'Lullaby' into 'The Lovecats' into 'The Caterpillar' then 'Close To Me', 'Hot Hot Hot', 'Let's Go To Bed' and 'Why Can't I Be You?' before 'Boys Don't Cry' introduces part two of an encore that is completed by 'Killing An Arab' really will take some beating by anyone. Ever.

Completely overwhelmed by such a fantastic set, there's still time to take in Primal Scream and for the first hour their magnificent reappraisal of 'Screamadelica' almost in its entirety ('Shine Like Stars' is absent this evening) provides a mesmerising ending to what has been a glorious evening's worth of entertainment.

Fully re-charged for the final day, Margate's Two Wounded Birds are a sprightly wake up call that marries the best bits of C86 era jangle pop with The Cramps filthiest eulogies. Sadly, former tour buddies The Drums don't quite hit the same heights on the main stage despite their best efforts, largely due to a swirling wind that carries the sound in various directions causing Jonathan Pierce's vocal to resemble the intermittent signal of a radio transmitter. Backed by only a DJ and live drummer, the odds on Kelis also falling flat on her face are stacked fairly high, and when the opening ten minutes of her set fails to deliver anything truly remarkable we're caught in two minds whether to leave. Thankfully, we choose the safer option of staying put and when 'Trick Me' finds itself mashed up with Madonna's 'Holiday' and 'Milkshake' and 'Acapella' become intersected with yet another blast of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' the front of the main stage resembles one giant dancefloor.

Having missed every opportunity to see the return of Big Audio Dynamite this year for various reasons, its probably quite poignant that when I do finally witness them in the flesh, Mick Jones only goes and announces their Bestival show as probably being their last. Just a shame that very few others are there to see it too, as they radiate a joyous enthusiasm sadly lacking from many of today's generation of musical ensembles. Traipsing around from pillar to post documenting the weird and the wonderful, John Grant's tear jerking set in the Psychedelic Worm and Dimbleby & Capper's bizarre rendition of The Crystals 'And Then He Kissed Me' stand out for reasons at opposite ends of the scale.

Parity restored, The Maccabees performance on the main stage is head and shoulders above the one they dished out only a month earlier at Leicester's Summer Sundae Weekender. Undoubtedly due to the new material they play becoming more familiar with both band and audience alike, not to mention them deciding to bow out on a high with 'First Love', 'X Ray', 'Precious Time' and 'No Kind Words' ensuring they receive an elongated round of applause when they exit.

Stockton-On-Tees five-piece The Chapman Family seem destined to be saddled with the tag also-rans forever, and yet for anyone that's heard their music or witnessed them live such apathetic disdain is normally met with a curt "Why?" Here, on a bandstand stage mostly reserved for acoustic artists of a folk persuasion, their spittle infused post-punk noise rock is a joy to behold. 'Something I Can't Get Out' and 'All Fall' go for the jugular from the outset, and even when they drop in a couple of unreleased numbers, frontman Kingsley Chapman is a visceral source of frustrated energy that cannot be ignored even for the slightest of seconds. By the end a considerable sized moshpit has emerged, and when closer 'Million Dollars' is introduced as "a song about murdering kids", various audience members clamber on stage while band members career off it. As highlights go, I guess you had to be there.

Covered in sweat and bruises, our next stop is the main stage via the bar where Robyn is just about to finish her set via an excellent rendition of 'With Every Heartbeat'. Almost immediately we're suitably informed by those around us that hers was also one of the best sets of the weekend. Damn clashes, although when you've as many as Bestival 2011 has, it's a sure-fire sign of a fantastic line-up.

Which brings us onto Sunday night's headliner, Bjork. Wearing a giant blue sailor's jacket and orange clown wig while doused in white clown make-up and backed by the 24-strong Icelandic Graduale Nobili choir, her stage laid out to look like a doll's house in space, the 'Biophilia' heavy set seemed too elaborate for many to take in, with people choosing her time to have a natter and catch up with friends instead. Which is a shame because the new songs aired this evening have the potential to be among her finest compositions to date, given a few more listens. Opener 'Thunderbolt' and the quaint operatics of 'Crystalline' set the scene daintily while 'Virus' and closer 'Mutual Core' add a more futuristic dimension, albeit via dubstep passages played out by Scott Snibbe, Bjork's only other accomplice on stage bar the aforementioned choir this evening. The loudest cheers are reserved for the encore where 'Hyperballad' and a climactic 'Declare Independence' bring her show to an end, culminating in Bestival's grand finale where fireworks light the sky and several giant white balls bounce intently across the site.

Afterwards, there's still time to catch DJ Shadow's career-spanning set in the Big Top and HEALTH's ear shredding combination of noise and electronic beats in the Psychedelic Worm. Both deliver in every possible way, with the former demonstrating why he's been held in such high regard for the past fifteen years while the latter bring this year's Bestival to a fittingly raucous conclusion.

As festivals go, Bestival really is up there with the very best. Bring on next year!

Dom Gourlay

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