FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL A FESTIVAL REVIEW
The iconic Isle of Wight Festival returns to Seaclose Park on 16 – 19 September 2021 after the Covid hiatus put paid to last year’s plans. In 2018, I had a break from Glastonbury as it was a fallow year when the Eavis family gave "the farm, the village and the festival team the traditional year off". I was delighted to be able to attend IOW that year and report on it. Although my IOW 2018 review has been on this site for over 3 years, the timing seemed right to dust it off again.
Like any live review, a festival review should take you there so let’s see if this one does. Among all the familiar names, you may also discover some music new from you and a favourite band who are sadly no longer together. You might need several cups of tea or something stronger to get through it. As a bonus, should you get to the end, our Fifty3 Fridays August Playlist awaits.
Back to the island. Here goes... dial set to June 2018...
However often you visit, you sense you’re taking a step back in time when you land on the Isle of Wight. The small, picturesque island harbours the gentle charm of British holiday resorts of yore, fundamentally with little change since the heady days of 1968 when it played host to its first rock festival. That year Jefferson Airplane headlined in front of a modest 10,000 crowd. The following year estimates of up to a quarter of a million saw Bob Dylan make his comeback appearance three years after a motorcycle accident put his career on hold. Then, with a Hall of Fame line-up in 1970 that included Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Joni Mitchell, The Doors and Leonard Cohen, an attendance touted at an apocryphal 600,000 brought an end to the festival on safety grounds.
It was halted until 2002 since when it has occupied an annual slot in the UK major festival calendar at its current home of Seaclose Park, just outside Newport. The 2018 version is framed by graphics that echo those early hippy, dippy days from font to imagery. With a menu of rock and pop acts that span generations from James Bay to Van Morrison, Camila Cabello to Nile Rodgers & Chic, IOW is a festival genuinely with something for everyone. Familiar big names plus a smattering of up and coming and less known acts made for a crowd-pleasing and mostly accommodating environment. There was a lot of rubbish of course but that was largely of the card, canned or plastic variety discarded in great quantities by the blasé throwaway generations who frequently populate these gatherings of humanity. More bins, and more obvious recycling stations would have helped but without collective responsibility it’s redolent of a losing battle; much like our current government and Brexit.
Photo by Maja Smiejkowska
While in grumpy old man mode I should also single out the vast numbers of people whose idea of a regular day out is to set up mini encampments of camping chairs in the large field in front of the main stage, rendering the simple act of crossing the field from east to west something of an obstacle course set within a maze. The north-south route, while clearer, also has its share of serpentine pathways. Getting on for 12 hours of main stage live music is interrupted by the day campers leaving their posts to join interminable queues for drinks and some food, or undertake Portaloo toilet training. Then there’s the frequent and daunting challenge of carrying of 4 pints back from the bar over the heads and sometimes down the bodies of camping chair city folk.
Enough of camping chairs. Let us spin back to Friday and the festival opener.
Arriving today, it was a surprise that the first act on the main stage wasn’t scheduled till 4pm. Maybe the Thursday arrivals needed a lie-in? It was well worth a wait though as Sheffield’s Bang Bang Romeo got proceedings off to an explosive start with a set of tunes the steel city would be proud of, honed by the considerable pipes of lead singer, Anastasia Walker. The band breezed through a blues-rock flavoured 8-song set, topped and tailed by “Baby Blue Bird” and their latest single, the euphoric “Adore Me”, which culminated somewhat logically in a noise fest. A sharp cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” also stood out.
Competing against the main stage and the Big Top, set at opposite ends of the main drag, there are a clutch of smaller stages offering diverse musical treats. One such today was brother-sister act from Melbourne, Belle Roscoe, who impressed with their brand of melodic rock, bringing sibling chemistry to both harmonies and guitar breaks. Changes in tempo kept things fresh and there is an immediacy to their material that clearly pleased a sun-baked crowd.
Established acts were then the order of the evening as Rita Ora, Nile Rodgers & Chic, The Script and Kasabian successively took the main stage, each bringing its own core audience to the front of stage; a kind of procession of younger - older - younger - diehard rockers. The downside of such crowd manoeuvres, exacerbated by the aforementioned camping chair hazards, led to some scary moments. The worst was post-Nile Rodgers as too many tried to leave the field by the main stage toilet area through the same gate that arrivals were negotiating. A potentially helpful gate to the right remained resolutely shut until some of the throng enacted a prison break on it. Thankfully the next day both gates were open.
After Rita Ora showed off her Croatian colours and nicely warmed things up with her classy pop tunes largely culled from forthcoming album ‘Phoenix’, Nile Rodgers & Chic played out a flawless crowd-pleaser of a set, bookended by Chic mega hits “Everybody Dance” and “Good Times”. The former invitation was hardly needed in a performance that showcased Rodgers’ work with Chic together with his incredible back catalogue of collaborations with the likes of Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Daft Punk and David Bowie. It was no surprise then that everyone was party-ready from the off. Slick and rehearsed to the split-second, cameos by Jerry Barnes (bass) and Ralph Rolle (drums) were yet delivered with deceptive spontaneity while singers Folami and Kimberly Davis were perfect vocal foils. Rodgers himself chucked along brilliantly, gluing the whole set together with his musicianship and stagecraft.
Photo by Maja Smiejkowska
By late evening it was time to close the main stage and Kasabian proved a glove-fit for the occasion. Heralded a touch pretentiously by “Nessun Dorma”, the Leicester lads delivered a characteristically storming headline set. Full-on and brash, with tassel-topped frontman Tom Meighan on great form despite a mention of hay fever and purple clad Serge Pizzorno in flamboyant mood, the band’s set mixed up electronic flourishes with core indie rock in a stream of anthemic tunes with choruses readily taken up as football chants. It was fitting that Pizzorno spotted Peter Crouch moshing along to the band’s final encore, “Fire”, imploring the towering ex-England player to ‘get down’. It was an intense set, peppered with crowd favourites from “Underdog” to “Vlad the Impaler” via “You’re in Love with a Psycho”. A suitably fulsome prelude of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” led into “L.S.F. (Lost Souls Forever)” with its irresistible hook in turn propelling three encores. You left, somewhat exhausted, with a real sense of band and crowd as one.
A Civilised Start to Saturday
Photo of Sophie-Rose/Paradisia by Maja Smiejkowska
OK, admission time. I was most looking forward to catch a much-loved band I still hadn’t seen live before (The Killers) and a personal favourite – Paradisia – who I had followed since reporting the band’s debut gig in the more cramped confines of The Waiting Room, Stoke Newington in May 2016. The trio of Sophie-Rose (vocals), Anna (harp, vocals) and Kristy (vocals, keyboard) blends striking singing and musicianship fused with enduring songwriting. There are tinges of the 70’s yet a truly modern and empowered veneer. Opening the Big Top stage at lunchtime, augmented by guitar, bass and drums, the band provided the perfect pick-me-up with choice cuts from its sumptuous debut album and two new songs, the rolling, laid-back “History” and infectious “Don’t Let Up”. Paradisia’s beautifully deconstructed cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” sounded as fresh and arresting as ever, while the acapella ending to “Silent Lover” was simply stunning.
Those who stayed on at the Big Top were then treated to a confident set from Rothwell, a young pop singer-songwriter hailing from Bristol. Creating standout in a market crowded with wannabe popsters is difficult but Ella Rothwell’s tuneful ear and commanding vocal gives her a decent head start. With songs like “Velvet Heart” and “Left Me at the Party”, she’s very much in tune with millennial sensibilities, while a torch song like “Darling” shows off shades of Adele in its undulating passion. Any young female performer could also pick up some useful stagecraft from watching Jessie J who worked and won over the main stage crowd soon after. The only issue may be that her earliest material – “Do It Like a Dude” and “Price Tag” – remains her strongest suit.
Photo by Maja Smiejkowska
Mid-afternoon found us in the VIP area near the main stage. These security-walled enclaves of social drinking at festivals are peculiar places. Most people act like they are at a BBQ where they might know a few people but oddly have to pay for drinks and food. The music is all a bit incidental to the drinking and chatter. I didn't see a lot of Shazaming going on here and ripples of polite applause from behind the VIP walls, when people can be arsed, don’t quite cut it in the committed music fan stakes. You also find yourself watching the big screens as much as the bit of stage you can glimpse. After a while the surprised look of girl-on-shoulders as she spots herself on screen wears a bit thin, though the picture quality throughout is dress sense sharp.
Still it was nice to get a break from navigating camping chair city to catch some acts from behind the VIP barriers. An interlude of sorts was provided giving a crowd, eagerly awaiting England’s World Cup game on Sunday, the chance to rehearse “Football’s Coming Home” as Peter Crouch - elevated to knighthood when introduced by festival chief John Giddings – came out to kick footballs into the throng. After moshing to Kasabian on Friday night, the ex-England star was later spotted cheering Liam Gallagher from the sidelines in the evening. He could well have stuck around for the next three main stage acts who presented something of an indie-rock sandwich. ready-made for sunny festival singalongs.
Kodaline has come a long way from when I first saw the Irish foursome playing the small but perfectly formed stage at London’s Sebright Arms in 2012. Sebright to Seaclose in six years can’t be bad and Kodaline duly delivered an assured set of familiar songs peppered with the odd newer cut. Frontman Steve Garrigan can muster an arching falsetto above a sweet mid-range and comfortably connects with the crowd. The tunes are stirring, melodic with goosebump moments, not least in the closing song, “All I Want”; a tune that probably did most to pitch the band into the mainstream via a YouTube tear-jerker. Rhythms and harmonies are rich and fulsome and when Mark Prendergast’s chiming lead guitar licks ring out there’s a real sense that the arena is now home from home for Kodaline.
Next up was Blossoms, a five-piece from Stockport who came to the fore with the release of its self-titled debut album in 2016 and celebrated by playing a slew of summer festivals. Majoring on radio-friendly indie, Blossoms delivered a pleasant enough set though it never seemed to reach any clear crescendo, even at its close when both the band’s sure-fire standouts "Getaway" and “Charlemagne" were delivered. Tom Ogden has an assured vocal range but a wee bit more in the dynamics department from the whole ensemble might have roused an increasingly horizontal vibe, triggered by the afternoon sun.
Photo of Tom Ogden/Blossoms by Maja Smiejkowska
Shorn of his long locks and Fedora, James Bay now affects slicked-back hair with an Elvis kiss curl. Indeed, a classic biker jacket amplified the early Elvis look though musically Bay’s renewed uptempo sound might cosy up closer to the likes of Bryan Adams. Bay can mix it up too. Opener “Pink Lemonade” with its rockabilly tones and husky vocal contrasted with the gospely “Wild Love” while there was still room for the crowd favourites “Let It Go” (this one of course nothing to do with Frozen) and storming closer, “Hold Back the River”. What Bay does have is a degree of charisma that makes him entirely watchable as a performer while his command of an audience is equally impressive. Try watching the last song live without singing “lonely water” back at the man.
Saturday evening on the main stage was owned by joint headliners, Liam Gallagher and Depeche Mode. It was time to leave the VIPs and dive back into the crowd for some close-up atmospherics. Gallagher’s set could be encapsulated in the way he was beamed on screen en route to the stage, striding with trademark swagger before announcing the opening song: “This one’s called Rock ‘n’ Roll Star ‘cos there's not many of us left.” The voice, the attitude and banter were all spot-on tonight, even allowing for a suspicion that the 46-year old is mellowing ever so slightly when he called out those responsible for a minor scuffle towards the front of the crowd; peace and love dispensed, Manc-style. Maybe they were rowing about whether Gallagher L should be playing Oasis songs at all. He should. We love them and he did them proud. He went on to dedicate “Whatever” to those ‘miserable c-words’ who disagree and indeed devoted two-thirds of his set to Oasis tracks. Of his solo material, the powerful ballad “For What it’s Worth” stood shoulder to shoulder with several of the Oasis classics. Perhaps it was a final dig at Noel to end the set with “Wonderwall” though.
Photo by Maja Smiejkowska
Depeche Mode was a bold choice to close the evening. The augmented electro-rock trio played a long set with no less than four encores and in truth it did lose some of the crowd during the first half. The majority who stayed witnessed a committed and often spectacular set, hallmarked by Dave Gahan’s theatrical frontman act which brought back memories of Freddie Mercury in his prime; just with more sweat ‘n’ sleaze though. After some 14 studio albums spanning 1981-2017, the band chose to open with the relentless intensity of “Going Backwards” from the most recent of those records, Spirit. Though technically impressive and with no lack of drama, the band struggled to penetrate beyond a committed core. The crowd’s disinterest in returning the chorus of “It’s No Good” should have been an early indication that perhaps the setlist needed a shuffle. Then again it might have been because too few knew the song.
Photo by Maja Smiejkowska
Notwithstanding, Dave Gahan is an electrifying performer and remained the focus of attention whether or not enough people were truly getting the music, ably supported by Martin Gore who was as watchable as Gahan and the solidity of keyboardist Andy Fletcher. The crowd’s response notched up a gear or two by song 10, the 1983 classic “Everything Counts” which seemed to hit the recognition button despite its age. Everything did indeed count in large amounts as Gahan at last heard lyrics sung back at him. The ominously sounding “Stripped” then led into a storming “Personal Jesus” and out through fan favourite, “Never Let Me Down Again”, all songs written by Martin Gore whose role in the band came more and more to the fore as the night progressed.
During the encores, Gore’s solo performance of the simply spellbinding “Somebody” totally enraptured the crowd. People around me were brought to tears as the universality of its theme of falling short while yearning for true love hit bullseye. Gahan equalised in a raucously extended version of arguably the Mode’s best-known song “Just Can’t Get Enough”. And after the aptly named “Enjoy the Silence”, that indeed was it.
Sunday Heat and 6-1 to England
There was no cessation of sun and so a leisurely start to Sunday morning was called for. England were kicking off a World Cup group match against lowly Panama at lunchtime at the Nizhny Novgorod stadium in Russia and also appearing on the big screen in a designated part of the IOW site, the ‘field of dreams.’ Mind you, for non-campers, it was too tempting to hang around your hotel foyer and watch the first half without a beer-throwing crowd around you. Some of whom, at the risk of upsetting the snowflake generation by pandering to racial stereotypes, reminds me of an old Glaswegian joke: “D’yer like camping, Jimmy? How’d you like to wake up in an oxygen tent then?”
Photo by David Jensen/PA Wire
By half-time, England were 5-0 up so the festival stage was calling. A mud-free festival now guaranteed, there was no call for wellies, even though a few were spotted today, but a panama hat might have come in useful so strong was the sunshine over Seaclose Park. In the absence of such headgear a trick was to get close enough to the main stage so that the sun was behind the stage canopy, or conversely hide in the Big Top at the other end of the field. The folk in camping chair city meanwhile were fine-tuning their lobster tans in direct sunlight.
We arrived to find augmented synth-pop duo Hurts, throwing white roses into the main stage crowd and sounding remarkably chilled in the circumstances, as it was working up to be the hottest day of the weekend. By now plastic cups of water appeared to be freely dispensed by bar staff alongside the stronger stuff; a health and safety initiative with an eco-downside given the paucity of bins and recycling opportunities. IOW 2018 had adopted a golden dress code to mark the festival’s 50th anniversary and most seemed to save their gilded glad rags for today, at the risk of some overheating. Hurts singer Theo Hutchcraft was getting into the spirit of things in a flashy gold lamé shirt though his heavily bearded and hatted sidekick, multi-instrumentalist Adam Anderson, looked like he’d just finished building the barn.
Next up, veteran of ten studio albums, Sheryl Crow showed age had scarcely impaired her in the 25 years since her solo debut. The one-time backing singer to Michael Jackson first broke through in her own right in 1993 with debut album Tuesday Night Music Club. Clad in star-spangled metallic blue and white moto jacket, and supported by a proficient band with guitarist Audley Freed prominent, the singer-guitarist fired off an opening salvo of memorable songs from her first three albums with the grungy “If It Makes You Happy” and bright “Everyday is a Winding Road” especially hitting the target. With references to Trump between songs – and as you can imagine coming from the liberal artiste, not favourable ones – Crow got political in song as well when premiering her St. Vincent collaboration, “Wouldn’t Want to be Like You”, in which she rails against greed and corruption, lies and confusion about the truth. Still it was a Sunday afternoon set to rival the Glastonbury ‘legends’ slot, full of warmth and colour, ably delivered and suitably tailed with a message of hope in “I Shall Believe” from her debut recording.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the appearance of 21-year old Cuban-American Camila Cabello precipitated something of an avalanche of teens towards the main stage front. Most known for her monster international hit “Havana”, there was still some fan recognition for tracks from her album, Camila, and a pleasant cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. That said, much of her set would have been completely new to the neutrals in the crowd. Cabello likes her homilies between songs and her words of female empowerment and self-belief put me in mind of her contemporary, Alessia Caro. Equally she is not slow to dish out profuse thanks and love – “in a year you’ve made my wildest dreams come true…” – and confessed it was a year to the day of her live solo debut. While the mind might have wandered during some of the material, her stage dancers kept you on board and Cabello herself, in her elaborately fluted gold blouse and high waisted trousers, was an engaging presence too. “Havana” of course was saved till the very end, proving that a new dog can learn old tricks as well.
Although Van Morrison was due on the main stage next, a trip to a much smaller platform was on the agenda. Indeed, Platform One Stage, curated by Platform One College of Music, the island’s independent, not-for-profit Music College to see London’s, Curse of Lono. The five-piece mixes alt-rock, gothic overtones and harmony-rich Americana into a rich potion with a distinctly Southern States, rather than South Circular, flavour. There’s a grand, at times cinematic feel to the music. The band has been prolific in its infancy, releasing successive albums in the last two years and presented select cuts from each of them in a concise set. Lead vocalist, Felix Bechtolsheimer, sings with conviction that belies his relaxed drawl, and is ably supported by sterling harmonies from keyboardist Dani Ruiz Hernandez (who interestingly plays a harmonium), lead guitarist Joe Hazell and bassist Charis Anderson.
“Just My Head,” decorated with slide runs and strident chords, provided a strong opener with enough light and shade to add colour. Neil Findlay’s drums propelled things along nicely, providing a samba-like intro to the standout “London Rain” before settling into an earthy swamp rock rhythm. A keyboard solo from Hernandez called to mind Ray Manzarek of The Doors, while Hazell provided some cutting lead guitar work. A small but appreciative crowd grew in number during a set where the darkly imagined “Valentine” and rocky closer “Pick Up the Pieces” were other standouts.
The Platform One detour entailed missing most of Van Morrison’s set. I must confess to much preferring the maverick Astral Weeks end of Morrison’s catalogue to his mainstream stuff. Mind you that album is now the same age as the IOW Festival so a fair proportion of the audience may not have been of record-buying age when that seminal work came out. From what I heard, Van the man was happy playing the hits today as the early evening sun persisted. The pinstripe suit and trilby looked a bit out of place in the heat but the golden microphones and stands, along with the man’s gold sax, were a nice nod to the festival theme. The crowd seemed to be having fun, not least when Morrison closed proceedings with two of his best-known songs, "Brown Eyed Girl" (his very first single) followed by "Gloria". These days Van Morrison struggles with long lyric lines so sings in snatches with the backing singers filling in adeptly. With a great band behind him, it all works and even gives him permission to say very little, if anything, to the audience and leave the band to finish the closing song without him. Ah, the licence of genius.
As the evening drew on towards a climactic closing set by The Killers, a scheduling dilemma presented itself; hang by the main stage and catch Manic Street Preachers or trip down to the Big Top to see Norwegian pop starlet, Sigrid. Those of advanced years generally opted to stay put, while youth went for the long march through the sea of camping chairs. Anyone with a crystal ball might have managed both as Sigrid’s appearance was apparently delayed due to technical issues. Meanwhile the Manics delivered a typically powerful and always tuneful set, spanning the band’s 32- year history. Opening with “Motorcycle Emptiness” from its 1992 debut album, the band threw in three tracks from its current album, Resistance is Futile, interspersed with more familiar back catalogue and even a cover of The Cure’s “In Between Days” before closing with still arguably the strongest card in the deck, “A Design for Life”. With Nicky Wire adding his perennial showmanship and James Dean Bradfield the rock steady helmsman, the Manics looked comfortably assured throughout.
So, The Killers. Looking back at my notes, they read… epic show so far, almost had back skewered by camping chair. This was a band whose appeal crosses generations – I mean, who hasn’t danced to “Mr Brightside” at weddings – and this was reflected in the crush towards the front of the stage. Many of the earlier residents of camping chair city by now had collapsed said seating and carried it around as lethal weapons, or attempted to re-site them in spaces meant for feet only. It was at times a bruising encounter but one greatly relieved by the audio-visual spectacle on stage. Tonight, frontman Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr, for whom the word powerhouse might have been invented, were leading a different Killers line-up. With bassist Mark Stoermer and guitarist Dave Keuning on a lengthy hiatus from touring, Jake Blanton and Ted Sablay respectively proved to be more than able deputies while a rhythm guitarist, keyboardist and three backing vocalists helped add further finesse to a live sound with a distinctly cutting edge.
Tonight’s set kicked off with a confetti cannon and a relatively new anthem underpinned by a funky riff, “The Man”, from the latest album, 2018’s Wonderful Wonderful. An animated “Somebody Told Me” from Hot Fuss followed with further crowd favourites such as “Smile Like You Mean It” and “Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll”, nicely shuffled with other select cuts, spanning the band’s five albums. Ever the showman, the pink-jacketed Flowers tore around the stage at times like his life depended on it. Visually the show never flagged. Neon cowboys danced on the backdrop of a stage decorated with male and female symbols; there being three of the latter, one for each backing vocalist, the testosterone balance was somewhat redressed.
After communal singing along to “All These Things I’ve Done”, a storming version of “When You Were Young” from 2006’s Sam’s Town, accompanied by showers of falling sparks heralded two obvious and deliriously received encores: “Human” and “Mr Brightside”, choreographed by laser light shows behind the band and fireworks over the field. Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke remixes introduced both songs; in the case of “Mr Brightside” we virtually got two versions for the price of one. As the euphoria of an inspirational set by The Killers dissipated, there was still chance for festival goers to dance more of the night away or, oddly in a follow that sense, to watch Travis on the Big Top stage. Quite simply, nothing was going to top The Killers so, space permitting, the attraction of catching a ferry home before the 2am one booked easily won out.
Meanwhile, I'm on my knees looking for the answer. Are we human? Or are we dancer? Discuss.
Gallery photos 1-12 by Maja Smiejkowska. Remaining uncredited photos by Tony Hardy.
Finally, you can access a new Fifty3 Fridays Spotify Playlist every month. It features all the songs from the previous month’s Fifty3 Fridays. The August Playlist includes 21 songs beginning with With Sun’s delightful version of “It’s A Mystery” and ending with The Rolling Stones’ epic “Gimme Shelter” in tribute to the late Charlie Watts.
Unfortunately, “Belong to the Night” by the marvellous Machina X is not on Spotify so I have substituted “Within”, a collaboration between Nature of Wires and Machina X which is rather splendid too. The Playlist is now live.