Bestival still sits head and shoulders above its rivals, but this year it was a case of two steps forward, one step back, argues Daniel Fahey.
Overall – 8.5/10
In 2008, Bestival was three sunny days away from cementing itself as the greatest festival of its size in the world. Mixing intelligent bookings, a fondness for dressing up and a crazy Alice in Wonderland experience for two generations of ravers, the quality and eye for detail of the triple UK Festival Award-winning event continued to rapidly raise the benchmark for all other festivals. Instead, the soiree was hit by that infamous British festival conundrum: heavy rain. Faced with their first weather-related challenge in five years, organisers not only survived, but floated headily above the sludge of the site proving that they had more strings to their bow than just throwing a damn good party.
One year on - to loosely quote Oscar Wilde –Bestival has gone from the gutter to the stars (quite literally with their ‘Space Oddity’ fancy dress theme) by expanding the site, adding new arenas and staging Blastival – an intergalactic fanfare of fireworks, tongue-in-cheek amateur dramatics and a huge burning bonfire. Sadly, however, a new site layout has left Rob da Bank and Co taking two steps forward but one step back and it will be at least another re-think and 12 months or more until the organisers create the perfect festival – something they look most likely to achieve.
The festival’s most creative and successful new addition is the apocalyptic gothic fallout Afterburner - an arena that da Bank himself describes as “the best outdoor stage in the world,” – and, on this outing, it is hard to argue. The monstrous off-spill is a stage in the round surrounded by pillars of intermittently spewing fire with the likes of Jaguar Skills, DJ Derek and hardcore legends Altern-8 proving irresistible to night-dwellers. Elsewhere bosses have introduced Magic Meadow, the quarters for the non-musical aspects of the event, which includes the theatrical Insect Circus, comedy stage, and a fluffy pillowed paradise called, aptly, the Solace tent. They’ve also relocated the Big Top to the foot of a hill giving much better views for the audience than previous years and a third layout triumph for the festival.
The trouble, however, lies in the new positioning of the main stage, which has been moved from the foot of the valley to the previous location of the Big Top. Struggling sonically against soft winds, losing power during Lily Allen’s set and suffering from sound clashes from nearby tents, the stage doesn’t have the best debut volume-wise. The real gripes though are in the neck-aching viewing, which is often like watching a film at the front row of a cinema, and for the larger audiences, the crowd backing onto a main thoroughfare, which creates more congestion than is necessary.
Still, Bestival continues to push the boundaries of what an event can achieve and with a great atmosphere and some homemade costumes to match, it remains the most essential ticket in the festival calendar alongside the mighty Glastonbury.
Getting there and back – 7/10
Naturally, with Bestival housed on an island, there is the added headache of having to catch a boat to the festival, but with plenty of ports to pick from and shuttle buses running directly from the docks to the site it only adds to the holiday-feel of the proceedings. Ferry options are available from Southampton, Portsmouth, Southsea and Lymington, which are all accessible by car, train and coaches around the UK. An accident near the Cowes port on the Thursday cripples the shuttle bus runs and taxis though, and the queues for the return boats stretch a long way out of the terminals, but all in all, it is fairly hassle free with 11 ticket-holders even opting to swim to the event for charity.
The site – 8/10
Aside from the aforementioned grumbles, the festival site is a Pandora’s box of delights. The main corridor at the foot of the hill houses indispensable Bestival staple - the Bollywood Bar – a sweaty sauna of lavish Asian design with a backroom full of mouth-watering cocktails. The amphitheatre of the Rizla ice cream van sits opposite and remains packed all weekend while new arena, the Afterburner, greets fans stumbling from the woods.
The Big Top and Main Stage polar one another in a second field, with the contagiously brilliant Come Dancing Spiegel tent, hidden disco, spider-webbed Red Bull tent and Black Dahlia cocktail lounge all kaleidoscope-ing across the same hill.
A walkway of pamper lounges and massage parlours offer the chance for a little rest and relaxation, while another new feature, the Magic Meadow, is the slow uncoiling of the festival’s intent of spreading its cultural side with a comedy tent, Oxfam dressing up spot and the daft Insect Circus theatre stage. The woods add a further dimension to the site with a gazebo of acts on the Saturday, while a WI tent and local scrumpy stall are the ideal accompaniment for the Victorian bandstand. Ticket-holders are even allowed to take advantage of Robin Hill’s maze and toboggan run.
Atmosphere – 9/10
The atmosphere at Bestival is wildly addictive with characters of all ages and costume making abilities mixing in harmony. First generation house heads unite with twenty-somethings and teenagers, while the younger children are in a colourful world of their own in the Kids Zone.
The dance tents are the place with the best atmosphere though with the Rizla stage taking the dancing-all-day award. The Bollywood Bar is relaxed affair throughout the day and a manic sweatbox come nightfall, but, again, it is the main stage that comes bottom of the class with ambience fairly sedate anywhere except up next to the barriers.
Music – 8/10
On paper, Bestival 2009 offers the best line-up since its inception but Massive Attack’s (5/10) attempt at atmospheric greatness falls on its knees on Friday with an absence of big numbers from their seminal piece ‘Blue Lines’. Kraftwerk (7/10) fare better hit-wise on Saturday but their static stage presence is un-compelling and it’s up to a rather quiet but elegantly superb Elbow (7.5/10) show to round off the festival.
Mercury-nominated stars are worth their pound on the main stage with Florence and The Machine (8/10) and Friendly Fires (8/10) both producing memorable performances, as does Speech Dabelle (7/10) who is seen gaining confidence between her two sets over the weekend.
But it is the DJs that really carve a name for themselves with a spectacular old skool outing from Carl Cox (9.5/10) on Sunday night and a hot and heavy Chase and Status (9/10) appearance. Reggae-aficionados DJ Derek (8/10) and Trojan Sound System (7/10) produce perfect sunshine sets, while Lily Allen (7/10) uses the warm weather to wear very little but still impress a lot with covers of Britney Spears’ ‘Womanizer’ and Kaiser Chiefs ‘Oh My God’.
Klaxons (8/10) are superb, but outshone by dance newbies Delphic (8/10), while Mazor Lazer (6/10) stutter with a breaks-heavy set leaving it too late to play their best numbers. The Horrors (6/10) seem a little uninspired by their rather small turnout in the Big Top but Michael Nyman (7/10) and the English National Ballet (8/10) both prove cultural delights.
Headliner of the weekend
Elbow – Main Stage, Sunday
After two underwhelming electro-based headliners, a glorious Elbow set that’s drenched in both beauty and quality is simply magnificent. The crowd are given the chance to join in on ‘Grounds For Divorce’ while fan favourite ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ snarls more than it does on record. ‘The Fix’ and ‘The Stop’ both slot in nicely during a performance that borrows heavily from ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, but it is the elegance and confetti finish of ‘One Day Like This’ that sends shivers down the spine.
DJ set of the weekend
Carl Cox – Big Top, Sunday
With Rob da Bank’s traditional Bollywood Bar show so packed that security are turning fans away it is up to a very relaxed Carl Cox to dust off his old rave tunes and take the Big Top back to 1992. With plenty of 808s and a splattering of Italian house, the superstar DJ has the hoards eating out of his hands with girls on shoulders and brollies bopping in the sky. Then, out of nowhere, he drops The Prodigy’s ‘Out Of Space’ and ‘Everybody In The Place’ back to back and the tent shakes to the floor. Closing with New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ - the weekday that the gurning revellers are dreading most – Cox makes sure all is forgotten as he brings the bouncing souls back to the 21st century with another Prodigy number ‘Warriors Dance’. One of the best DJ sets this summer.
Track of the weekend
Bob Marley – ‘Stir It Up’ (steel drum version)
As the sun falls on the final night of Bestival, DJ Derek is playing tracks hotter than the Afterburner’s scorching pillars. Conroy Smith’s ‘Dangerous’ and ’54-46 That’s My Number’ by Toots And The Maytals warm the crowd before he plays some mandatory Marley. “Oh, I’ve got another one for you,” growls the OAP DJ before dropping a steel drum version of Bob Marley’s ‘Stir It Up’ – class.
Worst track of the weekend
Johnny Woo – ‘Faggot’
Played just before a Mel and Kim track in the Bollywood Bar on Sunday afternoon, this slice of Casio electro sounds bad enough but the lyric “what you going to do faggot?” truly grinds it into the ground.
Cider me up landlord!
Anybody stumbling around the woods may’ve bumped into Tim and Greg who were running a ‘cider workshop’. The course gave festival-goers the chance to get things off your chest through the hazy eyes of an afternoon on the local scrumpy. Apparently there was to be an experimental cider dancing later, but sadly VF had to miss that.
Rocket man in the woods
You would have thought that the astronaut who had tried to take off in the woods and got his spaceship stuck in the trees was random enough, but this moment goes to the lady who was consoling him so much that she was moved away by security.
Fiona the cup
A girl dressed as a flying saucer sweet spent the Saturday talking to her cup called Fiona. Apparently Fiona was thirsty but had no drink; luckily there were enough revellers around happy to fill Fiona up.
Following the White Rabbit
On the Friday night a group in the Afterburner bar stole a life-size White Rabbit but, rather kindly, instead of stealing it and running away, they sat it down with them at a table and offered it drink. Well, poured beer on its face.
In the campsite on Sunday morning two boys were playing cricket with half a smashed guitar and a ball of masking tape. Quite where they’d got either their bat or ball, it’s unclear.
Virtual Festivals would like to thank Red Funnel Ferries for their help over the weekend.
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