Isle of Wight Festival 2015, the new Glastonbury?
In 1970, an excess of 600,000 people surrounded Afton Down, after the declaration that, given its commercial incapacity, the Isle of Wight Festival would be free. Hills were climbed, fences broken down, and authorities denounced by a new age of revolution and human spirit. But like parents silencing a party, the Isle of Wight County Council Act was in place by 1971, inadvertently lauding 1970’s edition of the festival with the reputation of “the last great event”.
Jethro Tull, The Who, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix headlined this particular chapter of the festival’s history, before its 32-year hiatus. For Hendrix, it was to be his last performance before his death some 18 days later. On the 45-year anniversary since one of music’s biggest happenings, there seemed to be a huge effort from festival organisers to remember, pay tribute to and rival its predecessor, featuring and delivering on a line-up that must now surely put Isle of Wight as a very, very close musical alternative to the prowess of Glastonbury.
Arriving early on the Thursday, the main stage (renamed Electric Church in honour of Hendrix) was closed off, allowing for exploration of the smaller and new stages, alongside the comprehensive line-up of late 70s/ early 80s talents to play the Big Top tent. From UB40’s Ali Campbell and Billy Idol to Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band.
Campbell in particular got the crowd – packed far outside the tent – skanking to hits like ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Kingston Town’, whereas Idol performed with such energy that he blew the vocal mic halfway through ‘Rebel Yell’, and was left in comic anger, screaming into a soundsystem, with little being heard other than his overinflated ego. He cleverly used the technical problems as an excuse for an encore, where an electric performance of ‘White Wedding’ picked up his fans and – thankfully – his leather jacket, once more.
Then came room for exploration, which included dinner on a renovated old green bus, before heading to the new Strongbow Tree stage for upcoming London DJ Izzy Trixx. The walk back to the campsite that night was colourful itself, past other new stages Hipshaker and Electro Love blaring out Booker T and the MGs before being struck dead by the immense noise from the Hard Rock Stage, which was transformed from its predictable daytime ‘hard rock’ tendencies into a haven of old-time electro/synth-pop with DJ Rusty Egan, the drummer of former new wave outfit Rich Kids. Friday’s action didn’t kick off until 4pm, and the Thursday night vibes were contagious.
When Friday eventually began, it was with an immense statement of things to come, both for the Derbyshire quartet The Struts and the festival. Their set was crammed with ‘those songs that you know but don’t know where from’, all executed with the charismatic mod-like energy of Luke Spiller, reminding of a camper Freddie Mercury. This energy was seduced, and broken, by Irish four-piece Kodaline, whose heartbroken lyrics were enough to sadden the most excitable dogs (see music video for ‘All I Want’). Next up was a return to the island for 90s rock icons Counting Crows, with a wonderfully diverse set from rock to ska to folk, including an emotional performance of ‘Colourblind’ (famed from the film Cruel Intentions) followed by ‘Mr Jones’, where “all of the beautiful colours,” gesturing to the growing crowds, “are very meaningful.”
Leaving the main stage for a while – preferring the prospect of tired feet and wasted money on fairground rides to even a small chance of seeing You Me At Six – we stumbled across part of an Australian family, the Germein Sisters, taking the Hard Rock Stage. Comprising a guitar, a drumkit and a cello, the trio saw arguably the biggest crowd that stage received over the weekend. Delivering an infectious blend of folk rock, with a lead singer whose voice cracks mid-note (harking back to The Cranberries), the trio’s only shortcoming in their UK debut was the chat between songs, reliant on clichéd “this one’s for if you’re a dreamer” or “for all the hard times”.
As the Germein Sisters left the stage, so did the weather climate confused by their Aussie accents, with torrential rain severely diminishing crowds for Friday night headliners The Black Keys, though ‘Lonely Boy’ and an acoustic ending of ‘Little Black Submarine’ inspired life into the drench masses, who opened perfectly for The Prodigy. Meanwhile, a set from the Hey Joe tent covered Mungo Jerry’s ‘Summertime’ and The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’. It was funny. Predictably, the Big Top Tent saw a lot of action once more, providing great music and, more importantly, a roof. A great set from Visconti (producer/ bassist) & Woodmansey (drummer) of David Bowie’s band, performed the entirety of Bowie’s seminal album, The Man Who Sold The World. What the performance had in musical vigour was unfortunately contrasted by the comparatively lacklustre nature to Bowie’s iconic frontmanship. All faith was restored, however, when Suzanne Vega and Gerry Leonard came out to collaborate on the title track, for what proved a very successful opening night to their tour.
Saturday started with emerging country two-piece Ward Thomas, as comical as it was impressive (including an ode to a town called Ugly). Then to another small stage called the Bohemian Woods, equipped for the brilliantly unusual “Cirque de la Quirk”, where the rhythmic charm of London quintet Keo & the Movement felt very continental. The centrepiece for the day was the festival’s work with Wellchild, for a Guinness World Record attempt of the most number of people wearing the same (Hendrix) mask in one place at the Main Stage.
The attempt was followed by the upcoming singer-songwriter James Bay, a definite crowd favourite, though not helped by basslines that could have, and did have, ‘Hold Back The River’ sung over every one. Then came Jessie Ware, whose stunning voice and audience interaction reminded strongly of a young Otis Redding.
The performances with real verve and liveliness didn’t stop from then on; first with James, opening with ‘Sit Down’, displaying an amazing showmanship, a Heisenberg appearance and dance moves that looked like a crab being electrocuted, before hurling himself into the crowd, surfing his way through ‘Come Home’. From veterans to newbies, the Big Top tent saw Foxes bounding across the stage with a mental crowd for ‘Let Go For Tonight’.
One of the festival’s overall highlights was an electric set by Pharrell Williams, an artist managed by the festival’s curator John Giddings. Giddings considers him a rock band, not a hip hop artist, and his set was testament to that belief, running around the stage, sampling old jazz standards and screaming out his songs so it was hard to forget just how revolutionary his music has been to the last five years of mainstream… Even during a controversial performance of ‘Blurred Lines’ (not condoned by Exeter’s Students’ Guild).
Finally on to the headliners for that night, Blur. God had taken his longest shower the night before, but the lack of rain cascading its way down from heaven put the audience in an audibly excited mood for the pioneers of Britpop. Their set began with a childish xylophone medley over the PA systems, playing ‘Greensleeves’ and the ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, and then an hour and a half passed with their only hit played being ‘Tender’. ‘Parklife’ and ‘Song 2’ were the reasons the bulk of the crowd were there, and when they were eventually played, they weren’t. Damon Albarn’s hyperactive bounding energy for the most part transcended the mass feedback and occasional boredom during their set, which received a highly marmite treatment.
The final day in Newport started with emerging Manchester outfit The Rainband, with a guitarist who was a former band mate of Peter Hook in Monaco (Joy Division, New Order). A sometimes heartfelt set, it lacked the energy of its “recommended by Liam Gallagher” label, although a final moment of water-bottle-throwing anarchy to end their set, missed the audience and hit the vocal mic, which plummeted into the pit almost knocking out the cameraman, to a backdrop of a very worried and cautious looking Rainband.
One of 1970’s headliners, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, then played to a considerable crowd with wit and experience, playing new material he warned was suitable for those needing a lavatory break, and Bach’s ‘Bourée’ as another tribute to Hendrix. A ten minute recital of ‘Aqualung’ secured the dancing flautist as an act that was definitely not past his time. Rockabilly blues musician Imelda May offered an amazing ‘great to be alive’ spirit, with catchy double bass and trumpet solos making an impressive testimony for the state of Irish music.
A set by Manchester’s Courteeners was endured, while the festival’s atmosphere ashamedly fell in and out of being mistaken for Reading. At a festival headlined by Blur and Fleetwood Mac, it’s hard to judge bands in any other form than on legacy, and the Courteeners’ harmless array of indie pop will struggle to have one. The mood was recovered with back-to-back sets from Swedish sisters First Aid Kit and Scottish songwriter Paolo Nutini. Starting with ‘Lion’s Roar’ from their debut album, First Aid Kit lilted their way through a stunning tribute to Alabama country icon Emmylou Harris, ending with her song ‘Red Dirt Girl’. Nutini then introduced a band of eight-strong musicians alongside him, through a humbling set, sampling Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator: “You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful”.
Paolo Nutini implored everyone to enjoy the legends. The legends were thence led out – fashionably late – by drummer Mick Fleetwood, following a week of cancelled shows due to illness in Birmingham and Manchester. Fleetwood Mac seemed to have a new life in them, from obvious delight and camaraderie at Christine McVie’s return. Starting with the thumping drumbeat of ‘The Chain’, the quintet went on to play hits from Rumours ‘You Make Loving Fun’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman’, alongside a thrilling rendition of ‘Rhiannon’ and a solo escapade for Lindsey Buckingham’s ‘Never Going Back Again’. I have never seen a version of that song sung with such defiance. Buckingham throughout was determined – it seemed – not to be forgotten. Meditating on change through Tango in the Night and encoring ‘Don’t Stop’, while Stevie Nicks’ voice has lost its tone, and all have aged, Fleetwood Mac are still one of the best bands to have graced this earth.
Michael Eavis sits down with his dairy produce, the year is 2016 and he has just attempted to sign Fleetwood Mac for the tenth successive Glastonbury. His butter and his cheese are of the highest quality, but sighing quietly to himself, says, “Kasabian again this year, lads”. Somewhere in the distance, the Isle of Wight Festival edges ever closer towards regaining its status as Britain’s best rock festival.
The only question that remains is, what can John Giddings and his friends at the Isle of Wight Festival possibly do to top this?
Tristan Gatward, Online Music Editor