ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL
Seaclose Park, Isle Of Wight – Friday/Saturday
Firstly, apologies for the tardiness of this review. The notebook into which I scribbled all my mostly indecipherable observations was lost during the euphoria of Fleetwood Mac’s ethereal closing set (more of which later), a performance in which most of us lost ourselves.
Happily, and against all odds, in a crowd of 50,000, the book was retrieved by a kindly soul called Angela… having been lost by a goofball friend called Angela. What are the odds?
So, it’s a big shout out to Angela Martin, who implausibly found my notes during a huge Mac frenzy; and of course a big shout at to Angela Haber, who literally was the frenzy.
But getting my book back shouldn’t come as any surprise – camarderie and good will are the order of the day here (apart from in the twat-heavy VIP area – more of which later). The island, and its inhabitants, are some of the most accommodating you’re likely to meet. Upon arrival on the Friday, where we’re hoping to catch up with The Prodigy, it is pissing it down, and yet one of the locals insists on traversing through the deluge to chaperone us to our destination.
A Biblical downpour later, we’re in the most enchanted B&B, run by Karina, the world’s foremost hostess, and highlighted by meticulous decor. How many B&Bs have a chaise longue in the reception area? To my knowledge, none.
So, it’s bollocks to The Prodigy – and profuse apologies to my waiting family – but it’s severely pissing it, so off we pop to the local pub, The Village Inn, where we’re welcomed with open arms and a supreme singer/acoustic songsmith, who has a virtuoso way with a guitar, and also satiates our fears where rumours (pun inevitable) abound that Fleetwood Mac are pulling out of the festival. It’s unthinkable. So this wonderful singer, who goes by the name of Jules Nelson, treats us nervous Mac fans to a full-on set worthy of Lindsey Buckingham himself. He’s a supreme guitarist of whom I’m virtually jealous. And had we have been at the festival, it couldn’t have been more sublime. Just glorious.
But when we eventually arrive at the festival the next day, the atmosphere is electric; my rain-sodden family are getting twatted on beanbags by the DJ tree. It’s cider o’clock, apparently – what else could you want from a festival?
Maybe some wellies? Oops.
Too late now. Sludging down to see James Bay on the main stage in my inadequate Converse, we’re greeted with a vision of Johnny Depp a la Pirates Of The Caribbean, but sounding like some stolen MOR bounty. To paraphrase a rubbish joke my brother made, it’s all pirate, and it’s Arrrr-ful.
Having said that (which I had to), his more far-reaching tracks burst into the sun-drenched sky and, in spite of reservations, it’s a sound that transcends the relative mediocrity. On groovier tracks, he cuts a line that borders on Stereophonics… but in mono. Not great, but acceptable. Like Radio 2.
However, when highlight ‘Hold Back The River’ arrives, everyone is on their feet. It’s almost religious; a gospel-like, deep-south sentiment that has the whole crowd indoctrinated into the Church of Bay. And set against the glorious sunshine, it’s an unforgettable festival moment – tailor made for these occasions.
We stick around on the main stage for Jesse Ware, who, to my absolute surprise, is completely stellar. I certainly didn’t expect this at all. Some performers just have a way with a festival audience; it’s the essence of performing. This girl has it in spades. When she hits her heights, she can raise the roof of the firmament with such ethereal vocals. More than this, she looks at ease on stage; her happiness emanates and the audience lap it up. The sunshine above us aligns itself with such unbound joy, and suddenly we’ve been inducted into unconditional euphoria – a critic’s nightmare. I feel I need to slag something off now.
A quandary: Kool And The Gang are gonna funk it up big time on the main stage; or there’s another retro party to attend on the Big Top stage with Stone Roses tribute, The Clone Roses (hey, nice pun).
Decision: indie nostalgia, with my brethren.
Upon arrival, ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ is blasting out with ridiculous verisimilitude – it could almost be the band themselves. That is apart from the fact this “Ian Brown” can actually sing. Like, in tune and that. And what’s more, he’s simulating simian moves with his maracas like we haven’t evolved at all – he’s out-monkeying king monkey. Down front we’re all equally primal; this is nostalgia on the most primitive level.
And it seems now, the jungle we inhabit – full to the brim with middle-aged mad-for-its – has evolved a new species that transcends the era from whence it came. We are here; and during ‘I Am The Resurrection’ finale, everyone is resurrected a couple of decades back. It’s arms aloft, let’s-have-it madness, and our “Ian” is conducting things with caricature-like incredibility. Meanwhile, our “John Squire” on guitar – who is actually a spitting image of Johnny Marr from The Smiths – reinterprets the final wig-out with striated, Smiths-like fret warbling. A ridiculous thought occurs that this is Johnny Marr.
Meanwhile, on drums our “Reni” in his dreadlock wig and trademark hat is pounding the canvas of this tent into submission, and the whole audience into rapturous, nostalgic abandon. This could easily have been the original band themselves; if only the singer had a problem with his larynx. It doesn’t matter – for those of us that missed out on Spike Island, this resurrection is as close to the original as you can get. By the end, all of the crowd are old friends as nostalgia abounds.
And speaking of nostalgia, our big hug and hip-shake at the end of the set – and another round at the bar – means we are late back to the main stage for another retro favourite, James.
Astonishingly, they began their set with ‘Sit Down’, which, in every sane universe, is an encore song. I return to my entourage and find out it’s already been played, and so I sit down. In protest, not sympathy.
That is until the first notes of what, in my opinion, is their greatest song – ‘Five-O’ – kicks in, and my protest is over, sailing as it is on Tim Booth’s imploring vocals, the band’s impervious sound and tight rhythm section, the harmonics of this song seem like a mass release of doves. It sounds like freedom. It’s the paradox of euphoria tinged with melancholy. “If it lasts forever, hope I’m the first to die”. Tim Booth still has his spaz-dancing proclivities, looking as he does like Michael Stipe in a bubble fending off a swarm of bumble bees. Seriously, his limbsmithery is like a mime having an epileptic fit.
But for all that, James’ performance is absolutely spot-on – a true return to their glory years.
Upon which subject, Blur take the headline spot, riding on the back of new album ‘The Magic Whip’, and here hoping to thrash the crowd into their new era, with a smattering of their extensive back catalogue, speckled with new tracks.
Not a good idea to start the set with a newbie, ‘Go Out’, but that’s what they do. Blur crowds tend to be a bit thuggish, like football supporters (strange really, since the band are middle-class gentry), so starting the set thusly puts a nil-nil on the score on the board straight away. It’s not just that, but we’ve ventured into the VIP area to watch this, and sure enough it’s replete with flapping heads – megalomaniac media arseholes, who want nothing more than to talk about themselves (yes, I’m aware of the irony I’m part of that troupe, but trust me, I hate these self-important fuckers), none of which are actually watching the performance. The atmosphere is as dead as their vacuous heads.
This is a pig-pen of absolute prats; in fact, I’ve devised a collective term for these media monkeys: a catastrophe of VIPs.
Anyway, myself, my sister and book-loser Angela are trying to oversee this ridiculous distraction, and three songs in it becomes too much. Besides, Damon Albarn’s voice is ravaged and the atmosphere is muted, especially from our privileged vantage point. The sound is poor; perhaps being down front with the masses would’ve been a better option. The only advantage of the lateness of this review is I have recourse to take in other reviews. The i, in particular, was absurdly inaccurate, lauding as it did the Blur performance, and saving a single, ill-formed sentence as a footnote to the fact Fleetwood Mac played a set, like. I’m quite certain that writer was one of those flapping heads in the VIP area, and probably paying scant attention to what was going on. He might even have been one of the VIPs seen bent comatose over a table (there were loads of them).
So, too many unfamiliar songs and too many media wankers later, we’re out of there. It might have been different in the main arena, but we’re pissed off at this point.
The worst of it is, on the way out, we can hear ‘Coffee & TV’, which sounds epic. And before we get to the bus, ‘Song 2’ blasts everything away with pugnacious viciousness. It seems Blur were not necessarily at fault – they sound great outside the confines of the VIP area. But then, most things do.
There’s always tomorrow. So that’s what we’re holding on for…
ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL, PART TWO
Seaclose Park, Isle Of Wight, Sunday
Tomorrow finally comes.
Petrified by the rumours (yes, pun still inevitable) that Fleetwood Mac aren’t going to make an appearance, Sunday’s ominous clouds take on more meaning, and become something of a portent. We’re all congregated here for a festival – but the principal reason is the rare treat of seeing the original line-up of the Mac. If they don’t show, it might as well get all metaphorical and piss down on our expectant heads.
Meantime, here comes Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, with his old-school, flute-enhanced rock, which sees Anderson making like a hierogyphic Fagin from Oliver Twist, with a smidgen of James Booth in a spaz dance. Twixt flute wig-outs straight from a Picasso-designed Cubist forest, the rock is peppered with a sprinkling of exalted, Spinal Tap-esque pixie dust. To the copious collection of behatted Tull faithful – each apparently comatose, clad in an approximation of the Mad Hatter, in parallel with the Tull’s anachronistic bluster – it all makes for a carnival of blackness, into which the sunshine falls like gothic trinkets into a black hole.
But hey, here come the bubbles.
The encroaching clouds have us all concerned about the weather. But it’s OK – we’re all now being pissed on by Imelda May’s accompanying bubble machine. It’s an appropriate precipitation that aligns itself to May’s candyfloss, but ultimately air-filled, party-hard bubblegum punk-pop. If Suzi Quatro was a vaudeville country singer (with a bubble machine), we would arrive at Imelda May – a sandpaper-larynxed exponent of party-animal balloon music with all the twists that is like a jive at a children’s party, just as puberty kicks in. Funky; groovy; and, like the bubbles raining all around us, popping incessantly in your goddamn face. The Irish princess’s garish green dress and scary, Grace Jones-esque ice cream hairdo from Mars, just adds to the impish allure. The rough winds around us do shake, but here is one darling bud of May. Spectacular.
And so in stride The Couteeners. And when I say stride, I mean STRIDE. Lead singer Liam Fray, a prodigy/copyist of his namesake from Oasis, is three minutes in before he starts twatting on about his stage towel – a requested small black one turns out to be a huge white one. The horror! It’s not in the context of the occasion. These swaggering, prima-donna antics are not conducive to festivals, and are at present totally anachronistic. They’re outdated and not really in any place. After the bubbly optimism of previous acts, it all seems like a tired cliche – stock-still bands with an attitude. The music of Courteeners is still acerbic and face-hitting, but its relevance now feels more like museum fodder. Basically a British Killers, the US-to-UK translation comes across a hooliganism. Not nineteen forever, chaps…
Right, sod the main stage. Off we hop to the Big Top Stage, which is about half a mile away, to see the Lightning Seeds… and for me to be mistaken for Jarvis Cocker. Don’t ask.
Ian Broudie still hasn’t seen natural light, methinks, equipped as he is in his trademark sunglasses, even though he’s in a tent and the clouds encroach. But their sunshine pop is the perfect sky-raiser – the Seeds living up to their moniker, planting a crop of familiar, jovial nutrition into the sodden earth. They play a set of such endearing familiarity, it’s almost as if an old friend has arrvied. Set closer ‘Pure’, in particular, chirps with insouciant glee and ushers in a cosy interlude that promises everything with be alright…
Spirits raised, it’s back to the main stage and my lovely entourage for some Paolo Ntini, who seems to be a Scottish James Brown with a ragged blue-collar look, his gingham shirt and theatrical performance exuding the essence of somebody who isn’t afraid of bombast. And boy oh boy, is he not. Thrusting; pentrating; entertaining – the phrase “what a bastard” cannot help but enter one’s head (I’m talking from a male point of view now); I’m gambling all those with girlfriends, internally chanting the same phrase, were nervous of their status as men. This guy is pretty and alpha. A paradox that is like a magnet to every woman in the arena…
There were acoustic and disjointed versions of his records in his set. We have to salute his bravery for that – to mix it up on the main stage at a major festival takes some balls (the fucker has even got those in abundance). The deconstruction of his main tunes meant a lot of confusion abounded, until the infectious choruses kicked in, and parity was restored. An unbound whirlwind of a performance. Bastard.
And then the weather clears. The moment arrives. On screen it displays the message: “Up next: Fleetwood Mac”. The anticipation has been too much – I’m almost in tears – and when the entire line-up takes to the stage, including the wayward Christine McVie, it’s almost hard to believe. And when they hit straight into ‘The Chain’, its sentiment of never breaking ties is more pertinent than ever.
In perfect alignment with one another, it’s as if the link has never been severed. The rhythmic section of Fleetwood and Mc(Vie) couldn’t be more in tandem if it were programmed – particularly during the bass-heavy Formula One wig-out during the end. It’s strange to say, but all the members still pretty much look the same. Well, perhaps not quite in a physical sense, but they certainly act the same. The tension between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham is still palpable. On ‘Dreams’ – Nicks’ personal and much more insidious rebuttal to Buckingham’s aggressive ‘Go Your Own Way’, the eye contact between them is still in evidence. But for all that, the chemistry is electric.
It seems the cohesion between the band members has not been lost at all.
Next to me, my sister Abby – the one who introduced me to this band – is wrapped up in a kind of reverie. ‘Dreams’ has taken on more verisimilitude: Nicks and Buckingham facing off against each other, and being as harmonious as ever they were, is a dream in itself. The glassy eyes of my sister confirm that this is a moment. Everything is NOW.
Myself, my friends and family have waited for years for this moment; it’s surreal that it’s finally here – history happening before our eyes.
It seems the band are on the same hymn sheet, Christine exclaiming: “It’s great to be back with my musical family!” before launching into a flawless rendition of Angela-obsession ‘Everywhere’, its harmonies undaunted by time, and the spirit of the song’s meaning unblemished. The Mac are as synchronised as they’ve always been – weirdly, when you consider their personal backgrounds. In fact, it’s incredible this performance is happening at all.
Lindsey Buckingham steps forward and says: “We’re not just pleased to be here – we’re thrilled to be here. And back with the beautiful Christine McVie.” This is a bit of a love-in. And it feeds into an entirely devoted, loving crowd. The tension of the chemistry between the band is offset by a familial warmth, without which, let’s face it, the album Rumours would never have been made.
During an acoustic interlude, Buckingham displays why he’s one of the most underrated and best guitarists in the world – his finger-pluck acoustic rendition of ‘Big Love’ a stunning sight to behold, equalled by his rasping vocals. It has everyone enraptured and entranced. It’s only bested by Stevie Nicks’ heart-rending ‘Landslide’, a mournful ditty that was apparently written as Nicks was about to give up music forever. It’s a beguiling entrancement that brings a tear to virtually everyone.
After the interlude, we’re back with the full ensemble, and the glorious (and personal favourite) ‘Gypsy’, with Stevie Nicks stage front hitting her notes with a voice so sharp it could shape diamonds. It’s truly remarkable how she’s maintained her voice – possibly the most formidable female vocalist of all time. It’s a stunning spectacle to see her here: time really does seem to have stood still. Buckingham’s lilting guitar refrain set against Nicks’ insistent vocals makes this song soar into the sky. It’s simply euphoric.
Christine McVie takes the limelight with ‘Little Lies’, and it’s just lovely. She is shining, and the song is almost ticklish – its harmonic, tinkling refrain seeming to grip your bones. Perhaps it’s because Christine is there, the feeling is warm and familiar – like old friends reunited.
But the best moment is yet to come: Stevie Nicks fronting her most potently confessional elegy – ‘Gold Dust Woman’ – which sees Nicks embodying the guise of the White Witch and truly spellbinding the crowd in her black robes and arms aloft as if channelling ascendance. It is utterly compelling. Her voice is haunting; her words are portentous. And under the onstage lights during the outro, she becomes luminescent; she could almost be a ghost. It’s possibly the most transcendent performance I’ve ever witnessed. Nicks is swishing and swaying around the stage like she’s conducting the whole universe. It’s beautiful; it’s timeless; it’s Stevie Nicks, singing goddess, in full flow. She is simply glowing.
There are so many songs from the Mac about overcoming addiction – the aforementioned being a primary example – but seeing this band back together, through all their travails, it’s clear their primary addiction is to each other. And this reunion is the most beautiful relapse. Rock on: a band as rare as gold dust. Thank fuck they can’t get over each other.
The chemistry between all five members is a sight to behold; it’s almost like an operetta – there’s a dance at play that makes their music weave out like a tapestry. And the cross-stitches are really revealed when ‘Go Your Own Way’ unearths its vitriol – Buckingham’s bilious ode to Nicks – but their perennial attachment carries the song and elevates it to another level. Nicks and Bucks are still facing off each other, and the sparks are flying.
Speaking of which, during encore ‘Don’t Stop’, there’s a firework display, and weirdly, it’s behind the actual show. The words from the song “don’t you look back” are never more apposite, and become almost a directive – no amount of pyrotechnics can compare to what we’re seeing on stage. It’s quite possible we will never see this again.
Yesterday may have gone, but we will look back with heartfelt memories, and a cherished note in our history book.
A beautiful, transcendent end to a sublime weekend.
*An extraction of these reviews are published in Record Collector in the UK and Filter magazine in the US
** A big shout-out to my beautiful family and friends for making it an extra special weekend. I love you all.