Robin Hill Country Park, Isle Of Wight Thursday, September 5–Sunday, September 8
“Aye aye, Captain!” yells Jessie Ware, lifting a salute to her peaked seaman’s cap. “Shiver me timbers!” cries Alex Kapranos, leaping around in a pirate rigger’s shirt. “This one’s for the Popeyes and Nemos!” bawls Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree, predicting calm skies ahead. Wandering around the site of this year’s Bestival are many a Captain Birdseye, countless schools of pink squid, hundreds of ravers rocking rubber rings and Jolly Rogers as far as the eye can see.
Yes, Bestival’s 10th anniversary theme is nautical and you can feel the event maturing from kitsch fancy-dress shindig to a seafaring competitor to Glastonbury’s Shangri-La area. Festival organisers Rob and Josie Da Bank have built a gigantic white ocean liner thronged with raving sailors on one stage called The Port, and planted a huge anchor in the middle of the Main Stage. So it’s all aboard HMS Bestival, going to war on the festival high seas with a big inflatable Lionel Richie as its figurehead.
Lionel isn’t, of course, the weekend’s main event. At 1am on Thursday night, MIA makes her grand comeback. It’s her first full UK show since 2010, and a Bestival coup that makes Sunday headliner Elton John look like an easy booking. Maya twerks like a champion in a pink veil headdress and Bollywood flak jacket across a stage dominated by flashing Hindu symbols. At first, her global dub-quake feels a bit one-dimensional, leaning rather too heavily on the bhangra end of her international mash-up. At some points, you’d swear she was miming to a tape she nabbed from the Hounslow Taj Mahal in 1983. But ‘Bucky Done Gun’ starts to turn things around. Essentially the sound of a knackered car you can dance to, its Colombian carnival parps blow the set wide open. ‘Bird Flu’ mingles street sounds with echoes of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, while tracks from her long-awaited fourth album arrive in a stampede: ‘Come Walk With Me’, ‘Bad Girls’ then a blazing punk take on ‘Born Free’ that she stops midway because the crowd aren’t singing it with “enough aggro”. She could easily slip into Beyoncé’s mainstream formula, but she’s back in a snarling attack stance.
The rest of the weekend boasts a mighty but motley crew. On the Replay stage, Chlöe Howl dishes up outwardly cute urban pop gems, cooing irresistible hooks one minute and dedicating vicious relationship diatribes and fantasies of revenge on “all the wankers” the next. Wu-Tang Clan stumble off the ferry short of a couple of members, RZA and Method Man – “Our crew had a tough time with customs,” they explain. But they muddle through short-handed, shouting their classic raps about ego and cheese over crime-funk beats, disco and The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. Shame the others had to stay home.
Over in the Big Top, and the rodent rock riot of ‘The Rat’ aside, The Walkmen have developed into such a suave fireside take on The White Stripes, they should think twice about sending their children to the same nursery as Jack’s. Next, a naval battle for the future of rock ensues, with Bombay Bicycle Club fighting for mellow, mathsy intricacies on the Main Stage and Jagwar Ma bringing the tropical, electro thunder to the Replay stage. But it’s like pitting the Terminator against Rick Moranis. Jagwar’s stupendous, head-spinning psychedelia stomps BBC into the dirt, kicks their heads off and does a Bez dance in the entrails.
It’s not the only nutty bit of scheduling. Later, Fatboy Slim is set against Disclosure – and it’s the latter that triumph, even with the odd nagging chill-out number among their undeniable anthems such as ‘White Noise’ and ‘When A Fire Starts To Burn’. But it’s The Flaming Lips who steal Friday, with their dazzling stage show of smoking wands, cradled dolls, black confetti, Wayne Coyne’s neon testicle-tentacles, and choice cuts from recent break-up album ‘The Terror’. There’s a wondrous stripped-down ‘Do You Realize??’ and a redemptive closer in the shape of ‘A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’, too.
Which naturally guides us in the direction of Peace, who continue their blossoming into future headliners with The Cure-like ‘Lovesick’, covers of ‘Starman’ and ‘White Noise’, and an immense rendition of ‘Bloodshake’. They have depth and passion too, trying to get the entire crowd to “make out” during a moving ‘California Daze’. Back-light them, they’re superstars.
The rest of the weekend is a clash of the sublime and the ridiculous; a clash that sometimes fuses the two into something inextricable. On the sublime side, Chic prompt a stage invasion of grooving sailors for ‘Good Times’, leaving the DJ to play ‘Get Lucky’ once Nile Rodger’s scarpered. Johnny Marr shows Merchandise how you really emulate The Smiths with ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘There Is A Light…’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and a raft of cult-inspiring new album crackers. But Merchandise themselves – like the fabulous Jaws on Sunday – sound more like a funk-pop Kitchens Of Distinction or New Fast Automatic Daffodils (YouTube ’em).
The ridiculous? That’ll be Saturday’s headliner Snoop Dogg, thinking he can sidle into the festival big league on Jay Z’s coat-tails, bringing only a few major hits (‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’, ‘Gin And Juice’, ‘Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)’) and a handful of verses he’s spat for Calvin Harris, Katy Perry and Dre. His spiritual reincarnation as Rasta dope deity Snoop Lion dives to dreary dancehall depths, and the highpoint is 30 seconds of House Of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. He even has a lap-dance onstage, looking every inch as pathetic as that image suggests.
Oh yes, and the fusions. A camp exercise instructor insists we waggle our genitals in preparation for The Knife’s ‘Shaking The Habitual’ show, which consists of evil rave monks doing kung fu and drumming on wonky canoes for an hour. It’s the best piece of anti-personality art to happen to faux-authentic, press-play-on-the-mix-CD dance music for decades.
And there’s Elton John, of course. In his spangly jacket he plonks out ‘Bennie And The Jets’, ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Rocket Man’ and other slabs of delicious ’70s cheese, a credible cult icon again for the two hours he’s moored up within these mind-bending fences. HMS Bestival, you have broken our brains again. Sail on.