Bestival day one: Kelela, Jorja Smith, and Rob da Bank tells us what’s new for 2018

Bestival kicked off on Thursday night – the festival’s second year on its new site on the Lulworth Estate in Dorset – with entrancing sets by Kelela and Jorja Smith.

This year, the festival marks its fifteenth anniversary with a circus-theme, and is celebrating its longevity with the “biggest ever” finale on Sunday night – complete with flame-carrying tightrope walkers.

Although Bestival’s sister festival Camp Bestival closed early last Sunday because of bad weather, the site seems to have recovered well. Bestival co-founder Rob da Bank, told NME (see full interview below) that organisers had to call-off the festival for safety reasons because it was “just so windy,” adding that the rain had “spruced up the grass” for this weekend’s event as festival goers weren’t allowed onto the arena site on the last day.

Kelela: bopping, waving and mesmerizing

Kelela at Bestival’s The Big Top on Thursday. (Neelam Khan Vela)

Opening with her pop-driven track ‘LMK,’ Kelela sways in a beam of white light at The Big Top, captivating an overly-excited Thursday night crowd (will someone please tell them it’s only the first day?). The next 45-minutes are a demonstration as to why the R&B singer has been catapulted to the forefront of the R&B scene, since the release of her critically-acclaimed debut album ‘Take Me Apart’ in October (read the four-star NME review here). Moving around the stage in a trance-like state, Kelela has an aura of mystery about her that fills listeners with an unquenchable curiosity. She’s enthralling. And fresh. And exciting.

The 35-year old also has enough experience to hold her own. Slower tracks like ‘Better,’ put Kelela’s vocal range centre stage,with her high-notes piercing the heart just as much as the heartbreaking lyrical content. She tells the audience: “Someone once told me to really hold off on ballads at a festival…if you don’t get a ballad, you’re not an R&B fan.”

On set-closer ‘Rewind,’ Kelela oscillates and waves her arms in hypnotising motions, executing the song with as smoothly as a French guillotine. This Washington DC-born artist is completely deserved of her international breakthrough this past year  –  she’s slick and gripping and invigorating – and, if anything, is worthy of more attention than she gets. It feels like she’s only just getting started.

Jorja Smith: sleek and soulful

Jorja Smith performing at Bestival on Thursday night. (Neelam Khan Vela)

Despite taking to the stage at 1am, the 21-year from Walsall draws in a packed-out audience. The R&B singer, who released her debut album ‘Lost & Found’ in June, channels Amy Winehouse with her smokey, sensual vocals, soaring over big beats and heart-tremoring basslines. She’s confident and perky, probably spurred on by her success this year (she bagged the BRITs Critics Choice Award in February and ended up co-writing a song with Kendrick Lamar on the acclaimed Black Panther soundtrack that same month). Her rendition of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ is a crowd-pleaser, although another cover later in the set – Frank Ocean’s ‘Lost’ – was a bit too much, falling flat on the audience. Closing with her catchiest tune ‘Blue Lights,’ which highlights racism in the police, Smith – with a row of sold-out shows coming up – looks primed for a big break.

Q&A with Bestival co-founder Rob da Bank

How are you this morning?

Bank: “Urgh, a little bit frazzled. Obviously we had Camp Bestival last weekend, then we had a couple of good night’s sleep, and then we built this. And I always get overexcited on the first night, had a few drinks, and yeah, I wanna see everything in action. So it was quite a late night and early morning.”

What’s new at Bestival this year?

Bank: “It’s the circus [theme this] year, so there’s three different circus rings out there with some incredible hire-wire activity and people flaming hire-wires and stuff. We’ve got a temple, which is sort of in a field on its own, which is looking pretty incredible. We’ve got Rob & Josie’s Gin Festival, which is maybe a middle-class addition to the festival. And, yeah, we’ve really upped the food and drink. [There’s a] vegan corner, that’s proved really popular, there’s loads of vegan food on site. And, yeah, all our favourite stages from the last 15 years.”

It’s Bestival’s second year on Lulworth Estate. How has the transition been?

Bank: “Last year was great, but a bit wet, so we couldn’t really see it in its full glory last year. So it’s really nice to have a beautiful, sunny weekend to just kind of see it come alive. I spoke to a lot of people yesterday that came six or seven years ago to Bestival on the Isle of Wight, and they were like: ‘Wow, this is fantastic. Back to its roots.’

“We basically just saved everything from the last fifteen years and brought it all together on this yeah. And I think it’s working really well.”

Have fans stayed loyal to Bestival since it moved site? Or have you attracted a new fanbase in the local area?

Bank: “Yeah, I think it’s a mish-mash, where there’s loads of people from Dorchester, Cornwall, Devon and Hampshire – and our Isle of Wight faithful.”

How has the site recovered from last week’s early end at Camp Bestival?

Last weekend we had three incredible sunny days. Everyone had an absolute blast. And then we didn’t actually let anyone back onto the site on the Sunday because it was just so windy. Tents were blowing down and stuff. So, yeah, they didn’t even touch the site after it had rained a little bit – and it’s spruced up the grass, everything’s got a bit greener…It was kind of perfect in a way.

“Obviously we would have loved to have done that last day at Camp Bestival, but hardly anyone has had an issue with it. They knew it was the safe thing to do. And everyone’s got kids, and you just don’t want to be walking around in a near-hurricane with small children. So, yeah, I think we sort of got away with it. And this weekend looks like it’s going to be a roaster.”

Jorja Smith at The Big Top on Thursday night. (Neelam Khan Vela)

What’s new for 2018?

Organisers have introduced a couple of new venues this year, including House of Vans, where The Big Moon will play a smaller set – after playing on the main stage – on Friday evening. There’s a new ska DJ stage, Skaravanserai, at Caravanserai, too. As Rob mentioned, Bestival is also holding a gin festival for the first time – called Rob & Josie’s Gin Festival – showcasing more than 50 local and international gins.

Activities-wise, the festival has put on “Dubstep Dodgems” – basically driving dodgems to dubstep – at the Cuckoo Clump, and will have camel rides on the lawn on Friday. Those wanting to relax should head for some “Aerial yoga” – yoga in slow motion using a hammock. But there’s only five spaces per session, and you need to book ahead.

There is a circus-theme this year, so organisers have got a host of performers performers putting on shows across the weekend. There will be a human cannonball, and a firework display around Lulworth Castle, just before London Grammar take to the stage on Saturday. Punters can learn how to use a trapeze at Gorilla Circus & Flying Trapeze School and strongman Leopold Aleksander will have performances at a few venues over the festival. There’s the Caravan of Lost Souls, a Victorian-style sideshow, which has featured at Camp Bestival before, too.

The festival is also priding itself on its “biggest ever” finale this year on Sunday night, which features fire-carrying tight-rope walkers, dancers with LED umbrellas, and a choir. As usual, Bestival has pulled out the world’s largest disco ball and the world’s biggest confetti cannon, which will be used during acts like M.I.A., Grace Jones, and Silk City (Diplo and Mark Ronson).