In partnership with Wide Awake
Billing itself as “a celebration of independent music and counterculture”, Wide Awake has occupied Brockwell Park – a chunky expanse of park between south London’s Brixton and Herne Hill – since 2021. Though the festival’s “counterculture” credentials feel a little more dubious (the expensive, Brewdog-stocked bars, and various other big brand presences around the site hardly scream rebellion) it’s certainly true that Wide Awake succeeds in pulling together a completely unique bill that stands out in a very crowded field. Alongside more established alternative acts like Jockstrap, Daniel Avery, Viagra Boys, and Black Country, New Road, there are plenty of genuinely brilliant surprises: from Polish techno artist VTSS to the Belarus’ Russian-language post-punks Molchat Doma.
On the main stage, Blondshell brings her wry-witted take on grunge to a sun-soaked crowd, opening with the spiny ‘Veronica Mars’ before plunging into last month’s self-titled debut album. An understated, unshowy performer Sabrina Teitelbaum lets her smarting one-liners do the talking (case in point, ‘Sepsis’’ opening line: “I’m going back to him, I know my therapist’s pissed / We both know he’s a dick”). Across the park, Moth Club’s tent is overflowing with punters for Cola – the knotty new post-punk band of former Ought members Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy. Their angular debut record ‘Deep In View’ comes into its own live.
Back at the Wide Awake stage, Grammy-winner Arooj Aftab shifts things up with a mesmerising early-afternoon set. The Pakistan-born and Brooklyn-based composer, singer and producer’s compositions are beautiful and tinged with sorrow, drawing on jazz, and traditional folk with a touch of modern classical for good measure. Despite her set being located in the middle of several huge clashes, Tirzah initially pulls a huge crowd at Moth Club – but a mass exodus follows due to the incredibly poor sound.
On the festival’s biggest stage, Alex G has an easy and entertaining presence, with a set that mostly focuses on 2022’s ‘God Save The Animals’. The cherry on top of the indie-rock cake, though, is an understated surprise appearance by Wide Awake headliner Caroline Polachek, singing backing vocals on ‘Mission’. A couple more curveball moments like this might’ve been welcome in a steady set that gets Brockwell Park swaying.
At Village Underground’s stage – the de facto destination for dance – Oneohtrix Point Never delves into meditative electronic soundscapes before Joy Orbison takes proceedings in a more playful direction. It all leads the way nicely to Shygirl, who’s in impeccable form. Prepared with an abundance of confetti, retro Word Art video screens and a BSL interpreter who appears to be having the time of her life signing along to ‘Coochie (a bedtime story)’ and ‘Shlut’, Blane Muise also brings out collaborator Deto Black for their ‘Nymph_o’ remix of ‘Nike’.
Closing things out is a task left to Polachek, and her backdrop full of mountain slopes. They give her stage the vague feel of a school play, or the travelling set for a roving production of The Sound of Music. Vocally, she is sublime, effortlessly flying up the octaves of ‘Sunset’ and ‘Ocean Of Tears’, and beaming as ‘Bunny is a Rider’ and ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ set the whole field ablaze.
Throughout, Polachek seems humbled by her first ever turn as a festival headliner. It’s true that she’s never really had an opportunity like this before. Less established than some of the other names on the bill, with just two albums to her name and a slight back catalogue of left-field, slightly niche pop, it feels like a bold booking decision. It’s also a commendable one that pays off in spades; she nails this huge milestone moment.