Wide Awake in London: genre-defying sounds of the underground and a timeless headliner

Brockwell Park, May 27 - 28: a mix of new names and electronic dons makes for another stellar line-up in the capital

London’s future-facing Wide Awake festival is the last place you would expect to hear an eardrum-bursting jungle-punk interpretation of Girls Aloud’s 2003 pop hit ‘Sound of the Underground’. But, thanks to genre-fusing Bristolian polymath Grove, whose onslaught also includes dark and dirty UKG and ends with them charging into the crowd and being carried overhead, it’s transformed into a moshpit-inducing racket.

This cover choice reflects the festival’s ethos: to give a platform to rising, often sonically-challenging, artists across the entire music spectrum. Having taken home the Best Small Festival gong at this year’s BandLab NME Awards following an impressive 2021 debut, the festival expands to two days and there is somewhat of a genre split between them, albeit with some sonic overlaps. The first focuses on leftfield alt-pop, electronic music and club-ready techno, while the second is packed with exciting punk, rock and indie upcomers

Friday’s main stage gets underway with Alewya, who veers between rapping and singing during an at-first intimate set; her “saucy number” ‘Sweating’ turns up the heat to match the uncharacteristically scorching summer weather. It also ensures a sizeable crowd for the next two Radar-favourite bands: the pounding drum-and-synth-heavy experimental electro of PVA’s new single ‘Untethered’ ensures everyone is, as the festival instructs, Wide Awake, with lead singer Ella Harris crouching down and prowling like a heavier Bat For Lashes. The outdoor setting is at odds to their 3am-at-a-warehouse-rave concoction, but it works. Yorkshire’s Working Men’s Club follow suit with their New Order-style synth-heavy electro, the charismatic vocalist/guitarist Sydney Minsky-Sargeant stretching out on the floor before screaming over deep baselines on crowd favourite ‘Teeth’.

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Credit: Luke Dyson

The smaller Brixton Brewery tent, meanwhile, acts as a springboard for newer names like Jessica Winter, who adds intricate piano keys to her eerie retro-apocalyptic-pop soundscapes. Halfway through, the London-based performer (who recently toured with Lynks) ups the energy with the rave-y hedonism of ‘Do You Do You’ and closes with tears-on-the-dancefloor banger ‘Sad Music’.

Back on the main stage and sporting a floral headdress (which she later launches into the crowd), Sofia Kourtesis draws one of the biggest audiences of the day. Radiating positivity and tirelessly-energetic, the Peruvian producer and vocalist’s poignant and emotive track ‘La Perla’ has the whole audience clapping along (including her recent tour mates Caribou, who watch from the side of stage). You can tell the performance is incredibly special to Kourtesis as this year’s planned London live show was cancelled at the last minute due to Visa issues. Today, however, she makes up for lost time and, before leaving, kneels down appreciatively and praises the ground.

It’s a fitting precursor to Caribou’s blissful live show, too: peaking with euphoric hands-in-the-air anthems like ‘Sun’ and the constantly-building ‘You Can Do It’, it’s a delight, if slightly surreal, to see so many people on shoulders.

Then, it’s left to Bicep to close day one. Having elevated to festival headliner status off the back of their Number Two album ‘Isles’, the duo deliver a spellbinding technicolour rave. Literally towering over the crowd thanks to clever cubed staging, their light show is just as hypnotic as the transcendental productions, and the portal-like visuals are not dissimilar to the vortex from the Dr Who opening credits. Bicep’s kaleidoscopic trip takes in fan favourites ‘Atlas’, ‘Apricots’ and ‘Sundial’ as well as teasing several unreleased heavier tunes across a stunning 90-minute show that demonstrates the limitless potential of how vividly electronic music can be brought to life.

Delivering on its mission to cover the vast spectrum of underground music, Saturday is aimed at a totally different audience, meaning skin fades and Carharrt t-shirts are swapped for mullets and moustaches, for a day of (mostly) guitar bands. Katy J Pearson’s foot-tapping acoustic storytelling and instantly-catchy country-infused alt-pop tracks form perfect singalongs (particularly ‘Fix Me Up’ and ‘Alligator’) while Fatoumata Diawara spreads a message of “peace and love for all our children, and for all of us” with funk-laden instrumentation.

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It’s a complete contrast to Yard Act, whose swaggering Gallagher-esque frontman James Smith wins over the crowd with society-scrutinising commentary and deadpan wit about the cost of living crisis; “this is our 13th show in a row without a day off, it’s almost like working a proper job,” he jeers. Beers are flung into the air, moshpits break out all over and that’s before he brings out Katy and Nuha Ruby Ra for an unhinged cover of The Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner.’

Credit: Luke Dyson

Over in a packed Brixton Brewery tent, 10-piece multi-lingual band The Umlauts draw one of the biggest crowds to the smallest stages for their beguiling art-punk fusion, before Modern Woman deliver ethereal Kate Bush-style theatrics, with recent single ‘Juniper’ providing an intriguing peak into their world.

As the day goes on, things take a punkier turn. Brooklyn band Surfbort bring rowdy energy to the open-air So Young stage with their anarchic leader Dani Miller jumping among the audience. On the main stage, energetic Aussie scrappers Amyl and the Sniffers incite countless crowdsurfs, while Fat White Family deliver on their chaotic rock ‘n’ roll saviour status as topless, barefoot frontman Lias Saoudi screams and lies on the floor with his legs in the air while the band thrash around. Later, in a tented stage, and after a 30-minute delay, The Horrors’ noisy psych guitar squeals notch up the distortion so much that the bass rumbles through chests and vibrates the ground.

Up to this point, the weekend has mostly been a showcase for artists to watch out for. But one group that needs no introduction is Sunday’s headline act, Primal Scream. Performing as a full live band, and with four members of London’s House Gospel Choir “taking us to celestial heaven”, as natural showman Bobby Gillespie puts it, their 90-minute show runs through the entirety of their iconic 1991 album ‘Screamadelica’. Despite fuzzy sound issues that only the audience seems to notice, the band prevail – and the message of ‘Come Together’ remains just as important as when it was released two decades ago. Their encore, meanwhile, is packed with more of their biggest singalong hits. ‘Loaded’, ‘Country Girl’ and ‘Rocks’ close the second edition of Wide Awake in nostalgic singalong fashion.

It goes to show that, alongside all the next-wave talent on the expertly-curated line-up, there’s certainly an appetite for timeless classics. Wide Awake, then, has found the perfect balance between past, present and future.

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