As an Isle of Wight native, I’ve seen Bestival grow from a small, sparky young thing in 2004 to the vast, fiery dragon it is today. I worried that my favourite festival was about to grow so big that it would collapse in on itself, like a soufflé. Thankfully, a new site layout meant that this year there was enough space for the neon hordes to spread out and relax, and plenty of fun pockets to escape to, leading to arguably the best Bestival yet. There are so many things to love about this festival: the fancy dress, the friendly, silly ethos, the obvious care that goes into everything from the beautiful site design to the tasty food stalls, and above all the eclectic, inspired lineup.
Bestival-goers come in many flavours, but are often massive music nerds; turn up to see Steve Mason and you’ll meet a crowd of happy Beta Band fans doing the same. The only unifying theme is that most of the acts will make you want to dance, hard and fast. This year, organiser Rob Da Bank strode the spectrum from Rolf Harris to Dizzee Rascal: among other things there was hard rock, pop, electronica, gypsy swing, rap and, of course, folk in many incarnations.
Spindle & Wit attracted an excitable, bouncy audience at the Bandstand with a spirited, thumping set, sweet female vocals contrasting nicely with a more raucous and Mumford-esque male voice. They were endearingly surprised by the enthusiastic crowd, and a tentative offer of free Spindle & Wit bags resulted in a mini-stampede. Lulu and the Lampshades similarly beguiled their crowd at the Bimble Inn, playing an impressive array of instruments including a kind of tiny harp, tin breakfast bowls and what looked like part of a typewriter. A power failure forced an impromptu rendition of ‘Cups’ which was one of the highlights of my weekend, after which they completed their set to unanimous bliss and jigging about.
The most unusual find of the weekend was Laura J. Martin, who is like a tiny northern pixie. If you dislike cute things, you’d be advised to stay away, but she’s quite brilliant, trilling and looping her voice and various instruments (such as mandolin, xylophone and flute) into an intriguing, delicately layered sound that may be unique; despite clear influence from Jethro Tull and Kate Bush, I’ve not seen a performer quite like her.
In more familiar territory, Lissie was impassioned and impressive, easily filling the Rock & Roll tent, but I sadly missed Beth Jeans Houghton, Stornoway, The Shutes and, maddeningly, surprise guests Bombay Bicycle Club. Wild Beasts and Mumford and Sons both played to huge crowds; the Mumfords have ascended to become a veritable boyband of folk, their set preceded by at least three girls baring their breasts. There’s nothing so fun as tempting nice Christian boys to sin, it seems. The band took to the stage as musketeers, winning extra points for fancy dress, along with Jonsí, who delivered sweeping, ethereal beauty in the Big Top while wearing a giant feathery headdress.
The absolute highlight of the weekend, however, was Villagers. Frontman Conor J. O’Brien rapped his guitar for luck and proceeded to effortlessly strike everyone present into awe. On a surface listen, he could stand accused of angst, but O’Brien is unapologetic and unaffected. He knew that he was worth our time, and threw his whole being into proving it, strumming and singing and howling as if he’d just ripped his heart out through his throat, then subsiding into moments of intimate directness. ‘Pieces’ reached such a pitch that it became at once agonised and uplifting, a moment of overwhelming catharsis. There’s nothing like a singer who can deliver a kick straight from the heart to the solar plexus, and the rest of the band were wild as jackals, too. Intensely moving and unforgettable.
Finally, a shout for the other acts, folky or otherwise, who pleased and/or intrigued, all well worthy of your eyes and ears: Hot Chip, Fever Ray, Unicorn Kid, Floors and Walls, Starless And Bible Black, O Children, Muchuu, Hugo Frusslinsky, Sound of Rum and Sparrow & the Workshop. And a big cheer for the whole spirit of Bestival: onwards onwards, ears open, cape flying, with glowsticks in both fists.
Words: Becky Varley-Winter