All Photographs by Merlin Jobst
If there’s one thing we’ve realised this weekend, it’s that British festivals are categorically cliquey. Generally, it’s these cliques that make them ongoing successes to the followings they individually build up; the more underground alternative music fans gathering for your The Great Escapes and your End of the Roads while Radio 1 playlist addicts hit up V Festival. The more folk-and-indie-influenced young adults and quiet, contemporary families settle into Green Man, and the all-round alternative rock fans take over Reading and Leeds. Generally, this is what makes these weekends such an immersive experience; you’re utterly absorbed into a once-in-a-year experience with a few, or more accurately many thousands, of your peers and nobody else. At the very end of the festival season, however, nestled further south than any other, there’s Bestival. Who makes up Bestival’s crowd? Well, frankly, it’s all of the above, and it’s both a blessing and a curse.
With a line-up boasting artists from all corners of the modern musical spectrum, on September 6th the four day extravaganza welcomes over 50,000 attendees of many musical dispositions into its festooned belly; one that seems, at first glance, to be incomprehensibly huge. In terms of land, it is certainly more spacious than the likes of Reading has ever even approached, and yet, somehow, one of the major problems with this year’s Bestival is just that; space. Centrally, the festival site’s layout is bizarre, with the Main Stage’s resting place opposite the Big Top tent – the two most densely populated venues of the weekend – making the whole area an absolute nightmare to navigate when bands perform in the day and flat-out dangerous in the dark when high-profile acts play headline sets. Friday night’s performance by The xx sees the entirety of the main portion of the arena so crammed that, in the twenty-five minutes it takes us to navigate our way out from the halfway point of the crowd to somewhere we can stand safely, we encounter three teenagers crying out for somebody to find them some water – which is, bafflingly, something stalls are forbidden from giving out – and a girl, passed out, supported by friends with absolutely no physical way of getting her to safety.
The blessing of this apparent ‘catering to everybody’ ethic, however, is that there is more truly effervescent life in the rest of Bestival’s gorgeous site than at any other event we’ve seen all year. Struggle past the central field of the site in any direction and you’ll find yourself amongst beautifully laid-out, vibrant splashes of colour in the forms of as much entertainment, food, atmosphere and natural beauty as a festival-goer could wish for. Take, for example, the Ambient Forest – a winding maze of paths through delightfully unadulterated forest scenery, and home to a bar beside a pond which, when shrouded in darkness and scattered with the lights from a far-above disco ball, is genuinely breathtaking. Or, take Solace; a small, furnished tent at the very tip of a hellishly steep hill – itself hosting a small pavilion-like ‘Bandstand’ stage – run by a community of kind-hearted individuals who spend the whole weekend rewarding more investigative attendees with free home-made cakes and tea and a place to recuperate. Or, hell, take the fact that the festival has an actual real-life roller disco in a field that also hosts a Bollywood tent, cocktail bar, catwalk, helter skelter and record shop. Not a layout to be sniffed at.
However, there’s real issues inherent in creating ‘something for everybody’ – ‘everybody’ is a hell of a lot of people to cram together in one space, miles away from the rest of the country, for over four days. Outward journey and waiting times from mainland are invariably dreadful – long queues for just about everything from the one easily-findable water point to the one cash machine area seem to be a running theme throughout the weekend – and reports of journeys home taking over sixteen hours have been coming in from all sides. It’s also a sad fact that, with this many people, there is invariably a fair share of crime, with many tents nearest the festival site being rifled through and robbed whilst inhabitants slept – ours being one of them.
Bestival’s bacon is thankfully brought home, however, by music; the artists that Bestival have drawn in this year are sublime. It’s kicked off for us with a late, deliciously groovy set on Thursday night from Alabama Shakes, with an audience literally spilling out of and climbing up the ropes of the enormous Big Top, and resumed the following morning by First Aid Kit, who, clad in pale blue dresses that match the cloudless sky, both sonically and aesthetically embody delicacy whilst bringing massively entertaining energy to their delightful performance.
Of course, there’s a huge amount else on offer. Gallows, for example, know that they’re probably the most out-of-place band on the lineup – it eggs them on to deliver an unforgettable production, with Wade MacNeil and Stephen Carter flinging themselves from the stage, through the photo pit, to the sweat-bathed audience they’ve successfully stirred up. It’s down to Alt-J – who have clearly exploded since being booked and pack out the tiny Replay stage with a manic audience – and Florence & the Machine to make the rest of Friday. Say what you like about the flame-haired headliner – her dramatic, diva-like performance is mind-blowingly effective.
Another stand-out show is brought by the Earth Wind & Fire Experience on Saturday night, who deliver some of the finest vocals we’ll hear all weekend and whose ridiculously feel-good vibes get the entire arena happily dancing with one another. We’re also bowled over by Bat for Lashes, whose set is simply out of this world, with her exquisite voice mesmerising the audience as, resplendent in a fairy tale-like dress, she drapes herself over the stage.
It’s certainly the diversity of the lineup that creates the unusually varied crowd, with artists like Sigur Rós bringing a very specific music fan base to Bestival. As most who’ve seen the band live will tell you, it’s not an easy experience to sum up in a few words; despite issuing an apologetic statement regarding their set afterwards, the Icelandic enigmas are downright otherworldly, with renditions of ‘Festival’ and ‘Í Gær’ bringing the entire arena to a quivering standstill.
It’s heartening to look out over the vast crowd on Sunday night to see an uncountable number of young people dancing euphorically to Stevie Wonder, whose set is really just one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that you’ll tell your kids about someday, and certainly brag about to anybody who’ll listen back home. The motown legend moves through a seriously personal two-hour-long set, with speeches regarding racism and covers of songs by both The Beatles and Alicia Keys tucked amongst his classics garnering euphoric reactions.
So, Bestival may want to consider targeting a more specific clientele in coming years or risk becoming another ‘festival giant’ and losing the good-natured atmosphere already slowly drying up, causing people to filter off to smaller, safer festivals that are easier to access and, more to the point, catered more specifically to the natures of their own social scenes. However, this year’s event, closed on Sunday by gorgeous fireworks and gargantuan cannon-blasts of confetti over the main stage, has been a display of organisational guts like no other, and Bestival are to be commended for wanting to share their phenomenal vision with as many people as possible.