Isle Of Wight Festival celebrated the 10th Anniversary of its re-launch this past weekend by allowing its own audience to pick the headliners, and by compiling a line up which simultaneously captured the decline of innovation within pop culture, while celebrating its unifying powers.
Isle Of Wight, more so than any other festival, encapsulates the core contradiction of our age. It celebrates modernity, everything from food stalls to hot air balloons are plastered with corporate logos, the entire event was filmed in 3D for Sky Arts and the headliners were decided by an internet poll (Kings Of Leon, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chilli Peppers were the top vote getters). In so many ways this festival couldn’t have less to do with 1968’s ramshackle and defiantly earthy affair.
Today’s Festival revels in technology and transience, and yet it is rooted in, and defined by, nostalgia. Foo Fighters strut with Zeppelin-eke showmanship, as Kasabian and the Vaccines’ attempt to capture the sound and spirit of by gone eras, while Beady Eye pilfer the past without the slightest a whiff of reinterpretation. Then there’s the literal nostalgia: Iggy Pop, a reformed PiL, Jeff Beck, Nick Lowe, Boy George, ABC, the list goes on and on. Whether it’s the torn fragments of an Irish-pop trend you barely remember (Sharon and Andrea Corr) or the show stopping centre piece, Pulp’s reunion and live return; this festival is consumed by the past. Retro-futurism at its finest and at its most obnoxiously derivative.
The festival certainly started on a bright enough note, while The Courteeners, the first of many (and I mean many) lad rock bands blustered on the Main Stage to a receptive audience, Imelda May played to an inordinately large crowd in the Big Top. Her artistry may have been pedestrian but her enthusiasm was unquestionable as she led the crowd through a flighty retro-pop set full of crowd interaction and call and repeat choruses.
The Pierces were inexplicably removed from the line up necklaces, meaning that their stylish brand of refitted folk-fusion pop went unheard. The Kaiser Chiefs, who headlined the Main Stage in 2008 seemed to have approached crisis point just three years on from their biggest triumph. If there was any weight or burden ofexpectation they rose above it effortlessly, intermixing their terser new material with an unending supply of singalong classics that served to remind the crowd just why the Kaisers were so beloved in the first place, succeeding in the exact same sub-headline slot that cemented Razorlight’s plight in 2009.
The ever-surly Kings Of Leon had a lot to prove after their dismal performance at Reading in 2009. A legendary failure, which saw the band pouring scorn on an already jilted audience, before bizarrely choosing to pull BBC Three’s festival feed just seconds after they left the stage.
Tonight however, the Kings were transformed, Caleb was still meek and uncomfortable, but he was anything but unhappy. Constantly thanking a ravenous crowd, saying how impressed he was with the Isle Of Wight faithful, even giving a speech where he claimed, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, that he’s finally beginning to enjoy his job, going as far as to say that he has more fun than anyone else when he’s on a festival stage. Well you certainly wouldn’t think it.
The Kings repay a loyal audience with a carefully orchestrated set that placed emotional resonance and soaring strained guitar work ahead of fast paced thrills. “Pyro” was beautiful, creating a unifying coo-a-thon only matched by the tried and tested “Use Somebody”. At their best Kings Of Leon offer a blue-print for poignant 21st Century stadium rock that plays to the back rows; mixing skyscraper riffage (“Crawl”) and understated balladry (“Fans”) with mammoth sing-alongs (“Sex On Fire”) and sudden injections of energy (“Black Thumbnail”).
The problem? After opening with a rough and ready onslaught of Southern indie rawk, the Kings slow the pace and simply refuse to pick it up for the best part of an hour. The craftsmanship and the marriage of tone and texture is unquestionable, but if the Kings want to challenge Muse in the live arena they simply have to vary the pace, or go the root of U2 and write huge undeniable hooks, perhaps foregoing their much their heralded restraint.
Having missed Lizzie’s genre hopping blend of country, folk and straight pop, and forgoing Hurts’ pitifully pedestrian post-Pet Shop Boys synth pop, we head in the direction of The Vaccines. Who were in the process of finishing a set which drew an inconceivably mammoth mid day crowd. Wild Beasts weren’t so lucky, and were greeted by a strong, but ultimately half full mid day crowd. Not to be deterred they mixed the urgent yelping social commentary of Two Dancers with a range of subtly layered arrangements from the brilliant Smother. Mixing shimmering guitar lines, with razor sharp keys and a series of sensational drum rhythms, they won over an intrigued crowd, just in time for two celebratory renditions of “Hooting And Howling” and “All The King’s Men”. Proof that innovation and modernity can still find a home on the Isle Of Wight.
As if the choice between five of music’s young leading lights, be they retrospective (The Vaccines, Hurts), innovative (Stornoway, Wild Beasts) or somewhere in between (Lizzie), was too radical a proposition, Isle Of Wight reverted to type as The Cult thrilled the Big Top and Mike And The Mechanics lulled the main stage crowd into a trance like sway. For thirty-five minutes The Mechanics cantered through a set so shamefully middle of road it would be labeled bland by The Script fans.
Before Mike Rutherford wisely turned to Genesis’ “I Can’t Dance” and “Follow You Follow Me” to ignite a sleepy crowd into staggeringly feverish action. Another sure sign that Genesis could be a future Isle Of Wight headliner.
Parade provided further evidence that they are not the next Saturdays let alone Girls Aloud as they screeched through vapid renditions of Ceo-Lo Green’s “Forget You” and their own quasi-hit “Louder”. On the main stage Seasick Steve rambled through his set, introducing John Paul Jones as a guest onstage, but only offered the same old stories and the same old set. Fascinating for newcomers, tiresome for veterans.
Iggy And The Stooges could play the same songs every night from now until the end of time and never risk being labeled tiresome. Iggy was in electric form, forcibly dragging side of stage VIP’s, including a very uncomfortably Dave Grohl, onstage during a ragged “Shake Appeal”, and spending the majority of the set either dancing maniacally or in the sweaty embrace of the front row. “Search And Destroy” was a violent cry, “No Fun” a sing along anthem, and “1970” a warped and uncomfortable delight. Leaving to chants of “Iggy, Iggy, Iggy” The Stooges proved that even in front of an uncertain MOR crowd, they can still triumph.
It could have been the androgynous stripteases, the macabre carnal obsession or the harden live sound, but something made Pulp seem more relevant, more vital and more modern than any band not named Wild Beasts on today’s line up. Cocker strode on stage inciting a mass sing-a-long to “Do You Remember The First Time?” and unbelievably it felt not like the first time, not like a rosy reflection, instead it felt contemporary, and it felt urgent.
Jarvis, in between complimenting the Boy Scouts and giving us a brief history of the Isle Of Wight, sculpted a setlist that took the viewer on a journey, through hedonistic delights, dark sexual urges and drug fuelled parties to kitchen sink reality, everyday mediocrity and soul crushing disappointment. Pulp presented a narrative, focusing not so much on any one sound, but instead on sexual discovery and exploration through life. Cutting through the decades and speaking to today’s experience.
The performances was magnificent, “I Spy” was delightfully uncomfortable, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E” was the undoubted set highlight booming across the festival field shifting mood and tone at will, and well, “Common People” was the moment everyone knew it would be. Pulp’s glory, however, was cemented by the vulgar and burgeoning “This Is Hardcore” and the arresting “Sunrise”, as Jarvis and company respected the crowd’s intelligence and held their attention with high drama and impeccable atmospherics. Pulp are a must see act come Reading and Leeds.
Tom Jones’ resurgence showed no signs of stopping as he took to the stage on Big Top, not intimidated at the prospect of going head to head with the Foo Fighters he drew a jam packed crowd, and treated them to the finest cuts from Praise And Blame. Jones’ has struck a masterful balance between considered reinterpretations of soulful country classics and his irresistible subtly reworked classics “Green Green Grass Of Home” and “Delilah”.
Subtlety was not the order of the day as Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters put in a petulant performance on the main stage. Grohl was particularly unbearable, throwing out pedantic platitudes and tiresome clichés as he attempted to convince a reverent crowd that The Foos were in fact the Led Zeppelin of the 21st Century with a never ending array of unimpressive solos, drum fills and riff battles. Worse still he turned his attention to Coldplay for no discernable reason, before throwing out a ludicrous jab in Radiohead’s direction declaring his music “real” because it didn’t use computers.
Grohl’s neurosis overwhelms his performance, not satisfied with legions of adoring fans, the respect of his peers, and record sales in the millions; he desperately yearns to be considered important, innovative and essential, but he simply isn’t. Instead of, say penning a revolutionary LP, he apes his heroes; mimicking The Who and copying Led Zeppelin pose for pose, while mocking genuine forward thinking artists, not realising it was the irreplaceable originality that made his heroes great, and not the poses they struck.
When the Foo Fighters put their grander aspirations to one side, and content themselves in being the fun loving Foo Fighters, they are truly sensational, and in “All My Life”, “Best Of You” and “Everlong” (played straight) they posses an unbeatable finale, capable of sending 50,000 strong crowds home happy anywhere in the world.
Pixie Lott dressed for the summer, remained sheltered from the storm as the crowd drowned in the rain, as did any enthusiasm for her entirely passable set. Plan B clearly got the memo, the field is flooded, about ten thousand people have gone home or stayed in their tents, and a jolt of energy is required. The London rapper provided it mixing cheesy beat boxing with big hits like “Stay Too Long” and a medley of crowd pleasing sing-a-long classics, including a drum and bass remix of Seal’s “Kissed By A Rose”. A desperately needed and thoroughly enjoyable set, but not anything that would warrant a sub-headline slot at V.
Hadouken were awful and still are awful, as their derivative electro-clash was lost on a disinterested crowd sheltering from the storm. Even stolen chord progressions from both The Beatles and The Who, as well as some pinched melodies from David Bowie, couldn’t stop Beady Eye’s derivative drivel from underwhelming a small main stage crowd.
Public Image Limited fared far better, displaying John Lydon’s true artistry with their genre splicing post-punk attack that still sounds revolutionary some thirty years on. Despite battling sound issues and having to go off stage, they put on a master class in proto-noise rock, layering sawing guitars, German synths, irresistible bass grooves and dance rhythms into a glorious and at times frightening whole. Metal Box standouts “Swanlake” and “Albatross” were the obvious highlights but Lydon’s intoxicating punk preacher rant “Religion II” proved a demonic show stealer.
Faced with a half empty crowd and a torrential downpour, Kasabian strove to live up to their headline status, and at least in the crowd’s eyes they succeeded. Conjuring mass sing-a-longs to hits “Fire” and “Empire”, at times Kasabian looked the real deal as “Vlad The Impaler” consumed the field and with newee “Velociraptor!” feeling suitably mammoth. Unfortunately these moments proved fleeting, Kasabian struggled with a terribly quiet bass mix as Tom Meighan yearned for the approval of the crowd rather than earning or commanding it, he appeared desperate and out of his depth. Liam Gallagher may have many flaws, but he owns the stage, his presence demands respect while Meighan simply pleaded for it.
Kasabian’s plight was worsened by a lack of good material. “Fast Fuse” proves insufferably thin in the live arena, more boorish and tiresome than on record, whereas pleasant hits “LSF” and “Shoot The Run” feel flimsy and insubstantial in a headline position. Kasabian still feel like sub-headliners elevated to a headline slot, they don’t exude confidence and their front man clearly isn’t comfortable as his insecurities shine through. Despite flashes of brilliance their music struggles to translate at this level, and rain or no, had Foo Fighters played the Sunday slot 20,000 people would not have walked away, nor would the extra 5,000 or so who wondered off during Kasabian’s set. Kasabian remain the front runners, but they’ll have to step up their game if they hope to tame Reading and Leeds in the coming years.
Strictly Our Opinion: Isle Of Wight 2011 was the perfect representation of today’s crisis in popular culture. Modernity and retrospection have become inseparable, as the latter continues to consume the former. Kings Of Leon continued their evolution, Foo Fighters worked through a mid life crisis, and Kasabian struggled as Wild Beasts, Pulp and Public Image Ltd. reminded us that innovation transcends any one era in its brilliance.
Still with plenty of thrills, some stand out sets and a line up that clearly satisfied its audience Isle Of Wight’s 10th Anniversary is one to be proud of, but one that neither helped nor hindered the festival’s continued pursuit of both consistency and an identity to call its own. [3.0/5.0]