Bestival: Intergalactic Funksmanship and Noise Freakouts

[28 September 2008]

By Cole Stryker

When sleepless and sober, every pie-eyed reveller is the enemy: The blonde girl who took a bad combination of uppers and downers who looks like she could kiss me or puke on me; the twitching punter I try to avoid because he looks like he’s ready to throw elbows, but instead gives me a big bear hug; the grumpy security guards who made me move my tent three times in order to facilitate drainage; the Strongbow-nursing trio blasting crappy drum and bass at 5:00 am; and the giggling guy who struts out of the outhouse and tries to shake my hand. I’m not an antisocial guy, but like Paul Hackett in After Hours I’m not asking for much—I just want to go to bed.

Upon my arrival on the Isle of Wight, the heavens opened, drenching me, my belongings, and my half-assembled tent, which I somehow managed to pitch at the sonic confluence of several stages, so competing bass lines shook the ground beneath me throughout the night.

Speaking about the weather, festival curator Rob da Bank said, “Obviously people are going to moan about the rain but I’ve been to enough muddy Glastonbury’s to know that things always come good in the end. I’ve had loads of people come up to me and say this is actually the best Bestival they’ve ever been to. Onwards and upwards!”

It’s quite possible that Mr. da Bank then went back to his hotel and took a hot shower.

OK, enough whining. Despite some of the worst weather in decades, this year’s Bestival showcased some terrific bands who made us forget about the inclement weather for a few moments. Though many festivalgoers left in droves to escape the rain, those who stayed made a point to enjoy the event twice as much. The theme of the festival was “30,000 Freaks Under the Sea.” I saw a battalion of zombie mariners, steampunk deep sea divers, a school of Nemo clownfish, a dozen Spongebobs, and my personal favorite—a fully-staffed Team Zissou.

DAY 1

Transglobal Underground

You know that awful place that your new girlfriend suckers you into on date number three? That one where you pick out overpriced individual beads from an enormous caboodle in order to craft your own personalized jewellery? This is the music that plays on that store’s tinny shelf stereo. It’s innocuous world fusion for an adult audience who “loves ethnic food” and “trying new things.” There’s a white guy with a shaved head and a goatee in this band. He plays keyboard. What more do you need to know?

Jamie Lidell

I last saw Lidell in Philadelphia, performing in a bathrobe and slippers. He records vocal snippets and distorts them in real time, layering James Brown yelps on top of choruses of Al Green falsetto. Songs begin as straightforward album interpretations, gradually mutating into noisy, psychedelic symphonies of cleverly repurposed sounds. It would be thrilling to hear this on a studio effort—to see this sonic whirlwind form before your eyes is sublime.

Ladyhawke

Not to be confused with Vancouver’s Ladyhawk without an ‘e’, this New Zealand songbird brings updated ‘70s lite-rock to Bestival. She’s Stevie Nicks without the vocal chutzpah, and she’s training up a new generation of free-spirited moms.

Santogold

I had remained somewhat distant to the hype surrounding Santi White (aka Santogold); I missed her at Glastonbury and her animal-print and leggings image struck me as an M.I.A. knockoff. I was pleasantly surprised to find that White confidently occupies her own space. Flanked by two stone-faced schoolgirls who yanked their shining limbs and thrusted their torsos to minimalist beats, Santogold belted out strained yelps and half-bitten words over creepy dub and post-punk.

My Bloody Valentine

Four people in the crowd asked me who they were seeing as My Bloody Valentine took the stage. For a cult band on a long-awaited reunion tour on their home turf, the band did not seem to inspire the adoration they deserved. Oh well.

The quartet immediately put to rest the popular misconception that the band achieved its trademark sound by layering hundreds, or even just a few, guitar tracks. The sound of Loveless is in full effect tonight, with only the continuous wringing of the whammy bar and heavy distortion. Because I was situated front and center, I was only able to view the motionless Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields. After a few songs I fell back a few dozen rows in order to observe a writhing Debbie Googe and Colm O’Ciosoig thrashing away in the background. The band looked and sounded better from this vantage point.

The performance concluded with a 10+ minute noise refrain which sounded like a low-flying airplane tethered to the stage. It was a bit excessive.

There, I said it.

You won’t find a more enthusiastic MBV apologist, but really, ten minutes? I was devastated that they chose to end with this rather than “Sometimes”, the greatest song written by any band ever. Apart from this, the show lived up to my stratospheric expectations.

DAY 2

Gary Numan

What happened to you, Gary? Linkin Park should be bowing before you, not the other way around. In camouflage shorts and black eyeliner, Numan erased from my mind any remaining perception of his new wave cool during a set defined by crunchy, fat riffs and angst-y posturing.

Terry Hall and Friends

The first unannounced guest act was the Specials, who performed for the first time in almost 30 years—well, sans keyboardist Jerry Dammers. The show began with a short introductory film, which drew similarities between the economic, racial, and geopolitical quandaries of the late ‘70s and those of today, implying that the conditions are ripe for a Specials reunion. They played their self-titled debut in its entirety, with hits like “A Message to You, Rudy”, “Monkey Man, and “Too Much Too Young”, the lyrics of which seemed eerily appropriate for a modern audience. Lead vocalist Terry Hall made no effort to hide his apathy about the whole affair, wondering aloud, “I’ve waited 27 years to play for a bunch of king prawns?”

Grace Jones

The second secret performance of the festival was revealed to be Grace Jones, who looks more stunning than ever. (True Confessions: Her sharp visage and devilish smile scared the crap out of me as a kid.) She opened with “Nightclubbing”, the first of a few classics, including “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper”. She changed outfits between songs, each one skimpier than the one before, leaving the audience to marvel at both her fitness and her resistance to the icy wind.

Hot Chip

Electro outfit Hot Chip is a refreshing break from some of the festival’s ultra-serious house music. With costumes running the gamut from astronaut to puffy green dragon, the band brought a sense of humor that runs counter to the scene’s usual atmosphere of distanced cool. Their songs seem surprisingly straightforward pop when you remove the techno rebar. Hot Chip’s manic set concluded with a heartfelt remix of Prince-by-way-of-Sinead-O’Conner’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”.

Lee Scratch Perry

Because Perry performed in front of the DJ booth, tonight’s performance failed to showcase any of his innovations. He was never at his best as an MC, and today he looks like a grizzled old coot, muttering non-sequitur rhymes like “I fly so high / Up to the sky / like a butterfly / High high high / Bye bye bye”; a major letdown.

DAY 3

Sébastian Tellier

He counts disco heavyweights Daft Punk and Air as friends, but fails to impress. Hyper-sexualized, balding, and hairy, Sébastian Tellier plays forgettable synth-pop. Sure, he exudes cool Frenchisms—swilling a bottle of wine, tight white jeans, cool shades, but there’s little more to Tellier than his jokey, ‘80s playboy image. The world does not need another Har Mar Superstar.

Baaba Maal

None of this “fusion” rubbish here. Baaba Maal’s ecstatic set was a flurry of percussion and wild backup dancing. One of the more, uh, corpulent dancers would frequently lift up her blouse to reveal a shiny fat roll. She’d point at it and smile. I was rolling! I’ve never seen such a large woman move that quickly. The Senegalese bandleader coaxed a flurry of percussion and picked guitar for an hour, thoroughly washing the sound of world-beat fusion from the opening day out of my ears.

George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars

“It would be ludicrous to think that we are new to this / This is what we do”

With several original and near-original members of the Parliament/Funkadelic crew in tow, Mr. Lollipop (aka The Longhaired Sucker) descended from the top of the Chocolate Milky Way in order to do it to us in our ear holes (his words, not mine). I’m not sure if this English audience knew exactly what to expect. Black music diverged in the ‘70s—in the UK, the migrant Jamaican population brought reggae and ska, whereas in the US things got funky. Same soul roots, very different branches.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but when Gary Shider appeared in his diaper and Clinton started riffing about intergalactic funksmanship, there were plenty of “WTF” reactions from the audience. Still, once the music started, they couldn’t help but get caught up in that Mothership Connection. The ensemble played a few cuts from their most recent album along with standards like “Flashlight”, “Cosmic Slop”, and “We Got the Funk”, closing with a face-melting note-for-note recreation of Eddie Hazel’s incomparable “Maggot Brain” guitar solo.

Underworld

It’s fascinating how the nature of the music played so powerfully affects the mood of the audience. Underworld played a positive, heartfelt set, and those who looked like they were ready to throw elbows during last night’s disorienting Aphex Twin performance were nearly sobbing in each other’s arms. The duo ended their set with “Born Slippy”, their megahit featured prominently in 1996’s Trainspotting, before a fireworks display brought a close to the weekend. It was one of those, “all is right with the world” moments; an emotional high that helped to remove my aforementioned disdain for my fellow festival attendees.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/bestival-intergalactic-funksmanship-and-noise-freakouts/