Review: Isle of Wight Festival 2014

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The Isle of Wight Festival is one of the originals, a psychedelic funky beast from the 60s resurrected with modern technology and set loose on the British populace. This being the 16th (13th in modern parlance) incarnation, the festival organizers have had many chances to learn how to get things just right, and for the most part, we were well taken care of.

Our first hint of what might be in store for us came about long before we set foot on the island. In planning to set feet on the island, by way of booking ferry tickets, we found few seats left at reasonable hours on the Thursday, even a week before the event began. Flash forward a week and at 7 in the morning, the Red Falcon was stuffed to the feathers with eager party-goers. The ferry operators were in on the festivities too, offering an on-deck barbecue and a steady soundtrack of crowd-pleasing rock and pop. Bleary-eyed teens hauled bricks of Fosters and Strongbow on deck, strapped to hand carts and rucksacks. Some weathered old regulars got into the sauce early, flopping about, chatting, and generally enjoying the sun and sea air.

A 15.30 press check-in time gave us plenty of time to explore the northern parts of the island before heading to the festival site — with plenty to see and more than enough shops in Cowes and its environs. Transport between the port at Cowes and the entry gates into the festival at Newport came off without a hitch, unsurprising for an event that has had many years to get used to the same location, but reassuring all the same.

Reasonably priced shuttle buses also ran between the festival and Newport, though many attendees chose to make the 20-minute walk on foot. The close proximity of the town is a useful advantage of the festival site, with Morrisons providing a resupply point for the essentials, and local pubs providing a place to enjoy a pint in the shade. In particular, the Quay Arts cafe proved an excellent place to relax by the river, enjoy a beer, admire the art installations, and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi before jumping back into the fray.

After getting our wristbands, we were off to find an appropriate campsite. By 4pm, much of the general camping was occupied with the experienced regulars who know to come early. It eventually turned out that we were able to use a reserved site, but there were so many variations of wristbands that most staff could not tell us where we were meant to go. We found our spot eventually, though, and had a good tour up and down the festival site in the meantime.

Thursday Performances

Done unloading our kit, it was time to move on to what we were all there for: The music! Much of the festival site was still in warm-up mode on Thursday, with the main stage area and many of the smaller cafes and side stages inactive. The Big Top stage, however, kicked off in good form with performance by The Doors Alive. Willie Scott and company did excellent service to the memory of Morrison, playing skilful and gritty renditions of the hits and ending with the crowd chanting along to “Roadhouse Blues“. If there was anything less than authentic about the set, it was the exclusion of some of the more down-tempo rambling that could permeate Doors performances in the 70s. But this was an understandable omission in a slot designed to light the fire of the festival weekend.

After the openers, we decided to explore some of the side-stages, particularly enjoying the local Isle of Wight talent on show at the Kashmir Cafe. Pleasurade rocked the evening with a storm of punk riffs, well complimented with the unusual addition of a Roland JX-3P, a stellar synth that was a real pleasure to see in a performance setting.

After a break from the Big Top, we returned to the tent at the end of the Inspiral Carpets set to catch Boy George, the first headliner of the festival. It was a terrific ending to the night – many of his hits from the 80s have benefited from more focused arrangements, and his singing has never been better. His backing band was equally stellar with soulful vocals and blistering trumpet solos punctuating the hits. The set largely left synth-pop sounds by the wayside, squarely focusing on gospel and reggae sounds and sensibly allowing the classic “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” to shine as the gem of the performance.

After the final act, most of the side stages closed early, and it was time for most of the festival-goers to pack it in for the night, by the light of the full moon.

Friday Performances

Friday saw the opening of the main stage area, and an influx of new festival-goers intent on seeing the day’s headliners. More than just a stage, the main area included about half the festival proper, with fairground rides, vendors, and food stands located there.

After a brief detour into town, we made it back to the Main Stage Area to catch the end of Tom Odell’s set, and his exhortation to the crowd to “enjoy the sun, sex, and drugs!” Indeed, the clouds had cleared from the morning and the day was, as yesterday, in full scorcher mode.

Tom was followed by a capable house set from DJ Pioneer as the stage crew set up the impressive rig for Rudimental. The group sounded fantastic with live drums, horns, and keys, with lead female vocals provided by Syron and Angel Haze. Coming onto the stage in ones and twos, the instruments joined into a slow build with a downbeat version of “Give You Up,” and after warming up the crowd, dove into the furious beats with “Not Giving In“. The crowd was kept up and dancing a house groove with Syron taking the lead in “Baby,” continuing on with “Free,” and then it was back into the bass with Angel Haze taking the lead for “Waiting All Night.” After an interlude arranged around the into parts to “Solo,” the group built back into a stunning cover version of the DnB classic, The Ganja Kru’s “Super Sharp Shooter“, and then finishing with the hit “Feel The Love.” As an encore, the band brought out a complete drum arrangement version of the complete “Solo,” upping the tempo and going out with a bang. It was a monumental set, and set the tone for the rest of the festival, only slightly diminished by its short length of 45 minutes.

After Rudimental, we spent a long half-hour watching the stage transform into a gothic forest for Biffy Clyro. The sun began to set as Simon, James and Ben took the stage, backed up by touring performers Mike Vennart and Richard Ingram of British Theatre. The pyrotechnics in the sky were soon replaced by pyrotechnics on stage, quite literally: The most impressive thing about the performance was absolutely the set design, with billowing gouts of fire exploding at the front and back of stage, showers of sparks streaming down, and confetti cannons bringing the crowd into the extravaganza. The massive, tree-like set piece, with projected video proved quite versatile – evoking branches, antlers, bones, veins, and seaweed at times depending on the song played. The performers seemed to revel in the pomp, with the backing guitar and piano suspended in mid air to either side of the three primary members, and Simon and James disappearing and reappearing behind elevated platforms to take new positions for each song. It was perhaps a bit try-hard in the stagecraft department, but the music was well performed, with the odd touching rock-ballad and anthem shining through.

After a short break to re-organize the stage into a full video display with festival-requisite moving-head surrounds, Calvin Harris took the stage, playing his own hits to the late-night crowd, as well as charting crowd pleasers such as Normans’s “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat“. We were not in the mood to eat or sleep yet, so we snuck out early to see what else was on the late night offer. Stepping into the Big Top at the end of Katy B’s set, the young R&B star radiated warmth and atmosphere with her vocal talents, wrapping the audience in her confidence and stage presence. We came away impressed and in search of more fruits of the night.

In the centre of the action, the Whisky Sessions hall was nearly always packed with just the right density of dancing, smiling faces, and always good for a drop in and a few minutes of swing-yer-partner-round mayhem. The Hipshaker served up more the standard discopub fare, but was usually packed to the gills with a line out the door. The hidden late-night gem proved to be the new Bohemian Woods, with a small dancefloor and curated selection of eclectic pop with the occasional delve into world-music counterpoint. People could dance, or chat amiably, with plenty of dim, secluded spaces out around the PA.

Finding our way back to the campsite in the dark was a little tricky (the position of a lot of the fences seemed to change from day-to-day) but there were always plenty of helpful staff on hand, and we tucked in again in anticipation of the day to come.

Saturday Performances

Saturday morning saw the festival atmosphere at its cloudiest, with a smattering of rain every now and then. This seemed to have only the effect of clearing the air, though, and brought not a hint of return of the vast mud flats of 2012. The day was shaping up to be yet another blessedly pleasant one. Saturday afternoon was spent bouncing between the Big Top and Main Stage, enjoying the carnival atmosphere.

The highlight of the daytime acts was The Struts in the Big Top, unleashing a fierce energy on the crowd in their performance, and equally revelling in the audience’s appreciation. “D’you like my outfit,” lead Luke Spiller extolled, heady off of his previous performance opening for the Rolling Stones in Paris. The singer shone in a cerulean and silver cape that evoked the Queen 2 tour era Freddy Mercury’s ‘batwing’ pleats. These hints from classic rock stars were not used undeservedly and floor stompers like “Could Have Been Me” and anthems like “Where Did She Go” would not have been out of place on the lips of such legends.

At the end of the performance, we headed back to the Main Stage to catch the end of John Newmann’s set, which depended very much on versions of the two Rudimental tracks “Feel the Love” and “Not Giving In.” Eager to get deep into the crowd for the night-ending Red Hots performance, we started to make our way to the front as the stage was prepped for The 1975. The first thing I noticed on taking our places was that I seemed to be the tallest and least-coiffured person for miles, with fans skewing young and stylish. It was an odd mix, and easy to pick out who was there to see which artists, especially once the music started and fits and starts of (mostly harmless) mosh circles broke out.

Following on, The Specials took the stage in a far more appropriate opening set filled with funky ska basslines and riffs. Highlights of the set were wild guitar playing styles from guest Matt McManamon of The Dead 60’s and the excellent playing of Nik Torp on the classic Yamaha YC-45D combo organ and bucket-brigade delay. The set peaked at the ever-classic “Ghost Town” and the crowd got to enjoy the 1980’s chart-topping “Too Much Too Young” as an encore.

The buzz in the crowd built as the stage was cleared to make way for the headliners of the night. Not much was added other than a pair of modest drum platforms and the instruments themselves. As the lights of the full video backdrop came up, Flea emerged onto the stage first, building into an intro jam session and gradually joined by the rest of the band, until finally launching into “Can’t Stop” as they were joined by Anthony. The video displays were largely complimentary to the work, highlighting the mood with shadows of palm trees, cartoon representations, and photographs, without distracting from the performers themselves. The set built in two waves, peaking finally with “Californication” straight into “By The Way” at the end, and “Give it Away” as an encore.

The end of the RHCP’s set largely closed out the night, and most exited the main stage area in a wave. We made our way to the Whiskey Sessions to burn off a bit more energy with others afflicted with dance-happy feet before turning in for the night.

Sunday

Sunday, we decided to explore the northern reaches of the boutique stages finding the Red Cross recovery tent, oddly enough, a rather nice place to chill with some very talented, and completely unlisted, English talent. Another afternoon highlight was the Toronto band “July Talk,” who proved an off-beat crowd favourite with their on-stage physicality, mutant throat-heavy vocals, and rockabilly guitar riffs.

As we packed up to depart Sunday afternoon, we were escorted off by the most unexpected performance of the festival, a completely unmentioned aerobatic performance by the RAF’s own Red Arrows. As the clouds of red, white, and blue drifted across the sky, we said our farewells and boarded the bus back to East Cowes and Southampton.

Performance Highlights

Rudimental leads the pack of the highlight acts, standing out not just in terms of the quality of music, but in their stage presence and mastery of performance. They clearly enjoy taking the stage, and have a full summer tour schedule to show it off. While it’s great to see the Red Hots back together and touring, and they are still masters of their musical form, the set had almost too much polish – it would have been thrilling to see more improvised performance or cover arrangements along the lines of the ’04 Hyde Park performances. Derby up-and-comers The Struts were the standout surprise of the festival, and showed an energy and love of performance that boiled over during their set. They will be ones to watch in the coming years.

Festival Highlights

The festival on the whole excels at being more than the sum of its parts. While not the largest one around, it benefits from a long history and plenty of experience, and it shows. The food selection is broad, and there are plenty of small venues to keep things intimate and interesting. The Kashmir Cafe, showcasing local talent and a nice chill-out-ready back 40, was our favourite spot to take a breather, and the Whisky Sessions dancehall our favourite to warm back up again. All in all, there was something for everyone, and a good sense of community. The usual caveats with camping festivals apply though – it’s best to go in a big group or book a site in advance, and it is always subject to the whims of the weather. The relentless sun was the true star of the show this time around, with happy campers all around heading home with tanned faces, whether they wanted it or not!

8.0 Something For Everyone
  • Pre Event Communication 7
  • At Event Communication 8
  • Post Event Communication 8
  • General Communication 8
  • Travel to the Festival 9
  • Arrival at the Festival 7
  • "Festival Experience" 9
  • Toilets 6
  • Security 9
  • Police Presence 8
  • Mobile Phone Reception 7
  • All-weather Planning 8
  • Creative Content 7
  • DJ/Artist Line-up 8
  • Family Friendly 10
  • Disabled Access 9
  • Food 9
  • Bars & Drinks 7
  • Cleanliness 9
  • Size/Scale 7
  • After-hours Entertainment 6
  • Value For Money 7
  • Technical Specification 9
  • Sound Quality 9
  • Lighting/Effects/Pyro 9
  • Extra Attractions/Activities 10
  • Local Scene Connection 8
  • Green/Recycling 6
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About Author

A New York City native, Brendan has been on the club circuit for years, starting out as a regular at Twilo and Shelter during the rise of progressive techno and house in the late 90's. He has hosted a number of radio shows and managed electronic music promotion at WRTC Radio, where Gabriel&Dresden kick-started their trance career. He has also worked in the New York recording business as the Technical Director of KMA Music Studios. Most recently, Brendan has started his PhD at the University of Southampton, and writes on music, nightlife, and recording technology.

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