Monday, 4 July 2011

Wireless Festival 2011

The Wireless Festival isn’t really a festival at all. Festivals bring to mind tents, roll-mats, queues to get off the motorway and a part of the world you’d never normally visit. Wireless Festival takes place in the middle of Hyde Park in London – you’ve probably heard of it. It’s ludicrously easy to get to (there’s a tube station about a minute from the entrance) and there’s no camping allowed. As a result, Wireless cleverly puts on three completely different days of music. Friday was pop day, Saturday was dance day and Sunday was alternative day.
I gain entrance to the park and found the Janelle Monáe set already in full swing on the main stage. She may not have been around for too long, but she knows how to play a crowd like an industry veteran. There was dancing, crowd-surfing, call and response, and a bizarre moment where the band descended to a hush while Janelle encouraged the whole audience to sit on the floor. She was backed by a frighteningly competent band who seemed to be having just as much fun as the audience and whose dance moves were expertly choreographed. Reportedly, after her performance at the Glastonbury Festival was televised, sales of Janelle Monáe’s album, The ArchAndroid, rose 5,000%. Having seen her at Wireless, it’s not the least bit surprising.
Such a great opening meant next act, Katy B, had a lot to live up to. Eyebrows were raised earlier this year when I awarded her debut album, On A Mission, 9/10 on No Ripcord, but it’s a rating I still stand by months later. However, Katy B’s live performance came across slightly flat. Jumping up and down a bit and employing the tired trope of having some guy shout, “make some NOISE!” over half the lyrics isn’t the most engaging thing in the world. When you’ve just seen Janelle Monáe cover The Jackson Five with dancers dressed as Everton mints, you’re on a hiding to nothing really. Katy B’s idea of getting the crowd hyped may work in a dark club at 2am, but on a balmy June afternoon, it sadly doesn’t hit the spot.
The last two years have seen me rediscover my love of pop, but I still hadn’t actually seen an out and out chart pop act in a live setting. That’s why I was really quite looking forward to seeing Ke$ha. I wasn’t particularly familiar with her oeuvre but the subject matter of her songs soon became clear: drinking, partying and sex. Subtlety is clearly not in the Ke$ha dictionary – any time there was a line that may or may not have been a sexual advance, she’d point to her crotch, just to make sure there wasn’t any doubt. We were invited to go in her “glovebox” and told there was “a slumber party in my basement” while all around me, the crowd seemed to know every single word. Overcoming my initial bafflement, I got completely swept up in the euphoria and, despite it being the trashiest experience of my life so far, had an absolute riot. Say what you like about Ke$ha but she knows how to put on a show. It’s not often you see someone pretend to tear the limbs off their dancers and proceed to drink the blood from their heart. Towards the end, she shouted, “London! There’s one problem! There’s not enough glitter ON MY TITS!” The crowd roared and dancers in hot pants were deployed to add sparkle to her décolletage. You don’t get this sort of thing at your average Fleet Foxes gig.
Like Janelle Monáe before her, the sheer showmanship of Ke$ha meant that the next act were almost inevitably going to be a disappointment. The unlucky people this time round were Canadian electrofunk duoChromeo. Their keyboard stands looked like ladies’ legs in high heels, they had a talkbox and… that was about it in terms of interesting aspects of Chromeo’s set. After twenty minutes of music that had my attention wandering, it was decided that a pint of overpriced lager in a paper cup and a kangaroo burger were a more enticing prospect.
It’s often the case that you can feel completely outside of a movement. The popularity of an artist confuses you, not just because you don’t connect with their music, but because you’ve barely heard of them and it’s a shock to find out just how popular they are. This is what happened to me when I stumbled into Devlin’s set. The crowd were going crazy for Devlin’s freestyle MCing, but to me it just recalled the dark days of UK hip-hop before Dizzee Rascal and Roots Manuva broke through. I was half expecting him to bring out Mark B and Blade for a guest spot, but instead he brought out Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran is a ruddy-faced urchin who’s recently had a big hit in the UK with The A Team. However, I’ve no idea why, as he displayed all the talent and originality of a busker on the London Underground.
So, as has probably been covered in enough detail, I was left cold by Devlin and when he departed, my friends and I (including top NR scribe Craig Stevens) went to the front of the stage anticipating Battles. Poor, poor Battles. After setting up all their equipment, they launched into their opening number, only to immediately blow the speakers. An apology followed, as did twenty minutes or so of panicked roadies frantically turning things off and on again. It became clear we weren’t going to get a song any time soon, so props to drummer John Stanier who did his utmost to keep the crowd entertained with a marathon drum solo. Clearly no-one goes to a show to see a drum solo, but the audience were patient and we received more apologies from the group. Eventually, the band started playing, but only had time for two songs and it was clear something still wasn’t quite right. They were granted an extension and soldiered on for one more track, which still didn’t quite hit the spot. Battles left the stage to sympathetic applause, telling us, “we owe you a proper show next time,” but it was hard not to feel disappointed. Poor Battles.
After Battles’ departure, it wasn’t long before the stage was lit an eerie shade of red and full of space-age mixing desks. A giant net loomed in front of the crowd, on to which numbers were being projected. It all appeared to make no sense, which was completely to be expected as I was awaiting the arrival of Aphex Twin. A ripple of applause broke out, a silhouette made its way behind the mixing desk, and a bass note was played at the kind of volume and frequency which made my internal organs scream. A bit more ear-bleed tomfoolery occurred and then he broke out into Windowlicker, and the party really started. Unfortunately, the problem with Aphex Twin is that he makes dance music that’s impossible to dance to. This is fine at home, but in a big, sweaty tent, you’re in the mood for some communal swaying. Quarter of an hour in, I had an epiphany. He won’t even show his face, he’s being wilfully difficult and the potential fight next to me featuring a shove-happy stoner and the world’s most Cockney man is more interesting to me than the music, therefore I’m off. And leave the tent I did, not that the silly, beardy fool would have cared one jot.
This is the bit where I tell you all about the headliners, The Chemical Brothers. However, a combination of beer, bad timing and my kidneys (personally, I blame Aphex Twin) meant I found myself stranded from my friends on the edge of a heaving mass of people, with no way of getting back in. Twenty minutes into the Chemical Brothers set, they’d played one hit, I was too far away to get the real atmosphere, and I was frazzled from a whole day of music.
Remember I mentioned just how easy it is to get to Wireless Festival? It also means it’s incredibly easy to leave. So, call me a slacker, call me a quitter, call me a lightweight if you like, but I’ve never been a massive Chemical Brothers fan so I was happy to slink off into the evening unchallenged. I’d had a great day, but from my point of view, the best acts were all done and dusted by 5pm. I’d certainly go again next year though – when summer comes, that combination of good music, the open air and being with your friends is hard to beat.

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