My thoughts on Bestival 2016

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What would be your response to seeing the Chuckle Brothers playing the main stage of a major music festival? Given the crowd’s rapturous response to their seasoned shambolics (complete with Barry miming on the drums), it was a mix of triumph and humored bemusement. This was my second time at Bestival which, ever eclectic, had proposed a “future” theme.  Admittedly the brothers were early on in the day, but the heart-warming nostalgia guaranteed by a set chock full of “to me, to you” and “no slacking” was almost at loggerheads with this.

Oh dear oh dear, you might think. But actually, among a sea of futuristic artwork, glossy spaced-out costumes and (perhaps most importantly) a whole host of new talent, the odd dot of reminiscence in the form of legendary performers- be they acclaimed artists or the silliest of children’s entertainers- was much needed. Heck, 2016 has been a tough year, particularly in popular culture; we need a slice of sentimentality every now and then- not just to remind us of what has been, but of what can be done.

Despite me and James getting there quite late on Friday, we were still able to find space for our tent without having to walk too far into the festival. However, if you go down with more than one after the first day… well, I crave your confidence, your optimistic outlook on the ways of music festivals. Forcing ourselves to set things up properly rather than just dash off to enjoy the music was probably the toughest part of the whole weekend, even more than packing everything up on Sunday morning in the early, hungover stages of a post festival comedown. AND it was a pop up tent.

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Bestival, Chuckle style.

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Bestival and chill.

Maybe my regular attendance of Glastonbury has warped my expectations of other festivals, but the main stage certainly seemed small. For reference, it was on par with the Park stage at the aforementioned Somerset series, and it was much smaller than the main stage at, say, Reading or Leeds. In a way though, you can argue that this puts it on more level footing with the other stages of the festival; that it is on par with the rest, rather than trying to stand out.

Delays on entering the festival meant that we missed Skepta, much to my annoyance and James’s jubilation, but Major Lazer were satisfying Friday night headliners. From the first bounce of “Pon De Floor”, we were treated to all manner of shapes and speeds; even gimmicks like Diplo zorbing across the crowd were enjoyable enough. The only big let-down was the short, acoustic version of “Cold Water,” courtesy of MO, who had played the Big Top earlier. As one of the late contenders for summer anthem, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

After enduring the rain for Chuckle Brothers,  me and James escaped Saturday’s awful weather with a few hours in the Big Top; this is Bestival’s second stage, so more musical tricks than circus treats. My highlight was Beaty Heart, one of the first band’s I’ve heard who truly consider the texture of their innovative electropop, with “Flora” prompting swathes of slow grooves across the tent. Then the rain faded away for Craig David, his comeback continuing to catapult him further into our consciousness with his lively, pure feel-good R’n’B. Another mix of past and future that you can’t explain, but it works.

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The Cure’s Bestival set: “Just Like Heaven,” you may well say.

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The People’s Front Room, Bestival’s best kept secret.

Now, some bands yearn to make their festival slot a special occasion in some way, such as celebrating an album anniversary by playing it from start to finish. Instead, The Cure embraced the best of their back catalog- nearly three hours of it in fact- and delivered a spectacular set that took in all corners of alternative, from psych to disco to indie and back again. From the impassioned jangle pop of “Friday I’m In Love” to the sludgy bass intro of “Just Like Heaven” sending up wistful cheers, the highlights were predictable, but no less enjoyable for being so.

Sunday meanwhile, in the grand festival tradition, was a bit of a blur. Me and James spent lots of it exploring the less-trodden western corners of the festival, wandering through the Ambient Forest to the top of the site to take it all in. Pick of the day had to go to Will Varley on the Magic Meadow’s Invaders of the Future stage. It was a slightly difficult set in a sense because of its close proximity to the main stage, but Varley’s folk was equally rowdy and enthusiastic, doing very well in keeping the crowd with him throughout.

Coming back on the ferry late that evening, drifting in and out of sleep and reveling in the foul-language nostalgia of Teesside Tintin, I reflected that Bestival does feel a bit like a holiday getaway, bowing out the summer in spectacular style. Granted, it WAS slightly smaller this year (as festival organizers openly admitted on social media afterwards), but the festival still felt like it was giving its all throughout. Although I will admit there was a particular hideaway that underlined most of the fun across the weekend: The People’s Front Room.

Fashioned as an otherworldly nineteenth century salon, this tucked-away gem offers a heap of talent across funk, jazz, and all manner of genres for that matter, to be enjoyed from one of the plush armchairs or the Persian-style carpets. Leave your wellies at the door and immerse yourself. Being so close to the artist, it offers an unparalleled level of intimacy- despite the venue doubling in size since last year’s Bestival. It’s easily my favourite find from the fields. For me, festivals are about the hidden delights you stumble into; maybe Bestival is right in pointing to the future, to see what you come across next.

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Taking apart the Reading & Leeds 2016 headliners

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Legends of live music or rite of passage for school leavers, monumental in rock history or trying too hard to cover all bases; there are all kinds of views to be found on Reading and Leeds, and as one of the UK’s major festivals it’s likely that most music fans will have one. Reading was my first festival, back in 2011 as A Levels faded into oblivion and the prospect of abandoning the south for University in Liverpool drew closer and closer. And you know what? As an entry level first time festival, it was a lot of fun.

I fell in love with Big Deal and Little Comets in the cramped corner of the Festival Republic stage, and was blown away by the sheer force of Crystal Castles in the NME tent. The Strokes were pretty good, even if Julian Casablancas sang with the air of someone who’s been dragged along to their own birthday party, and Muse played Origins of Symmetry in full to a crowd of mostly bemused students whom the magic was lost on. I see the appeal of toasting albums when headlining festivals, but it just wasn’t the right audience. It wasn’t till Plug In Baby that the crowd fully went for it.

Anyway, I’m dwindling in festival nostalgia territory here, but it’s worth noting that this was the Reading when the only hint of anything other than rock was the Dance Stage on Friday. Now it’s a gigantic behemoth that tries to cover all bases in a Glastonbury-type manner. Glastonbury gets away with it because it IS Glastonbury, but Reading and Leeds’s attempt to become the festival of all trades means it often spreads itself too thin. Bear that in mind as the headliner debate unravels.

I’m going to go through the festival headliners day by day and offer my thoughts accordingly:

 

Friday: Foals and Disclosure

Both of these acts, for me, are a no brainer. Foals’ frenetic, draining live performances have always been destined to steer them to the top of festival bills, and they’ve already proven they’re capable of it, having headlined Latitude back in 2013. What Went Down, while not their strongest album, certainly channels the more ferocious elements of their previous efforts, and will work wonders on the Main Stage.

Similarly, while Disclosure’s second effort Caracal might not have had the same impact as Settle, they certainly have enough tunes in their arsenal to make for a memorable set to finish Friday off. And just think of the number of guest vocalists across their releases! There’s bound to be a few surprises along the way. More than anything, the duo’s style highlights the festival’s desire to expand the sound of the two sites, a trend which can only be healthy for the festival community as a whole.

 

Saturday: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Maybe it’s just me, but having spent my early teenage years basking in the glow of Stadium Arcadium, the follow up I’m With You just didn’t make the same impact. It took five years for that to be released, and five more have passed since then. I’m not disputing their legacy for one moment- one listen of Blood Sex Sugar Magik would dissuade me from ever doing so- all I’m asking is, just what do the Chilis mean in 2016?

Having said that, they also tick a lot of boxes to be headline material at Reading and Leeds; they’ve clocked up enough years to know how to carry a crowd, and they’ve enough hits to pack their slot fit to burst. Finally, maybe my adolescent adoration of Stadium Arcadium is getting to me, but I would argue they also carry enough nostalgia for many music fans to build up the crowd’s endearment as the night goes on.

 

Sunday: Biffy Clyro and Fall Out Boy

Writing this next one is going to be tough. I’ll get Fall Out Boy out of the way first: as much as I wasn’t that fussed about American Beauty/ American Psycho, it was another solid effort from a band who have had an incredibly successful comeback. Their early pop punk gems combined with their new pop rock singles will make for a winning set.

Now, I love Biffy Clyro. They gave me imagination for feeling young, and I still can’t decide whether I think Puzzle or Infinity Land is their best album. 2013’s Opposites had several stellar tracks that were full on alternative anthems, but stripped of the math-rock and post-hardcore tinges that characterised their early releases, it was probably their safest album to date. Yet its success made them all the more capable of stepping up to headline Reading and Leeds.

Three years later, the Biffs are headlining again, and I wonder if enough has happened to warrant them doing so. We’ve been told April or May is when to expect their latest effort, but even if the goods are delivered on time, is that enough time to let the record fully sink in? Hordes of Glasto-goers have criticised the decision to put Coldplay on top for the fourth time, but five years feels more like a suitable gap, and at least they’ve had two albums out in between.

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Overall, I want more of Friday night. There are countless bands that made a mark in 2015 that deserve to be given a shot at headlining status; funnily enough, Latitude, the first to give Foals headliner status, has done the same this year with The Maccabees. More festivals should be following their lead and give new timers a chance to make their debut- we don’t want to be ten years down the line with a serious drought of main stage closers. Or maybe Reading and Leeds will just try and knock us with six in 2017?

Ady Suleiman: A Tale Of Two Cities

This is an article I originally wrote for the May issue of Bido Lito!, a monthly music magazine that uncovers the most exciting sounds from Merseyside, in particular Liverpool. Ady Suleiman is Nottingham born-and-bred, but there is no denying that his time as a student in Liverpool has greatly shaped him as a musician, carving his own unique style that mixes indie, reggae and electronic influences. It’s certainly a broad range, but the result is right on the mark. Check out my piece below!

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For his twenty-first birthday, ADY SULEIMAN found himself facing not only a crowd, but an immense opportunity of inconceivable fate. He was on a stage in Sète in the south of France, staring out to the sea from a magnificent amphitheatre called Théatre de la Mer. He was performing as part of Worldwide Festival, which fuses acoustic performances with club-oriented beats to form an enticing exuberance that carefully simmers under the scorching sun. Suleiman had been asked to play by the festival’s curator and BBC 6 Music multi-genre aficionado GILLES PETERSON, who had been pestered by the plucky LIPA graduate after his show in The Shipping Forecast.

“I remember telling him my name and he had actually heard of me through one of his friends- or at least that’s what he said!” laughs Suleiman, as he remembers the fortuitous encounter. “He said to send some stuff through by email. I didn’t think he would even get back to me, but then he replied saying he loved it and asked if I wanted to play his festival, completely out of the blue! It’s a weird feeling when you meet someone you have so much respect for, only to find out they respect what you’re doing- I mean I still listen to everything his label Brownswood puts out.” It’s fair to say his performance was a resounding success; Suleiman went on to win “Breakthrough Act of the Year” at Peterson’s Worldwide Awards.

But what was it about Suleiman that made Peterson so enamoured with the twenty-something songwriter? Perhaps it’s the sincerity of his stirring melodies that harmonize dabs of soul, jazz and even hip hop? Maybe it’s the carefully subdued production that compliments the overall sound rather than overriding it? Or maybe it’s the sense of honesty that permeates Suleiman’s lyrics, drawing on his own experiences or that of his family and friends? It’s likely Peterson has seen all of this, considering the following Suleiman has built up since graduating last year. It’s been quite a transformation, as Suleiman used to hate one of his biggest influences, JIMI HENDRIX.

“My dad really encouraged me to listen to him, but the psychedelic vibe just wasn’t doing anything for me,” confesses Suleiman. “But I was on a family holiday and listening to Axis: Bold as Love, and when I got to Little Wing, everything clicked. After all the manufactured pop I was hearing on the radio, I finally understood where the music was coming from, and its sense of purpose.” From there, Suleiman was determined to explore artists whose music strove for a genuine connection with its listeners, and he immersed himself in acts that have defined their genre, from LAURYN HILL to STEVIE WONDER and RAY CHARLES, all of which have influenced him to some degree.

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However, it was AMY WINEHOUSE’S status in the mid-noughties that hit him at full force and aroused his dedication to the cause. “I was listening to a lot of her first album Frank, where she was mixing hip hop and jazz into her own style, and then how she drew on soul more for Back To Black; vocally, it was just incredible. I couldn’t believe she was doing music like that and being successful from it, truly changing the landscape of British popular music in the process. Before seeing her, I never really thought I could make music I wanted to make and be successful from it.”

Half Tanzanian on his father’s side, Suleiman grew up in the market town of Grantham outside of Nottingham, and only ventured into the city for the occasional gig. Rather than stay close to home, he chose LIPA because of the emphasis the course placed on performing. “A lot of the courses I applied for asked for Grade 5 theory at least, and I was a bit apprehensive to study music at University anyway because I thought I would be out of my depth! With the course at LIPA, I felt comfortable with what it wanted to achieve with me.”

The sheer variety of sounds that characterized the city’s music scene also caught Suleiman’s ear, particularly the more alternative bands. He became good friends with former NINETAILS frontman ED BLACK, who now performs with Suleiman’s band. Sumptuous sets at the Kazimier and Mello Mello prompted him to explore his old roots, and after contacting an old school friend he found himself on a train back home to attend a gig in Nottingham. “The line-up included NATALIE DUNCAN, LIAM BAILEY and HARLEY BLUE- local acts celebrating Nottingham’s blossoming soul and hip-hop scene, and their emphasis on utilizing vocals was similar to what I was trying achieve!”

Suleiman emphasizes the importance of using your origins to find inspiration for your music, and a set he performed at Nottingham’s Rock City remains one of his favourite live shows as a personal achievement, but his music does not feel confined to a particular location. The ominous lyrics on So Lost which are unashamedly direct with their sense of hopelessness and the despair of being hooked to medication are even more striking against the gentle bounce of funky horns and buoyant beats that transform it into a delightfully playful number.

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Ease your ears into Suleiman’s other material and you realize each track is focused on the direction it wants to take. Take State Of Mind, which questions the motivation behind religion and political alliances, or Out Of Luck, with its bleak account of drug addiction. “I wrote that about a friend from back home,” Suleiman recalls, “because I remember so vividly how everyone felt about it at the time; it truly became the talk of the town. I find it really difficult to write about things that I haven’t experienced or heard from first hand because your opinion’s probably not going to be right, so it’s difficult to put something out there and stand behind it.”

What’s interesting though is that Suleiman does not equate having a message in music with having to tell people what to do. He prefers to simply offer a commentary on his own experiences in the hope that others can relate to it. He points to garage authority MIKE SKINNER’S work as THE STREETS as a fantastic example. “He was amazing at representing a specific era of the UK, and some people who listen to it can appreciate that there is music talking directly to them. It’s nice to crank on a tune that does that- it’s not specifically telling me I need to change my life, but it shows a sense of understanding about how I’m living.”

Asides from his new EP State Of Mind out in May, Suleiman’s aim for 2015 is to refine his writing technique- lately he has been spotted in the studio with spoken word mind-boggler GEORGE THE POET- and more importantly, bring his live sound up to the same standard as his recorded material. “It’s a completely different kettle of fish for me,” admits Suleiman with a slight hesitation, “but I’ve already got a few live shows coming up so I need to work on perfecting my sound. You want both the live show and the recorded material to be at a level when they can rival each other!”

With an aim that is so specifically on target, Suleiman’s determination is highly encouraging because it all points to an understanding of longevity. As long as events around him spur on his creativity, his music will continue to have a strong narrative, and in being so specific about the details, his music only becomes more attractive to listeners, fascinated by what he has to say. If a few years at university have taken him to the south of France, we can only wonder at what direction he’ll take for the rest of 2015.

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