Wide Awake Festival

There’s a new festival on the London scene and on the evidence of today, it’s here to stay. The Wide Awake festival’s inaugural lineup was pretty much perfect with a who’s who of the cool new bands on the London scene such as Dry Cleaning, Black Midi, Goat Girl, Black Country New Road, Squid, alongside recent graduates such as Idles and Shame. This is a who’s who of the new music finding a home in the the Windmill, Moth Club and Shacklewell Arms.

Delayed from last summer. The festival has found a home in Brockwell Park which was ready for it’s big day. For a new festival, it was remarkably well organised. COVID checks dealt with quickly and efficiently. In the main, the site was organised well. A good range of food and drink in the centre with stages spinning off. Sadly, there was a bit of leakage between the Bad Vibes and Moth Club stages, but I’ve experienced far worse and something that can be tweaked in later years. A nice touch was a free drink to those of us who had kept faith last year and not asked for a refund.

First up was Tiña on the Windmill stage. Dressed in bright pink with a cowboy hat playing breezy cowboy indie, it was just the right sound to wake us up with positive vibes.

On the Moth Club stage was Lazarus Kane, a band who previously had left me unimpressed. At that performance, Ben the singer, appeared as a kind of lounge lizard caricature, with the band playing second fiddle. But here on a big stage with the band spaced out and the singer having dropped the disguise, I thought they had a much bigger and a more dancy sound than I remembered. I was left wondering if they’d increased the size of the band as there was an added depth to their sound, I didn’t experience on the small stage. Or maybe Ben’s theatrics had just put me off. Either way, I was impressed today. I will definitely be keeping an eye on them.

My second surprise of the day was Regressive Left. A band I knew nothing about. Apparently they are now based in Stevenage. I’ll have to keep an eye out for local gigs. Again, like Lazarus Kane, they a very dancy sound. But in an 80s art-pop way. Strong drumming with feedback laden guitars and keyboards adding an 80s feeling. One to watch

Next up was a brief visit to the Bad Vibes stage to listen to Maripool. Possibly the first misstep. Their music was pleasant, in a laid back ‘beer in the sunshine’ kind of way. But the vocals were off. I didn’t experience sound issue later in the day but I was heading off to see the afternoon headliners, Idles and maybe they improved before the end of the set.

Idles were always going to be my highlight of the festival. They’ve made some of my favourite albums from the last few years. They are fantastic live and have helped revitalise guitar based music by putting issues at the forefront of driving pop punk. Their audience mixes us oldies, rekindling our youth, with young people who are hopefully listening to their messages of community and compassion (especially the blokes). There’s something special about the ‘AF gang’ community that’s grown up organically around the band. Something I’ve never experienced before.

It was odd seeing a headliner play an early afternoon set. But this isn’t normal times. With the festivals opening after a delay of a year, it’s not surprising we’re seeing clashes. Idles, were double booked for a festival in their hometown. Understandably, that took precedence. But Bristol’s gain wasn’t our loss. If anything, it gave this festival a massive boost as everyone arrived early to see the band. It meant most stages were busy right from the off with a great atmosphere throughout they day.

Their latest album came out during lockdown and they haven’t had the opportunity to play live. So I was expecting a large number of songs from the album. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of the last album. But the one live performance I’ve seen of it, the songs were much stronger live. Maybe sensibly, they gave the crowd what they wanted with a greatest hits of their three albums. Despite reservations, the new songs fitted into the set and sounded great.

I’ve never seen Idles have an off day. Today was no exception. Right from the off they got the crowd going with a circle forming in the early afternoon sun. They then did their usual thing of jumping into the crowd. Keeping the crowd at boiling point throughout the set. Pretty much a perfect headline slot. It just happened in daylight.

A Certain Ratio aren’t a band I know much about. They’ve been around since the late 70s. I liked what I heard but I wanted to grab some photos of other stages so I moved on after two songs.

Likewise, I didn’t stick with Porridge Radio for long. I love Porridge Radio and I’ve seen them several times. They sounded on form for the two songs I heard.

Fenne Lily was part of the reason why I was jumping around stages. She produced a great album so I wanted to see how it translated to a festival stage. Although playing a smaller stage more suited to her sound, in all honesty, I thought the sound was lost. Despite being a small stage, it was competing with the rest of the festival and I think much of the delicacy of the album was lost to the air. I’ll have to catch her at a more appropriate venue.

I love Squid. There’s similarity with bands like Black Midi and Black Country New Road but their sound is less noodly prog and feels more anarchic and organic They’re also far less serious than their siblings. Live, they’re the best out of the bunch. Today, they were on good form.

Another band I’ve seen before, so only listened to a few songs, is Los Bitchos. They play dancy latin fuzed psych with no vocals. They appear to have a changed lineup but still sounded great. The first time I saw them I wanted there to be a vocalist. But they don’t need a vocalist. Their music is so infectious and had the crowd dancing away to their latin vibes. Perfect festival band.

I only caught one song of White Flowers. They were pleasant but like Fenne Lilly, their sound seemed to be a little bit lost on the small stage so I moved on.

I’ve heard great things about PVA. Naturally as a ‘Windmill’ band they were playing the main Windmill stage. But they left me cold. They were very disco. I’m sure they sound great in a small venue with a crowd bouncing to their music. But on the big stage with everyone hidden behind keyboards, it just wasn’t my type of festival experience so I took the opportunity to grab some food.

As my recent POZI review mentioned. Pozi were my most listened to band over the last year. Unlike the Social, the drummer wasn’t lost in smoke and darkness at the back of the stage so I could actually see him sing this time. It felt more of a band performance. However, as I had just seen them a few weeks ago I only stayed for 10 minutes before heading off to catch another lockdown favourite, Dry Cleaning.

I’m never sure how to describe Dry Cleaning. They’re a talky band, with no singing. Florence’s delivers her stories as if she’s oblivious to the audience’s presence. Creating mesmerising tales of mundane modern life, enhanced with simple expressions and waves of her hand. The rest of the band acting like a stage director, focusing the audience’s emotions and attentions on the rise and fall of the tempo of each story. I always feel I’m listening to something the Velvet Underground could have written.

They’re also a surprising band. They shouldn’t work on a big stage. Half of the performance is seeing Florence’s expressions which surely is lost in a big venue. They should be very much an acquired taste. Yet pretty much everyone I know who has seen them live, have enjoyed what they saw. They’re a special band, rightly deserving of the good press they receive. They’re also an example of why Wide Awake could grow into a vital London festival. It’s venues like the Shacklewell and Windmill that are taking a chance on booking bands like Dry Cleaning.

Another ‘Shacklewell’ band, and one long overdue serious attention, CROWS played the Bad Vibes stage to a packed crowd. Their support for Idles clearly paying off, with a lot of Idles t-shirts in the packed Bad Vibes stage. As I would expect, their performance was full of the energy they’re known for.

Annoyingly, I dallied too long between stages and the pit for Goat Girl was closed. So I took the opportunity to kick back with a soft-drink and listen to the delightful sounds of Goat Girl in the glorious early evening sun.

Lynks are an acquired taste. Not my taste. They’re a camp disco performance art group who have no instruments on stage singing over backing tracks. Really not my musical taste. But they are entirely about the stage show. The whole crowd on the So Young Stage bouncing along to their set, probably the best reaction of the day. Everyone there clearly loved them. They are worth catching to see if they are your thing.

Snapped Ankles are just awesome live. They create a primeval driving shamanistic music to dance to and dance the crowd did. I stayed for three songs before heading off to catch the Bad Vibes stage.

Kikagaku Moyo are possibly one of the best psych bands around at the moment. They make playing psych look effortless but controlled. Today was no exception with layers of sound washing over each other, interacting and heading off in a new direction dragging you with them on their musical wanderings. They a perfect band to catch at a festival when you’re feeling tired. Just allow the music to take over and revitalise yourself. Catch them if you can.

I cut short the Kikagaku Moyo set to catch the pit for Black Country New Road. They’re the chess club of music. There’s an element of prog with every instrument give time to weave it’s sound into their stories. Everything sounds like they’ve made a conscious compositional choice. That’s not a bad thing. But it lacks the organic nature of Squid and maybe at times feels too serious. However, their debut album released earlier this year, is one of my favourite albums of 2021. It looked like their lineup had changed since the first time I saw them at Rockaway Beach last year. They also didn’t look like school kids this time. It’s amazing what a year in music does to people. Have to admit, in the evening sun, I enjoyed their set. But the music has that kind of downstairs in a jazz club type feel that requires concentration and might have worked better when things got dark or even a smaller stage.

With the slew of bands that followed Idles into the mainstream. A bunch of Irish acts forced their way through the door. Initially, Fontaines DC were my favourites. They have a poetry and nervous energy that instantly made me like them.

The Murder Capital followed close behind, disposing with the nervous energy, replacing it with a dark intense emotion. Over the last year or so, the album I keep going back to is the Murder Capital’s debut. There are songs on the album with a real emotional punch. Somehow they manage to carry the darkness into their performances.

Tonight, was no different. James holding the crowd in his hands (or them literally holding his to stop him falling into them). His use of space in songs to give everyone time to take in the emotion and then hitting you with his powerful rich mournful voice distinguishes the band from the crowd. While a big stage in a big top, lacked the intimacy of the 100 Club gig last year. This was another storming performance. Slightly let down when the sound engineer cut them off after timing issues with James squaring up him and security dragging him away. He’ll have to learn to keep the emotion on stage.

I did briefly leave the Murder Capital set to catch Crack Cloud. I’ve seen them before and they’re really good. But there’s something special about the Murder Capital that meant I needed to see the rest of the set. I will have to catch Crack Cloud at some other point.

Getting to the Wide Awake Festival had been a bit of a trek. My rail line was closed due to a fatality on the line. So I had to drive across country to pick up a different line into London meaning I had to return to pick up my car. I also am still not comfortable with crowds and spent most of the day wearing a mask in the pit and in crowded areas of the festival. I didn’t really want to be stuck on packed trains out of Brockwell with a late night drive. So despite some excellent bands to come, I decided to cut after one last band – Black Midi

I’ve seen Black Midi a few times and their debut album was my one of my favourite albums of 2019. Their followup, this year’s Cavalcade hasn’t had such a big an impact on me. It’s too consciously experimental. I have to be in the right mood for it to work.

I think with BCNR and Squid also playing in the same space. The seriousness of Black Midi and BCNR has worn more heavily. There’s an intensity to their music and the way they play that means you have to really be switched on to enjoy them. By this time, I have to admit I was a bit tired with my mind on home, I didn’t take in their set. I think the Murder Capital had taken all my emotions.

Not quite the high I’d expected to finish the festival on. But I can’t complain. It was a day I needed after a long 18 months. It felt like a bit of normality had returned to my life.

While I had a ticket, I was grateful for Bad Vibes giving me a photo pass. It helped me relax into the day and move around more easily without having to deal with packed crowds. I had also upgraded to a very reasonably priced VIP ticket. I needed to have a space to retire to if things got too much and the VIP space was quiet enough to allow me to deal with my post-COVID return to the real world.

I really hope this festival happens again next year. From the organisation, to the lineup. It was pretty much perfect. An excellent start.