Review: Isle of Wight Festival – Saturday/Sunday

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Saturday saw me hanging around the main stage again for most of the day, kicking off at one o’clock with Big Country.  Their inoffensive brand of 80s stadium-rock was the perfect cure for my birthday hangover from the previous day, the band storming through a catalogue of their greatest hits and seeming like they were loving every minute.  The group was hit by the tragic death of former lead singer Stuart Adamson in 2001, but new vocalist Mike Peters held his own and got the crowd going consistently throughout the set, even bringing on Downton Abbey actor Elizabeth McGovern, who had been performing on the Garden Stage, for a duet.

Biffy Clyro

Labrinth’s performance was another that I enjoyed a whole lot more than I expected to, an artist who for me slips firmly into the bracket of ‘recognise his songs but couldn’t name a single one of them’. However he proved me wrong by showing himself to be a witty and fun performer with so much more talent than I realised, impressing with his guitar skills especially.  The joy in songs like ‘Express Yourself’ couldn’t fail to get the whole crowd jumping, and the scourge of music that is Autotune only made one (admittedly hilarious) appearance. I wish I could report more on the experiences of seeing Madness and Biffy Clyro, but much of the time spent watching them was taken up by avoiding being dragged into circles and getting the crap beaten out of me, or dragging muddy, tattooed crowd-surfers off my shoulders and getting a welly to the face for my troubles.  From what I could discern, both performances were excellent, with great audience interaction, fantastic renditions of classic songs from both bands and, in Biffy’s case, stunning pyrotechnics.

Pearl Jam

The final act that night was my most anticipated band of the whole festival: Pearl Jam, one of the most successful groups of all time and coincidentally my favourite band, so expectations were high.  Luckily, Eddie Vedder and co. didn’t disappoint,  despite arriving 20 minutes late for their 2 hour set.  Opening with ‘Unthought Known’, rising in intensity and segueing into the short, brutal ‘Last Exit’, they started off with some of the less well-known singles, saving songs from record-breaking albums ‘Ten’ and ‘Vs’ for the end of the set.  Old was mixed with new, with 5 songs being played from both their first and last albums, and the quiet and reflective with the fast and uncompromising: the beautiful acoustic message of ‘Just Breathe’ followed soon after by the Wah-pedal frenzy and intensity of ‘Blood’.  Pearl Jam are as electrifying to watch now as they must have been in their 90s heyday, cementing their reputation as one of the best live bands around.  Highlights included a version of ‘Porch’ beginning with Vedder on stage alone, playing a slowed-down opening riff and stomping out the rhythm as the crowd stomped along, a euphoric, lengthened ‘Alive’, and a stunning, passionate ‘Betterman’.

The Milk

The final day of music was a slightly more subdued affair: festival fatigue was setting in, but we still attempted to make the most of it.  Switchfoot and The Milk were playing the Big Top stage, and both were great examples of decent bands you see at festivals that you might otherwise never find.  Switchfoot’s particular brand of angst-laden pop-rock went down well with the limited morning crowd, those who had made the effort to show up rewarded with some fantastic audience interaction from vocalist and guitarist Jon Foreman.  For someone unaware of their music before, however, Switchfoot’s back catalogue of songs was particularly difficult to tell apart, the assault of twin guitars constantly attacking power chords eventually becoming draining. The Milk, however, offered a more technically complex experience, building a strong set around complicated riffs, again through a two-guitar set-up but working much more coherently and melodically than Switchfoot had managed.  Highlight of the set was the swaggering, driven ‘Mr Motivator’.

The Vaccines, performing about halfway through the day on the main stage, were, for me, hands down the worst performance of the festival.  If anyone has adopted the mantra of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, it’s these guys.  The problem with that attitude, however, is every single sounds the same.  There was a not a single discernible difference in any of the songs: the same fast, basic drum pattern, the same mundane, chugging guitars, and the same pretensions of Indie wit that plague the genre.  The band couldn’t even muster up any energy or stage presence, being content instead to sit tight attempting to look achingly cool and hoping their music would be enough to win over the crowd.  It wasn’t.

Bruce Springsteen

As the weekend came to a close, it became apparent that the organisers had saved the best until last.  Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, together for more than 4 decades, played a show that lasted close to 3 hours and blew the crowd’s collective mind. A man perfectly attuned to his band, never stealing the limelight from the group of extremely talented musicians who are as much a part of his music as he is, Springsteen is one of the most versatile, entertaining and joyous performers on the planet.  He harks back to a more a innocent period of live music in his audience interaction: he wore a hat the crowd handed to him, he gave his microphone to a young boy in the front row to sing a few lines, he got a girl up on stage to dance with him.  He cracked jokes between songs, took the time out to introduce every single member of his ensemble, giving each a chance to shine, and asked for a moment’s silence in touching tribute to former saxophone player Clarence Clemons, who died last year.  The set was as much a showcase of their new album as it was a tour through their greatest hits, the standouts of the new material being the Celtic-tinged ‘Death to My Hometown’ and the title track ‘Wrecking Ball’.  ‘Badlands’ was a powerful opener, whilst ‘The River’ was a devastating essay in melancholy, the story of a man yearning for his youth made all the more poignant due to Springsteen performing much of it on his own with just a harmonica for company.  As the set drew to a close, we were led through some of Springsteen’s most famous work: ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘Atlantic City’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Glory Days’ all making appearances before the rapturous double encore of ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ and an unbeatable cover of The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ as fireworks exploded around the stage.  Nothing can convey the feeling better than the fact that as we left the main stage area, my friend actually shed a tear knowing that they probably wouldn’t see a better live performance.  I’d call that a pretty strong recommendation.

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