Taking advantage of Glastonbury’s absence, and ridding themselves of unwanted competition from Download, the decision to move the Isle Of Wight Festival to late June seemed like a shrewd move back in December. Organiser John Giddings must have seen a gap in the market, the chance to shine in the media limelight, and an opportunity to trade his festival’s corporate veneer for some earthy Glastonbury charm.
Whether Isle Of Wight 2012 managed to snatch a fragment of Glastonbury’s free spirit or not, the usually sun soaked festival certainly pinched the Somerset weather. By Thursday storm clouds have turned the Seaclose Park into a glutinous swamp. All that good press quickly turns bad as campers spend a freezing cold night in their cars. Twitter proved predictably hysterical ("DO NOT COME TO THIS PLACE") as frenzied festivalgoers mistake a wet weekend for a ghastly survival horror flick.
Arriving on Friday morning however, much of the "madness" had dispersed. The sun is shining and festivalgoers are happy - deliriously so, as they moshed to Example or all things. Still, surveying the site it becomes clear that this year’s festival has more in common with Glastonbury than just the mud slides.
There is no one discernable demographic: fans come young and old, rockers and hip hopers, day-glo dance fans and Pearl Jam fanatics. Across the weekend guitar obsessives are exposed to Katy B, Lana Del Rey and Tinie Tempah, while Radio One disciples sample Pearl Jam, Biffy Clyro and Tom Petty. The resulting milieu may undermine the intensity of the overall crowd reaction, but it’s remarkably refreshing to see open-minded music fans stepping out of their comfort zone, giving acts a fair shake, and ultimately, enjoying themselves.
Calling a performer a force of nature is a horrible cliché, but as Springsteen invites an ecstatic little girl on stage for a quick jig during "Dancing In The Dark", it’s clear that The Boss has no problem embracing the cornier end of show business. Springsteen’s moves may appear cheesy and contrived on paper, but they prove irresistible in person. He gives so much of himself to the performance (forcing every last globule of sweat from his brow as he embodies the destitute "Jack Of All Trades" and "The River’s" weary lovers) that his integrity is never in question.
Characterisation is Bruce’s secret weapon. Stepping into each new role gallantly, he doesn’t care how ridiculous he may look or how transparent the slogan, he’ll adopt it and he’ll belt it out with out the remotest whiff of post-modern irony. Improbably it all works; ecclesiastic Bruce turns "City Of Ruins" into a gospel and has every hand in the air, before the working class renegade promises to shoot a banker on sight. Hell he’s even happy to play children’s entertainer as he uncorks the simplistic "Waiting On A Sunny Day" towards the set’s close.
Tonight the crowd is keenly split between those going utterly bananas at the front, and those at the back, who pick and choose their moments. Some have come to jig and shimmy to "Working On A Highway’s" jittery rhythm. Others choose to wave their hands and stomp their feet to Wrecking Ball’s marching beats and folk flurries, before fist pumping in time to the triumphant "Out In The Street".
The three-hour set is built around a series of peaks and valleys. The Boss builds you up ("No Surrender"), and he tears you down ("Atlantic City"), but with each swell he engages a greater swathe of the audience, culminating in one glorious finale. "Land Of Hope And Dreams" is the last chance for mournful reflection, before the E Street Band suddenly kicks into an improbable sixth gear.
"Born In The USA", "Born To Run", and "Dancing In The Dark" are incendiary. The crowd stands united – roaring and bouncing as one. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" coyly plays tribute to the dearly departed Clarence Clemons, allowing everyone to catch their breath before one last firework assisted explosion. The Isley Brothers’ "Twist And Shout" closes proceedings and has everyone screaming. It serves as an endearing concession to a crowd who have stuck with The Boss through some very unfamiliar territory.
The set is sensational. Picking a highlight is next to impossible, but there was one moment that transcended Springsteen’s own lofty live standards. "Because The Night", the song Bruce gave to Patti Smith during the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions, sends a cool chill down the spine. Emerging at the halfway point, it signals the start of an incredible spectacle, bringing a disparate crowd together for the first time. The sing along is sublime, but the solo is something else: vicious, snarling, wild, unkempt, spell binding, and utterly unexpected. Proof that sometimes; even the most quantifiable of known entities can take you entirely by surprise.
This time last year, Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye took to the Isle of Wight stage during a ferocious downpour, with a tiny crowd awaiting their arrival. The hour-long set that ultimately emerged was indulgent, selfish, and gratingly indebted. He struggled to hold the crowd’s attention and he failed to justify his billing.
2012 sees Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds stepping into the breach, playing to a giant afternoon crowd on the back of just one solo LP. No one seems to mind however, as the crowd dance and clap along with a series of pleasant retro-rock jaunts. Each track is more derivative than the last, but when Noel hits his stride on the brilliant "Death Of Me And You" and "AKA…What A Life!", he is capable of enthralling a headline sized audience with his own, post-Oasis, material.
When the Oasis classics do emerge, they’re greeted like old friends. "Half The World Away" remains beautifully despairing, with its mundane longing providing the perfect complement to Noel’s down to earth image. It’s not all-smooth sailing. Noel’s voice is fragile and he struggles to reach the high notes. The lead guitar is too loud, the piano is often too sharp, but that can’t undermine a charming and understated set that concludes with a clunky "Little By Little" and sensational roar along rendition of "Don’t Look Back In Anger".
Succeeding where Liam stumbled, Noel takes the entire event in his stride (he even dodges a stray flare at the set’s conclusion without taking offence) - new ideas may be in short supply, but he remains a consummate professional.
The Vaccines bound on stage and launch straight into new single "No Hope". It’s a hit and miss affair that typifies a band struggling to reconcile an ever changing present with their rapidly approaching future. In the last two years The Vaccines have gone from sweaty bars, via jam-packed academies, to billowing festival fields, and as Justin Young’s vocal soars to the back of the mud clad masses, the band’s ascent appears entirely justified. His tones mix ragged bar room swagger with an unassuming sense of indie romanticism that makes hit singles "If You Wanna" and "Norgaard" utterly irresistible.
Sadly, while their lead singer may be primed for the biggest stage, the rest of The Vaccines appear lost. Still figuring out the academies, their rough and ready sound dissipates live. The guitars clang with unconvincing bluster, while the drums do their level best to crash but ultimately stutter. Their star is very much in the ascendancy, and The Vaccines know their way around a pop hook, but if they are to keep pace with their increasing popularity, they need to become accustomed to spacious crowds who aren’t necessarily hanging on their every word.
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