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.
Pearl Jam have always been a divisive band. Eddie Vedder’s fundamental ethos and unmistakable style spurns as many fans as it entices. Serious, earnest to the point of parody, and pained, Pearl Jam are either the most down to earth arena rockers in history, or they’re a plodding contrivance responsible for a generation of dreary and regrettable acolytes (Creed, Nickelback).
Whichever position rings true, something happens to Pearl Jam when they step onto a festival stage. All the sludgy murk of their studio albums disappears, the guitars sound vibrant and crisp, and those tortured expressions become universal gestures of catharsis. Tonight, Pearl Jam face a crowd raised not on terminally depressed rock, but buoyant indie, bouncy pop, and stadium sized hip hop. The band’s diehards are out in force, but they are truly out numbered. If Pearl Jam are to prove their headline salt, they’ll have to do it in front of Jessie J’s fans.
The grunge icons are more than up to the challenge. Not every fan will stomach their snarling assaults, but those who stay are rewarded with a surprisingly accessible set. “The Fixer” the band’s much derided 2010 single, was made for occasions like this. Its inescapable roar-along melody engages everyone in attendance, and paves the way for a blistering rendition of “Evenflow”. The first truly mammoth sing along, the track reaches an incredible high when Mike McCready plays the bulk of a fret tapping solo behind his head – seriously who said Pearl Jam weren’t showmen?
From that point on they hold the entire audience’s attention. A brutal reworking of “Rain” by The Beatles is simply astonishing, while a relatively straightforward reading of Joe Strummer’s “Arms Aloft” provides a fitting tribute. When the band hit their stride Eddie’s scream slices through the night sky. His tone is so sharp; that the roar-along “Why Go Home” improbably outclasses the band’s classic hit “Jeremy”.
This is the Isle Of Wight however, and the soft stuff always triumphs. Pearl Jam rise to the occasion dutifully enough. “Better Man” provides an early call and repeat test for the crowd, they reply with soft coos. It’s a touching moment only surpassed by set closer “Yellow Ledbetter”, which evokes a deep and heartfelt response. Having given everything during a rapturous “Alive”, the festival fans are happy to sway the night away one last time.
As the crowd dissipates, there are no murmurs of disappointment. Pearl Jam may not have been everyone’s first choice of headliner, but those who gave the grunge icons a chance, were rewarded with a bruising and dexterous set of the highest order.
If Eddie Vedder wears his grieving heart on his sleeve, then Tom Petty hides his emotions away beneath a level headed veneer. Petty is not so much emotionless (he’s clearly taken aback by the audience’s response), as too unassuming to allow his joy, grief or aggression to ooze out and colour his fans’ mood. Instead he plays it cool - well as cool as a 60-year-old can, as he dances across stage in an ill-advised waistcoat.
Humble and intensely likeable, Petty draws a largely unfamiliar audience into his jam heavy set. Even at his most visceral, when The Heartbreakers are unleashing hell, he can’t help but disarm the audience. During a cover of Peter Green’s “Oh Well”, rather than carrying a demented menace, when Petty coos the line “But Don’t Ask Me What I Think Of You, I Might Not Give The Answer That You Want Me To”, he has the air of a kindly grandfather sagely advising his assembled grand children.
It may be hard to take Petty seriously when he asks the crowd; “Who’s ready for some real head banging music”, especially when it’s proceeded by a pedestrian blues workout from Mojo, but if the singer himself lacks edge, his melodies remain incisive. “Free Fallin’” is irresistible, “American Girl” skips and rattles divinely, and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” slides effortlessly from alluring psychedelia into a thudding beatdown. That soft charm pays off in spades as the set progresses, Petty may not rule with an iron fist, but he has coaxed the audience into submission. They gladly follow him on a sprawling rendition of “King For A Day” and are rewarded for their patience with a sublimely hushed sing-along to “Learning To Fly”.
It doesn’t always work, some of the jams and some of the progression are simply too predictable and too drawn out. “Don’t Come Around Here No More’s” mix of pop subtlety and Asian swirls falters and stutters, too tepid to truly entice. The same cannot be said of the brilliant “Refugee”, which still crashes and crunches in all the right places.
Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers may not offer a relentless thrill ride, but by placing a primacy on melody, mood, and cool charisma they offer an alternate headline vision. They don’t grand stand like Springsteen, they don’t pulverize like Pearl Jam, but they win heart and minds with patience and approachability.
Biffy Clyro have been flirting with headline status for quite some time. Many thought their stiffest opposition would come from diehard metal fans, but Biffy Clyro disarmed those doubters by effortlessly conquering Sonisphere festival in 2011. Truth be told, Biffy’s trickiest opposition comes not from the extreme fringe but from the cosy centre. Until Only Revolutions broke through the glass ceiling Biffy’s radio ready hits had been the reserve of late night rock shows, hidden away from prime time viewers.
Therefore the hard working Scots find themselves at a disadvantage when faced with Isle Of Wight’s broad church of pop music fans. The party starting “Who’s Got A Match” and contorted masterpiece “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies” are met as intriguing new propositions, not welcome old friends. Still if the material is unfamiliar, the stage show is universal; spiralling blasts of fire and tower plumes of steam mirror daggering riffs and elastic chords. Biffy win the crowd over slowly with morbidly beautiful “Machines” and the quiet-loud dynamism of “Get Fucked Stud”. By the time the big sing-alongs are unveiled the day is already won. “Many Of Horror”, “Bubbles” and “The Captain” simply provide the victory lap.
The new track’s aired today suggest a hybrid sound between tub-thumping Puzzle and the anthemic Only Revolutions. One thing is clear, now Biffy have caught the pop world’s ear; they have no intention of letting it go.
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