Four days in and I’ve still got a few goosebumps left in the tank. James Blake is nearing the end of his early evening Big Top set, and as the bass tremors burrow up through the grass my soles are vibrating. Blake’s live set, like his much-hyped debut album, relies heavily on acres of space, cavernous echoes and subtle tics and glitches, so the bass and gradually building static at the climax of The Wilhelm Scream is a shiver-inducing finale when it creeps up on you. State’s last encounter with Blake was outside at Primavera, where his delicate electronic soul evaporated into the night air, but the few thousand heads in the packed tent are “falling, falling falling” into a trance this time.
Sunday’s a day of big clashes, a case of tearing up the timetable and entering snippet mode. We catch the tail-end of synth boffin Oneohtrix Point Never’s woozy afternoon slot that was wasted on the Red Bull Music Academy, beside burger vans and a row of portaloos, as well as catching Kelis treating us to a cover of Show Me Love by Robin S. Speaking of clashes, we’re disappointed with the turnout on the Main Stage for The Clash’s Mick Jones and his resurrected Big Audio Dynamite. It’s pretty sparse down there (The Big Top is packed for Noah and the Whale), but Mick’s giving it his all in a blue spiv suit, pulling his classic guitar poses while Don Letts beefs up the punk-dub-hip-hop vibe with his bank of samples and reggae toasting. They tear through ‘E=MC2’ and ‘Bottom Line’ with teenage abandon and Mick says, “Maybe we’ll see you again,” so fingers crossed on that front.
Declaration of interest: I’m kind of in love with Robyn. She could come on stage playing a kazoo and yodelling and I’d be praising her brave new experimental direction. My head-over-heels moment came at the Picnic last year, when the feisty Swede gave the fingers to a drizzly Saturday afternoon with her punchy electro-pop and relentless pogoing, treating the Electric Arena like the last disco on Earth. In the space of 12 months, Robyn has swapped 3pm tent slots for second billing under Bjork on Bestival’s last night, propelled by the success of her Body Talk album trilogy and a livewire concert reputation. You could plug her into one of the generators and she’d power this whole festival. She’s straight out of the blocks with Time Machine and Fembot, shadow boxing in time to the beefed up beats from her two drummers. Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do is the real fuse here, as the thousands at the Main Stage turn Robin Hill into Robyn Hill for a joyous hour or so.
Robyn has a knack of distilling dance music’s essence into perfect mini pop soap operas. Her songs weave between the communal catharsis of rave and the smudged mascara melancholy of early disco – and she doesn’t underestimate the heart-stopping power of a shuddering kickdrum. She may be singing about stalking her ex (Dancing On My Own), or breaking up a couple (Call Your Girlfriend), but she’s twirling around on her six-inch platforms, screaming “BESTIVAAAAL” a hundred times, doing that provocative banana peeling act and generally behaving like she’s the only singer on the Isle of Wight. Give her a year or two and she’ll be headlining. On Hang With Me, she pleads, “don’t fall recklessly headlessly in love with me.” Too late for that – With Every Heartbeat she seals the deal in four minutes , before blowing us kisses goodnight.
After Robyn’s direct jolt to the heartstrings, it’s time for elfin Scandinavian pop star No2, although we all knew Bjork wouldn’t be spoon-feeding us with the ‘hits’. Bestival has been a pretty surreal experience so far, but we didn’t expect David Attenborough’s voice chirping around the field, explaining the modus operandi of the Icelandic artist’s latest Biophilia project – a multimedia app-based album that probes the interfaces between nature, the cosmos, humanity and music. In contrast to The Cure’s crowd-pandering giddy singalong of the classics the previous night, Bjork’s set couldn’t be more leftfield.
Flanked by a 25-piece Icelandic women’s choir, customised organs and some other-worldly pendulum instrument, she’s in a shimmery dress with wings, with a metallic blue bishop’s mitre headpiece on top of a bright orange afro wig. So far, so Bjork. The first half hour or so is a floaty Biophilia showcase, with the sombre keys and glitchy sparkles of Thunderbolt making way for the scattery breakbeats of Crystalline and Moon’s delicate plinking. It’s a gamble – Biophilia hasn’t been released yet, and even at this stage Bjork considers it a work in progress, having last week postponed its release date until October 7, to rework the material. Her three-week summer Biophilia residency in Manchester had the performers playing ‘in the round’, with the audience never more than a few metres away, so the impact is slightly lost in the field’s expanse. The big screens show pre-recorded videos of nebulae, fractals and atomic structures, so if you’re at the back of the field you’ll see Bjork as a tiny orange and blue sprite. Patience is a virtue though – Hidden Place, from 2001’s Vespertine, is lifted to even greater transcendental heights on the wings of the choir, while One Day, Joga and Hyperballad will be tattooed on our brains for a long time yet.
Of course, Bjork does heavy too. The seismic bassline on ‘Where is the Line?’ could surely be felt on the English mainland, and as Bjork begs us to sing “Raise your flag, higher higher” on curtain closer ‘Declare Independence, her choir punch the air to the drilling industrial techno and the crowd in the field meet at that human-technology interface after all.
We’ve barely caught our breath before the fireworks, as Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere echoes around the site – and this is the cue to go searching for some unashamed pop, but not before we take one last detour through the Rizlab dance stage to see Erol Alkan and Rory Phillips finish off their four-hour electro-techno onslaught as bouncers hand out free Rizla rain ponchos – here we go again with the downpour. We’ve heard tales of the Swamp Shack filtering down over the weekend and stumble on the ramshackle junkyard-themed juke joint at the end of the Wishing Tree field. And what a find in the last throes of the festival – the DJ is rewiring our brains with a load of nonsense, in a good way. It sounds like a manic mix of polka, eastern gypsy music, Spongebob Squarepants or Wurzel Gummidge themes and various fart noises that has Sunday night die-hards hysterically laughing, shaking their heads with the fear or dancing like Rumpelstiltskin. An hour of this will do us for a lifetime and the main arena is closed off so the fun is to be had with the rest of the night-crawlers and dregs on makeshift stages and tents.
The next few hours is spent dancing at the Confetti tent to Inxs and Simply Red, and finding some transvestite show that’s mashing up Beyonce, Madonna and Erasure while the storm’s really a-brewin’ and tents are starting to blow away. All that’s left is the final trudge to the taxi back to Ryde, an hour or two of twitchy sleep and a mass noon exodus off the Isle of Wight with a head full of plans for next year. Some 13 hours of planes, trains, automobiles and boats later we touch down in Dublin repeating Robert Smith’s mantra: “Let’s go to bed.”
First published in State