Saturday 18th August
Hylands Park, Chelmsford
One of the seemingly permanent fixtures in the UK’s Summer Festival programme came to an abrupt end in 2017, when Richard Branson announced he was pulling Virgin Media’s sponsorship of the 20 year old V Festival. Recent V Festivals had been run by the Festival Republic organisation, simultaneously at Hylands Park near Chelmsford and Weston Park, ten miles north-west of Wolverhampton, over the same August weekend. Not wanting to lose a popular and profitable slot in their annual festival calendar, Festival Republic decided on a rebranding without the Virgin association and V name: the RiZE Festival was born. RiZE retained the Hylands Park venue, but dropped the simultaneous performances at Weston Park. More surprisingly, although still a two day event, RiZE has moved from Saturday/Sunday to Friday/Saturday, requiring festival goers to take a day off work to attend Day 1, but giving them plenty of time to recover from Day 2 before returning to work on Monday.
The music at V Festival always had an Indie Rock and popular focus - definitely not traditional WRC fare. RiZE moved the festival’s music even further from the WRC’s core: there wasn’t a Blues guitar in sight, and the hardest rock on the programme was Bastille’s Indie. But, hey, the music all fulfilled another fundamental WRC principle - it was live! At least the two main stages and the New Music stage were; the various dance arenas were naturally manned by DJ’s, but they could easily be avoided - there was more than enough live music to fill your day!
On entering Hylands Park I headed straight to the Main Stage for the start of Maximo Park’s frenetic set of classic existentialist Rock. It is now 13 years since the Newcastle band released their first album, but they’re still playing with the exuberance of youth, attacking songs like heady youngsters in their early days, but now with the added technical acumen that only years of experience can bring. Topped by his trademark fedora, vocalist Paul Smith raced energetically around the stage; within the confines of just one song, he scissor kicked, dropped to the floor and tossed his microphone in the air. His perpetual motion inevitably attracts most of the crowd’s attention, and that of the cameras feeding the huge screens either side of the stage, but it only succeeds as well as it does because of the technical brilliance of the rest of the band, in particular lead guitarist and co-writer Duncan Lloyd. Maximo Park start their set by rattling through fan favourites ‘Our Velocity’ and ‘Risk to Exist’ with an energy and sonic brilliance that is a taster of what is to follow. Recent songs have added a political edge to the intellectual witticisms that have been there from the start. This edge is represented at RiZE by ‘The Kids are Sick Again’ and ‘Get High (No, I Don’t)’, about the right of refusal. Throw in the anthemic ‘The Undercurrents’ and ‘Apply Some Pressure’ and this whole gig would definitely have gone down well with a WRC audience.
Still exhausted from merely watching Maximo Park, I wandered across to RiZE’s Second Stage, in an enormous marquee, to see a much more relaxed set from 24 year old Scottish guitarist, pianist and singer-songwriter, Nina Nesbitt. Supported only by Jamie on keyboards, Nina sang with passion and feeling about teenage relationships and teenage angst. Her song titles said it all: ‘The Moments I’m Missing’, ‘Stay Out’, ‘The Best You Had’, ‘Somebody Special’ and ‘Loyal to Me’ (her new single). They were sung from the heart, seemingly reflecting both her own personal experiences and those of her attentive and appreciative, largely young and female, audience. But I’m not sure Nina would have gone down so well with that hypothetical group from the WRC.
As soon as Nina finished, I headed back to the Main Stage to see another female singer, the much livelier Rita Ora. Rita’s 2018 tour is her first for three years and she’s used the hiatus to develop a new on-stage style. Flanked by slick dancers, she puts in a fun, fast-paced, energetic performance with a sophisticated delivery. After warming her audience up with three bouncy openers, Rita launched into ‘Girls’, the song that was her coming out as bisexual. Perhaps understandably, given its “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls” chorus and its overtly sexy video, its release led to more criticism than compassion, primarily from the lesbian community who accused it of pandering to male-gaze stereotypes and delivering a dangerous message. But it was well received at RiZE, where the audience just wants to sing along and enjoy itself. ‘Girls’ is followed by ‘Lonely Together’, a tribute to Avicii who last week posthumously won “Best Dance Video” at the MTV Video Music Awards for this collaboration with Rita. Her set finishes with two more recent hits, ‘For You’ and ‘Anywhere’, and her fans in the audience singing louder than ever.
Next up on RiZE’s Main Stage was Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, aka 33 year old Rory Graham from East Sussex. He kicks off his set with ‘Wolves’, followed by ‘Ego’, a great sing-along song, and the unremarkable ‘Your Way Or the Rope’. It’s only when Rag ‘n’ Bone Man strips the band away and moves on to his self-proclaimed “miserable songs” that he really excels. Hearing that mighty baritone belt out Soul-baring lyrics in the beautiful ‘Skin’ is almost spiritual, bringing the crowd under his spell. His massive hit ‘Human’ impresses too, an extended version with several variations around the steamy Gospel style of the hit version. Surprisingly, ‘Human’ wasn’t saved for Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s finale. As he told the crowd “There’s still two songs left, but people often fuck off at this point”. Several did and, to be honest, by the end of his set, I wish I’d been one of them!
Before Bastille, I had 20 minutes for a quick glimpse of Sean Paul in the Second Stage marquee. Sean’s musical career began over 20 years ago as a dancehall singer in his native Jamaica. Seven studio albums later, he still has the vocals of a Reggae artist, but combines his voice with hip-hop and R&B beats to produce the unique sound that has led to his long-term success. And the crowd here loved it: the marquee was bursting at the seams with a mass of swaying bodies, singing along to every song. However, I couldn’t stay - Indie rockers Bastille were due on the Main Stage and that was one band I didn’t want to miss. No, Bastille aren’t French; their name comes from the birthday of lead singer Dan Smith: 14th July. Unusually for a band’s front man, Dan isn’t at ease between songs - with his bumbling anecdotes and self-deprecating comments he comes across as, in his own words, “a nervous wreck who hates doing this”. But from the moment he starts singing, his nervousness disappears and, in an instant, he wins the audience over, with his heartfelt passion, unadulterated energy and impressive vocal range, which he has no trouble sustaining while leaping around the stage. Even at an outdoor festival, Dan maintained his tradition of singing at least one song from within the audience, remaining visible to the large screen cameras with the help of a couple of strategically placed boxes. Highlight’s from Bastille’s set included ‘Things we lost in the Fire’, a lively, bouncy sing-along, ‘I know you’, written and originally performed with Craig David, and an ebullient rendition of ‘Of the Night’. Bastille ended their set of political, dark and dancing songs with the anthemic ‘Pompeii’, so well known that, for the final minute, the band stopped playing and just clapped along to the crowd’s singing. With their rhythmic riffs, catchy hooks and sheer energy it is no wonder Bastille are now filling arenas worldwide - they would definitely be well received at a WRC event!
After Bastille I had an impossible dilemma: two bands I wanted to see were performing at the same time. The Stereophonics started first, so I made my way to the Main Stage for a set of the band’s classic hits, delivered with enthusiastic aplomb. After 25 years of touring and numerous chart successes, the Stereophonics need no introduction. Kelly Jones’ voice adds horsepower and heft to newer material, but there is a distinct upturn in energy when the band reprise their earlier hits. Their set occasionally veers into arena-Rock routine but, overall, there is a serious vibe and little sense of self-indulgence. However, after a rousing performance of ‘Maybe Tomorrow’, complete with almost continuous audience participation, I dragged myself away to ensure I caught the end of the Years and Years set on the Second Stage, thereby apparently missing an impressive medley of covers that included ‘Handbags & Gladbags’ and ‘Highway to Hell’. Years and Years were definitely different. Their music is hard to categorise but, at RiZE, they produced a bold and theatrical set of experimental, electronic dance music. Olly Alexander’s yearning vocals steal the show, but are underpinned by the rapid, electric pulses provided by the skilled musicianship of guitarist Mikey Goldsworthy and keyboardist Emre Turkman. Years and Years dance-friendly sound is ideal for a live gig, especially during showstoppers such as ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Desire’. During their finale, the international hit ‘King’; it is almost impossible not to indulge in some form of uninhibited dance. It is no wonder that, despite the competition from the Stereophonics, the Stage 2 marquee is heaving, with a few hundred spectators having to watch as best they could from outside.
Overall, Saturday at RiZE was an excellent day of varied live music. Inevitably, not all of the music was to everybody’s taste but, with three live stages, if you couldn’t find anything to enjoy you must be extremely hard to please. I’m still disappointed the organisers didn’t stagger the performances of their two headline bands but, apart from that, the festival was well organised. Despite virtually selling out on Saturday (unlike, not surprisingly, Friday), there were minimal (if any) queues to get in, for food, for drink or even for the toilets - most unusual!