Set in the grounds of Lulworth Castle, Dorset, Camp Bestival is Bestival’s family-friendly little sister. Songwriting went along to investigate…
Every day’s a school day, so the saying goes. And Friday’s lesson was, “Don’t buy a ridiculously over-sized new tent, then get stuck in traffic so you arrive at the festival late and have to try and put it up for the first time ever in the dark.” Obvious, really… but anyway yes, Hot Chip‘s set on the Friday was by all accounts very good but Songwriting can’t, unfortunately, tell you a great deal about it! By the time we finally made it down to the site proper – a good 15 minutes’ walk up and down several steep inclines from where we were camped – at 11pm, the main Castle Field was just emptying out. Ah well. We consoled ourselves with a sterling set from DJ Raf Daddy at the Wagamama tent before turning in.
Suitably refreshed – by a decent night’s sleep and by a lavish breakfast courtesy of Tea & Toast (the finest festival brekkie van in Britain bar none), by just past noon on Saturday we were back in the Castle Field ready for an all-too-rare appearance by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The veteran performer put in an energetic performance that gave the lie to his 64 years, kicking off with You Can Get It If You Really Want and taking in other classics such as Wide World, a slow and moving Rivers Of Babylon and I Can See Clearly Now. The Harder They Come and Wonderful World, Beautiful People were both notable by their surprising absence, but we were treated to a powerful rendition of Afghanistan – a topically updated version of Cliff’s 1969 anti-war song Vietnam.
After he ended with One More, taken from his latest album, Saturday afternoon was given over to pop artists Little Dragon and Rizzle Kicks. Songwriting, however, could mostly be found in the Big Top tent, which was all about more up-and-coming talents. Police Dog Hogan impressed, their blend of bluegrass, cajun and urban folk coming from a line-up comprising acoustic and electric guitars, bass, mandolin, banjo, violin and drums. But stealing the show here without a doubt was Frankie Rose, formerly of Dum Dum Girls and Vivian Girls. ‘Glamour drone’ or ‘pop shoegaze’ would be the best description we could give of the music, but defying genre to forge your own identity is never a bad thing. Bigger things must surely beckon.
“Get down Saturday night”
By 5pm, though, we were back at the main stage, to catch more legends of black music in action. The Earth, Wind & Fire Experience, all 11 of them resplendent in matching silver lamé jackets, made a pretty convincing run-through of all the band’s big hits (Got To Get You Into My Life, Boogie Wonderland, September etc) despite being arguably more of a tribute outfit, with only guitarist Al McKay from the original line-up.
Next up were Nile Rodgers and Chic. As perhaps befitted the Camp Bestival crowd – ‘chartered accountants having a nice weekend with the family’ outnumbering ‘hedonistic ravers’ by a factor of about, ooh, 1000 to 1 – their set saw them running through a wide variety of pop hits that have borne the Rodgers stamp over the years, including Like A Virgin, Let’s Dance, Notorious and even Modjo’s Lady (seamlessly merged with Soup For One, naturally), albeit in versions that were considerably funkier than the respective hit singles. Unsurprisingly, though, it was the Sister Sledge and Chic classics (including Forbidden Lover and Chic Cheer) that really got the crowd jumping – the inevitable closing rendition of Le Freak might well have taken the roof off, had there been one. These were, indeed, the Good Times.
Chic were going to be a tough act to follow, and at first it looked like Kool & The Gang – now fronted by relative newcomer Salaam, but still featuring founding brothers Robert ‘Kool’ and Ronald ‘Khalis Bayyan’ Bell, as well as a host of other time-served players – might not pull it off. 80s smoochers like Joanna and Cherish perhaps don’t make ideal festival material. But the band proceeded to work backwards in time, through disco-era faves like Get Down On It and Ladies Night all the way to the raw 70s funk of Jungle Boogie, Hollywood Nights and Open Sesame, and pull it off they most certainly did. By the time they ended with 5,000 or so people singing along to Celebration, there wasn’t a face in the audience that wasn’t sporting a big, daft grin.
The big live acts were done for the night, and it was the DJs’ turn… well, mostly. Because Saturday night had one more ace up its sleeve, as Songwriting headed to wooden marquee Pig’s Big Ballroom to catch a set from comedy legend Neil Innes. We expected the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Rutles and Innes Book Of Records man to be entertaining, sure… we didn’t, in all honesty, expect a 67-year-old writer of novelty songs to have us rolling in the aisles. But he did.
Wisely keeping the songs short and the gags quick-fire, Innes eschewed running through the hits in favour of serving up topical numbers like Tesco spoof Fiasco and a banker-baiting version of Pete Seeger’s folk classic Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, retitled Where Has All The Money Gone?. Celebrity/TV culture (Eye Candy) and advertising (Pangloss) were also victims of Innes’s dry, acerbic wit, which came complete with lots of audience participation… including a mass raspberry blow during Slaves Of Freedom. If ever the words ‘master of his craft’ were warranted, it was here – Mr Innes, we salute you.
We rounded out Saturday night getting down to some seriously fierce n’ funky D&B courtesy of LTJ Bukem in the Bollywood dance tent, then on the Sunday headed back to the main stage to catch Little Roy. He’s another reggae legend to those in the know… but what the Camp Bestival crowd probably know him best for is his recent Battle For Seattle album of reggae-fied Nirvana covers. And that’s largely what he gave them, but it was a fine way to get the day started.
After that, Sunday had plenty more reggae delights on offer, with both DJ Derek and David Rodigan entertaining in the Bollywood tent, the latter hosting an extended session that saw the likes of Youngman, The Nextmen and the mighty Horseman performing. But Songwriting also found time to take in sets from Jon Hopkins & King Creosote and Lianna La Havas on the Castle Stage: the former serving up the Celtic indie of their Mercury-nominated Diamond Mine long-player, the latter doing her jazz-tinged acoustic soul thing and clearly enjoying the gig immensely.
Sadly, our somewhat last-minute presence at Camp Bestival meant photographer/driver Tess needed to be back for work on Monday morning, and Songwriting had to leave before Madchester veterans Happy Mondays took to the stage. But we couldn’t go without checking out our very first interviewee, Liz Green, who was performing in the Big Top.
Despite crowd numbers being somewhat depleted – it was Sunday teatime, after all – she put in a sterling performance encompassing most of her recent debut album O, Devotion! and proved that in an era of autotuned vocals and songs written by committee, there’s still a place for honest, heartfelt songwriting and natural, highly personal performance. Indeed, Ms Green’s set made the perfect coda to Songwriting‘s Camp Bestival 2012 experience.
“The last word”
The overall verdict? Well, do be aware that when they say ‘family-friendly’ they mean ‘you’ll get funny looks if you haven’t got kids in tow, and you’ll be woken by screaming four-year-olds at 5am’ . If unbridled all-night hedonistic partying is what you’re after, this probably isn’t the festival for you. On a practical note, signposting around the site left a lot to be desired, too.
But nonetheless, Camp Bestival has a charm all of its own. In putting on some of the biggest names in black music, alongside up-and-coming talents from all genres, plus cutting-edge DJs, a peripatetic Indian brass band, comedians by the van-load, a jousting tournament (!), two whole fields of activities for the young ‘uns and gourmet gastronomic delights galore, all in an idyllic rural setting complete with real-life castle, organiser Rob Da Bank and his team have created something unique. For that, they should be applauded.