Originally published in The Edge
Boarding a train to Shoreham-by-Sea whilst running on about two hours of sleep and with only two-thirds of a malt loaf for company, it’s fair to say that the only tangible spurs of any modicum of festival spirit within me on the way to Wild Life were the bizarrely resplendent south coast weather and the promise of the musical goodness to be found within its fenced-off portion of Brighton City Airport. Eventually, mid-afternoon merriment did make itself known – many a Corona-grasping young person joined the service to the point that I assumed the beer bottles were the festival’s answer to wristbands, and within five minutes of walking from the station the more wild side of the crowd had made itself known by urinating into four separate bushes – but where the festival spearheaded by Disclosure and Rudimental flourishes is certainly in its performance offerings, fitting four substantial stages into a very compact layout.
What specific musical identity this presented, however, is rather vague. To look at the headliners exemplifies this: Friday saw local idol Fatboy Slim play the WHP Presents stage (modelled on the airport’s art deco terminal) through to 1am after Jess Glynne closed proceedings on the Wild Life stage (modelled somewhat on a standard hangar) half an hour beforehand, whereas Saturday’s top billing fell to consecutive main stage sets from grime heavyweights Stormzy and Dizzee Rascal. Some stages did have a very evident focus, like Barcelona club Elrow’s weekend-long Sambodromo do Brasil setup, as exhibited at Lovebox last year – think Jungle Run with house tracks and a giant inflated gorilla perched atop a golf cart – and Friday’s Tropical tent with a who’s who of UK grime and rap talent from Wiley and Jme to plucky upstarts J Hus and AJ Tracey. Others were slightly more perplexing, like the main stage’s Saturday run of Rag‘n’Bone Man into Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley via Bonzai, Ireland’s foremost purveyor of thrilling half-sung half-spat apocalyptic rave music that is traditionally more at home supporting Mura Masa or Flume on tour than slotting in so Anne-Marie could take a trip to Wembley.
Of the headliners, it was perhaps Glynne that was the most surprising both in presence and delivery. Sure, I Cry When I Laugh was quite the success on its 2015 release, spawning two solo chart-toppers in addition to four other platinum-certified singles that unsurprisingly featured rather prominently in the set, but at this early stage in her career it did feel unusual getting such a platform for unenthralling album filler, even if it was delivered exceptionally and with cheesy but engaging jazzy co-ordination across her nine-piece spread of accompanists. Performing in front of a mix of generic vistas and her own performances with ever-changing hairstyles, it was the more upbeat numbers that exploited her pivoting brass trio like ‘Ain’t Got Far To Go’ and opening song ‘Right Here’ that made the strongest impact, matching her outfit – one only rivalled by Clean Bandit’s Grace Chatto in the sparkle stakes – in disco-harking flair.
In Glynne’s timeslot on Saturday (and coming a week before the announcement of Raskit, his grime-focused sixth record), Dizzee Rascal’s set was one that caught me rather off guard in the way that it veered away from the pop-oriented material he has lent on or at least led with for most of the last decade. On first reaching the stage 10 minutes into the set having been watching Eric Prydz kick things off with ‘Viro’ at the WHP Presents wall of light with a slight DJ hatch, sandwiched between 2003’s ‘I Luv You’ and 2007’s ‘Sirens’ was a ‘Wot U Gonna Do?’ from Raskit, a repetitive track focused on a world that has moved on from, say, tracks that feature Robbie Williams (“Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do? / Wot u gonna do when it ain’t all about you?). Further new tracks did slide in seamlessly between every couple of Boy In Da Corner or Maths + English cuts – if the set proved one thing, the days of manic last single ‘Hype’ are firmly behind him and that’s almost certainly for the best given both current trends and his most convincing performance style – as did a lively few minutes of getting different sections of the crowd to clamour “OI” loud enough for ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ to start. Eventually, it was only after a rowdy rendition of ‘Bassline Junkie’ that preceded Dizzee and his merch-sporting stage companion departing the stage that his 2009 collaborations with Calvin Harris and Armand Van Helden formed an encore that those of us keen on finding public transport with which to close the evening got to experience from the passing shuttle bus into Brighton itself.
Beforehand, Saturday’s most compelling attraction was undoubtedly the Sounds Of The Near Future tent, showcasing some stellar production talent in full-on live set mode. Shy Luv, clad as ever all in white, wrapped up their festival summer not long after gates opened with an extended set of brilliantly groovy material to an unfairly tiny crowd that showed strong progress even from their pair of Great Escape sets just three weeks prior, with main instrumentalist Jake Norman using the stage space well to sit back and allow vocalist (and ‘In Silence’ cowbell whacker) Sam Knowles more space to bop around like a proper frontman. A day after releasing ‘Times We Had,’ his first single in 10 months, List member SG Lewis continued his 100% record of Wild Life appearances (remarking that he made his debut with one of his first DJ sets two years prior) by rolling around instrumental technical difficulties to play another enchanting festival set – lifted for its close of ‘Holding Back’ and ‘Warm’ by the light flooding in from the back of the tent – of comforting melodies that featured a shoutout for his mother. At teatime, London funksmith Tom Misch looked tremendously at ease playing slick guitar lines with a three-piece backing band over the luscious components of Beat Tape 2, 2016’s Reverie EP (with sister Laura appearing on saxophone for the divine ‘Follow’), and even the upcoming album in ‘South Of The River,’ a track on which his compositional mastery is matched by gentle vocal soul.
(Before we conclude with the tent of my dreams, now is probably the best time to talk about the weekend’s other set to feature a hatted violinist: that of George Ezra, whose delicate spoken approach and inherent harmlessness in his first festival would be endearing if it wasn’t so patently beige. The music verges on ska-lite with a suite of guitars for himself and two backers, a two-part brass section always either nodding or twitching like novelty desk ornaments, and the aforementioned man in a bowler hat who stood up from keys to play a Coldplay-aspiring line in new song ‘Hold My Girl.’ Ezra starts each track by bobbing with a mild swagger before his pleasantly deep but thoroughly average voice does the rest of the work. Like Tom Odell at Common People, he is just one of those gentlemen whose initial popularity eluded me to the point that now I cannot quite understand what there really is for everyone to sing along to (with the possible exception of ‘Budapest’). Rag‘n’Bone Man, who hails from 20 miles away in Uckfield, is this year’s addition to that crowd. His set lacked hats and songs that many were familiar with beyond ‘Human’ and a stripped-back ‘Skin’ despite the monstrous sales of his debut album, but at least his vocal presence was far more distinct than Ezra’s.)
It was Mura Masa – Alex Crossan, the 21-year-old who spent his formative years on Guernsey and SoundCloud before moving to Brighton for an English Literature and Philosophy degree that sounds far less interesting than his upcoming album – who proved the weekend’s clear standout, opening behind a small perspex desk on the steel pan/piano/synth fusion of ‘Love$ick’ with A$AP Rocky’s portions performed by Fliss, who laced the set throughout with yet more life whilst bounding across the stage recreating vocal parts originally issued by Charli XCX (‘1 Night’), Tom Tripp (electric new track ‘Helpline’), and Yannis Philippakis (his remix of Foals’ ‘Night Swimmers’). Bonzai made the trip after her set for ‘What If I Go?’ and the tail of ‘Firefly,’ the exquisite NAO-sung track from 2015’s Someday Somewhere EP used to close the hour in the euphoric fashion it deserved, meanwhile Crossan shone alone for the longing ‘Are U There?’ and, in ‘Lotus Eater’ and ‘Hell,’ fiery trap slices of his earlier work. From his perch it was very much a case of letting the vocalists act as the animation whilst he solemnly struck sampling pads, synths, and percussion. Yet, it was easily the most energetic set of the festival, and now my anticipation for July 14th’s Mura Masa after two years of listening to his music is higher than ever before.
Midway through Friday afternoon, Clean Bandit opted for a similar route of one-vocalist-fits-all-except-for-the-ones-where-the-actual-vocalist-happens-to-be-on-site, except their take on it all landed far more awkwardly. After last year’s pre-‘Rockabye’ departure of violinist Neil Amin-Smith, the band is down to cellist Chatto, the brothers Jack and Luke Patterson, and two touring components in The Voice graduate Kirsten Joy and an anonymous violinist. While Chatto struts around with impossibly narrow instruments singing excessively noticeable backing vocals of questionable quality, the brothers looked wholly emotionless and unaware of the crowd from the top tier of the staging, with Luke on drums and Jack on keys and, for ‘Telephone Banking,’ a peculiar electronic clarinet. Of course, the character is meant to come from the performers, and they did welcome Love Ssega, Stylo G, and Zara Larsson at various stages for a slight lift of the awkwardness, but things compounded when ‘Come Over’ finished and Chatto asked us to give a warm welcome to Anne-Marie and Sean Paul before realising after a cheer and a pause that they weren’t actually anywhere near the south coast. When things just got going – in other words, the closing run of ‘Real Love,’ ‘Tears,’ and ‘Rather Be’ – it was clear why the band is a successful recording act. Without the full party or conviction to act as if such a thing was occurring, the same cannot be said for the live show.
Larsson’s below-par appearance for ‘Symphony’ came only 25 minutes after she had finished her own set on the same stage, and her struggles within that mostly seemed to revolve around the material from So Good she was out to deliver rather than the performance aspect itself. Starting out as her mark on the UK charts did with ‘Never Forget You’ made a lot of sense – it not only gave her an early opportunity to knock my socks off a little with some vocal runs but also featured well-executed windswept dance breaks – and her collaborative efforts of ‘Girls Like’ (or at least its chorus and middle 8 with nary a trace of Tinie Tempah) and ‘This One’s For You’ (which my notes from the festival claim came with “nagsbsvgahzbaannngg” in an effort to capture David Guetta’s irritating production on it) also served an obvious purpose. Elsewhere, however, there wasn’t that much worth writing home about – or, for that matter, putting onto an album. Current single ‘Don’t Let Me Be Yours’ had an impeccable talkup that plugged its writer Ed Sheeran before becoming ‘Shape Of You’ in the second verse and chorus; ‘I Would Like’ failed to offer a single opportunity for her voice to shine; ‘Ain’t My Fault,’ which remains a chorus wrapped in a bundle of grating faux Rihanna swag, had more effort injected into each “no” run than half the album seems to possess. But, I must emphasise that Larsson is a proper popstar, even if the music she’s parading isn’t the pop her act craves. Take finale ‘Lush Life’ as a sign that – with a little more focus, a little more clarity, and a little more playfulness – wild ambitions can be realised. It’s a lesson we could all take note of.