While a smattering of festivals happen in May, the second weekend of June tends to be the one to really kick things off, at least here in the UK. This year Download, Eden, Gottwood, Parklife, and the Isle of Wight Festival were the heavyweights, while London played host to Found Festival and Field Day. The latter has been going since 2007, and has grown exponentially with each passing year, spreading out across a huge swathe of Victoria Park. The last time I attended a festival in Victoria Park, it was Lovebox, which was a glowing, thumping storm of hip-hop, dance music and relentlessly aggressive dust clouds. Field Day, this year at least, turned out to be about as far removed from that as it’s possible to be.
The lineups have always been eclectic, that’s kind of the guiding ethos of it, but there’s more to it than just jamming a clown car’s worth of weird and wonderful acts into a 2 day stretch, it has to be balanced. This year, the 10th iteration of the festival, it was split almost perfectly down the middle, with Saturday leaning more towards a funky, bassy, electronic party vibe and Sunday being more focused on bands. As it kicked off, things looked optimistic, it was warm, everyone was full of energy and the early afternoon acts were wafting ripples of excitement across the site. The first act I managed to catch was Shock Machine, Klaxons front man James Righton’s solo project. It boded well, mainly because Righton seemed insistent on acting like he was performing in front of 10,000 people, rather than a sedate early doors crowd, clambering onto the barrier, waving the mic stand above his head and doing everything else listed in Iggy Pop’s Exuberant Front Man Handbook. Sadly, the next prominent arrival was neither listed, nor wanted on the lineup – a dramatic, heavy downpour.
Un-sadly it only stuck around for about an hour, during which time people scuttled between tents as fast as they could to find the ideal combination of music and shelter. In my case, DJ Koze did the job, throwing out one of the longest sets of the whole festival, his heady mixture of house and techno providing a surprisingly appropriate early afternoon warm-up. By the time Skepta turned up, the sky had gotten bored of dumping water on everyone, mercifully, and although his main stage set was marred by bad sound, he didn’t really seem to give a shit, and by the time the levels were balanced again, he had the crowd eating out of his hands.
After that, it was time to trudge through the ever-congealing mud to the other end of the festival, where the small Fader stage was nestled. Apparently every time I turn up in Victoria Park Little Simz does too, and last time I saw her she was still putting the final touches on her first full album. Since then, she’s gone from strength to strength, but she certainly hasn’t let the success go to her head, as she threw out a breathless, powerful set, cramming as many tunes from the album into her short 45 minute slot as she could. Almost immediately afterwards, another local hero took the stage – Nao. She’s been one to watch for the past few years, and seeing her do her thing live made it even easier to understand why, her band were razor sharp and she somehow managed to overwhelm the whole crowd with her stage presence, despite the fact that most us couldn’t actually see her (the ground in front of the stage was sloped).
After that, the rain made an unwelcome return, but Yeasayer and Gold Panda both did their best to help everyone forget. By this stage the festival was bustling, and the even spread of the 7 main stages meant that even if you didn’t have a particular destination in mind, you could just meander from tent to tent, scoping things out. Sadly I never got the chance to have a look inside Jaegermeister’s rather impressive looking Jaegerhaus, there seemed to be perpetual queue outside, but for me the Resident Advisor tent was the best one on site, generously sized as it was with a versatile stage and phenomenal acoustics. The ever-present Village Mentality also made the site enjoyable to traverse, whether they were dancing, hosting eating contests or just writing an amusing little fuck you to the dismal weather (“Rain Rain Go Away! Europe You Can Stay” for example).
Saturday was rounded off with a muscular pair of main stage appearances – Four Tet and James Blake. You never know what you’re in for with Four Tet, he’s been around for so long and his repertoire is so vast that you might get a blistering hailstorm of hard house or something more deep and ambient. In this case, it was a mixed bag of varying beat signatures which never fully ramped it up to 11, but would still smack you in the face every now and again, if only to make sure you were still paying attention.
James Blake performed a live set and a DJ set to showcase his debut album at Field Day in 2011, and he’s come a hell of a long way since then. Like Four Tet, his sets are unpredictable, and this one was a blinder. A sizeable portion of it was occupied by tracks from his new one, The Colour in Anything, but ‘Retrograde’, ‘Limit Your Love’ and ‘Overgrown’ all featured, and he masterfully closed it out with ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, bookending a performance so entrancingly emotional it had the entire audience swaying in almost perfect unison. His sheer excitement to be playing on home turf was palpable, and it almost brought a tear to my eye when shortly after closing out a collaborative track with MC and 1-800 DINOSAUR co-conspirator Trim, Blake elatedly said “I’ve always wanted to do that”. I can honestly say that it was one of the finest headline performances I’ve seen at any festival, and there was still a whole day left to go.
Getting back on site the next day, it felt a bit like arriving at a second date to find their identical twin sitting in front of you instead. It was the same, but different. The average age of the crowd had increased, the sensibility had shifted from ruined high tops to sensible boots and old metal t-shirts (although there were still dozens of Mac DeMarco doppelgängers buzzing around). Most of the stage names had also been changed, which I’m sure was fine for anyone who hadn’t been there on the Saturday, but for the rest of us it meant we had to get our bearings all over again. That’s a pretty nitpicky nitpick though, especially given how impressive Sunday’s musical output was.
The Shacklewell Arms, having shuffled further down the festival site, played host to Fat White Family, who were every bit as ludicrous as you would expect them to be. Vocalist Lias Kaci Saoudi barely got through 3 tunes before he’d taken all his clothes off, aptly demonstrating to the crowd that he’s the kind of party animal that you don’t worry about drinking too much in a night, so much as jumping off of too many balconies. Later, the tent formerly known as RA (now Return of the Rural) became the place to be, bringing on The Temper Trap, The Avalanches and closing the day out with Air. I was fully expecting The Temper Trap to focus on their newer material, but in a pleasant twist they focused far more heavily on their opus, Conditions, closing out with ‘Drum Song’ and ‘Sweet Disposition’.
The Avalanches were an inspired booking, considering that they’ve only just come out with a new single after a 16 year hiatus, and the new album is in the pipeline. Their set, while enjoyable, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but that was largely because it was a DJ set, and I’m not sure anyone was expecting that. Air, meanwhile, stepped on stage with a full band, backed by a striking AV setup and they were astonishing, a near perfect prelude to the headline act of the day – PJ Harvey. My past self was kind of down on PJ Harvey, but having seen her live I’d like nothing better than to zip back in time, find Past Me and slap him hard around the face for being so fucking stupid. She absolutely killed it, from the initial marathon of tracks from her most recent offering to old standards like ’50ft Queenie’ and ‘Down by the Water’. Her command of the stage, combined with the sheer, raw talent of her brass and ex-Bad Seed-laden backing band had the entire crowd in an entranced stupor so potent it’s a wonder they all found their way back home afterwards.
Some city festivals rely on spectacle and party atmosphere, they make huge investments for the assurance that they’ll get it, and that’s fine. Field Day goes in a different direction. The stage set ups are relatively basic, most of the other stalls are just for food or drink, there’s very little glitz, pomp or circumstance, it’s purely about music, through and through. That’s a very calculated risk, one poorly selected headline act, or a last minute cancellation would send tremors through the whole event. I love the fact that they took that risk, and that it paid off so beautifully. It was a triumph, and a marked example of a festival really coming into its own. Bring on next year.
Photos courtesy of Field Day, Carolina Faruolo and our very own Claudia Glover