The Vagaband at Bestival 2013, review.
One of the highlights of the year so far for me was this amazing trip to the Isle of Wight, for Bestival 2013. I was lucky and honoured enough to be invited by the Vagaband for their appearances there, which was unforgettable. My thanks to José for letting me join the band (so to speak) for the trip, and Dan and Hannah for taking me with them.
We arrived a day or two before the Festival proper began, to get settled in and also to avoid the ferry madness of the busiest travel times. This proved a wise decision. It was fascinating to witness the final touches and tests before the crowds arrived. The HMS Bestival stage was highly impressive, although later on I would see it mainly as of source of the loudest dance music. Elsewhere at the other end of the site was the amazing Swamp Shack stage, in a very dilapidated but atmospheric state, full of rust, rocking chairs on verandahs, clay jugs and rotting wood. Dixie chic! I recognised it immediately from the Vagaband’s BBC Sessions CD, and could not wait to see them perform here, but that was for later. It looked like a rustic Cajun paradise. By night it was transformed into something like a comic horror house, with smoke billowing out backlit by green lighting. Amazing place.
Their first appearance was to take place in a tent not too far away from the Port stage, in Greg Butler’s beautifully old-time atmospheric and appealing Pig’s Big Ballroom tent. With decor by our very own Bo Nanafana crew, and the Shellac Collective providing much of the entertainment it was everything you would expect from these fine people, who have a great eye for detail and ear for cracking musical entertainment.
The Vagaband had an early afternoon slot, one of the first acts to perform at this end of the Festival, which for some reason opened a bit later than the rest of the site. The tent was not so full when they started but by the time their brand of music had filtered outside to the curious festival-goers exploring this end of the site and they had finished their first song (Aye, Aye, Aye) it had filled considerably with many dancing. With each song the tent filled more and more, with the audience moving closer to the stage and very soon the entire tent was dancing away. I felt so proud to see a new audience hearing them for the first time react in the way that we in Norwich have been doing for ages. It was a brilliant set with a fine mix of favourites, a sprinkling of covers, and a good balance in tempo. Of their covers I have to say that I think Cuckoo/Jack of Diamonds has to be one of my favourites, alongside Wagon Wheel. It’s a song which they do so well it sounds like it could have been one of their own. First set completed, a great success.
With barely a couple of hours they had to move off to the other end of the festival site to perform their next set, on the aforementioned Swamp Shack. This really was to be the perfect marriage of band and stage, if ever a stage looked purpose built for The Vagaband this was it. Massive respect and praise must go to production manager Brita Young for setting this stage up, and for choosing the Vagaband to perform here, it really is one of the best stages I have ever seen, and was actually happy to just sit around here relaxing on a few occasions over the weekend.
This was another storming success with the band playing the perfect set for the occasion, one of my memories of which was their performance of The Ballad of El Molino with people in the audience dancing and swaying along in the dust and smoke around the stage and backlit from the afternoon sunshine. Beautiful. This set in front of an entirely different audience also went down very well, with much interest and a few buyers wanting their CD and a few t-shirts too.
After two storming sets the rest of the day was free to enjoy some of the other acts around the festival, a lot of which I spent back in the Pig’s Big Ballroom for some of the amazing acts playing there.
The next day The Vagaband had another set on the Swamp Shack stage, this time it started to rain a little just as they were about to start, but not one person left the area, and by the time they’d finished their second song it had stopped and people were once again dancing in the sunshine to these songs we know so well. So competent and confident are this band that they threw in some new songs and were not afraid to change song order mid set, gauging the mood perfectly.
Later on they played a wonderfully beautiful and chilled out set in the relaxed surroundings of the Coyote Moon yurt, with a good-natured audience sitting on cushions and sipping tea being totally charmed by the band’s acoustic set. The band looked totally relaxed and happy too. It was friendly and lovely, perfect for the afternoon teatime slot.
The Vagaband saved arguably their best performance ’til the end, with another set at The Pig’s Big Ballroom. It was now time for the very last live performance of the Festival at this tent, and with Greg of the band having had to depart earlier in the evening, and Hugh being unable to be at the festival this time the band were playing as a 6-piece. But we all know how the band can easily perform with any permutation of their numbers. For some reason I was feeling quite nervous before the gig as it felt like a really major one and I must have been picking up on the adrenaline, José too looked really pumped up for it. With a fabulous introduction from Greg Butler I felt I was really buzzing from anticipation before a band, more so than I have felt in years.
From the first “1-2-3-4” from José and the band launching into Aye Aye Aye, the area in front of the stage erupted with people dancing, and a fairly full tent soon joined in. This was the band at their best tonight, and they belted out one brilliant song after another – I actually felt quite emotional looking around and seeing so many people loving them as we do, by their third song or so it was full and absolutely everyone was dancing. Trying not to get too lost in the enjoyment of their music I was also taking some photos, and several people asked me if I knew the band and could tell them anything about them. One chap in particular told me to pass on his sentiments to the band, that this set that he’d chanced upon was his absolute highlight of the entire festival! About 2/3 of the way through the set I think the heavens opened outside, but this only led to more people cramming into the tent, some drenched ravers from the port stage forcing their way through to the front and doing frenzied hillbilly hoe-downs but thoroughly enjoying the band too. This was up there with the best of performances I’ve ever seen from this fine band, and for the sheer exhilaration of winning over an entirely new audience and the rapturous applause they got at the end it is the best. Some people near me were quickly picking up on the lyrics and joining in with the choruses. Another lad asked me about the band, and wanted to know if the songs were originals or covers. I explained that the majority were originals with the occasional cover here and there, just as the strains of the intro to All Night Long were being played. This lad smiled in recognition and the whole of the by now totally rammed-full tent sang along with the band’s every word, swaying, dancing and singing “whoo-whooo, whoo-whooo” as the band left the stage one by one. At the final beat from Dan the place just burst out with appreciative and thunderous applause, shouts and whoops. It’s as emotional a moment I think I have ever felt at a gig. I don’t know that I have any right to have felt pride, but I certainly felt it, bursting with pride and loving seeing a new audience converted so whole-heartedly. Absolutely amazing, brilliant, and something I am sure I will never forget.
What a few days! Exceptional company and brilliant music!
Many, many thanks to The Vagaband, Greg Butler, Hilary Butler, Safi Butler, The Shellac Collective, dj78, Bo Nanafana, Helen, Jacqui, Dan and Hannah.
word and photos (c) all rights reserved richard shashamane 2013