Live Report: Wide Awake Festival 2023

A blend of excellent highlights and poor sound...

London isn’t exactly lacking in festivals right now. The final May Bank Holiday weekend saw a plethora assemble at sites around the metropolis, ranging from dub reggae to jazz via left-field electronics and beyond. Something for every flavour, there’s a lingering feeling that the calendar has become a little saturated. Wide Awake seems to have found its niche, however, blending indie and post-punk with club-focussed electronics and alternative shades of pop.

The Brockwell Park site is compact and easy to navigate, with fans almost immediately uncovering the main stage on entrance. Blondshell is performing when Clash makes its way to South London, with the American songwriter drawing on the strength of her excellent debut album. While Sabrina Teitelbaum’s softly-hewn introspection isn’t exactly tailormade for sunny afternoon listening, revellers basking in the late May glow were left with no doubt as to the strengths of her talents.

Over at Snap, Crackle & Pop there’s a small delay as fans wait for Couou Chloe. The fashion-forward French aesthete makes a typically stylish entrance, and her rave-leaning pop template makes an immediate impact. There’s not much of a show to keep you engaged, but the force of the music rushing out of the speakers helps to alleviate any mid-afternoon fatigue. Making our way to Bad Vibrations, all-instrumental gang Los Bitchos as busy causing a bongo-fied ruckus. Melting together South American cumbia with garage punk and surf rock, it’s a thrilling and unexpected treat for the Wide Awake crowd.

A return to the Main Stage for Arooj Aftab allows us to bask in that incredible voice, before we opt to soak up some masked bedlam from psychedelic outlaws Glass Beams. Then, however, the promise of Tirzah comes calling. The Moth Club stage is packed to the rafters, with heavy queues outside, fans clearly anticipating one of the festival’s real highlights. Running late, the set opens to punters turning back towards other stages – cripplingly poor sound completely hamstrings her set, flipping one of the day’s most anticipated sets into something Tirzah would perhaps rather forget. Your heart went out to the composer, her music robbed of its strength and subtlety, melting out into the Brixton heat.

Alex G draws a massive crowd to the main stage for his set, and his well-drilled band doesn’t disappoint. Making the most of their opportunity he dives into lengthy catalogue, and there’s more than a smattering of surprises for those who make time for his music. After re-energising ourselves at Glasgow rave crew Optimo – who open with a psychobilly cruncher from The Cramps, no less – Clash then heads to Bad Vibrations, where Black Country, New Road await us. Post-festival a mini-social media brou-ha-ha erupts between BC,NR and following act OSEES over a snare drum and a blouse, but the crowd are completely unaware of this. It’s a pristine, emotive, grandiose performance, perfectionist in its pursuit of communication. A band still evolving after another line-up change, Black Country, New Road are settling phenomenally well into this fresh era – make time for a performance if you can.

With Shygirl radiating on the main stage we opt to soak up some Middle Eastern disco cuts from Habibi Funk, who throws in a few UKG moments for the London crowd. A spicy selector and an up-for-it crowd, he’s the perfect pre-amble before the headline sets descend on the festival.

In a curious triple billing Wide Awake places reclusive production team Two Shell against rave hero Daniel Avery, with Caroline Polachek on the main stage. Quickly realising where our priorities lay, Clash ventures to witness Caroline Polachek’s first solo headline set and we weren’t disappointed. Her album ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’ feels like one of the most significant statements in the alt-pop realm this year, and her performance ripples with confidence and gravitas. The vocals are flawless, and the lighting – while relatively subtle for a headliner – emphasises her movement perfectly. The emphasis is on her recent album, and songs like ‘Ocean Of Tears’ are welcomed into our arms like old friends. Closing with a mighty ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ and a riveting ‘Doors’, it’s a performance that feels as though you’re watching someone up their game in real-time. Claiming a new career highlight, she’s roared on by a Wide Awake crowd; evident sound issues – and the occasionally organisational burp aside – this is a festival which has earned its place on a packed calendar.

Words: Robin Murray

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