Wide Awake festival: The perfect mix of crop tops and chops

The south London festival has firmly established itself as the ultimate alt music all-dayer. Now it's reflecting our need for music that's out-and-out fun alongside our love for artists who can do what we can only dream of

It’s with no disrespect to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard that I decided to watch a covers band rather than their headline set at the fourth edition of Wide Awake festival. I’m sure I wasn’t missed: Gizz t-shirts were the uniform of the day at south London’s Brockwell Park, the festival’s app’s chat function was flooded with fans bonding over the best songs to fry your mind to, and by the time the band were squalling into psych metal opener ‘Planet B’, the vast, sloping area in front of Wide Awake’s main stage was a wide ocean of friendly circle pits and sun-frazzled bobbing heads.

It was a very special covers band, I should say. And despite all those Gizzians giving the impression that I might have Byrne’s Night: A Tribute to Talking Heads all to myself, at least a thousand others agreed that after a day of new music appreciation we wanted to dance to some of the best songs ever written by one group that we’ll never see. We wanted to point at a stranger and say “Home” simultaneously with them after the middle eight of ‘This Must Be The Place’. We wanted to see David Byrne’s part go to a different singer each time – Special Interest‘s Alli Logout (the opening ‘Psycho Killer’), Cole Haden of Model/Actriz (‘Burning Down The House’), Bodega (‘Life During Wartime’), Lynks (‘Lazy’) and Sarah Meth and Sorry‘s Ash Lorenz (‘Heaven’).

The band (of at least 10, including backing singers) played each songs with as much glee as we received them, beneath daft video montages that spliced together Talking Heads videos and footage from Trainspotting and Sean Connery Bond movies. They had every nuanced part down too, even if most of the guest David Byrnes read their lines from A4 lyric sheets, while drag queen compere Ash Kenazi could be occasionally heard in the wings through a mic that had been left on. Fittingly, the whole affair of well-drilled-wedding-band-come-sixth-form-leavers-assembly ended when it collapsed in on itself, the plug plugged halfway through a wobbly rendition of ‘Once In A Lifetime’ featuring Charlotte Adigery and Bolis Pupul, due to the stage running over. It didn’t matter one bit, especially after Faux Real‘s shift on ‘Girlfriend is Better’, where the Franco-American brothers (Elliott and Virgile Arndt) most resembled’s Byrne’s staccato bark.

Ash Kenazi compering Byrne’s Night

Earlier in the day, the brothers put in the biggest performance of the day on the smallest stage. New music showcase buzz is often wildly over exaggerated, but it seems that all of those who returned from The Great Escape enthralled by the two brothers making Eurovision style pop had a point. Proudly performing to a backing track, Faux Real give off the energy of a middle America shopping mall tour to break a new boy band in 1999, where the band think it’s going better than it is. Or Will Ferrell’s latest Netflix movie. Elliott and Virgile – dressed in what else but white parachute pants and white crop tops, until they stripped to their 6-packs – danced their choreographed routines expertly out of time for added deadpan larks, high-kicked through a crowd very much along for the ride, and constantly pushed the oversexualised tropes of NSYNC et al. to lip-quivering breaking point. Aged somewhere between 24 and 44, they are very much in on the joke, perhaps because the songs themselves remain so unavoidably addictive. This is about as seriously as music should often take itself, which masked club demon Lynks [top image] reasserted later on on the same stage, when he (ever so slightly) scaled down his prop-heavy Abomination tour for 45 minutes of queer electroclash alt. bangers, still managing to crowbar in confetti cannons, a wedding veil costume change, tennis balls launched into the crowd, and Shloer sprayed into the front row as if it were champagne, while speak-singing lyrics like: “Everyone’s hot, and I’m not / Everyone’s fit, and I’m shit”.

New York band YHWH Nailgun (pronounced ‘yar-way nailgun’) were the find of the day for anyone liking their music more Black Midi than Black Lace. Like the south London band, they are virtuosic in their playing (especially drummer Sam Pickard), also pulling on improv jazz as much as no wave squall. Vocalist Zack Borzone has a distinctive style too, growling and yelping so deeply and erratically that it’s hard to distinguish if he’s singing in English or a language of his own making. Their mathier end is where the Black Midi comparison rings true, but there’s also a slam dance energy to YHWH Nailgun that has more in common with hardcore bands like Show Me The Body.

Young Fathers

On the bigger stages, Wide Awake delivers as it has every year: Young Fathers are finally playing the main stages they’ve always deserved to be on, with their communal brand of radical soul music that comes on like a jet engine throughout; Squid have never sounded better than they do right now, eternally on the road, most recently in south American with some band called Pavement; Dry Cleaning, likewise. With names like that – and an electronic bill that included Johnny Jewel, Helena Hauff and Hannah Diamond – Wide Awake would have struggled to disappoint, especially when you factor in how they’ve manage to cultivate such a dickhead-free environment over the last four years. Where it really delivers though, is in its ability to book not just the academic artists who we all love for their chops, but, increasingly so, the new entertainers of alternative music. The ones who can remind us that it doesn’t have to be so deep.