Music brings out the snob in people more than anything else I can think of. If you're not listening to the wrong genre of music then you're listening to the wrong band. Even if you are listening to the on-trend muso-friendly, cooler than cool act then you are not listening to the first album which is so much better than the current one. It's a minefield out there if you really care what people think of your musical taste. The same can be said about music festivals where people look down on others who don't go to the right festival, or choose a commercial festival over a boutique one, or have started to go to a festival way past when it used to be cool before "the recent changes". This is especially true of V Festival, a festival that divides opinion like no other.
What makes V such a binary issue is its commercial connection, the way this is used and the choice of more pop acts than any other festival. It's no surprise that the Virgin (V) Festival uses branding so much when it was a company that started it as opposed to a festival steeped in decades of history that has grown over time like Glastonbury or Reading. But commercial branding is filtering into more and more festivals now, and in this economic climate it is an unfortunate fact that it is starting to become a necessity, so why is it that V gets the attention for it? Well, I remember a time when you could only buy Virgin Cola and drinks in the arena, not other brands, and when you could not find out who was playing without buying a programme, when you could feel the tight hand of commercialism grasping your wallet at every turn. V has moved on a bit now, other brands are available, there are more and more quality food stalls appearing but unfortunately the issue with the programme still remains.
So why do people go to V, and why is it still selling out year after year? Quite simply, it's the amazing lineup which combines massive names, top pop acts and festival exclusives. This year brought Kings of Leon, Kasabian, Florence (of course), the Prodigy, Stereophonics, Paul Weller, Tinie Tempah, White Lies, Editors, Madness, Skunk Anansie and many, many more. If you waved the lineup under the nose of the most ardent festival snob you would be guaranteed at least a raised eyebrow from a list that included something for everyone, well almost everyone - death metal fans need not apply. If you mentioned that it was the V lineup then it would somehow be viewed differently than if they thought that was the lineup from the Big Chill or even T in the Park.
V consists of two outdoor stages; the main V Stage and the 4 Music stage, and two tented marquees; the Nissan Juke Arena and the Virgin Media Union. There are other peripheral stages, such as the Bacardi Bar and the Strongbow Bar which concentrate on dance music and are packed for the whole weekend, a fairground, a V Healthy section for more specialised food and drink than the standard burger and pizza stalls and all the usual vendors. Bars use the beer token method which I am not a fan of, but there are smaller bars around the site that take cash, such as the ones in the tents and my favourite, the Guiness Bar.
We went to Weston Park, Staffordshire, rather than the Chelmsford V that gets televised on Channel 4, to find out how this year would fair and whether the music can do all the talking.
After the arena was opened, with the crowd rushing to get themselves placed at the main stage, Saturday was launched, in true V style by the pop princess, Pixie Lott. A surprisingly talented performer, she delighted the audience with a collection of her chart hits but brought a distinctly unwanted guest in the form of torrential rain, particularly poignant as she was singing "Gravity" at the time.
Pixie Lott wasn't the only pop act of the day, though she was the last to play on the main stages. The pop mantle was passed to the Nissan Juke Arena with the arrival of Peter Andre. Never taking himself too seriously really is one of his best assets, and with a Michael Jackson tribute, a dance routine parody of his problems with photographers and masses of screaming girls he must have really enjoyed his set, particularly as he was a last minute addition to the lineup. Other pop sets came from Diana "I'm Buzzin'" Vickers, Example, Chipmunk, the so-called Sugababes and Kate Nash, but there were notable performances from La Roux, Goldfrapp, Mika and the headline act, the Pet Shop Boys. Of course, if chart climbers were a priority for you you could have taken a look at Eliza Doolittle, who looks to be set for a successful career.
Pop's great, but I have rock at my heart, so I was delighted to return to the V Stage to watch the act that I have caught 3 times this year, Skunk Anansie. Skin and the crew did not disappoint and injected an energy into their set that was unmatched by nearly all for the whole weekend, not because the other acts weren't up to the job but more to do with the incredible performance that Skunk Anansie bring. Only the Prodigy, Saturday's headline 4 Music act, matched them for onstage vibrancy. It was the first time I had seen an artist get between a cameraman and his camera, and it put him in an enviable position - something that was not lost on him.
Perennial favourite Seasick Steve brought his bluegrass music to Weston Park and Paolo Nutini gathered up every female on site for his set, dragging with them many disgruntled male companions who would have preferred the Sugababes with their cover of Florence and the Machine's "Rabbit Heart" ... But it was Madness that did it for us. There is something marvellous about hearing songs like 'One Step Beyond", "Baggy Trousers", "House of Fun", "It Must Be Love" and "Our House" when you've grown up with them and Suggs, Mike, Lee, Chris, Mark, Daniel and Carl all gave us the Nutty Boy performance that we were after.
The 4 Music stage had an eclectic lineup, one that could have graced any festival, with sets from Professor Green, Plan B, Jamie T, Doves and a rare performance from Eels but it was Scot Calvin Harris that drew the largest non-headline crowd of the day on the 4 Music Stage. The sea of people heaving and dancing to his tunes was a sight to behold, and with hits like his it was hardly a surprise.
The same could be said of Faithless. It's great to see them appearing and doing the rounds again, they have perfected their set in every way from the lighting to choice of tracks, but it is undoubtedly the presence of Maxi Jazz that holds it all together. It is his charisma, charm and humility that helps to make Faithless one of the best festival bands out there.
The talk of the day had to be the choice between headliners Kasabian and the Prodigy. Two amazing acts, both guaranteed to end the night in style, but completely different experiences. We, like many others, chose the Prodigy for the sheer energy and excitement. No other act gets the heart racing like the Prodigy, their tracks are edgy and raw and you always feel part of their aggression towards an unforeseen entity, rather than the focus of it. They are an outstanding headline act and the crowds that turn up to see them are testament to this. This cannot detract from Kasabian, who we saw at T in the Park. Tom and Serg have carved their place in the live performance arena and for good reason - they connect with the crowd and have a set of songs that are anthemic in nature to allow the sing-a-long that we demand from a good headline act. Are "Breathe" and "Firestarter" better than "Empire" and "Club Foot"? Would you rather listen to "LSF", "Fire" or "Smack My Bitch Up"? Who cares? it was win win for everyone, and the smart amongst the crowd chose to catch some of each set for the best of both worlds.
So Saturday ended with three of the best and most reliable festival bands for a guaranteed great set; Faithless, the Prodigy and Kasabian. It was V Festival showing its musical pedigree and closed a fantastic day of music.
Day two sees the switch of lineups between Weston Park and Chelmsford, so Essex was set for the Prodigy and Kasabian whilst Weston was waiting for Kings of Leon and David Guetta. Personally I felt that we had had the best day yesterday.
The day started well with Taylor Momsen (from Gossip Girl) and her band the Pretty Reckless. Having caught a couple of their tracks and liked them it was a pleasant surprise to see that their short but sweet set was far from reckless, but 20 minutes well spent. Momsen was over the moon to be playing in the UK, and though her on-stage persona is bleak and moody she sparkled between songs, and her popularity was born out by the massive queue of people waiting for her appearance in the signing tent.
Unfortunately Daisy Dares You did not follow well from the Pretty Reckless. They fell a little flat for us having seen them not so long ago and found them to be quite lively this was a different act altogether, with less life and, frankly, either miming or singing over a backing track. Not even Peter Andre did this. There's probably a really good explanation for it, but it just removed the atmosphere from the songs.
The 4 Music Stage did get a hell of a lot better, with another cracking set from the Magic Numbers, and a personal favourite of mine, the Divine Comedy. Neil Hannon is a songwriting genius, so the chance to catch a solo acoustic set from him with just a piano and guitar was one that could not be missed. After a disagreement with a group of fellow fans, half of which only wanted his old hits, whilst the other half liked his new stuff, we all left happy as he combined a mix of the two, and the thing with Hannon is that he is so charming and witty that he can carry almost anything off.
The Divine Comedy were the perfect warm up for another festival delight of this year, Paloma Faith. Always beautifully turned out, stylish and entertaining, Paloma never fails to put on a fabulous show and brings a touch of fifties glamour to any event, choosing this time to wear a flowing red dress and walking out with a long tasseled parasol. A first for her, as far as we can tell, was that she could not resist the lure of the steps going down from the stage and she chose to run down, up onto the barrier platform and proceeded to sprint along, touching the crowd, in her heels. She'll be crowd surfing next, and it will never be done as stylishly.
The music continued on the 4 Music Stage with the ever popular Newton Faulkner, the Temper Trap, Scouting for Girls and White Lies, but it was Florence and the Machine that drew the crowds in. We've seen Florence so many times now and far from getting boring you can see that she consistently charms her audience with her infectious energy and exuberance, and this time was no exception.
The Nissan Juke Arena brought us our fix of pop and chart performers with Gabrielle Cilmi, Tinie Tempah, Jason Derulo and Ellie Golding, and as you can imagine, the place was heaving for these. Whether more were there for Tinie than Jason, I couldn't tell, but when the tents get closed because they are full it has to be a great sign of popularity. For me it was the chance to see Shaun Ryder on top form in the tent that stood out. Surrounded by a great team of musicians and a fantastic vocalist, Julie, Ryder is allowed to do what he does best, mooch about doing his thing.
The V Stage was a bit more of a slow burner for us with Feeder (not Renegades anymore?), Passion Pit, the Coral and the Courteeners, but thankfully Editors came on and showed their pedigree. The first to admit that they have never been on my iPod, Tom and co have always blown me away with the atmosphere they bring to the stage. The passion and emotion that he puts into the performance is a joy to watch and where you would think that the band would be quiet and still you couldn't be further from the truth as Tom is one of the most animated front men around, twisting and prostrating himself to great effect.
Paul Weller is always a popular act, but though his material from the last 20 years is of an extremely high quality, it is the songs from the Jam that most people at a festival are so keen to listen and sing along to. Today was no exception, with Weller treating the crowd to "Town Called Malice" in the middle of his set before returning to his modern classics.
Stereophonics, on the other hand, know exactly which songs to sing, and Kelly, complete with his lucky leather jacket has total control over the audience by playing their biggest hits from "Bartender and the Thief" to "Dakota" and "Just Looking".
As Saturday drew to a close it was a another choice between rock and dance to end the night on the main stages; David Guetta against Kings of Leon. I am a real fan of the music of the Kings of Leon, and have been since "Molly's Chambers". They have been responsible for many anthemic tunes that are played over an over again in all walks of life, from adverts and backing tracks to cover versions and radio play. You can't argue with a back catalogue that includes "Sex on Fire", "Be Somebody", "I Want You" and "Use Somebody" and they can really belt those tunes out, but aside from a word or two from the band there is little but silence between tracks and it feels a bit clinical. Obviously the crowd loves them, and rightly so, but I think to really appreciate the Kings of Leon you need to be in the thick of the crowd singing along with everyone else.
David Guetta, on the other hand, keeps a careful eye and ear on his massive, heaving crowd, and adjusts his set to match the mood, or uses it to mould the crowd to his will. For a DJ to have such an effect on so many people is astonishing and from an outstander's point of view it is amazing to watch. Perched on top of a three metre high platform full of interactive lights on the stage Guetta can see everyone below and they can see him, waving his arms to encourage everyone to follow his lead. He weaves together tunes of his own with popular tracks like "Smack My Bitch Up" and Swedish House Mafia's "One (Your Name)" but he also took the opportunity to bring on Jason Derulo to perform "Watcha Say" - well, he played earlier, so it would have been rude not to invite him. Add to this his lightshow, pyrotechnics and some stilted figures, covered in lights and you've got a superb end to a great weekend of music.
Unfortunately there are a few issues about the festival that have to be raised to balance an almost 100% positive review. The programme is a real issue. If you've paid for your ticket and get to the festival you expect to be able to see who is on and when at any time without having to fork out another £10 just for the privilege of finding out when the acts you've paid to see are on. The times are listed in the Welfare Tent, but this is outside of the arena, so once you are in it's a programme or nothing. V isn't the only festival to do this, and I think it is a bad idea at all of them, but many at least list times on the outside of tents. Is it not better to keep the running orders on the screens or somewhere for people to reference or to include the cost of a lanyard in the ticket fee like Glastonbury?
Many complaints come to us about the state of the toilets and the queues for them, but once again we get the same old "piss anywhere" attitude where the fence seems to become the unofficial unisex urinal. I think now that people have got so used to doing it that they are now seeing it as their first port of call. The biggest issues come from queues to leave the event where people are left for hours in their cars trying to get out through one or two exits. Unfortunately tens of thousands of people cannot leave at the same time without issues, so it is down to managing the traffic as best as possible, or adding many more exits. It may well be the price for the Weston Park venue.
I try to go to events with a completely open mind, particularly when you hear things about a festival or in this case you've been to it a few times before a while ago. I had heard the snobbery about the festival but was determined to ignore all of this and take V completely on face value. When you strip it down, V continues thanks to its choice of music which combines top names with high end pop - this year would have even had Cheryl Cole playing which would have been a real coup - and so it fails or succeeds based on the lineup. The 2010 lineup was excellent and had something for nearly everyone. Don't like Pixie Lott? Go and see Professor Green. Can't stomach another Florence set? Why not enjoy some Chase and Status, Mark Lanegan or Tricky? Frankly V manages to give so many varied options to its festival goers that the worst case scenario is that you can't decide what to do. Of course you won't please everyone all the time, but it was pretty much two days of quality entertainment from all genres. And that is exactly why V sells out year after year.
One thing for sure, V Festival will continue to run and run and with a lineup that many festivals will envy.
Overall V lets the music do its talking, and what is says is very clear, that it attracts some of the biggest names to the festival. If you don't like the mix of musical styles, or are offended by having pop acts on the bill then look at another festival, there are loads of them about that can cater for whatever genre you are looking for. If you do find yourself at either of the V Festival sites then you should take some time out to watch a bit of pop, you may be surprised by the standard of some acts, and likewise if you only listen to chart music go and catch an act you've never heard of. Either way, just like people can be snobs about music and cut themselves off from the opportunity to listen to something great, if you write off V Festival without trying it you may well be missing out.
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