Festival Review: Bestival Toronto 2015 (including Florence and the Machine, Caribou, Nas, Jamie xx, + more)

Following a seemingly endless drought, the last few years have seen a major spike in not only the amount of music festivals in Toronto (and Ontario at large), but also the grandiosity of the scale at which they’re organized. It seems like half a decade ago there was a Wild West mentality in the minds of promoters; Virgin Festival had come and gone on Toronto Island amidst dwindling ticket sales, and while club-hopping multi-venue fests like NXNE and the annual Wavelength shindigs still prospered, there was no real big time outdoor festival to rival the rapidly growing ubiquity of the Bonnaroos and Sasquatches that were selling more tickets than ever across America. While I wouldn’t claim those festivals have necessarily improved with time, they’ve certainly become a major profit to the areas hosting them, and there was the sense that for the third largest music market in North America (as has been heavily publicized by our new mayor), Toronto was seriously missing out on cultural as well as financial rewards.

Of course, by 2015 all that has changed. The landscape is now much more saturated, with the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, Field Trip, and Riot Fest all returning for second, third, or fourth installments, not to mention July’s inaugural WayHome camping fest up in Oro-Medonte. Moreover, it seems like every municipality within 100km of the city has its own grassroots-ish fest to play up local business. Logistical issues of readily available green space and a loosening of the province’s archaic event liquor laws have, at least to some degree, been cleared up to the point that GTA-based promoters are more willing to plunk down cash towards significant startup costs. If you’re a festival junkie, now seems to be your time of plenty.

So with all of this choice and potential market overfill, did Toronto have a need for long-running UK festival institution Bestival setting its roots down in the 6? Well, in a word, yes.

Bestival, launched by BBC Radio 1 DJ Rob da Bank and his wife Josie, has been a recurring critical and commercial hit since its genesis on the Isle of Wight in 2004. The immersive aspects of the festival have long been one of its major selling points; attendees for its first Toronto stop were encouraged to costume up and party down to its eclectic lineup whilst enjoying such extramusical entertainment as an inflatable dance-church (for all your nuptial needs), a “Balearic Beach Club” (because why not dance all day and night next to a nude beach when you’re on an island that sports one), and, um, a Bollywood-themed DJ stage that, for whatever reason, was spared no expense in the way of pyrotechnics. There’s no doubt that the festival’s aesthetic was spot on, with enough decorative oddities, pseudo-psychedelic branding, and inventive usage of the park around Hanlan’s Point as a well-conceptualized and easily navigated festival grounds. For its first time going abroad outside of the UK, Bestival did a tremendous job world-building the festival experience on the Island.

Oh yeah, there was music too. The lineup was diverse but skewed overall on the electronic side of things (whatever that may mean). That aforementioned Bollywood stage had beats going nonstop all day; DJs spun for 90 minutes apiece and rotated to their successor with a break of only a few seconds. Man of the moment Jamie xx delivered one of the best of these sets Friday afternoon, seamlessly weaving tracks from his fresh solo debut In Colour along with low-key drum ‘n bass jams, minimal house, and old school soul. Sadly, Friday’s weather seemed freshly imported from England, turning the grassy plains of Hanlan’s into mudpits early on, but a triumphant Zeppelin-esque main stage performance by Florence & the Machine closing out the night to soft showers and hero worship on the part of those who stuck around.

It’s at this point worth reminding that, again, we were on an island. Meaning, at the end of the day’s excitement, the 15,000 or so attendees needed to get back to mainland via ferry or water taxi. This was easier in theory than execution, as the infrastructure provided by the Toronto Port Authority was clearly not set up to handle such a mass exodus. For some, wait times exceeded two hours after each day’s headlining sets, with lines to get off the island snaking back into the festival grounds by 9:30. Bestival has since posted on their site that they’re working with the city to increase ferry service for next year’s installment; here’s to hoping serious steps are taken to improve things, as many were more than agitated to wait so long to get back to mainland after an intensive day of festival-ing.

The strains of the ride home on Friday were all but forgotten on the second day of Bestival, with the consistency of programming up a notch from the first. Also, the weather fully cooperated this time, with sunshine, 20 degrees and the slightest breeze working in tandem all day. Born Ruffians, the jauntiest of jaunty Toronto guitar-pop, worked a sweltering mid-afternoon main stage, playing tracks old and new that made one wish they’d play out more.

The day’s other highlights were a slew of local-ish heroes, with Owen Pallett and his backing drummer and guitarist delivering a high-tension evening set that seemed to be more groove-oriented than usual for Mr. nee Final Fantasy. There was a dreamy respite with classic track “This is the Dream of Win and Regine” peppered in halfway through the set, but otherwise it seemed Pallett & co. were on the offensive – not that this was at all a bad thing.

Later, Pallett joined on violin as fifth member of former Dundasian Dan Snaith’s Caribou, owning the penultimate main stage slot with ease. Snaith, coming off a mid-afternoon set under his DJ pseudonym Daphni, showed no signs of fatigue – tracks from last year’s excellent Our Love were mixed in with jammier tunes like “Bowls” and crowd favourite “Odessa” from 2010’s breakthrough Swim. Pallett’s joined for about half of the set, his strings adding ambiance and off-kilter beats to the proceedings, in a style not dissimilar to Arthur Russell’s more adventurous work.

Though Nas followed things up with a heavily anticipated headlining slot, the Queensbridge emcee’s minimal stage show (just he and a DJ) seemed somewhat tame compared to the full band might of Caribou directly preceding him. Kicking things out with “The Don” and moving onto much of his stone-cold classic debut Illmatic, it was hard to not vibe to his recurring TO shoutouts and flawless flow – especially at the end of a day that was heavy on the positive vibes. Despite the queues to get back to mainland starting up before the day’s final set, the still sizable crowd was on Nas’ side, and sticking “Represent” towards the end of the proceedings may have been one of the most energetic moments of the whole festival. And then there were fireworks, and all was right with the world.

And then, inevitably, there was the ferry wait – again quite similar to the night prior. Placing that aside, it was pretty much a perfect weekend. Here’s to hoping that one big issue gets resolved – I’m rooting for you, Bestival. See you next year.

Follow updates from Bestival here.

Photos by Geoff Fitzgerald () | Review by Adam Kamin (@A_Kamin)

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