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Review: Wide Awake 2023 – Scorching and Superb

Wide Awake Festival 2023

Despite initially being slated for its first festival extravaganza in 2020, Wide Awake London was hailed as a beacon of hope for the survival of live music events in a post-Covid world when they finally embarked on their debut edition in September 2021. Showcasing a gamut of talent from across the UK and beyond, and straddling genre boundaries from post-punk through to experimental dance music, the festival garnered praise for its eclectic approach and strong community focus. Now in their third year, Wide Awake has already cemented itself as one of the major focal points of the festival calendar, and with many other festivals competing for attention on the same weekend, the fact that 25,000 people still flocked to Brockwell Park for an afternoon of splendour was surely a triumph to begin with. Curious to see what the fuss was about for myself, I embarked on my first trip to the festival, and let me tell you, there’s a good reason for the buzz surrounding it.

Wide Awake Crowd by Misha Warren

The day kicked off at our very own So Young Magazine stage, run in collaboration with the good people at The Windmill, and the first band were one that we’ve not been afraid to hype up in recent months. Mary in the Junkyard rose to the occasion of starting proceedings with a blinding set, though it was clear at the beginning there was a palpable nervousness about them as they embarked on their first festival slot since their formation. As the set progressed, the quietness grew into confidence and they won over the audience with their charm, amassing a army of fans that were cheering on their every move. Their approach is stark and almost relishes in its minimalistic brand of indie rock, with little to no effects placed upon the trio’s songs, whether in their setup of guitar, bass and drums setup or whether substituting one set of strings for a violin. Either way, the lack of clutter in their composition allows the stellar songwriting to stand front and centre, as it absolutely deserves to.

From a somewhat tender trio, next on the stage were another trio intent on tearing the crowd to shreds. Melbourne’s CLAMM make furious punk rock that becomes more and more frenetic with each track, unleashing rapid-fire abrasiveness upon the crowd. For all the band’s rage though, the audience were willing to match the energy, culminating in the first mosh pit of the day before even an hour had passed at the festival. Despite the angstiness, the set ended on a rather wholesome moment, with vocalist Jack Summers flipping his guitar to reveal a makeshift electrical tape message reading ‘love u’, making it clear that their appreciation for such a raucous but warm response was genuinely heartfelt. 

While Cola are still in their infancy as a project, it’s clear that the constituent parts of Cola have been around the block a few times. With two members rising from the ashes of much-loved art punks Ought and the other having spent a stint with U.S. Girls, there was obvious pedigree there from the beginning, but since releasing their debut ‘Deep in View’ last summer, they’ve rapidly found themselves refining their act. Their performance for the Moth Club stage showed a marked maturation from previous projects, with Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy progressing from the angularity that shaped Ought’s earlier work and a distinct focus on songwriting. The indelible grooves that drummer Evan Cartwright lays down over the top of Darcy’s distinct croon were also a winning factor behind their gripping performance. As many would have hoped, they’ve moved onto further great things, and are showing sure signs of settling into this new identity.

Another boisterous set followed, this time from New York’s hotly-tipped noisemakers Model/Actriz. The quartet launched themselves into the afternoon with a blistering half-hour of jittering noise-rock; their sound somewhat akin to contemporaries such as Gilla Band and Mandy, Indiana with a fusion of caustic guitars and danceable rhythms. One moment you might be finding yourself lost in the pulsation of the music, and the next moment will shatter any sense of rhythm you might have had with vocalist Cole Haden letting out some malefic yelps accompanied by grinding mechanical sounds. It felt odd to feel the sun beating down upon the necks of the crowd for such a dark and foreboding show, but that wasn’t going to detract from the fact that Model/Actriz are a truly fearsome force. 

Model/Actriz by Misha Warren

While on one end of the spectrum there are many reasons to praise Model/Actriz for their harsh live show, it’s also pretty easy to see why The Bug Club have rapidly amassed a cult following for the sheer fun of theirs. Delivering a masterclass in how to construct simple songs that are full to the brim with a sense of urgency and charisma, there’s a real whimsical charm to what they do, and they appear destined to follow in the footsteps of many other bands currently emerging from the hotbed of talent that is South Wales. Drawing inspiration from their love of art and space to form surreal stories in their lyrics, they’ve crafted a particular brand of psychedelic pop that worked wonders in charming the Wide Awake crowd, and if they can continue in their own peculiar fashion, they’ll be festival favourites for many years to come.

Having last witnessed Alex G at Green Man just prior to the release of his ninth album, ‘God Save the Animals’, many of the tracks from that album had not yet seen the light of day or had at least not had the time to sink in. Now less than a year on, it feels as though these tracks are bringing the set to life. While his vast back catalogue has its fair share of gems, tracks such as ‘Runner’ and ‘Mission’ seem to have now established themselves as fan favourites on a similar level, with Alex bringing out festival headliner Caroline Polachek to provide backing vocals on the latter (to expectedly rapturous applause). While his laid back demeanour might not always seem fitting for the big stage, it certainly felt apt for a breezy (albeit damn warm) ease into the latter half of the day.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record having repeatedly said this for years, Jockstrap truly are the future of pop music, and it brings me immense joy to see others catching onto this notion. Their early evening set was a triumphant showing of this in full swing, with a set entirely comprised of tracks from their acclaimed debut ‘I Love You Jennifer B’, and the admiration for the duo’s music was felt throughout the tent. The luscious moments such as on ‘Concrete Over Water’ had the crowd verging on tears, but the electronic freakouts on tracks like ‘Debra’ had the room bounding around, with sweaty bodies jostling to see Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye in all their splendour. The party was alive throughout, but came to a stunning climax on ‘50/50’, where not a single person present wasn’t joining in with the callbacks in the chorus. Truly mesmerising stuff.

Jockstrap by Luke Dyson

It feels harsh to say that after such a positive experience you have to brace yourself for a fall, but having been one of the more highly anticipated acts of the bill, Oneohtrix Point Never’s set felt like the wrong decision to follow Jockstrap with. The textures and soundscapes that Daniel Lopatin produced were not out of line with his usual fare and were admittedly rich with trademark experimentation, but in spite of the impressive display, it did feel like the festival was ready for something more energetic at this point of the day, and it was certainly too early to come down from the bounty of highs I’d already been blessed with.

Admittedly, Black Country, New Road probably aren’t synonymous with party vibes either, and are probably best known in their most current incarnation for plaintive reflection mixed with bursts of catharsis. However, it would have been foolish to dismiss them based on their occasionally sorrowful vibes, because their status as a trusty favourite is bolstered upon every live viewing of the band. With every performance, they continue to grow as a unit, and despite the challenges they’ve been presented with in the past 18 months, they’ve come back even more resilient and eager to flaunt their raw talent for penning intricate compositions of heartwrenching proportions. Much of their Bush Hall set remains intact, but there are smatterings of new material that indicates the reborn BC,NR still have plenty more in the tank after a hectic few years. 

BC,NR by Anna Louise York

Heading back to something more rowdy and with some added raunchiness, Warmduscher were the penultimate act on the agenda, and it would be an understatement to say that they were in their element for this performance. Scores of inebriated fans barrelled around in an early evening sweatbox to see Clams Baker and co incite havoc, with some of the day’s most incendiary moments coming for old favourites such as ‘I Got Friends’ and the indomitable ‘Midnight Dipper’, while they welcomed another guest in Nuha Ruby Ra on stage for an especially fervent rendition of ‘Disco Peanuts’. Filthy and unnerving in all the right ways (at least I think so), this was a true ‘you had to be there’ moment for all who had the pleasure of witnessing it to cherish.

To round things up for the day, there were a multitude of options on offer, but it would have felt remiss to pass up the opportunity to see garage-psych legends Osees close the festival. With a back catalogue longer than one’s arm and virtually all of it blindingly good, it’s hard to go wrong with any setlist for the band, and you’re almost certain to have your face melted in the process. Their 90 minute set was by no meant scant given that they bulldozed their way through a salvo of around 20 songs, but you get the feeling that they could have gone far beyond the curfew if invited to. John Dwyer delivered a typically steadfast performance while the twin drummers spent the duration locked in a beautiful embrace of synchronicity, powering through fan favourites such as ‘Sticky Hulks’ and ‘Toe Cutter-Thumb Buster, despite the latter being stalled by technical hiccups. Propelled by raw power, this was a virtuosic showing by a band that are perennially in peak form, and truly a special way to close proceedings. My curiosity was paid off in significant fashion, and it’s fair to say that Wide Awake are fully deserving of their rapid rise in the rankings of one-day festivals. Scorching, and superb.

Above and Header photo by Garry Jones

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