Live Review: Kite Festival – Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire 10.06.2022 – 12.06.2022

Don Blandford

The kids are alright – they’ve got Glastonbury and Reading but where do you go if you want a grown up festival? To a field situated somewhere between Bicester and Oxford apparently!

Kite Festival is the brand new summer bash where you’re more likely to experience a book reading than blokes barfing. A festival that celebrates the cerebral and truly offers a cultural cornucopia of music, debate, comedy, cabaret and much more.

So did Kite Festival soar like the birds hovering majestically over the rolling hills of Oxfordshire? Or did it try too hard to be all things to all people and just never take off? Armed with pop-up tent and several bus and train tickets – Backseat Mafia enrolled with the university of Kite for the weekend to bring you this dissertation about a new, innovative festival of ideas and music…

Located in the beautiful village surroundings of Kirtlington – a place where they’re reluctant to even let a bus stop sign disrupt the hedgerow – it’s a surprise Kite Festival even got off the ground here, but happily it is here in their back yard.

To this rural idyll there came idle chat, memorable music performances and more middle class folk than you’d find at a Waitrose quinoa and kimchee sale. Cut these people and I swear they’d bleed pure hummus.

Several stages span the site. The Forum marquee by day is home to discussion and guest interviews with speakers and then by late afternoon it transforms into the main music arena. Nearby is the cosy Skylark Social stage with it’s steady flow of sublime solo performers and showcase of new talent. Heavenly Records curate the Heavenly Presents music tent. Close by is The Town Hall marquee where there’s more live debate for armchair warriors and earnest political thinkers. The Pod tent is more eclectic and sees comedy, podcast experts, poetry lessons and an array of ‘Thinkin’ chats. The only uncovered outdoor venue is The Bloom stage with its range of fun bands and solo performers – some borrowed from the Skylark Stage to maximise exposure of these promising new artists.

So there was much to see in a relatively compact space. It all starts at a leisurely pace with just two stages opening on Friday evening. The Heavenly team begin with the first of many busy bands to play the weekend with the brass band fun of Don’t Problem. They give way to the rather curious – yet engaging – Mermaid Chunky with their eccentric spoken word and Casio concoctions made even more beautifully bizarre when they’re joined on stage by dancing vegetation – a heady trip. Bahrain psyche combo Flamingods are altogether more serious. As the lighting gets dimmed and coloured to a muddy peachy pink (much to the regret of the assembled photographers) Flamingods take everyone on a journey with their absorbing and exotic psychedelia – like Thievery Corporation rocking out on acid. The finale from Heavenly comes courtesy of Afro-jazz fusion collective Nubiyan Twist. Having broken through on to radio playlists it’s refreshing to see them headline the Kite Friday night slot. Blink though and the band seems to expand before your very eyes. The busy nine piece smartly smouldered and grooved into the freshening air with such poise. Looking like they were playing for the sheer joy of it – and not only because of their innate musicality but with such a full band each performer probably made only enough to buy a vegan bowl of vegi rice and a coffee at Kite.

Meanwhile over at the Skylark Social stage hip hop and alternative R&B queen Shunaji is the first of many talented female solo artists to grace the stage. Name-checking and pointing out her mum who has travelled from Rome to see her adds sweetness to the urban vibe groove. There’s cabaret to follow. The wonderfully funny Rhys from Blow My Wig! introduces performers and poets with their hilarious vignettes on the mundanities of life. The spiel about a crisps addiction and spying on a supermarket shopper provided the best spit out your beer, laugh out loud banter of the whole festival.

Saturday got serious at Kite. All the venues were open and the village within a village was a bustling scene filled with eager, thinking folk scurrying from a debate to a discussion and back again. In these fields more used to tractors than political tracts some came armed with pen and notebooks. Judging by the sardine situation going on in The Town Hall marquee the poster boy of the hummus class appears to be Tory rebel and Boris nemesis Rory Stewart. A lot of people got up very early to queue for loos and use the posh showers to be there to see Rory get chatted up by Murdoch press hack and Establishment Tory Andrew Neil. The scene in the Heavenly tent was much cooler where lovely music journo Jude Rogers was being interviewed about her fantastic book The Sound Of Being A Human by the equally affable broadcaster Zakia Sewell. A memoir about music and how deeply it shapes our lives.

An example of which is happening in the Skylark tent with the warm and engaging Cecilia Ndhlovu running her song workshop and gaining the confidence and the voices of the assembled festival crowd.

The Forum is packed for speakers now. After the historians David Olusoga and William Dalrymple please the Guardianistas present it’s widely anticipated that the next speaker – Delia Smith – may offer something more conventional and homely. Yet it’s her book not her cooking that she’s there for as she chats with June Sarpong. In her philosophical musings in You Matter: The Human Solution Delia offers a recipe for ripping away power and starting again – an unexpected but refreshingly liberal approach emphasising self-raising power.

A quick flit to the Heavenly tent sees Zakia Sewell in full flow with the legendary DJ Bill Brewster and his co-writer Frank Broughton as they discuss their book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. They describe, however unpalatable it may be for music traditionalists, that their intensive research shows how the DJ has been at the heart of music for decades and argue how we all owe a debt to the cultural influence of those turntable types.

The fabulous Project Dreaming team take residency at the Skylark tent during Saturday lunchtime. Their promotion of new and emerging talent is refreshing and even more so for focusing mainly on female talent at the festival. First up is the entrancing Nysza with her fusion of urban rhythms. Then as the crowds choose their lunch options from the array of classy food outlets the Skylark soundtrack was provided by Italian singer-songwriter Heren Wolf. Meanwhile the lively jig gig going on at the Bloom stage features sublime New Zealand fiddle and accordion duo Good Habits. Wherever you turn at Kite Festival there’s something exciting or intriguing going on.

The most popular manifesto inevitably comes from Jarvis Cocker on The Forum stage. Rifling through a black bin bag of his old belongings he picks out his school science exercise book from the late 1970s. This trashy treasure reveals how the teenage Jarvis was already planning the Pulp project even then. Complete with sketches of costumes and details of how Pulp would fundamentally change the music industry. He’s always been a man of the people but at Kite Festival he was in a different class. He enthralled the packed marquee with the stories behind the objects he’d rescued from the loft in his old East London house.

Journalist Yalda Hakim was the big attraction at The Town Hall. The thorny global political question of Has The West Lost? was being discussed and the BBC correspondent serenely and, quite frankly, beautifully tackled the debate alongside the U.S radio journalist Ari Shapiro.

It’s music all the way for the rest of the afternoon and into the night at Kite Festival. Lunch washed down with some hearty ales soulful souls sauntered to the main marquee for an impressively powerful performance by octogenarian Mavis Staples. She oozed effortless class with every note. Those clever and cultured pop legends Saint Etienne continued the party mood with Bob, Pete and Sarah backed by a full band as they played a set spanning the years of their cool, highly danceable back catalogue. Like swallows, Saint Etienne have always signalled summer, It was great to hear Sylvie and Split Screen from their Good Humour album and old classics like Only Love Can Break Your Heart alongside their more recent tunes. Unfortunately their set was somewhat shortened due to what seemed to be poor stage management – something that affected other acts and also frustrated bands at the Heavenly stage. Timing is everything and even a rural event like Kite has a curfew so hopefully this will be tightened up next year. Most affected by the stage preparation issue was Self Esteem. Rebecca Lucy Taylor was so enraged at the delays and having to shorten the Self Esteem set she made a point of telling the packed arena not to vent on social media – the delays are not her fault. She proceeded to blow the top off the tent with a perfectly choreographed, typically forthright and thoroughly absorbing performance. So breath-taking that it’s hard to think this is the same Rebecca who once used a chair as a percussion instrument at sweaty little London gigs when she was in Slow Club.

There’s just enough time to check out Confidence Man over at the Heavenly stage. The Brisbane band go way beyond their electro-pop tag. They are the ultimate party band. Every festival should book them! Janet Planet and Sugar Bones danced jumped, writhed and simply had fun. They’d seem to change costumes in an instant. Kite was roaming free, the rave was on!

After soaring into the stratosphere with Confidence Man could Grace Jones keep Kite flying? The star attraction of the whole weekend (apologies to Rory the Tory) appeared in a skeletal mask and made her way to a raised platform on the stage. She joked how the set list and lyrics taped to the floor would be impossible for her to read and so she had someone hold up the notes before sultrily delivering her version of Iggy Pop’s classic Nightclubbing. It was a deceptively slow start to what would become a dynamic finale to the first full day at Kite Fest. Grace connected with every soul – and even left the stage to greet as many of the front row as possible. She eased through several costume changes turning The Forum stage into something of a catwalk as she strutted, crawled and danced through Private Life, My Jamaican Guy and her Roxy Music cover Love Is The Drug. Midway through her set Grace was presented with her own drum kit and she cathartically bashed away. During the encore of Slave To The Rhythm she began hula hooping and maintained the hip swivelling throughout the song and beyond. A performance worthy of a legend.

By Sunday morning the hummus crew has gone native and joined the endless queue for bacon butties and coffee. The queues are long, there are just two coffee outlets at the festival, something of a first world problem for too many at Kirtlington Park who stayed up past their bedtime to be slaves to Grace’s rhythm. Elsewhere there’s an eclectic clash of events going on. The true story of a social media catfish from the Tortoise media Sweet Bobby podcast is absorbing those in The Town Hall. One of Johnny Trunk’s famous pop quizzes is taxing the Heavenly crowd and the sublime Jelly Cleaver is giving The Velvet Underground her folk tinged jazz treatment with All Tomorrow’s Parties on the Skylark stage. Meanwhile, eco-hero George Monbiot is looking to save the planet at The Forum. Asthmatic Harp – aka Danish mermaid Hannah Fredsgaard-Jones is being utterly adorable with her alt-folk songs on the Bloom outdoor stage.

Minnie Driver (with her dog) is discussing her memoir Managing Expectation with Miranda Sawyer at The Town Hall where she gets animated and more than a little irritated about her association with Matt Damon. Later she speaks of being a born agitator and being unable to resist a protest or cause.  Such innate rebelliousness is in stark contrast to the chatter about monarchy matters with former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown at The Forum arena. Back at the Skylark Social area, veteran broadcaster ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris is much more engaging as he interviews artist Morgan Howell – producer of those giant record sleeve canvases.

The earnest folk collective Broadside Hacks are keen to play compositions from their Songs Without Authors project but the sound people at the Heavenly space seem to be in their very own time zone again. When the serious-minded super group does get going they make a rather lovely sound reminiscent of Pentangle and Katy J Pearson even pops by later to lend her vocals.

The lazy Sunday lunchtime continues with more Project Dreaming artists lighting up Skylark featuring the gorgeous pop R&B and jazzy vibe from India Shan, Bianca Rose and Natalie Lindi – every one of them awesome and stars of the future. Meanwhile,  Fran Lobo in the Heavenly area is leaping about to infectious, synth heavy grooves. The eclectic segues never stop at Kite because just two minutes away the gene genie Richard Dawkins is speaking about evolutionary biology at the big marquee.

Talking of genes, Seun Kuti has inherited his late father Fela Kuti’s innate musicality and with Egypt 80 brought joy and afrobeat rhythms to The Forum. His philosophising about “female” traits actually being positive goals that all human beings should aspire to did seem misunderstood. Seun’s exuberance and enthusiasm was infectious.

After that adventure to Lagos, a shoeless Kate Stables aka This Is The Kit returned the rustic charm to Kirtlington Park with a typically charming set of swirling, engaging melodies. Gorgeous harmonies for the haystacks.

Kite is far from winding down and there’s hardly any time to grab an oatmeal americano and some delicious Buddha bowl grub before rushing back to the Heavenly Presents tent for the wonderful Gwenno. Clad in her ‘Wales Is Not For Sale’ t-shirt Gwenno launched straight into her keyboards and swept around the stage armed with tambourine and a business-like assertiveness. The Welsh and Cornish songs lingering on the evening air long after she’d left the stage.

Seems like there’s a college orchestra playing over at the Heavenly tent. Oh no, it’s actually Black Country, New Road. Following the departure of lead vocalist Isaac Wood earlier in the year the Cambridge collective of talented souls bewitched everyone with their organic, experimental post-rock meanderings delivered with a rippling folk undercurrent. Simply beautiful.

Kite Festival is almost over. Tom Misch has the responsibility of headlining the main Kite stage at The Forum. His jazz funk infused guitar grooves hovering in the night air just like those kites surfing the thermals earlier in the day.

Back at the campsite, many families have already left and there’s time to reflect and digest all that has happened at the inaugural Kite Festival. Not since the very first Latitude Festival back in 2006 has such an eclectic and ambitious programme of events been so successfully executed. At times it felt like an absorbing virtual reality trip through the pages of a Sunday supplement. Memories of Jarvis Cocker’s exercise book, Delia Smith’s anarchic philosophising and Tory Rory are competing with the phenomenal Confidence Man dance routine, Saint Etienne’s ice cream tunes and Self Esteem’s commanding stage presence in my brain. Somewhere too, I imagine Grace Jones is probably still hula hooping.

Of course, everyone who attended this ambitious festival will have their own memories and so many want more, much more of this next year. They think therefore they Kite

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