I am local to Portsmouth, and I admit that I became slightly concerned before attending my third Victorious Festival. Victorious refuses to stop growing. It engulfs the entire city, with stages on the southernmost coast, and a new campsite on Portsmouth’s northernmost border. With victory after victory (just thought I would get the references to being ‘victorious’ out of the way), it felt as though it might disastrously shut down Portsmouth for the bank holiday.
Perhaps that is destined to happen one year, but the strongest line-up yet spearheaded by Madness, Stereophonics and Elbow, along with abnormally gorgeous weather, made sure that 2017 was not going to be that year. This year’s biggest expansion came with extending the festival from two, to three days. There was now an opening party on the Friday, which considering the late afternoon opening times resembled more a concert in its own right. The main ‘Common’ stage wasn’t even open, as what little of the Victorious site was yet open, orbited around the second, smaller ‘Castle Stage’.
Sundara Karma kicked off the weekend with psychedelic art pop-rock and flamboyant pastel colour. Olympia really goes to show their mindset – playfully, anthemic sounding tracks laden with mythical references to centuries past. Despite the striking androgynous teenage image, most of the band were deadly still. It was also a real pity that their set had to be cut short due to time constraints, as it felt as though they ended as soon as they had started to wriggle into motion. And frontman Oscar Pollock wriggles a lot – more than you would expect his skinny jeans to allow. This didn’t prevent the crowd being set into motion. Closer Explore provoked what one can be best described as a ‘prance pit’, as fans skipped in circles.
The Charlatans brought yet more colour to the Castle Stage, with one of the most violently strobing light shows of the weekend, and they filled the inevitable annual ‘90s alternative rock legend’ slot beautifully with classics such as Weirdo and The Only One I Know performed just as energetically as ever. The surrounding chaos made it especially difficult to keep track of frontman Tim Burgess due to his habit of hiding at the back of the stage to take photos with his phone. This became especially awkward during frantic nine-minute jam session closer Sproston Green. It was difficult to be subtle when bathed in electric green light.
It didn’t even take for them to come onstage to accurately guess the reaction that Madness would get. I only had to see how many audience members were wearing fezzes. There were a lot and there is no denying Friday’s booking felt more like a standalone Madness concert than “Festival Day 1”. This was confirmed by most of the crowd knowing how to recite the entire 30-second spoken monologue opening to One Stop Beyond, word for word.
It was a brilliant clash of old classic chaos, and not quite so enticing new material from their latest album, (or “long play”, as Suggs describes it, as he often proudly referred back to 1979 between songs), but the shallow and blunt fun factor meant that it was great start-to-finish. The start of the show defined it well – opening with rumble and explosion sounds, only to goofily launch into Embarrassment. It’s to be expected of a band with a saxophonist who spent half of a song playing hoopla with a tambourine and a microphone stand.
On Saturday, Frank Turner performed a solo acoustic set at 1PM (“It’s decidedly weird playing at this time of day”. It was a joke that almost every act seemed to drop, up until about 5PM), and cheerily dwelled more on the identity of the festival and its location. He even did the unthinkable and make a point of uniting mortal enemy cities Portsmouth and Southsea to just be Hampshire for the weekend, as well as discussing a campaign to save Southampton venue The Joiners Arms, Performing ode to his home county ‘Wessex Boy’ and referring to Victorious as “OUR festival” meant that he didn’t do a bad job. In true Turner style,“Hampshire” was battled only by “fuck” for the title of Frank’s Most Used Word 2017.
Later on the Common Stage, Sundara Karma were given a run for their money for hip-shaking, from an unexpected source – Sonya Madan of Echobelly, who could not stop grinning for the whole of their criminally short set. The only moment at which the mood seemed deflated was when the audience responded with silence when new and brilliant track If the Dogs Don’t Get You, My Sisters Will. Madan sounded slightly deflated afterwards when introducing their next song – “This next song was a hit so I hope you will do your duties”. She needn’t have asked, as the audience followed her command along with fan favourite Dark Therapy.
The sound took an even moodier turn on the Castle Stage when London four-piece indie band Palace arrived to deliver their signature laidback, caked in echo effects at just the right tempo to watch what very few clouds were there, drift by. It was a much more celebratory atmosphere on the Common as current indie favourites The Hunna performed a show that marked the first anniversary of the release of their erratic debut album, to the largest crowd of their career. According to frontman Ryan Potter, not a bad looking crowd either – “This song requires a lot of sexy dancing, and there are a lot of sexy people out there”.
As to be expected as they are promoting an upcoming ‘best of’ album, Feeder engage the audience with a set built almost entirely from their best remembered singles. Ironically, while frontman Grant Nicholas stated that “I think we connected on that one”, new song Figure You Out got very little reaction. Or at least it seemed that way when followed by the inevitable mass sing-along closer medley (“Let’s rip it up!” – Grant) of Buck Rogers and Just a Day.
However, it was Maximo Park who really got the crowd to jump, which can only be expected of a band whose latest album unites the cheeriness of disco with ranting about the misery of politics. While a smidgeon of that angst is still there, most attention was devoted to the weather – “Stay hydrated! That’s rock n’ roll! The spirit of Alan Partridge is in all of us”.
Jake Bugg on the other hand had no issue with keeping his trademark stone cold stare. That is not to say that he was especially grumpy, but he was definitely the act least enlightened by the sun – seemingly out of place and comparatively soulless. Being billed so much as a miserable lone man and his guitar, spouting melancholy, meant that it stuck out like a sore thumb. The set seemed to be a sign of closure as the final show before the release of new album Hearts That Strain, yet devoted half of his set to his debut album, and performed just one new song.
Back on the Castle Stage, there is an unfortunate booking dilemma, as it feels that later acts Frightened Rabbit and especially Band of Skulls were inappropriate for the stage’s headliner – pop star Rita Ora. Sadly, it appeared that the primarily teenage audience could not agree more, as the rock acts functioned more as background music for those waiting for Ora. Audience members were sat down, picnicking at the stage barrier. Admittedly, I found it almost impressive that so many people could even ignore what was going on the stage.
Welsh rockers Stereophonics were the act assigned the longest set at the weekend, at ninety-minutes. They even went out of their way to be the only headliners of the weekend not to leave the stage to designate their last couple of songs to be an encore, if only to squeeze one more song in. There was no denying that they went all out to bring a full Stereophonics show to that festival stage, and that doesn’t just include the spectacular confetti, fireworks and lasers throughout. Every musician onstage had a moment at which they really got to show off their caliber, for example, a stunning guitar solo courtesy of Kelly Jones during Sunny.
The entire set felt like a huge deal, and was going to need some seriously special performances on the final day for the festival not to end on a whimper by comparison.
On Sunday (miraculously, the third day of glorious sun), Turin Brakes, with a fantastic performance, perhaps rivaled Frank Turner as the act to express the most sentimentality about the location, and had every right to, as Olly Knights reflected on recording their first demos there, as well as hanging around in Southsea locations that today had been swallowed by the festival.
On the far opposite side of the festival site were the 2017 equivalent – heavier rock acts performing on the Butserfest stage, including local acts who might just record their demos as Turin Brakes did. One such Hampshire alternative punk band were the great sounding Brink Theory, who might have sounded angry, but they couldn’t resist smiling at every opportunity, or even dancing the can-can as they performed. I refuse to believe that they hadn’t been practicing that routine.
It was an entertaining joy that unfortunately didn’t continue on the Common Stage, due to an embarrassing set from Pete Doherty. It began with the smallest main stage crowd since the beginning of the day. Pete Doherty seemed to be in his own bubble, mumbling, often with his back to the audience. Referring to the Portsmouth crowd as “Southampton”, bringing on a poet to inaudibly chatter about suicide in quick bursts between songs, before eventually having to have the plug pulled on the performance as it overran, was always going to leave a poor taste. Despite a hilarious moment during which he waltzed with a security guard, there was only so much indifference or obnoxiousness than could be compensated for, sucking a lot of energy from the main arena.
Despite the blip on the Common Stage, the rest of the site was still beautifully energetic. Eight-piece ska and reggae band Bigtopp put on a rapid, grin-inducing performance on the smaller Seaside Stage. Considering just how active and packed the crowd was, one can only assume that something died a little inside frontman James Parsons upon announcing that “we give you the final festival of our careers”, unsure of why they decided to stop at all. Still, there is something gorgeously poetic about a big homecoming show, against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset besides the Solent, but their farewell show later this year.
Although the weekend was almost over, Sunday evening saw two of its most frantic performances to take place on the Common Stage. First came punk duo Slaves who despite their fury, seemed to brilliantly conduct the crowd – as to be expected of a singing drummer who refuses to sit down.
And it most certainly worked, because it takes a very enticed crowd to allow an act to reel off a furious monologue about the city’s residents who are “miserable wankers for the sake of being miserable wankers”. After all, it was an introduction to a song about raising spirits ‘Cheer Up London’, before asking that everyone present give the nearest person a cuddle. The word ‘cuddle’ sounds slightly odd when coming from a punk’s lips, but by this point, Victorious was used to that frame of mind. Next came Franz Ferdinand whose single-packed set rivaled all three headliners when considering how much of it was sung along to at a volume high enough to blot out the singer.
Although Stereophonics had yesterday put on a finale-style set, headliners Elbow lived up to the role of closing the weekend, albeit in a much different way. While tens of thousands of people were totally absorbed by the set, it functioned less to be explosive, and more as a much needed cool down, bathing Southsea Common under a night-sky and white light, This was defined somewhat by the celestially calming opening song The Birds, a peculiarly obscure eight-minute track that won everyone over nonetheless. From that moment on, Elbow had everybody wrapped around their little fingers, enough so to be in conversation.
Lyrics and onstage banter rarely avoided magnificence, love and beauty – “When I say ‘love’, you say ‘love’, LOVE!”. Often, it is to the point of charming mockery, and Garvey was well aware as he introduced Station Approach – “Everybody say ‘love’! Everybody say ‘trains’! Everybody say ‘love and trains!”. And yes, everybody replied to every word.
Victorious Festival had opened with Beatles tribute act The Silver Beatles, who shamelessly performed the final sing-along section of Elbow’s best-known hit One Day Like This (which Elbow ended their set on, making it also the final song of the weekend), during ‘Hey Jude’. Looking back, it defines the playfulness of the event, and how it has the friendly character and colour to stand as one huge annual event. Fingers crossed that it’s a while yet before they consider extending the campsite to the moon.
Victorious Festival 2017: Words by Nick Pollard. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his personal music photography site Musical Pictures here.