Neverworld has taken over from Neverland and before that its legendary start-up LeeFest. From the humble beginnings of a totally DIY festival, Lee Denny and his crew have graduated to putting on a substantially improved and carefully curated music festival. Each year they re-read Peter Pan and find new things to bring to the party and decorate John Darlings Farm with, on the Kent and Surrey borders.
This year there was more dressing up than ever before, more paint at the paint fight, more glitter and more people. The headliners were world class acts and although Tom Greenan, Declan McKenna, Rae Morris and Bastille were doing the festival rounds it was a great big coup to get these acts and then adding hit popstars Clean Bandit and hip popsters We Are Scientists to the bill.
There was a massive and stellar line up on the main stage, but what Lee and his bookers are very good at is bringing us some of the best new live acts around. The Circus tent was home to many of these for the weekend and included Fenne Lily, Lucia, Asylums and Marsicans, Yonaka and Aadae.
In fact, there were so many good bands on this stage that it was hard to tear yourself away to go and visit other live music at Hooks Rock or The Neverwoods for the Coffee House Sessions..but why no coffee stall? Also, some schedule timings meant that there were too many clashes with the other indie music areas.
However, Neverworld is not just about the music. It is a place to come and dress up, to belong to a tribe of like-minded people for a few days, to discover new things, and to dance. Although children can come along and there are some children-centred activities earlier in the day, it is not a family friendly festival like WOMAD, Camp Bestival or Cornbury. The target market ranges from sixth formers to thirty-somethings but again this is slightly split into “two tribes” those that want to see the live bands and those who just want to dance to the fantastic DJ line up, including My Nu Leng and So Solid Crew, and not come out of their tents until 10 pm.
Onto new discoveries. Hudson Taylor are an act that have been around for a while but I had not seen them before. They have recently been on tours with Hozier and George Ezra and are doing the festival circuit this year. By all accounts they have been having a great time and converting many along the way. Their brand of acoustic rock has great tunes including Old Soul and Run With Me, and the brothers’ live band keeps the Celtic feel alive throughout.
Rae Morris has changed direction recently and moved from “moody” emotional songs to pure pop. She is a very good songwriter and performed songs like Atletico, Do It and Waiting For The Rain, the latter had her acting out with umbrella on stage, and in the thirty-degree heat we all could have done with a little shower. For this set, she kept it to mainly upbeat numbers and moved around the stage with athletic prowess.
Thank goodness the second stage at Neverworld has grown up and it looks like the bands who play their can now be taken seriously and not only be heard properly but be seen as well. The Circus tent is still a bit of an afterthought, placed next to the bar where DJs were on the turn tables whilst bands were on and placed at the edge of the field but that can be forgiven for the great content that was on in there.
After the soothing and dulcet tones of Fenne Lily, who has such a wicked sense of humour too, we encounter the brilliantly riveting Asylums from Southend who are absolutely fanatic live. Their new album Alien Human Emotions is very good indeed and live they take their songs to a different level, especially Homeowners Guilt and Millennials.
Jeremy Loops from South Africa brought his blend of folk beatbox and mixed it with traditional African rhythms and a little hip hop. He really got the crowd warmed up before one of the major acts of the night, Declan McKenna.
On to one of the highlights of the festival and the deeply enigmatic Declan McKenna. He is something of a superstar in the making, a touch of David Bowie and Ezra Furman, a good guitar player and songwriter but what a showman too! He played, amongst others, The Kids Don’t Want To Go Home, Paracetamol, Brazil and a new song Astronaut, taring about the stage in cut off shorts and a Burberry raincoat.
The headliner on Friday night were Clean Bandit, A few years ago when they were starting out (then) LeeFest gave them space on the bill and later that year they had a hit single with Jess Glynne. It is amazing how many hits they have had in their short time. But Grace Chatto and the other Bandits worked out a hit-making formula, probably helped by their classical music training and they have not looked back.
Their set included a great light show and flames emitting from the top of the Fortress Stage, putting together an impressive set list for their hour-long show. Starting off with Symphony, Real Love & Disconnect, they made full use of the stage to show off choreographed dance moves and the joint tour singers of Yasmin Green and Kirsten Joy were good to listen to as they cruised through Stronger, Solo, Telephone Banking and the closer Tears.
On Saturday we arrived slightly later on site, but in time to catch the brilliant We Are Scientists. Keith and Chris not only make some of the best rock/pop music around but their stage show is highly energetic with lots of movement and lively banter. Inbewteen some of the great songs they played, Buckle, One In One Out and other new songs from the 2018 album Megaplex, Chris told us about the mystical 10,000-pound note hidden around the site probably located inside the hole in the ground toilets. Those wacky scientists!
Former footballer and Costa Coffee shop worker Tom Grennan graced the Fortress Stage next and he was a revelation. His voice is gritty and soulful and his band are true professionals. The crowd really loved him and was one of the biggest draws of the weekend firing off hits like Sober, Barbed Wire and Something In The Water.
The biggest discovery of the weekend were the frankly brilliant Yonaka. This Brighton four-piece band have recently signed to Atlantic Records and you can see why they were snapped up. Their metal almost Metallica-esque riffs are combined with some terrific melodies and songwriting. Wouldn’t Wanna Be Ya, F.W.T.B and new song Bubblegum all showed off their variety of styles from metal shouters to pop angst.
It was slightly a shame for them, as with the previous night’s great act ADDAE, that they were scheduled to go on right before the main act. This meant that as the crowd were getting ready for the headliners and going for food and drink the band, which should have been the main headliners of the Circus tent, played to a half-empty area. I would suggest (as happens with some other festivals) that they are billed to start after the main headliners have finished.
And so the main headlining act of the weekend and returning to support the festival after appearing in 2012 were Dan Smith’s Bastille. The front rows were filled with adoring fans who all seem to be girls of a similar age. And right from the opening words of Good Grief they did not stop singing along for an hour or more.
Bastille produced a deeply heartfelt set and one of the great things about Neverworld is that the fans are very close up to the stage and performers often come to the barrier and box with the crowd. Dan Smith produced a great vocal display and moved around the stage looking like a young John Cusack. Some of their standout songs from the evening included World Gone Mad, Laura Palmer, Things We Lost and the final song Pompeii.
This year Neverworld managed to sell all of their tickets and it is noticeable what an impact 500 extra souls on the site has. As well as adding to the atmosphere there is a cost in terms of crowded camping areas and more litter. We would like to see Neverworld lead on their Green initiatives as they are becoming a major festival player, they definitely need a drastic plastic solution for next year.
Stand out acts for us were the ones who we felt gave a little more on stage and gave a performance above and beyond what you might hear on record, So hats off to Declan McKenna, We Are Scientists, Yonaka and Asylums. Neverworld goes from strength to strength in terms of the music it puts on and the attention to detail it puts into the set designs in the four main areas. There are always going to be things that can be and should be improved and the site they have is big and expansive enough to be able to do it.
Live Review by Simon Jay Price & Photography by Simon Jay Price & Constanza Jean of Neverworld, John Darlings Farm, Hever Kent 2nd-5th August 2018.