Festival Review: Wide Awake 2023

The weekend of May 27th felt like the beginning of summer for many reasons. The sun was out and had been for an extended period which in turn had led to an infectious buzz around the city of London. Nowhere was this buzz more strongly felt than in Brixton, more specifically at Wide Awake festival, situated in what I would guess at about 1/3 the area of Brockwell Park. The festival was celebrating its third year of championing the buzziest alternative acts from across the western world. The first iteration of the festival was one I will never forget, with a main stage line-up that felt custom made for only me. As much as I will never forget Wide Awakes freshman year it did leave me with an uneasy feeling – could this festival that was so perfectly tuned to the windmills growing music scene expand? I’m glad to say, after a year away that I was not disappointed.

My Wide Awake started with a whistle stop tour of the many stages you can find there. For a day festival in such a small corner of Brixton it sure does pack in a lot. Stopping not at half a dozen stages or fair ground rides. Just when you think you’ve explored every corner, somehow something else comes out of the scenery. After my rushed exploration I made my way over to a Lynks DJ set that was leading into one of my most anticipated sets of the entire day, Jockstrap. The DJ set, much like every other one of the day, was not much more than hushed sounds coming out of the speakers while Jockstrap were on stage sound checking. Though it added a nice touch to see Lynks in a comically gargantuan fur hat side stage, vibing along to the tracks they were putting down, the sets main effect was to build anticipation for Jockstrap.

When their set began the small tent they had been put up in was completely fit to burst. Luckily, I had found myself in a spot worthy of what was a complete, commanding performance. Opening with Debra and rushing through a tight set which culminated in Concrete Over Water and 50/50 – fit with the expected frenzy of joy covered moshing. The beautiful thing about Jockstrap is that they merge the alternative pop/dance musings with the animalistic crowds of the south London post-punk scene. Their set may had hit a bit of a lull in the middle, perhaps thanks to the over swelling of the tent, but the end of the set was completely unmissable. Brilliance that will only grow, made all the more impressive by singer Georgia Ellery rushing over the other side of the festival to play a full set with her other band Black Country, New Road, but I’ll get to that later…

Next up for me on the other hand, while Ellery was rushing to meet her band mates backstage, was to rush over to the main stage to catch the other set of the day I was most excited for, Viagra Boys. This was to be the first time I was going to experience the Swedish punks live and after their near perfect album Cave Worldcame out last year, I couldn’t help but think now was the best time to see them. Kicking off their set with Ain’t No Thief, the crowds crazed frenzy never quite subsided following its opening notes. Their seemed to be a confusion within the ever opening mosh pits, like half the participants had a lag? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but all that mattered was the vibes, which thanks to some stripping down of the frontman and non-stop highlights which included Troglodyte and Sports to name a few.

Following their set was a quick rush across the festival to catch Black Country, New Road. It would be my first time catching them post-Isaac and the band’s first show in London since the former frontman left. Suffice to say it felt like a really special moment. Opening with Up Song was a joyous decision that I truly hope the band sticks to as they move forward into their new music. Serving as a loving turning of the page from anxious post-punk sad boys to more expansive, rounded, ethereal music that touches far more bases. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the band as the majority of the middle of their set was talked over, many of the songs played were new and really exciting prospects for the future, with the aforementioned Ellery taking centre stage for the first time and proving within the context of BCNR what she has long proved outside the band – that she has vocal talent and stage presence to match almost anyone in pop and rock music today. After this slight lull the finish of Turbine/Pigs and Dancers was completely transcendental. The peaceful joy that fell upon the crowd was a beautiful feeling to experience for a band that has been through this full life, death and rebirth cycle in under 2 and a half years. 

Once I had let their set fully wash over me there was only one thing left to see, the headliners. With so many different vibes to choose from the patrons of the festival, myself included were truly spoilt for choice. The dance stage boasting Daniel Avery, for the alternative rock fans there was The Osees and on the main stage there was Caroline Polacheck. The later was who I felt destined to see. I had been looking forward to Caroline’s set for months now and couldn’t envisage anything that would get in my way. That being said, my friend pointed out that The Osees, a band I had never listened to, were on 15 minutes before she took the stage, so I thought it was worth catching a song or two. What followed was an unrelenting frenzied flailing, with a sonic backdrop of hypnotic pysch-rock. As mentioned, I had never listened to them, so any song shout outs are long gone, you’ve just got to trust me that they were completely unmissable. Easily the best set of the day and best acted I have ever seen in which I had no previous knowledge. The thought of the joyous pop crowd that would’ve been experiencing Caroline Polacheck was a million miles away and the substituted sweaty whirlpool of like-minded testosterone-trogs was something I will never forget. A band you must see, The Oseesare.

Finally, we did cut away to catch the final few songs of Polacheck’s set, which were a lovely dashing of alt-pop on the top of an already perfect day musically. So Hot You’re Hurting my Feelings, the pop stars biggest track, was the one that gave me the most joy, fit with brilliantly eye-catching stage sets and hypnotically 00’s dance moves. Essentially, the final calls of her set meant that we were sent off from the festival radiating a joy that will always be hard to match. In the many subsequent reviews, I’ve seen of the festival none have really touched on the main selling point of Wide Awake, that it perfectly encapsulates Brixton’s diverse alt-art culture. A welcoming warmth of dance, pop, rock and every alternative sub-genre that could fit in between. Wide Awake is the embodiment of such a large portion of the youth culture of Brixton that it serves almost as much as a museum than as a festival. That being said, it’s a pretty fucking cool museum.

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