"This site...this site is key. Look at that backdrop, that skyline. You can't buy that." Rob da Bank, the BBC Radio 1 legend and Bestival founder gazes at the renowned Toronto cityscape from a beanbag chair on Hanlan's Point, an island in Lake Ontario. He breaks free of his passing entrancement as his eyes disappear behind a toothy smile. "Well, I did buy it, but only for the weekend."
Giving new life to the phrase "the British are coming," the British music festival, Bestival, took its first ever leap across the pond to host the Canadian edition on Hanlan's Point on June 12 and 13. The multi-award winning, independent festival is best known for mingling electronic music with indie rock, hip-hop, and pop while encasing its attendees in an outdoor, judgment-free zone full of zany costumes and activities. After turning down offers "left, right, and center" to host the now 12-year-old festival overseas, Bank and his wife Josie settled on Toronto, enticed by it's feral "magic" and of course, that skyline. "We're face to face with a new audience, though and that's challenging," says Bank. "People don't know us over here. They don't know what Bestival is and they probably don't know who Rob da Bank is. In England, anyone under the age of 30 likely knows who we are, but here, it's new territory."
The Canadian edition kept as many ties to the original festival as it could, in both music and aesthetic. The "fancy dress" code Bestival is famed for in the UK was widely received by Canadians, who took every chance to don dated Halloween costumes and elaborate headwear. Bestival's white inflatable church, with the nauseatingly pink roof, was one of many familiar pieces flown in from Bestival's home on the Isle of Wight in England for the event in Toronto. Throughout the day, the air pumped church held make-believe weddings that quickly became enclosed dance parties where everyone involved—man or woman—dressed in borrowed gaudy bridesmaid gowns. The Bollywood stage's temple structure was also shipped over and rebuilt on site by its original architects from Oxford. Complete with life-sized bubblegum pink elephants and the occasional burst of flames—from stage to stage, the grounds looked like it were ripped from the pages of a Lisa Frank felt coloring book.
Somewhere in the shipments of stage parts and costume trunks, the British visitors accidentally packed their most notable trait—rain. Friday was draped in bleak skies and temperamental bouts of the wet stuff. The typically fashion-forward crowd Bestival attracts was blanketing their bindis and blazers in ponchos.
Divided by five stages, Bestival accrued a different breed of music fan every day. The Big Top Bacardi stage, which was quite literally a circus tent, beckoned those yearning for hyperbolic drops and Drake samples courtesy of SBTRKT and Cashmere Cat. Main stage hosted a rare fusion of indie songstresses Florence and the Machine and Banks, and the Arab folk stylings of Omar Souleyman. The Bollywood stage took on the who's who of techno and house music with DJ Tennis, Paco Osuna, and Nathan Barato, while the Perrier Greenhouse paid homage to some of Toronto's local up-and-coming artists. The Sunday Best Balearic Beach Club, located on the beach, speaks for itself. "In the end, what we tried to do was keep part of our ethos, which is: great music, great acts, and a whole lot of fun," says Bank of Bestival's international similarities. "It's not tongue-in-cheek, it's not stupid fun. It's about escapism and a different sort of reality... if that doesn't sound too hippie. Actually, it does sound pretty hippie."
Leading the hippie escapism on Friday was the man in everyone's earbuds, Jamie xx. The Englishman cannonballed into his successful In Colour tracklist almost immediately with "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)," before opting for a swirl of decades-old funk and soul. His route change made room for Idris Muhammad's "Could Heaven Ever Be Like This," which normally acts as a sample on Jamie's track "Loud Places." The on-and-off rustling of nearby wet ponchos added a special British dynamic.
If you were able to rip yourself from the Bollywood stage's later sets by Skream, Justin Martin, and a monumental close out by Nicole Moudaber, you could catch Dusky over at the Big Top stage. The duo's roaring bass-licked house was attracting dancers like flies. By sundown, Flosstradamus had summoned the Canadian portion of their HDY Nation with their track "Mosh Pit" making for a savage display of shuddering trap beats and hype man adrenaline. Florence and the Machine went head-to-head with Flume and Moudaber for final set slots Friday night. Though the festival goddess shimming in a head-to-toe crimson pantsuit to "Dog Days" stole the show overall.
As with anything on its first set of legs, there were some stumbles. Part of the reason Hanlan's Point was chosen for Bestival's first international edition was its island location and ferry rides. To get to Bestival in England, you also need to take a ferry to the Isle of Wight. Factor in upwards of 20,000 people a day (probably more than Toronto Islands sees in a month) and you have excruciatingly long waits and frustrated music fans. Irate security guards attempted to calm crowds with little calmness themselves. Unfortunately, Saturday's ferry situation saw little improvement—even after assurances and apologies issued through Bestival's Twitter account.
The weather, however, did improve. The crochet doilies lining signposts had dried, sunshine flickered off the tiny mirror panes of disco balls dangling from trees, and a troupe of blue-haired drag queens trotted around, cheeks-out, with more pep than before. Life-sized Jenga games drew strangely large crowds, the lazy disco napped in pod chairs hanging from tree branches, and the yarn bombing was ubiquitous. Bestival was in real-time animation again. The Sunday Best Balearic Beach Club, which earned its name from Rob da Bank's former event series, Sunday Best, was in full form on Saturday. Rob da Bank played his second disco-tinted set of the weekend complete with rum cocktails in hollowed coconuts. The clothing optional beach right next door was just as much of an attraction. The crippling realization that "dad bods" come equipped with dad dicks was just too much for some.
At the Bollywood stage, Berlin-based DJ Cassy's attention to detail was immaculate, roasting the sunbathers and dancers in a Technasia remix worthy of a stage of its own. The Big Top stage welcomed Cashmere Cat's water-droplet samples and the fan-favorite remix of "Do You" by Miguel and later gave Keys N Krates the hometown show return they deserve. Meanwhile, Main stage held its mud-ridden ground with the ethereal whispers of Banks, whose performance was doused in a bubble-blowing flash mob from start to finish. An absolute standout performance by Caribou followed, who had the violinist and previous Main Stage performer, Owen Pallett, join them on stage. The all-white-wearing crew's performance of "Odessa" was the sunset-coated escapism Bestival had been bragging about all along.
Between Jamie Jones' Bollywood temple king crowning ceremony—I mean, set—and Nas' live lyrical dexterity (changing his hugely influential track "Halftime" to say "And at Bestival / I'm the fucking man!") neither close-out set was a bad choice.
In many ways, Toronto has seen it all. But Bestival proved to be an atypical experience for the club-conditioned, musically-inclined Torontonian. Our familiarity with state-of-the-art experiences at festivals like VELD and Digital Dreams leaves little room for the left fielders—the DIY festivals. After living Bestival, there's a chance that the state-of-the-art experience could be traded in for a crocheted, hand-painted, one-of-a-kind event.
Rachael spent most of her time informing patrons that "wellies" is the British term for rain boots—find more of her useless information on Twitter.