Since Bestival began on the Isle of Wight in 2004, the key to its appeal for punters has always been the fancy dress. This year’s theme was “the future” – think sparkly spacemen, stormtroopers and dystopian Mad Max get-up – which is ironic given that the festival’s ethos has increasingly veered towards nostalgia, with acts such as Duran Duran, Elton John and Stevie Wonder all having headlined here in recent times.
Continuing that trend, the 2016 bill was topped by Eighties post-punk band The Cure and also featured synth-pop trio The Human League, UK garage singer Craig David and, er, Nineties kids’ TV entertainers The Chuckle Brothers.
By Bestival’s standards, it wasn’t a vintage year: Major Lazer, with their cacophonous mix of reggae and electronica, disappointed with a stuttering headline set on Friday, while Noughties dancehall star Sean Paul’s much-anticipated Sunday evening performance fell strangely flat. Were it not for The Cure and The Human League, then, this may well have been the weakest UK festival of the summer.
The Cure, headlining Bestival for the second time in five years, played on the main stage on Saturday, heavy rain having forced the crowds to hopscotch through the chocolaty sludge to get there. Serving up an epic two-and-a-half-hour set, Robert Smith and Co ransacked their extensive back catalogue: the smothering gothic rock of the Seventeen Seconds album, the gloomy din of 1982’s Pornography, and the desolate soundscapes of 1989’s Disintegration were carefully interspersed with lighter moments from their mid-Eighties pop phase.
They took a while to warm up, their lesser-known tracks such as 1992’s High prompting puzzled looks from the young audience. But from the first chord of the bittersweet In Between Days, with its bouncy bass and honeyed melody contrasting beautifully with its motif of regret and lost love, the hits kept coming. Slinky classic Lullaby and heady rattles through crowd favourites Friday, I’m in Love and Boys Don’t Cry proved that The Cure are more than just mopey misanthropes with spider-hair and panda eyes.
Listen, for example, to The Love Cats, with its swing bassline, hissing guitars and infectious “doo da doo” refrain – here it was a wonderful reminder of the kind of idiosyncratic pop that the band are capable of.
Fifty-seven-year-old Smith, kohl-eyed and back-combed as ever, is still armed with that inimitable voice, a pained delivery that sounds as if he’s constantly on the brink of tears, reaching high notes against the odds. “This song is responsible for all the songs coming from the other stages,” he said wryly, before an encore of the blissful Close to Me. And that’s why they’ve found a new generation of fans.
Just as impressive were The Human League, who turned in a giddy greatest hits set in the Big Top tent on Sunday night with Smith among the audience. Appearing onstage in a sleeveless leather tunic – the first of several outfits during the performance – a svelte-looking Philip Oakey, 60, was flanked by singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, both of whom he recruited in Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy nightclub in 1980.
Age has not dimmed his enthusiasm, nor has it affected his voice; it remains imperious, a rich baritone that here provided weighty ballast to the coruscating keyboard lines and spry synthesised beats.
There were rousing renditions of 1982’s Mirror Man and 1995’s Tell Me When. But the apex of their set – and, perhaps, the festival – came with their beloved hit Don’t You Want Me. “You’re the only thing that keeps us going,” Oakey thanked the rapt audience. For giving The Human League this platform, Bestival deserves a pat on the back.