Festival Review: KITE 2023

KITE festival is billed as “a festival of music and ideas”. A strange, middle-class invention, it’s probably the only festival on earth where you can find the intensely queer party that is Lynks alongside Sir John Major in conversation. Despite the fact that it’s aimed at a very small sliver of the population (albeit one happy to shell out £8+ for a pint), it somehow manages to bring together those two disparate offerings in a way that works harmoniously.

The festival kicks off with a smaller music offering on Friday, but it’s Saturday morning when things really get going. With the sun blazing, a stately home in Oxfordshire becomes home to 8 stages, offering the aforementioned blend of interviews, panels and live sets.

Kicking off proceedings is Mel Giedroyc interviewing Adam Kay, with the former doctor turned comedy writer taking us through the events that led to his surprise success with This Is Going To Hurt. Speaking entirely candidly on the devastating underfunding of the NHS, the pair somehow managed to make a very weighty subject indeed feel light, and it really felt like our national health service was the one issue on which virtually everyone present could agree.

Further afternoon talks turned more political with the run of David Baddiel, Alistair Campbell and Sir John Major; Baddiel was present to talk on his latest book, The God Desire, which finds him justifying his position as an “Jewish Atheist”. He talks about the intersection of religion and cultural identity with incisive honesty, but falls more than a little short when the conversation runs into politics.

Campbell, on the other hand, eats sleeps and breathes politics, and handles the political back-and-forth far better than Baddiel. In fact, there are quite a few similarities between his talk and Major’s – both have seen behind the political veil, and are more than happy to explain exactly how things actually work. Of course, in both cases it’s hard to divorce the chummy, slightly back-slapping way that they’re interviewed from the fact that both have held office, and pursued controversial (to put it mildly) policies.

The day’s music starts off with living legend Candi Staton. On a farewell tour thanks to a sudden surge of TikTok popularity, she belts through a set containing her most well-known hits, with ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ and ‘You Got The Love’ both retaining exactly as much firepower as ever.

It’s then Lynks’ turn to ramp up the energy, with a sensational – and sweaty – set from the unapologetically gay pop icon. After a reasonably tame lineup so far, it was excellent to watch someone blow all expectations out of the water, and convert a fair amount of the crowd along the way. ‘How To Make A Bechamel Sauce In 10 Steps (With Pictures)’ remains a highlight.

Now, to headliners, and Hot Chip dialling the vibe up further again towards party. As ever, the band straddle a line between club and gig with ease, and hammered their way through a joyous set of pretty much all the hits. The sound was particularly good, with just enough bass seeping through to remind you that these are songs designed for the dancefloor, and Alexis Taylor and co. strutting their way through banger after banger – the only criticism was the curfew meaning a lack of encore.

Into the late-night programme, and the Heavenly Records tent plays host to Berlin-based electronic artist Sofia Kourtesis. She brings a properly emotive and playful approach to her electronica, and the result is a set that somehow tugs at the heartstrings whilst also provoking dancing. Mesmerising stuff.

Finally, the Saturday is closed out by veteran producer David Holmes on the decks. Concocting a swirling mix of psychedelia, funk and rare disco, he finished the night’s revelry off in a transcendent fashion. One of those mixes where nothing is familiar, but everything feels just right – a real master at work.

Sunday’s daytime talks include masterclasses, with someone eminent in a field talking the audience through how they do what they do. A highlight of these was Nihal Arthanayake (of Radio 5 Live), on interviewing – with a candid talk on a career full of some of the biggest interviews imaginable, he managed to make it sound completely straightforward.

Also talking was Baxter Dury, in conversation with Miranda Sawyer – a double bill for Dury, who was also performing (more on that later). His conversation was incredibly open, with Sawyer happily allowed to dig around in Dury’s subconscious. The obvious topics came up – a life lived in the shadow of a famous parent, and how to step out of that shadow – but nonetheless, Dury managed to make those well-worn avenues original and fascinating.

Likewise at the Heavenly tent, the latest signings to the label, Tapir!, were performing a set of material from their upcoming four-part album. Having recently toured with Black Country, New Road, it’s easy to draw similarities, but Tapir! seem to embody a calmer, more zen approach to their music. A fantastically odd band, it’s very easy to see this as the beginning of a steep trajectory for them.

At this point in proceedings, a storm stopped play – the entire festival had to be stopped for 2 hours due to lightening and torrential rain. But the majority of the crowd stuck it out under tents, and waited for the inevitable return of music. Up first were Decius, who reinvigorated the crowd in an unusual way that we’ll leave up to the reader’s imagination – it involved a nappy, acid house, and saliva.

Back to the main Kite Stage, and Django Django treading very similar ground to Hot Chip the night before. It must be said, despite obvious enthusiasm, that they just didn’t quite scratch the same itch as the previous night’s headliners – with a slight lack of dance authenticity, they felt a little flat.

Baxter Dury, having swapped into his stage suit, took to the stage to headline the Heavenly tent. Performing a set of hits and tracks from latest album I Thought I Was Better Than You, it was hard not to feel that he’s become a cult icon of late. The fundamental fact of his music is how odd it is – it sometimes feels like witnessing a therapy session. Nevertheless, he really does have the tunes to boot, and it felt like a slam-dunk performance.

The final headliners of KITE 2023 were Suede – indie revivalists on a comeback tour, they drew the most intense crowd of the whole weekend. Sound-wise, they’re still phenomenal, with guitars ripping their way out of the speakers. Frontman Brett Anderson wasn’t suffering from any of the problems known to plague reforming bands too – more than happy to clamber over the barrier and amongst the crowd, he injected a much-needed burst of energy into a rather soggy crowd.

All in all, for a certain demographic, KITE ticks a lot of boxes, and there’s definitely something in its combination of talks and music. It helps that the music program is partially booked by venerable indie label Heavenly, but ultimately, its heart is in the right place, and it’s the perfect halfway house for those who want a little more intellectual stimulation from their festivals. Just don’t come expecting a weekend-long bacchanal of tent burning and hard drug use.

Author avatar
Louis Griffin

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