Wide Awake 2023

27th May 2023

Caroline Polachek, Black Country, New Road and Alex G provide the must-see moments on the sun-drenched Saturday.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2021, live music was only just tentatively returning. Socially distanced gigs, while a useful stopgap to whet appetites and keep live alive, just weren’t the same, and as a summer of festivals beckoned, suddenly concerts as they used to be seemed to be a genuine proposition.

Into this landscape strode Wide Awake, a new festival in Brixton’s Brockwell Park; its delayed debut seeing locals Shame headline and a plethora of bands that had built up a following over lockdown putting newly freed crowds through their paces.

Two years on, there’s that same manic sense of pent-up energy coursing through Wide Awake. After last year’s split live music and electronic days, 2023 sees a unified one-day line-up that covers a very broad church indeed, but essentially charts a path through some of the most exciting music being made away from the mainstream. Caroline Polachek’s avant-pop commands the headline slot, with everything from the garage rock of Thee Oh Sees to the inside-joke electro of Two Shell occupying the lower tiers.

Queues form under a sweltering bank holiday sun - already a recipe for delirium, and the masses gathered reflect the diversity of the bill: low-rise jeans and stick-and-poke tattoos representing Caroline’s contingent; knowing band t-shirts and tote bags for the Windmill crowd.

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The day bolts out of the gates with a set from Canadians Cola, the surviving incarnation of cult rockers Ought. Sounding much like if the paranoia levels of early Strokes records were dialled up to the max, the band are old hands at handling a fairly static mid-afternoon crowd, and despite the reluctance to move, there is a taut atmosphere in the tent nonetheless.

Meanwhile outside in the oppressive heat, Model/Actriz are certainly managing to provoke movement. Snotty New York upstarts, they recall a blend of HMLTD and Crack Cloud, all echoing percussion and metallic riffs. Vocalist Cole Haden (the only member of the band not clad in a vest) is incapable of remaining still, writhing his way through rhythmic, feverish dance-punk. Commanding the attention of a sizeable crowd, it’s hard not to feel that they’d earned their place on the ones-to-watch lists they’ve been on since this year’s SXSW.

Away from their clattering drums and through a grove of trees comes the towering main stage, and purveyor of warped Americana, Alex G. In a rare UK festival performance, he airs cuts from ‘God Save The Animals’ and ‘House Of Sugar’, his heart-on-sleeve melodies carry across the field un-dampened by shoddy outdoors sound. Slightly misguided forays into autotune aside, his set provides a very accomplished mid-afternoon resting point for the festival, and a duet with Caroline Polachek on ‘Mission’ feels like a very special moment.

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The next must-see set proved to be the festival’s first overbooking, too – Jockstrap’s crowd manages to spill out of the tent they were playing with ease. The duo thrill as ever, with the right balance between remixing their hits and smashing them out of the park – you can hear a pin drop during the opening moments of ‘Concrete Over Water’, while the chopped club beats of ‘50/50’ inject more than enough energy to keep the set moving through its final act.

It's golden hour when Black Country, New Road hit the stage. It’s the first time the reshuffled band are performing their new setlist to an audience already familiar with it. It’s mesmerising; the audience participation during ‘Up Song’ and ‘Turbines / Pigs’ bringing a communal and deeply emotional edge to the already heart-rending songs on display. Indebted more to musical theatre than the MOTH Club, they quietly beat out the techno beats threatening them from other tents and leave the giant crowd thoroughly awed.

The thrill of Daniel Avery’s trademark drones and shattering four-to-the-floor rhythms is then accompanied by an impressive AV backing, resulting in an real feeling of transformation - the Snap Crackle & Pop stage feeling elevated into a communal rave. Choice cuts from latest LP ‘Ultra Truth’ brush up against brand-new remixes and dubplates, resulting in a headrush of stimulation – it’s really hard to avoid the feeling that he’s at the start of a meteoric rise.

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The true must-see set of the day, though, is undoubtedly Caroline Polachek. Following a rave-review run of her ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You tour’, her Wide Awake set serves as her first ever festival headline, a fact that was not lost on the singer. The main stage is transformed into a kind of alien desert landscape. She begins with the monolithic ‘Welcome To My Island’ – surely one of the pop songs of the year – as the sun dips below the South London skyline. Caroline whirls and feels her way through her set in an entirely natural way, while her audience is enraptured. All the while behind her the set rushes between crashing lightning and erupting volcanoes. A compelling headliner, but also a feel-good pop genius – the undeniable whistles of ‘Bunny Is A Rider’ sends the crowd off into the night, with the first day of summer well and truly arrived.

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