Mention the town of Ventnor in Isle of Wight to non-islanders and they probably won’t have the foggiest idea of where you’re talking about. The locals may proudly hail their Brighton-esque seaside resort as the creative centre of the island, but there’s been little draw for those of us on the mainland. However, all of that may be about to change. Introducing the festival that’s bidding to put Ventnor on the music map: Ventnor International Festival.
Launching this year as a one-day addition to the town’s Fringe festival, VIF is the island’s first non-grass festival. With 17 bands across three stages, festival beginnings don’t get more humble than this– especially seen as the town doesn’t actually house a single music venue. But this hasn’t stopped the founders getting creative to find the town’s most intimate spaces, fit for a bill of the best up and coming bands.
The first band to testify to this are Bad Sounds, who are perfectly matched with a setting that looks like an American high school prom you might see in a John Hughes movie. The style and size of Winter Gardens lends itself well to the Merrett brothers’ ‘80s-borrowing production– allowing their Prince-like falsetto harmonies to take flight and the dirty bass grooves to expand into the room. Between their irresistible charm and buoyant energy, the brothers and co. set a stratospherically high standard for the rest of the day.
From one ‘80s-influenced band to the next: if Bad Sounds deliver a soundtrack for flailing on the dance-floor, Liverpool duo Hers present slow burners for bashful dance-floor dwellers. While the drum machine takes care of bumper-sized beats, Stephen Fitzpatrick provides psychedelic-flavoured guitar and a soporifically low, broad vocal. But it’s bassist Audun Laading that evens out their subdued sounds with Chandler Bing-esque dance moves and a wicked sense of humour. "It’s all rock and roll until somebody can’t get out", he quips when the set is paused to find the owner of an estate car.
Then it’s a stagger uphill to The Warehouse, a venue so ominously named and hard to find that Clash had to be led by the ever-friendly locals to make it to Cosmo Pyke’s set. We arrive to find the 18-year-old sporting a retro England football kit with socks and sandals, forking lasagne into his mouth. Gimmick or not, there’s no denying that the quirky voice heard in his intricate stories is authentic– an talent only confirmed by an audience hanging onto his every word from start to finish.
Next up it’s North London trio Girl Ray. Armed with their recently released debut Earl Grey, the all-girl three-piece take to the stage in local church, St. Catherine’s. "Can we get those front lights out? I feel like I’m back in the school choir", Poppy Hankin requests. Although the lead singer is joking, there’s no denying that their ramshackle pop feels slightly misplaced in the confines of St Catherine’s. While the seating arrangement does give punters the chance to absorb Hankin’s diary-like lyrics, the acoustics are unforgiving on their lo-fi sound.
Over on the Winter Gardens stage, nine-piece band Childhood are having a similar problem. Though there are a handful of divine, gentle moments, the roomy space mostly works against their grand ‘70s soul. Their diosyncrasies are often pixelated in a barrage of sound– causing audience members to yell ‘turn it down’ between songs. It’s only when they succumb to the crowd’s requests that the set delivers on all the promise it holds.
Fittingly, the day’s festivities draw to a close with a set from local brothers Champs. To say that their set is hotly anticipated would be an understatement; friends, relatives and locals have gathered outside the Warehouse early to secure themselves a spot for the local legends. After a feverish scramble to funnel through the venue’s front door and a shuffle to get a good view of the stage, the brothers bound onto the stage with a band in tow.
Recent single The Garden Is Overgrown is a highlight, prompting jubilant sing-alongs from a zealous crowd, but it’s the set’s final conclusion that underscores an astonishing set. Eschewing the conventions of a typical rowdy encore, the brothers opt instead for a devastatingly tender rendition of Vamala– their wafer-thin warbling harmonies heard in all their raw glory.
Champs' set proves them to be one of the best discoveries of the day, but you get the feeling - like with the festival itself - that what has remained a well-kept secret up until now won’t remain one for long.
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Words: Lisa Henderson