Wacky eccentricity thrives at Hertfordshire’s Standon Calling. A glitter-drenched mishmash of fancy dress-loving families, dogs in wigs, and teenagers carving out their very first festival memories, it’s here where you’re just as likely to end up at a superhero-themed aerobics class as you are a secret rave. Couple this running element of surprise with a bumper new music lineup, and you’ve got a weekend that is lively, unpredictable, and continuously rewarding.
After clearing an intense pre-event COVID process (including a self-recorded lateral flow test) the 15,000-strong crowd that descends reimagines the three-day event as a mini-experiment in a more compassionate society. An ethos of looking out for one another defines the weekend: between the reusable beer cups and omnipresent welfare teams, new friends give each other physical space to adjust to the fact that these communal experiences are once again allowed. And kicking things off punk crossover duo Bob Vylan soon seize the moment and shake it up, encouraging a rowdy midday crowd to bundle together for a group hug after unloading songs from ‘We Live Here’ – one of 2020’s most under-appreciated debut albums.
Other artists seem to arrive in an almost cautionary mood, mindful of the world that currently remains outside of these fields.“We’re planning to headline every other UK festival by the end of the month, because we’re safe and not ill”, quips Yard Act vocalist James Smith from the main stage on Friday afternoon. Just minutes after the Leeds group launch into their hard-edged breakout single ‘Fixer Upper’, it is announced that Arlo Parks has cancelled her set due to testing positive for coronavirus. Given that the singer-songwriter and poet hasn’t yet had the chance to share songs from her Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ in a live setting, the news really stings.
As the weekend progresses, the lineup descends into a game of musical chairs; at least half a dozen more acts drop out over pandemic-related concerns, and set times frequently change at a moment’s notice. But this level of chaos gives the festival an air of real spontaneity that the last 16 months have lacked – after a series of switches, it’s a line-up that feels closely aligned with the recent flurry of groundbreaking bands leading British guitar music.
This unprecedented change in direction pays off massively. When Shame are roped in at the eleventh hour on Saturday, the south Londoners thunder through their first non socially-distanced show of the year. Frontman Charlie Steen flings himself into the raucous moshpit like a rag doll, while the band themselves sound immaculate. The energy is infectious: from Squid’s wildly subversive conquering of the main stage to Working Men’s Club’s wired-up assault of sinister, wonky electro post-punk. The weekend-stealing quartet leave punters rattling the barriers.
For all of their experimental leanings, the vast majority of Hot Chip’s glorious headline set comes equipped with huge choruses. The innovative synth-poppers’ showmanship projects to the back of a big arena: they slip with ease through playful, funky dance routines. By the time they bring out a kinetic Jarvis Cocker to perform ‘Hungry Child’, the deal is already sealed – their performance feels like a long-awaited celebration.
Equally electrifying are those that light up the tucked-away tents throughout the unearthly hours of the night. The Electric Willows stage offers a cornucopia of transcendent treats: TSHA beams from ear to ear as she rolls out euphoric house tracks, before the BPM increases further for in-demand DJ-producer SHERELLE, whose staggeringly brilliant rave-up is a blast of pure feeling. Even when mic issues threaten to derail Lynks’s impeccably choreographed set, the alt-pop provocateur’s hyperactive energy astounds and delights.
The UK’s finest emerging pop stars come out in force, too. Dressed in a personally customised baseball jacket, and occasionally nearing the verge of happy tears, nobody mainlines pure, unbridled joy like Baby Queen. She blitzes through her first ever live show with a nervous and endearing energy, bursting into a fit of giggles during the ascendant bridge of ‘Raw Thoughts’, and later offering uplifting chat about believing in yourself. And when Holly Humberstone’s spellbinding rendition of recent single ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ receives an echoing singalong during a gentle mid-afternoon turn, you can’t help but feel that she deserves to be higher up on the bill.
After releasing one of the year’s best mixtapes – ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’, which received the five star treatment from NME – Griff is spending this summer touring an equally exemplary live set. Standon Calling gets the first preview; when Top 40 hit ‘Black Hole’ is greeted like a stone-cold classic, the sense of a new artist not merely coming to terms with festival stardom but triumphing at it is hard to avoid.
On Sunday, the threatened deluge forces an abrupt and premature end to the music. But when the rain stops a few hours later, the air is filled with cheers of relief from departing festival-goers. It makes for an aptly communal – if painfully sad (and soggy) – finale to a weekend built on unexpected thrills.