Wide Awake 2023: Festival Review

Los Bitchos, Butch Kassidy and Osees are among the highlights of this year's sunny and hugely enjoyable Wide Awake festival, with the mood only slightly dampened by a few sound and timing issues

Live Review by Adam Turner-Heffer | 31 May 2023

Last year, Wide Awake, the relatively new indie/electronic festival in South London, stretched itself a little thin over two days after its very impressive inaugural edition in 2021, marking something of a return to normalcy coming out of lockdown. In its third iteration, the festival returns to a single-day event, and the more condensed lineup leads to a solid day of live music. 

Whether in September or May, Wide Awake has so far been incredibly lucky with the weather. This year was no exception. There's beautiful sunshine throughout and happy revellers pile in early doors to make the most of the festivities. The first act we catch is Montreal, Canada's Cola in the small Moth Club tent, who get things off to an excellent start. Featuring tracks off last year's debut Deep In View, the trio fittingly open with the speedy At Pace, and refuse to let up from there. Tim Darcy and Ben Stidworthy's guitar and bass interplay was always a distinctive marker of their sound in their previous outfit Ought, while drummer Evan Cartright of U.S Girls has brought a tightly-fitted edge to their music. The trio get the early crowd excited for the rest of the day.

Over on the second stage, Los Bitchos are the perfect accompaniment to the sunny weather. They barrel through their cumbia style, and both the band and crowd alike tried to ignore the potential sunburn for the sake of a party. Newcomer Gretel Hänlyn's set faces delays due to technical issues, which appear to create a bit of impatience in the amassed crowd, given today's packed schedule. When she does finally take off, she notes she can't talk between songs to make up for the delay, and her sound, unfortunately, struggles to carry in the tiny Windmill/So Young tent, leaving a few fans disappointed. Sadly the same fate befalls Tirzah, whose delicate lo-fi sound similarly does her no favours as she tries to convince the distracted crowd to pay attention. 

Photo: Luke Dyson

No such problem for Butch Kassidy, however. Their post/math-rock revival seems to come at an ideal time. They command a relentless intensity that all the best bands of the original late 90s/early 00s wave possessed and are somewhat of a wake-up call for the crowd after a lull. Over on the main stage, Alex G is appropriately hazy for the afternoon sun, with his stripped-down, lo-fi indie-folk tracks recently taking on a higher production sheen on his most recent album, God Save The Animals. Midway through his set he is even joined by headliner Caroline Polachek for a rendition of Mission, but the muddied sound and an electric crowd off elsewhere watching Jockstrap hurt G's main stage set somewhat.

On the electronic music-focused Snap Crackle & Pop/Village Underground stage, Oneohtrix Point Never's atmospherics is a tough sell for those looking for big beats to dance to, but discerning heads are treated to an ethereal, early-evening masterclass in soundscape structure. Back on the main stage, Viagra Boys' brand of sleaze-rock gets more of a party going, a vibe that continues by Warmduscher shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, Gilla Band remain one of the most pleasingly intense live acts going. Their rendition of Lawman is particularly hard-hitting and their oft-kilter (pop?) song Eight Fivers gets a huge reaction. 

Caroline Polachek at Wide Awake / Photo: Lyke Dyson

As the sun begins to set, the temperature dropping with it, the business end of the day comes into action. Black Country, New Road are delayed and seem to take their time setting up, to the point that members of the crowd amusingly joined in with their sound checks, while a DJ virulently plays house music to keep people invested during the lengthy setup. Once the South London sextet get going, though, they stormed through Up Song, even receiving a sing-along from the crowd at the track's climax, suggesting the fans weren't too worried about the wait. Similarly to their recent live album Live at Bush Hall,  various members take turns as the lead in the absence of former frontman Issac Wood. The band's new material is still distinctively them, but there's a feeling they're still searching for what their new direction is following the departure of their former talisman, and quieter moments mid-set lose some momentum. Sound bleed from the main stage doesn't help. Yet when the majority of the band huddle together leaving only May Kershaw and Georgia Ellery to perform stunning stand-out Turbines/Pigs they find their form again as the band regroup for the song's crescendo, before handing over to Tyler Hyde for closer Dancers, which receives another receptive sing-along from the crowd for their efforts. There's still a lot of potential in Black Country, New Road's future, and it will be intriguing to see where they go next. 

There was much to choose from for fans in the headline slot, with the majority heading to the main stage for Caroline Polachek, while the electronica crowd dive in for Daniel Avery. For those searching for an experience both hard-hitting-yet-danceable, LA's Osees were the clear answer. In the 20 years since their debut, Osees has always been a fantastic live act, whatever their lineup, but the current group bandleader John Dwyer has the band operating on a whole other level now. Their set completely justifies their position as the main "rock" headliner of the day, as they maintain a heady balance of technical proficiency while still being a pure joy to watch. The psych-rock veterans are given a whole 90 minutes to play with and rip through the greatest hits from their extensive back catalogue. Last year's punkier A Foul Form gets a quick blast towards the end of the set, while a medley version of Chem-Farmer & Nite Expo is a real highlight. Osees are a perfect end to a hugely enjoyable day.

Wide Awake Festival, Brockwell Park, London, 27 May 2023