Our visit to Kite festival, set in gentle countryside close to Oxford, was pretty much based on the fact that Grace Jones was set to headline on the Saturday night – not that there weren’t plenty of other attractive propositions throughout this new music and ideas event. Chatting to people around the site it appears we weren’t alone in being there for Grace – one lady had driven down from Edinburgh to see her.
Things all looked good as we arrived. Kite is set in the verdant grounds of a beautiful Palladian house and the weather behaved beautifully with the sun casting a flattering glow and colourful festival flags fluttering in the breeze. A meander through the site to familiarise ourselves took – well – only a few minutes or so. A handful of stages mixed with Blackwell’s bookshop, a record shop, lots of vintage‑y clothes and a small but varied collection of food outlets. Oh, and a big Heavenly stage for several of the zeitgeisty label’s artists, including Confidence Man.
We eased into Saturday by heading into the ‘big tent’ – called The Forum – for the first discussion of a programme curated by Tortoise. David Olusoga and William Dalrymple discussed the ever changing role of history and historians, with Emily Benn presiding. This proved to be a fascinating discussion which really could have run on and on, had it been allowed. The talk inevitably covered colonialism and its effects… and the issue of historians and their increasingly politicised role. The Forum tent (doubling as the evening’s main stage) was an adequate size for some of the talks that took place but other ‘talk tents’ were too small and too open to the elements, with the inevitable sound bleed that happens when things are a little squished on a small site. We were unable to get even close to the tent where Ai WeiWei was appearing.
The Pod was the location for a fascinating discussion called “How to make a hit podcast”, with Jamie Bartlett – creator of the thrilling Missing Crypto Queen – and Alexi Mostrous of Sweet Bobby fame, which I’m listening to this week, inspired by this talk – result! Both have created podcasts which deal with various scams but they were at Kite to talk about how to structure a podcast and tell its story successfully; they also explored how to create cliffhangers and discussed the ways they dealt with problems that podcasts can run into, such as how to present material in an original and fresh way.
Other talks I attended were Jarvis Cocker who loped onto the stage with a black rubbish sack, the container for a motley collection of items: ephemera from different parts of his life, which he proceeded to elaborate on. It was a gentle and humorous event. Later, Delia Smith put cooking aside to talk about her new book, initially refused by six publishers, which deals with a more spiritual side of life.
There were small stages with music throughout the day but the main music programme got into gear in the evening. The Forum tent cleared the day’s seating in order to host four artists and their bands. Good to see that Kite has – whether intentionally or otherwise – redressed the issue of those much criticised male-heavy festival lineups to host what we referred to as Four Feisty Females. Mavis Staples, all of 82, lead the proceedings with a hit-heavy run of songs such as If You’re Ready. She was cheered by all, as much for her spirit as for her music. Some dreaded technical glitches hit her set at the midway point – well, it was a new festival, and although the audience gamely took over singing, the outage went on for too long and slightly spoiled the flow.
St Etienne were next up and got cheers for their old material such as Only Love Can Break Your Heart, He’s On The Phone and Nothing Can Stop Us. Sarah Cracknell – who incidentally released a solo album in 2015 called Red Kite (and yes, she does live locally) – also suffered from technical issues as her vocals were too low in the mix and consequently the set lost some of its force.
Self Esteem has been wowing stages at festivals and gigs ever since her latest album Prioritise Pleasure came out and her powerful stage performance and the choreography with her three backing singers is riveting. Her anthemic material sends out a personal and powerful message. However her set was cut short due to the technical issues and she was visibly distressed. She managed to recover and played a fabulous set which included material from the latest album, including How Can I Help You and I Do This All The Time.
I last saw Grace Jones at Festival No 6 in 2015 and it was quite evident that age is not dimming this formidable woman one bit. She sashayed onto the stage for Nighclubbing, wearing a dramatic gold mask, and spent the entire set strutting her stuff, mainly in a pair of totteringly high heels paired with a black corset. She played a proper festival set, rolling out many of the big hits like Demolition Man and La Vie en Rose. She looked genuinely pleased to see the audience and at one point came down into the photographer’s pit on the shoulders of a stage crew member to grab at any hands that came her way. And she’s still hula hooping through Slave To The Rhythm.
This is not an easy year to launch a festival – it’s a saturated market (see the recent Guardian article here for just some of the problems faced)… and even some established festival names have taken longer than usual to sell out.
However we thought Kite was a real treat – a gentle, well run, friendly event and a thoughtful and intelligent lineup. Both the music and ideas programmes had an extremely high calibre of artists. There were a few teething problems which hopefully will be ironed out for next year. We’ll certainly plan to return.