Kite Festival makes its debut in Oxfordshire with a fantastic curation of artists, thinkers, comedians, and more.

It’s been a painfully long time since the UK festival season has been able to resume standard operation, but finally, this year looks like the full comeback. The 2022 festival calendar boasts the obvious classics (Reading, Glastonbury, Wireless, etc.), but several events have been stuck, waiting to burst to life post-covid. One of the most interesting is Kite Festival.

Kite Festival finally made its debut last weekend following two postponements and five years of planning. The Oxfordshire weekender is a curated combination of music, talks, and experiences for a line-up of creative and intellectually engaging acts. The event brings a new type of experience to the UK festival circuit. Far more focus is given to the contribution of influential figures, speakers, and intellectuals than any other. Key thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Andrew Neil sit right alongside incredible artists including Tom Misch, Grace Jones, and Black Country, New Road for a totally new festival experience.

The Site

Camping opens on Friday afternoon and we arrived shortly afterward. The campsite wasn’t massive, but it didn’t need to be. There was plenty of space for all campers right in front of the country house, creating a pretty cool setting. Facilities were well provided with water refill points, showers, and possibly the nicest festival toilets I’ve ever experienced, complete with a mirror and a proper sink. In fairness, I’m not sure anything that classy would work anywhere like Download or Reading. While on the note of class, it was an early observation that the audience for Kite was largely middle-class, and a great majority were on the older side of a typical festival crowd.

Once set up, we headed into the arena to take a look. The space was surprisingly small, with two large tent stages, two smaller ones, and some outdoor performance spaces scattered throughout the arena. One initial concern I had with the size of the arena and the number of stages was sound leak between them, more on that later when we discuss Black Country, New Road. Amongst the stages are a number of food outlets, but not your average burger and chips. These were clearly carefully and appropriately selected, including Vegan Nachos, Vietnamese Noodles, and Indian Street Food. They did well to realise the audience and go for the more upmarket options. Also in the arena were a number of shops and stalls, notably Blackwells Bookshop was hosting signings with a number of speakers, and similarly, Truck Record Store was doing so with performers.

Friday

Mermaid Chunky

We started off at the Heavenly Stage, which was the festival’s mid-size stage and an intimate but large performance space. Mermaid Chunky was an extremely shaky start to the festival, but by no fault of their own. There were some technical issues during their soundcheck that persisted through the performance, and from what I could tell, the sound technician was doing very little to help. This unfortunately resulted in the mix being off for their entire performance. What could be made out from their set was really fun and quite quirky, and I was particularly impressed by Freya and her electronic production. The duo did a respectable job of playing through the issues, but ultimately it was a rocky way to get the weekend going.

Mermaid Chunky © Harry Mowe
Flamingods © Harry Mowe

Flamingods

Next up at the Heavenly Stage was internationally formed psychedelic outfit Flamingods. This set ran much more smoothly than the previous one thankfully. Lead singer Kamal Rassol sends soaring vocals into the audience backed by an electric sitar, trippy synths, and distinctive rhythms. I really enjoyed the Flamingods set and its focus on international influence. There were many unconventional influences mixed tastefully into an energetic, psychedelic blend.

Nubiyan Twist

We stuck around at the Heavenly Stage for the third and final Friday set. Nubiyan Twist is a phenomenal afro-jazz fusion comprised of some ridiculously talented musicians. Although the band call themselves an afro-jazz group, confining them to just that title would be an injustice. Their performance was packed with nods to electronic, dub, funk, soul, and more. The group had absolute command of the audience, taking them on a journey through a world of styles all underpinned by an undeniable groove. Friday ended on a real high with these guys.

Nubiyan Twist © Harry Mowe

Saturday

After a pretty chilly night, we headed into a sunny Saturday. The Forum Stage (Main Stage) opened, and the day was to be headlined by the legendary Grace Jones.

Jude Rogers

Once again returning to the Heavenly Stage for an early morning talk, Jude Rogers was interviewed about her new book The Sound of Being Human. The book is a fantastic celebration of the many powers of music, told through her own experiences with various songs. Rogers’ talk was really interesting, I learned a lot about how we internalise and experience music in very similar ways, even across massively different styles and genres. Jude’s talk was followed by a book signing at the Blackwells shop tent, and I even caught her in the audience for Confidence Man that same day.

Jarvis Cocker

In the early afternoon, I headed over to The Forum. This was the festival main stage, set up with rows of seats for the talks and then later in the day became fully standing for the music. This was a talk I was personally very excited for as Jarvis Cocker is a pretty big deal to me, with Different Class by Pulp being amongst my all-time favourite albums. Cocker was interviewed about his book Good Pop, Bad Pop. His book is an exhibitionary tour of rediscovered items from his past, many giving important insights into his life and his eccentric mindset. The talk was great, Cocker is a real character and had a packed-out audience fully entertained.

Jarvis Cocker © Harry Mowe
Saint Etienne © Harry Mowe

Saint Etienne

After spending some time taking the festival in, we returned to The Forum. Saint Etienne brought a tight collection of synth-pop classics, as well as selections from their newest release I’ve Been Trying To Tell You, which is a fantastic homage to the 90s music scene. The set was brilliant as a presentation of classic tunes, but performatively I found it a little tepid and uninspired.

Confidence Man

This was an absolute stand-out set. The Aussie dance setup took over the Heavenly Stage for an hour packed tight and brimming with energy. The set was meticulously choreographed, including a number of outfit changes, but still maintained a looseness that kept things feeling spontaneous. The instrumental work provided by two veiled backing musicians added a real allure and sense of mystery. Confidence Man are ridiculously cool, and from the energy of the audience, they too agreed.

Confidence Man © Harry Mowe
Grace Jones © Harry Mowe

Grace Jones

The Forum was absolutely rammed waiting for the dance icon. By quite a long shot she had the biggest crowd of the weekend, the tent overflowing with fans trying to catch a view. (luckily there’s a screen outside the tent for anyone that doesn’t make it in). At 74, the energy she brings to her live show is unbelievable and still bears the same distinctive character as I can imagine her earlier performances did.

Read more about Kite Festival here.

Sunday

After another chilly night, we headed into Sunday. The last day of KITE felt like a slower one, with smaller crowds post-Grace Jones, but there were still some great speakers and artists.

Richard Dawkins

First up was a talk from the fascinating scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins spoke about his new book Flights of Fancy. His book is an account of the evolutionary history of birds and flight (apt for a festival named KITE). It was great to see someone so knowledgeable and passionate discuss their passion, but honestly, the content of the talk was not all that interesting. I think most people left the talk happy to have ticked the box of seeing Dawkins, but not particularly engaging with the content he provided.

Richard Dawkins © Harry Mowe
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 © Harry Mowe

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Seun Kuti is the son of Fela Kuti, widely regarded as the father of Afrobeat. Seun keeps his father’s legacy going by touring with Fela’s band, Egypt 80. The mainstage set was a celebratory, high-energy experience that didn’t take long to get the audience bought in and dancing. Seun is highly performative, using the whole stage as a dance space and brilliantly engaging the KITE festival audience.

Tom Misch

Tom Misch was the Sunday main stage headliner, bringing the neo-soul goodness. He didn’t quite attract the same audience size as Grace Jones but he got close, with a much younger audience for Tom. Everything Tom Misch puts out seems to become a hit, with every track in the set being recognised by most of the audience. He even bought out a surprise guest and collaborator during the set. Misch was the perfect headliner for a festival of this scale and audience.

Tom Misch © Harry Mowe
Tyler Hyde from Black Country, New Road © Harry Mowe

Black Country, New Road

Following the departure of previous lead singer Isaac Wood, BC,NR has been touring completely new and unheard material, which is insanely brave and not easy to do. The band had a really tough set at KITE, with the sound leak from another stage becoming an issue to a ridiculous extent. The six-piece has some beautiful quiet moments in the set which were totally overshadowed by the other stage. BC,NR did a great job of playing through this, and I’m a big fan of their new material. Isaac Wood left the band, but it seems he didn’t take their sensitivity, playfulness, vulnerability, and songwriting ability with him.

One particularly poignant moment is the first song ‘Up Song’ which contains the lyrics: “Look at what we did together, BC,NR friends forever” as a heartwarming tribute to their success on their last album Ants From Up There, and the lyric “I’ve come apart, and I’ve fallen into two halves, oh shit”, a reference to Isaac leaving the band. Overall the set was beautiful, despite the sound problems.

Final Thoughts

For a debut year festival, KITE did a fantastic job. With a totally new style of festival, giving equal weight to the contribution of speakers and musicians, festival-goers could curate their own experience. The festival had the occasional issue or weak spot, but nothing out of the ordinary for a brand new festival and certainly nothing that diminished the festival as a whole. I’m definitely planning on returning next year.

Kite Festival is returning on the 9th-11th of June 2023, find out more here.

Written by

Drew Manning

Drew Manning is the Owner and Lead Editor of Alibi London.