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FESTIVAL REPORT: KITE

When: 10-12 June 2022
Where: Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire, England.

Here comes KITE, signalling the arrival of a brand-new event on the UK’s annual festival calendar. The organisers had described KITE as “a festival of ideas and music for curious, inquisitive, and cultural minds, bringing together a pioneering line-up of musicians, comedians, artists, writers, activists, and thinkers”. Having now spent three days and three nights in its most estimable company, I can readily confirm that they held true to their word.

KITE takes place in Kirtlington Park, the site of a stunning Grade I listed Palladian mansion set in acres and acres of rolling parkland providing the visitor with wonderful views over the gardens to the Chiltern Hills. And these pretty spectacular surroundings are reflected in the innovative programme of entertainment that KITE presents.

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Taking a break from her busy schedule curating Meltdown 2022 to head KITE’s music line-up – and in doing so marking something of a major coup for the festival – is the Jamaican singer, songwriter, model, Warholian muse, performance artist, and enduring international woman of mystery, Grace Jones. She has previously asserted that she does not believe in time. And some 40 years beyond what might commonly be regarded as the zenith of her career, and a relatively mere 14 since her last studio album, neither does her music. It wilfully refuses to age.

As the thunderous groove of ‘Nightclubbing’ starts to reverberate around the main stage tent, packed to its canvas gunwales, Grace Jones makes her startling entrance. Dressed in a gentlemen’s black dinner jacket, matching basque, fishnet stockings, thigh-length boots, and a long-flowing feathered headdress adorned with an imposing gold skull mask, she is a compelling vision of dark, dangerous, and decadent cool. And as we hear for the first time tonight the deep resonance of her half-sung, half-spoken voice, the song is transported from its mid-70’s Iggy Pop genesis into a different musical firmament altogether. It is a sound landing from another world and, put quite simply, it is astonishing.

Forget all that stuff you have heard about Ms. Jones being wholly unreasonable and incredibly difficult; this evening, at least, she is at her most playful. With an almost maniacal smile playing across her voodoo-painted face she threatens “I’m seriously gonna just do something to somebody.” Fortunately for us she takes out her faux aggression on a cymbal during what is a suitably destructive Demolition Man’. Barely concealing her glee come the song’s end, and reminding us of her role as the Bond villain May Day in the 1985 film A View to a Kill, she proudly proclaims, “I beat the shit out of that motherfucker.”

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Grace Jones then dons her glitter bowler hat and tears into Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’ with such menace and abandon you fear that tomorrow may never come. She ends, naturally, with ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, effortlessly hula-hooping to the song’s imperious groove. Grace Jones lives in her own creative space. We must feel totally blessed to have just had a brief glimpse into its own unique musical sphere.

A recent BBC study found that this summer only 13% of the headliners at the UK’s top music festivals will be women. Refreshingly KITE bucks that trend. On Saturday night alone Mavis Staples, Saint Etienne, and Self Esteem all appear on the main stage prior to Grace Jones. Speaking as someone who at 82 years of age has seen it all before, Mavis Staples just takes a power failure during ‘Can You Get To That?’ in her stride. “The devil is always busy” she deadpans after the enforced delay before doing great justice to The Band’s ‘The Weight’. And ‘Respect Yourself’ just stretches out like one of those classic early 70’s American limousines.

Rebecca Taylor is far less happy, though, when through no fault of her own technical problems foreshorten Self Esteem’s set by a good quarter of an hour. Her visible anger and irritation are quickly harnessed, though, and she channels the energy into what becomes a stunning set of dynamic pop tunes, each one populated with fabulous skyscraper choruses. And when Taylor joins forces with her three backing singers for their carefully choreographed dance routines you then get layer upon layer of sensuality and seduction added to this already wonderfully huge and hypnotic sound.

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The largely female-centric emphasis on the music programme continues well into Sunday with excellent performances from singer, songwriter, producer, choral composer and sound artist, Fran LoboKaty J Pearson – a delightful closing blast of ‘Tonight’ does really feel rather jolly; the consistently tremendous and life-affirming This Is The Kit; and a delightful venture into the Welsh cosmos that is inhabited by Gwenno, but as the London hip-hop producer, rapper and singer Shunaji rightly observes on the opening night of KITE “we don’t discriminate”. Men do get their chance. And Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 take that opportunity, bringing to us all the potency and power of Afrobeat; despite their name, only one of Confidence Man’s two propulsive dancing singers is male, but regardless of gender the Australian electro-pop band turn up the heat considerably and present by far the most febrile show of the weekend; and Tom Misch brings the festival to a triumphant close on Sunday evening. As the sun – a constant feature of the entire weekend – starts to go down over Kirtlington Park and Misch breaks into ‘Nightrider’, the huge glitter ball at the back of the stage begins to slowly spin reflecting myriad shafts of light all around the tent. “I ride low with the setting sun” he sings, providing one of very many special KITE moments.

But KITE does not begin and end with music. The other central element of the festival is that of Ideas and towards that particular end KITE has prepared a programme featuring a series of world-renowned and hugely diverse public figures, cultural icons, artists, and creative thinkers that includes the famous Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist Ai Weiwei; the evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins; former Secretary of State, Rory Stewart; William Dalrymple and David Olusoga, discussing the ever-changing role of history and historians; Tina Brown, speaking about the Royal Family; Delia Smith, reflecting not about food this time but the true nature of the human spirit; the British drag queen, author, and model, Bimini; actor Minnie Driver, accompanied by her dog, Bob; and in what was by far and away the most heavily-attended Ideas event of the weekend, Jarvis Cocker – he was to later sign more than 250 copies of his recent book, Good Pop, Bad Pop in the signing tent – exploring a wide range of subjects and concepts from the environment, society, technology, sport and political systems to identity, wealth, the arts, history, globalisation, and sexuality, all of which impact upon us today.

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With carefully considered coordination, the Ideas programme and accompanying workshops and discussions are scheduled to take place in the morning and the afternoon prior to the live music commencing proper around 5.00pm. This, however, does not eliminate entirely the haemorrhaging of sound from neighbouring stages whilst the Ideas events are taking place. And a number of talks – Rory Stewart, in conversation with the broadcaster Andrew Neil, and Ai Weiwei in particular – are held in the smaller Town Hall tent which is clearly of insufficient size to accommodate all those who want to attend.

Given that it was KITE’s maiden flight there were always going to be some teething problems. The main stage generator packing in during Mavis Staples’ set was unfortunate. But these relatively minor issues aside the festival was an incredibly well-organised event, taking place in a warm, welcoming, and given the overall size of the site, a pleasingly intimate and inclusive environment. When the Kids Area and Comedy line-up are added to the equation, KITE provides an immense cross-generational appeal. Mention should also be made of the festival’s rather excellent, interactive Woov app, beating hands down the old Clashfinder paper copy which could usually be found crumpled up somewhere in your pocket; the superb quality of the food and drink on offer – the Indian street kebabs from the Kolkati stall were as good as anything I have tasted in half a century of going to festivals in this country; as well as the unobtrusive security arrangements over the weekend, all of which contributed to KITE being a delightful and most welcome addition to the UK’s annual festival calendar.

All Photos: Simon Godley

More photos from KITE Festival 2022 are here:

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GRACE JONES

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.