AFTER overcoming a legal challenge earlier this year, Wireless – the festival with an urban edge and a heavy grime leaning – retook Finsbury Park at the weekend with the firm intention of proving itself deserving of its summertime slot.
Friday night saw super-DJ Calvin Harris in the headline spot, liberally throwing in his big hits: songs from his album I Created Disco won the biggest roars, with numbers such as Acceptable In The 80s giving the crowd – looking far too young to recall such things – the chance to warble along. His main stage appearance illuminated the evening.
Harris came after soul-ish Miguel, whose disjointed material was made smooth by his big personality and ability to fill the stage with his slight frame. Eye-catching in white, his showmanship was such that his fairly preachy messages of love and respect were welcomed as if he were speaking to a Southern Baptist congregation.
The 1975 followed, initially finding it hard to get the crowd onside, but trundling through the more familiar tunes impressed those at the front. They were perhaps a bit too moody and grungy to follow Miguel’s smile-at-your-neighbour-fest – polished, yes, with onstage chemistry, but maybe not so suited to Wireless.
The most fun was at the small Smirnoff stage and bar: a special mention to the Menendez Brothers, whose clever mix of hip-hop, old soul and disco prompted endless dance-offs as a good-looking crowd vied for each other’s attention. The afternoon sun-bathed the place, the sound system was excellent, and the music selection perfect. It should have been a hard act to follow – but Disciples Djs got into the spirit of things with a seamless switch, showing that often at these London park events, the smaller, more intimate stages offer a much more relaxed and jovial experience.
On Saturday, hip-hop duo Krept & Konan took over the main stage, playing in front of a full-sized underground train carriage. They provided the surprise of the day as Rita Ora stepped through its doors with an unexpected cameo, singing and dancing her way across the stage on Freak of the Week. This and Don’t Waste My Time Tell were sure-fire hits, performed with energy and attitude.
J Cole – one of Saturday’s main acts – entertained with songs from his 2014 Forest Hills Drive album as well as other favourites. With an enchanting backdrop and hit-laden set, the rapper was a favourite, but something was missing. Perhaps it was a little quiet, perhaps the no-gimmick, personal element of many of his songs required something more cosy but, despite the quality of the performance and material, the connection was lacking at times.
Over in the under-used guest zone, DJs Carly Wilford and Shan McGinley aka Sister blasted out rave tunes, deserving of a bigger stage.
Rising grime artist Bugzy Malone, leapt around the Pepsi Max tent with more energy than a Duracell bunny as lights in the form of a big brain pulsed behind him.
Fans young and old gathered for Craig David, some embracing the nostalgia, waiting for a few lines from 7 Days, while others discovered him for the first time in his current DJ guise. David catered for both, mixing Bieber tracks with hits from his Born to Do It album, singing some classics, remixed to a dance beat – a welcome return for the star, whose TS5 performances brought LA house party vibes to this inner-London field.
Sunday is a day of rest, right? Not for Wireless and especially not this year with its potent line-up of British grime artists. Just three initials could be heard loudest across Finsbury Park – Boy Better Know, or BBK, the fearless grime crew whose angry swagger and pin-sharp bars are the perfect soundtrack to a Brexit Britain.
Popular Colombian band Bomba Estereo got the early crowd dancing on the small stage 3. Frontwoman Liliana Saumet bounced around in a spectacular white feather coat, spitting out and rolling Spanish lyrics with a fierce and sensual energy. The natural dips around this stage only allow for a smallish audience and sound doesn’t travel well, so it was, sadly, difficult to get the full whip of Ghetts’ celebrated rhymes and the view was dogged by young fans waving smartphones.
The Pepsi Max Arena also suffered from sound issues but there was no stopping this covered stage from lighting up. Giant moshpits opened up with excited nods and an exhilarating explosion of energy. Many had lost sunglasses and belts by Vince Staple’s early afternoon slot, the highlight being the anthemic Lift Me Up. A carpet of shoes and hairpieces joined the dusty dancefloor by early evening for Jeremih. The capacity couldn’t meet his popularity, and many stood at least 20 deep outside the tent, enthusiatically singing to Birthday Sex, Oui and Don’t Tell Em. Considering his sheer number of hits and popularity, it would have made sense to switch Jeremih with Martin Garrix or Kygo, both of whose consecutive sets were similar, relying on pyrotechnics, and smacking of that complaint often aimed at Wireless: that they lose nerve with the programming and bring in more pop or mainstream acts.
Fergie played the main stage pretty early and displayed an relentless work ethic. The former Black Eyed Peas singer dipped and twerked her way through an extensive back catalogue including Glamourous, Hey Mama, My Humps and recent single M.I.L.F with a winning stage persona.
Big Sean followed, swamped by the main stage made more obvious as, with Jess Glynne after, he was sandwiched between two women in full control of the space and scale. Glynne’s diminutive size was helped with a massive pair of shiny gold flares. She confidently worked through the massive summer hits of last year, Rather Be, Real Love and Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself. There’s a slickness to the band, her patter and her flawless voice that verges on MOR. Still, it was fun to scream along with Hold My Hand but was all a bit too smooth, almost over-toured.
There was a rush during Garrix and Kygo’s sets as most headed across to Section Boyz only to find R’n’B star Kehlani running late and her slow jams – while hugely popular with some women, eyes clenched closed, mouthing each word – didn’t sway a crowd ready for the power of south London’s hottest rap group. The billing made sense: Section Boyz would finish, just time to rush across the park for BBK, but this glitch forced people to choose.
A post and telephone box stood on the main stage as a reminder, if needed, that BBK are straight-up London. Brothers Skepta and JME were masters of ceremonies as members burst onstage for various numbers. It was without a doubt a proper “moment” in British music history. Grime has held onto its underground appeal for over a decade and has now won the top slot often reserved for big US stars. The pressure was high but they rose to it. To be packed in a heaving crowd of 50,000 people surging and bound by the relentless anger and raw power of Solo45’s Feed Em To The Lions was awe-inspiring. Man Don’t Care, Too Many Man, That’s Not Me and Murkle Man, all got massive moshpits. It’s a good sign when the appearance of Pharrell Williams for Numbers isn’t what people talk about as they slowly trickle out of the park. Throughout the show various BBK members sauntered or cycled across the stage, joking with each other, penning messages over the phone box – pure rock ’n’ roll bravado.
What next? With this level of popularity and exposure will they lose that close connection to the audience? It’ll be hard for Skepta to talk about shutting down Shoreditch car park because BBK just shut down Wireless.