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Caroline Polachek at Wide Awake by Luke Dyson

Wide Awake 2023: London festival finds its feet between post-punk, club and pop music

Returning to South London’s Brockwell Park for its third edition, Wide Awake festival delivered its finest day out to date with a carefully considered programme that mapped the common ground between post-punk, adventurous indie, pop, and underground club sounds

It’s just gone 7pm in South London’s Brockwell Park and, as the early summer sun begins to soften over the third edition of Wide Awake festival, Irish noise rockers Gilla Band are blazing through their cover of Blawan’s spooky techno stomper, ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’. In the Moth Club x DMY tent, clattering four-to-the-floor drums and pulverising gusts of bass root the band’s version in the original’s ravey headspace, while distorted shrieks of guitar and a feverish vocal refrain drench it all in punk fuel. A swarm of bodies heaves, bounces and howls along in messy, sweaty unison; the line between mosh pit and dancefloor is blurred beyond recognition for eight frenzied minutes. It’s chaos. It’s beautiful.

This moment is a microcosm, representing one of Wide Awake’s primary objectives since its first edition in 2021: to map the common ground between post-punk, adventurous indie, pop, and underground club sounds. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off successfully in a single day, particularly in a competitive climate when at least three festivals are taking place around the city on the same day. Get it wrong, and you risk sparse ticket sales and a muted response from fans loyal to a specific style. Get it right however, and you end up with a genuinely thrilling proposition, and one of the most uniquely appealing days out of the year. Luckily, Wide Awake nails it. 

Daniel Avery playing live at Wide Awake festival in front of a row of red lights
Daniel Avery at Wide Awake by Luke Dyson

The programme today feels near flawlessly considered, with headline performances from avant-pop star Caroline Polachek and California garage rockers Osees taking place alongside Daniel Avery’s shoegaze-rave live set and Two Shell’s giddy hyperpop-techno. It’s something the festival’s organisers have worked at steadily over the years, with varying degrees of success in the past; 2021’s genuinely excellent DJ bookings were ultimately overshadowed by headliners like IDLES and Shame. 

This time, electronic music is positioned more centrally on site, taking place largely in the SC&P x Village Underground tent, on equal footing with the punky Bad Vibrations x Desert Daze stage, where the likes of A Place To Bury Strangers, Los Bitchos and Black Country, New Road perform. In the tent, eager fans rush to catch afternoon sets from Coucou Chloe and VTSS, the latter of whom is met with a huge response as she opens with her own hit ‘Make You Scream’, before launching into an hour of full-throttle techno. 

Erol Alkan Djing on the outdoor Shacklewell Arms Stage at Wide Awake
Erol Alkan at Wide Awake by Luke Dyson

That tent is almost at capacity at 6pm when the experimental electronic innovator and award-winning composer behind the Good Time and Uncut Gems soundtracks Oneohtrix Point Never takes the stage. A delayed and slightly subdued start does regrettably knock the wind out of some sails however, and he has to work to get energy levels back to their late afternoon high. He just about manages it with some captivatingly abstract visuals and strobing synth peaks. Some of these moments are magical, as you’d expect from one of the most compelling electronic artists around, but it’s hard not to feel like this set would have landed better after sunset, and with a bit of a volume boost. No matter. Joy Orbison and Daniel Avery set things back on track for the rest of the night in the tent, with the latter giving his brand new live set a jaw-dropping London debut in the closing slot. 

Throughout the day, the sun-kissed Shacklewell Arms stage hosts DJ sets from the likes of Tia Cousins, Optimo (Espacio) and Erol Alkan, whose particular strains of thumping club music and rough-hewn grooves are the perfect pairing for Wide Awake’s post-punk palette. The stage is closed out by Habibi Funk, whose sets of infectious deep cuts from the SWANA region serve as another inspired booking for the festival. 

Shygirl singing into the mic on the main stage of Wide Awake. she's wearing a flowing peach coloured dress
Shygirl at Wide Awake by Luke Dyson

On the mainstage, where the likes of Arooj Aftab and Alex G shone earlier in the day, South London’s own Shygirl’s glossy pop and sultry rap futurism dazzles with flourishes of UKG, organ house and breakbeat magic. Her set ends in an explosion of confetti and a drum & bass-embellished rendition of ‘Crush’. It’s a highlight of the day, and leads perfectly into Caroline Polachek’s headline set.

It’s the US star’s first time topping a festival bill, and against the volcanic backdrop that has followed her on her Spiralling tour, she runs through the stellar tracklist of her recent album, ‘Desire, I Want To Turn Into You’, alongside fan favourites ‘Ocean Of Tears’, ‘So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings’ and ‘Door’. New tracks like ‘I Believe’ and ‘Fly To You’ bounce on UKG and drum & bass beats, bridging the gap, as so many sets today have done, between dance music pop and indie. Polachek’s unbelievable vocal manoeuvres and emotive cadence bring Wide Awake’s finest edition to date to a superb close. Now the team have seemingly perfected their festival formula, can’t wait to see what surprises they’ve got up their sleeves next.