Henley Festival is a rather sophisticated 'black tie' event held over five nights on the river bank at Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire – notably most famous for its annual regatta. Henley Festival has been running for years with this year being its 34th year. The festival, limited to approx 5,000 tickets, offers live music, comedy, art and fashion as well as many marquees with fine dining, which have to be pre booked, as well as other food and drink outlets spread around the festival.
Henley Festival is more than just a festival, it is an excuse for a pleasant evening out with family and friends where you can dress up as extravagantly as you wish – you will only be looked upon admiringly – it is most certainly the place to be and is so spectacularly different from any other festival that, instead of wellies, you see designer shoes, instead of rowdy beer drinkers, people in deep conversation holding glasses of champagne or Pimms and the only smoking I saw were of cigars as ladies walked around the festival in old theatric Interval style over the shoulder holders selling them.
This year, the line up was one constantly talked about, especially with regard to Wednesday headliner Sir Elton John. Sir Elton’s night sold out in minutes, with the other nights featuring Elvis Costello, Bryn Terfel and the WNO Orchestra, Dame Shirley Bassey and Will Young following closely behind. Speaking to some of the guests, they informed me that the night Sir Elton played, the festival was over subscribed by approximately 2,000 extra ticket holders, making it impossible for guests to move freely and becoming quite a health and safety concern. This, I was told, took away the true essence of Henley Festival's charm and left many loyal attendees disappointed, angry and perplexed as to how this could be allowed to happen.
On Sunday night, the night I attended, was Will Young’s night and was, thankfully, quite a different story. Arriving promptly at 6pm, I took the short walk from the car park to the main entrance dressed up for the night as it is not everyday you get to attend a Black Tie event. The entrance had a beautiful pop up doorway, in blue with silver sparkly writing and with entrance staff dressed up just as smart as the guests.
As soon as I arrived I was drawn towards all the guests as they shone out as visually artistic shown by the range of outfits worn, the different styles, colours, hats, bags and even down to the shoes they were wearing. People really went out of their way to look the part and look the part they did. I loved the street performers who were dressed in their variety of spectacular costumes. There were performers dressed as Angels with large wings moving around on rollers, two men dressed as tall – small headed men with their actual heads being lower down making you wonder how they could see. Over the course of the other nights there were Gorilla costumes, tree costumes and various artists with painted faces and silver hair.
Oh and the toilets…the toilets were AMAZING…so clean and not your typical festival toilet, that is a reason alone to go to Henley Festival, ha!
Despite this being a relatively small festival, you couldn't get bored as there was something for everyone. Mini art galleries were dotted along the walkway to the main lawn area, overlooking the river. There were many boats moored in the middle of the Thames eagerly waiting to hear a night time of music from their decks.
Ronnie Scott's Jazz Bar had prime position at the far end providing a fairly similar look to the original bar in London, and was a round pop – up venue which had impressive décor both outside and in.
In the centre of the main lawn area were six large boards raising awareness for the charity The Children’s Society who the festival were working in partnership with. The boards all carried a statement from Young carers telling of their aspirations in life whereas their reality was far different. Very moving to read, it tugged at your heart strings to discover that so many children become young carers for their siblings or parents from such a young age. The charity is a very important part of Henley Festival. The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. They also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Their supporters around the country fund their services and join their campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side. More information on the charity can be found here : http://www.henley-festival.co.uk/support-henley-festival/henley-festival-trust/The-Childrens-Society
And here: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk
With various stages scattered around the festival, I started at Ronnie Scott's as The Ronnie Scott's Story began. The Jazz Band took centre stage and played a beautiful set of Jazz music which was both relaxing and mesmerising. I did not stay for the duration as I wanted to take a look at the other stages before Will Young commenced. Just outside the main entrance stood The Pizza Express Live stage, with 90’s pop Jazz band Shakatak. I was not aware of this band prior to this event but they certainly pulled a crowd and really knew how to put on a show. With the female lead singer being a Jazz powerhouse and a band really comfortable with knowing how to fully play their instruments and playing a very impressive set, they certainly knew how to entertain a crowd.
I quickly moved on to The Comedy Stage, expecting to see comedy. I was pleasantly surprised to catch the end of Shlomo. Shlomo is a British beatboxing artist, technologist, composer and teacher. I only caught his last two tracks which left me gutted that I hadn't watched the entire performance. His audience absolutely loved him and, being a young beatboxer, I was surprised by the amount of older people really getting into his set. Multi-talented, I would love to see this artist on a bigger stage one day. He had great original material and had so much energy running all over the stage singing, beatboxing and mixing. I did miss out on buying a cd he was selling afterwards as he had a long line of fans and I had to get to my seat for Will Young but Shlomo, I want one, so I hope there is somewhere I can purchase one?
Now to the main event of the evening. Will Young, who was closing the evening and the entire festival. Will was performing on The Floating Stage which is so named because the stage was built mostly on the actual river with the audience on the river bank. The seated areas were either on the lawn in front of the stage or the grandstand, the grandstand being the most expensive ticket. I obviously knew who Will Young was as I had watched Pop Idol together with most people my age and his song Leave Right Now was one of the most played songs the year it was released. But I had never really sat down and paid full attention to his other music. So…prior to this night, I binged listened to Will Young without barely coming up for air so that I knew what to expect. Well..Will had a lot more songs I knew than I had realised and his new album 85% Proof was very impressive. I could not find a bad song on there, no fillers at all, so this made me especially excited for his show.
From the minute his band arrived on stage the crowd were cheering. Running to the microphone, he started with the song Joy. The audience sang along whilst large beach balls were floating on the stage. Love Revolution, one of my favourites, was the next song and most people stood up during this, which was hardly surprising with it being such an upbeat song. Will addressed the audience telling them how happy he was to be back at Henley Festival, his home town, and how his father lives on the other side of the river. Will has such a great, fun personality with a typical British sense of humour, so had the audience howling throughout, myself included. Stories about his dad walking around the festival with him debating whether some lady was wearing knickers or not and later texting Will at midnight to say “ You know, I don’t think she was wearing knickers.” Hilariously, Will’s mother had been banned for life from Henley Regatta for purposefully jumping in a puddle to ruin a lady's white dress back in her youth. With many other funny stories, Will entertained the crowd the entire evening and even sang Happy Birthday to a fan in the front row.
Will’s vocals are just as perfect as they sound on his studio recordings. His tone is so unique and beautiful that he was a joy to listen to. He made use of his stage with little dance moves and he waved to the audience throughout – giving a shout out too to ticket holders who were stood at the side of the lawn area. Will’s band and backing singers were also amazing, giving us a flawless performance in a perfect summer evening setting. It was lovely to see people on their boats dancing and there were crowds of people over the other side of the river too. At one point in the evening, Will asked everyone to get their phones out to shine them and making them sway them in the air, side to side, up and down and all around. Even the people on the boats and other side of the river had their phones shining which I doubt he knew and it was truly spectacular to witness.
The set list was a lovely mix of his big hits as well as album tracks. We were treated with probably, most peoples' favourite songs and, as the night went on, people got merrier and more confident to get up and dance. Everyone sang along to songs such as Light My Fire, Leave Right Now and Jealousy with Will often holding the microphone to the crowd to hear them sing. We were also treated with a rendition of Evergreen which was Will’s winning song on Pop Idol and was not originally on the set list. The encore saw Will returning to stage on a mobility scooter with a fixed keyboard doing a cover version of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
I simply could not fault Will's performance and am so glad that I went. As someone who was neither a fan, or not a fan prior to this show, I can most certainly say that I am now a Will Young fan and would definitely go to see him perform live again. I even overheard a guest saying that she had attended all five nights of the festival and that Will Young was the best performer by far.
His show was certainly not average, I don’t think you could ever call that average!
The night closed with a spectacular show of Fireworks over the river followed by a performance from comedian The Boy With Tape On His Face on The Comedy Stage who I sadly had to miss due to travel commitments but I hear he is fantastic.
Light My Fire
(The Doors cover)
Who Am I
You and I
Switch It On
Leave Right Now
(David Bowie cover)
All Time Love