Freaks, mullets, coochie calls, pysch-punk and the coronation of Caroline Polachek: why Wide Awake 2023 was everything

Caroline Polachek, Osees, Viagra Boys, Shygirl and more light up the most eclectic, electric Wide Awake festival yet

Caroline Polachek at Wide Awake
(Image: © Burak Cingi/Redferns)

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"Fucking hell man, what a crowd. I didn't know there were this many freaks in London. I've never seen so many mullets in my life!"

It's 6:25pm, and on Wide Awake's main stage, Viagra Boys' topless, tattooed frontman Sebastian Murphy is in a mischievous mood, encouraging a sun-kissed and sweaty crowd to be on their "worst fucking behaviour." The Swedish sextet, who self-identify on their Spotify profile as 'a bellowing, unstoppable force majeure of latter-day punk, PTSD disco and synthetically enhanced kraut', which frankly, we can't better, are a perfect festival act, loud, loose and lairy, and their 50 minutes onstage kicks London's finest alternative music festival up another gear.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here, for Wide Awake 2023 starts for many not at its traditional home in Brockwell Park, south London on May 27, but at Earth Hall & Earth Theatre in East London on May 26, with a 'pre-party' featuring Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, Slift and more on the eve of the main event.

Slift, who played Wide Awake in 2021, are simply incredible. The Toulouse prog rock trio, led by brothers Jean and Rémi Fossat, have visited London a number of times since the release of 2020's Ummon album, but from some of the wide-eyed/jaw-on-the-floor reactions they inspire in Hackney it's clear that not everyone is prepared for the sheer volume and intensity of their synth-bolstered, riff-heavy, spacey sonic onslaught. "Fuck me, my ears!" is one ticket-holder's cry as he stumbles into the gents' toilets afterwards, receiving sympathetic nods of agreement from understanding, similarly dazed strangers. 

Upstairs in the Theatre, there's a suspiciously quiet and empty stage where BEAK>, the excellent experimental electronic rock side-project of Portishead's Geoff Barrows, should be at 9pm. And when two female vocalists identically dressed in blue mini-dresses and white Barbarella boots walk onstage 30 minutes after the Bristol trio's allotted stage time and announce "We're not BEAK>", patrons begin scrolling through social media to try to figure out what the almighty fuck is going on. It turns out that singing drummer Barrows has lost his voice, and that despite their best efforts, and despite having already soundchecked, the trio sadly won't be gracing us with their presence. In a wonderfully generous gesture, which speaks volumes about the integrity and ethics of the promoters, the Wide Awake team will later announce that anyone who's bought a ticket for tonight's gig will now be gifted free admission to the festival proper to make up for this disappointment. But as it turns out, BEAK>'s 11th hour replacements, Brisbane quintet Nice Biscuit, are a quirky delight, with twin vocalists Billie Star and Grace Cuell pulling off synchronised stage moves and sweet '60s melodies over punchy, grooving psych-garage blasts.

Back downstairs in the venue's larger room, fellow Aussies Psychedelic Porn Crumpets offer up a more complex, though no less enchanting, sound. Having served up five albums in six years, most recently 2022's Night Gnomes, the Perth band have a work ethic comparable to scene elders King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, and the wildly enthusiastic response which Jack McEwan's band receive suggests that they too are about to transcend their 'cult underground heroes' status. From the relatively concise, upbeat Acid Dent ("Be positive, life is good, be more like Robin Hood") to fuzzy, finger-knotting new single Nootmare (K-I-L-L-I-n-G) Meow! and on to the more expansive, patiently unfurling nine-minute Found God In A Tomato, PPC are a feel-good, immersive joy. Main stage, main event, early evening next year?

In its original, admittedly Covid-impacted, incarnation in 2021 the Wide Awake line-up was essentially The Windmill, Brixton x Speedy Wunderground extrapolated onto a larger canvas, with Dry Cleaning, Shame, black midi, PVA and Goat Girl all key players in South London's fecund turn-of-the-decade post-punk community. This, incidentally, is not a criticism; it was a brilliant, inspiring day out. But if you want an inkling into just how eclectic and diverse its 2023 bill is, consider that, pre-Viagra Boys, the afternoon line-up takes in neo-Sufi jazz-fusion from Pakistan (Arooj Aftab), Polish industrial-techno (VTSS), Belarusian new wave (Molchat Doma), New York noise rock (A Place To Bury Strangers), futuristic French electronica (Coucou Chloe)  and - obviously - more hypnotic Australian psychedelia (the masked Glass Beams) and much besides on a 50:50 gender split bill. It's surely no coincidence that the day has a welcomingly inclusive, positive, female-friendly, drama-free vibe throughout.

Viagra Boys

Viagra Boys vocalist Sebastian Murphy (Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Viagra Boys' Sebastian Murphy, as mentioned already, is in a puckish mood when the Swedish sextet take the stage. Referencing the band's appearance at the Bearded Theory festival 24 hours earlier, the San Francisco-born singer claims that the event smelled of "dreads, fucking hemp and hippy bullshit", suggests that the median age of the audience there was "50 - 60" and says that he's glad to be amongst his peers, "the young and the beautiful". Punk Rock Loser and the caustic, internet troll-crushing Troglodyte are immense, and the Stooges-indebted, sax-enhanced Sports gets one of the biggest cheers of the day, with Murphy - by now down to his sweat-stained pants - doing press-ups centre-stage. Five stars, 10/10, fanfuckintastic.

In an email announcing the festival's stage times earlier in the week, the Wide Awake team apologised in advance for the clash between Viagra Boys and Gilla Band on the Moth Club stage, but the Dublin band hold their own in terms of pulling a crowd, and the minimalist clatter of Bin Liner Fashion and a ferocious Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage are greeted like they're global party anthems. There's just a small window of opportunity to catch Lebanon Hanover's inappropriately gloomy but impressively glacial 'cold wave' in the Windmill / So Young tent, before returning to the Moth Club stage for Warmduscher, playing their only hometown show of the summer, their marriage of post-punk aggression and death disco beats hitting a peak with a grinding, grooving Midnight Dipper.

Shygirl at Wide Awake

Shygirl at Wide Awake 2023 (Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Over on the main stage, Shygirl is a revelation, although, to be fair, the groups of young women literally sprinting towards across the site to see her suggest that plenty are already in the know. The South London rapper (Blane Muise) has featured on a remix of Lady Gaga/Blackpink collab Sour Candy, and previously worked with Slowthai, FKA Twigs and Tinashe, and backed here by just her DJ, she absolutely owns the stage. Her sound is sweet, seductive and sultry, and if you weren't paying attention, you might miss just how full-on horny the likes of Coochie (A Bedtime Story) and Shlut are. Nigerian rapper Deto Black joins the party for Nike, which means that the nice sign-language interpreter lady at the side of the stage gets to enthusiastically enact lyrics such as "Hands on my breast and my batty like he knew it / I tell him 'Lay the pipe' and he blew it" - and a confetti canon causes industrial-scale squeals of delight when Shygirl signs off with Crush. A star is born.

Caroline Polachek is already a star, but, perhaps surprisingly, this is her first ever headline slot at a festival. With the likes of Welcome To My Island, Bunny Is A Rider and Sunset - neatly timed - served up within her first 20 minutes onstage, this was never going to be anything other than an absolute triumph for the New York-born singer. With classy production, an adoring fan-base, a mesmerising stage presence and a voice that could tempt angels from the heavens, Polachek holds Brockwell Park in the palm of her hand from minute one, and as such it's something of a wrench to head across the site to watch Osees close out the Bad Vibrations / Desert Daze stage. Until you actually reach the stage, that is, and witness John Dwyer's incredible band knock Wide Awake 2023 into another dimension. 

Osees at Wide Awake at 2023

Osees frontman John Dwyer at Wide Awake 2023 (Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns)

The San Franciscan band's penchant for constantly changing both their name and their sound could be seen as a form of punk rock self-sabotage, but onstage, somehow everything gels, everything seems natural and instinctive and right. In theory, there shouldn't be much connection between the synth-garage stabs of Intercepted Message, the title track of the band's forthcoming 27th album, due in August, and songs such as Scum Show and Funeral Solution from last year's A Foul Form, Dwyer’s gnarly love letter to the punk and hardcore bands who soundtracked his Bay Area adolescence, but it all slots together like Tetris blocks. And watching dual drummers Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone batter their kits in perfect synchronicity on Facestabber's The Daily Heavy is one of life's great pleasures. There aren't many live bands more thrilling than Osees in 2023, and there aren't many festivals anywhere on this planet as electric, vital and life-affirming as Wide Awake. 

Saturday, May 25, for Wide Awake 2024. Set an alert now: we'll see you there.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.