The London shindig, named Best Small Festival at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, is back with Bicep and Amyl and the Sniffers on the bill. It reflects our “post-everything era”, hears Ali Shutler
Last year’s inaugural Wide Awake Festival was, according to Charlie Steen, frontman of its headliners Shame, “a celebration of independent bands who’d come up through independent venues and worked really fucking hard.” Also featuring sets from Yard Act, IDLES, Black Midi, Goat Girl and Self Esteem, the 25,000-capacity one-day event, held at south London’s Brockwell Park, was a monumental victory for the DIY community and was fittingly awarded Best Small Festival at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 in March.
“There was such an exciting British music scene – why wouldn’t we embrace it, do as much as we can to help it and celebrate it?” booker Keith Miller says of Wide Awake’s vision.
A few months after the September event, once the dust had settled, two things happened: the organisers were told that deep house duo Bicepwould be up for playing in 2022, and an opportunity arose to grow the festival to two days. Miller knew that expanding Wide Awake, as well as broadening the festival’s sonic identity, was “high risk” but, he says, “I’m a promoter. I’m used to gambling.”
It’s an eclectic bill but all the bands carry themselves with the same punk attitude and progressive vision. “There’s a DIY aesthetic running through the line-up. They’re all acts that just follow their gut and do what they love,” says Miller. “Look at Primal Scream. Look at Yard Act. Members of those bands were making music for years before they found any sort of success. They’re a testament to younger bands to keep going, to keep chasing your dreams.”
Launching a brand new festival in 2021 was a ballsy move, especially when you consider the years of COVID-enforced postponements, cancellations and financial woes that had impacted every corner of the events industry. The festival was rescheduled multiple times and the line-up was constantly shifting. “It was very tense,” admits Miller. “But it’s been a tense few years. We, like a lot of people from the grassroots scene, just had to get on with it.”
That tension didn’t go away with the easing of restrictions, either. “It’s always scary until the last minute. IDLES had a COVID scare the night before, and we scrambled to get Sleaford Mods on standby (though fortunately it was a false alarm),” says Miller. “There was a degree of dipping our toes into the water, to see how that first year went. If it was a total disaster, we wouldn’t be back this year.”
What, then, makes Wide Awake such an award-winning outlier? “The festival offers something a bit different,” he says. “It’s an independent event and there was a real gap for a band-led discovery day in London. It’s about giving new acts a chance and a platform to go on and do as well as they can.”
Wide Awake came about after Miller, who runs the music promotion company Bad Vibrations, was approached by festival director Marcus Weedon. The pair had previously worked together on the London festival Field Day and Whedon suggested putting on another at Brockwell Park, sharing production costs with pop knees-up Mighty Hoopla and the soul, funk and jazz party Across The Tracks, one-day events that already took place on the site. The brief was loose: “Just do whatever you want”. So Miller decided to celebrate the grassroots music scene they’d been championing for years at London venues like The Moth Club, Shacklewell Arms and The Windmill.
Shame came up through Brixton’s 150-capacity Windmill, and Charlie Steen explains that “venues like [that] are a core artery to the UK scene, adding: “So much creativity goes on there. Their importance can’t be matched.” Shame, who spearheaded the late 2010s South London post-punk scene, which in turn opened the door for post-punk groups such asFontaines DC to storm the charts, wouldn’t exist without The Windmill. Earlier this year, they returned to that venue to test out new material for album three. Wide Awake takes that nurturing community spirit and puts it in front of 25,000 people.