Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Festival celebrates as crowds return

THE organisers of the Henley Festival are celebrating their most successful year ever.

THE organisers of the Henley Festival are celebrating their most successful year ever.

More than 26,000 people flocked to the 33rd annual music and arts extravaganza, which took place on the royal regatta site over five nights last week.

Thursday’s performance by soul singer Lionel Richie and a Saturday concert by the Gipsy Kings both sold out with more than 6,100 guests in attendance.

Pop star Jessie J pulled in just under 5,000 people for her opening set on Wednesday, as did Eighties icons Spandau Ballet when they closed the festival on Sunday.

A tribute to George Gershwin called Who Got Rhythm!? featuring singers Gregory Porter, Laura Mvula and EastEnders actress Shona McGarty attracted 4,200 guests on Friday.

It was a significant improvement on last year’s festival, when only the Saturday night performance by the Jacksons sold out.

At the time, organisers said they were “disappointed” with the turnout as they expected more people to attend after a proposed move to the Henley Business School was scrapped.

The festival’s new chief executive officer Charlotte Geeves, who took over from Gill Mitchell in November last year, said she and her committee were “absolutely thrilled”.

“It is a fantastic achievement for us,” she said. “We were lucky to have the weather on our side as that always encourages people to buy tickets at the last minute.

“The calibre of artists across the site was really good, which helped. It was lovely to see so many people enjoying themselves.

“It was a team effort but I am personally very pleased and I know all my colleagues are too. Everybody worked really hard to get us to this point and it paid off.”

This year the festival introduced £35 general admission tickets which allowed people to listen to the main acts without entering the main lawn in front of the floating stage.

Miss Geeves said there was a “good take-up” of these. All 1,800 were sold for both Lionel Richie and the Gipsy Kings. All performances were seated this year, allowing organisers to offer cheaper tickets for those sitting nearer the back.

Miss Geeves said: “We’ve had a lot of good feedback about that — people understood the rationale behind it and agreed with us. We also had some great comments from the artists on the floating stage. They really enjoyed coming to Henley.”

Jessie J, who had left hospital a week earlier after undergoing two operations, arrived on Wednesday in a silver BMW and had the crowd dancing from start to finish. She stepped out on the floating stage wearing a black leather jacket, black boots and fishnet tights.

Following the opening number Ain’t Been Done, she tore off her top to reveal a thigh-length sheer black T-shirt reading “Henley on Thames”. The set also included her hits Domino, Price Tag, Bang Bang and Do It Like A Dude. She told the crowd it was one of her “favourite gigs this summer.”

Richie, who had performed at Glastonbury during royal regatta week, started his show 15 minutes late as a train bringing visitors to Henley earlier in the evening had been cancelled. Dressed all in black, he opened with his 1983 single Running With The Night and closed with his biggest hits Dancing On The Ceiling and Hello.

He praised the “fabulous crowd, fabulous place and fabulous weather” and added: “This is southern California right here — it can’t be Henley!”

Richie changed into a white jacket for an encore rendition of We Are The World, which he co-wrote with Michael Jackson in 1985. He was accompanied by 12 members of the Henley Children’s Choir, who sang the closing lines after he had left the stage.

The following night McGarty, Mvula and Porter took to the stage accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Saturday, the Gipsy Kings had the whole site dancing to their flamenco-pop sound. The audience stayed seated during the first three songs but were soon on their feet. They sang along loudly to the closing number, 1987’s hit Bamboleo, then stamped their feet and called for an encore. The band obliged, performing a two-song medley including their famous cover of Domenico Modugno’s Volare. Afterwards there was a performance in the Bedouin Tent by rock band Junior Guevarra, whose singer Jayson “J J” Jaurigue lives in Station Road, Henley.

Eighties pop stars Spandau Ballet closed the festival in front of a cheering and screaming audience. The group performed hits like Gold, True, Communication and Highly Strung as well as their 2014 single This Is The Love. They dedicated the set to fellow New Romantic icon Steve Strange, who died in February. Frontman Tony Hadley, who wore a loosened bow tie around his neck, walked off halfway through to fetch a whiskey and coke. He said: “I’ve been up here a while and been looking at you all drinking so I decided to go and get one myself. Good health to you all and thank you for coming.”

Each night ended with a fireworks display and a performance called Hydro-Pyro-Mania in which mimes squirted water from different parts of their bodies. Other performers included Darius Brubeck, son of jazz artist Dave Brubeck, skiffle trio Thrill Collins and hip-hop comedy show Abandoman.

The festival committee is already planning next year’s event. Miss Geeves said: “We need to work hard and fast to sort out as many things as possible. It is too early to book artists but we’ve had a good look at the site to decide how we can improve the look and feel of it in future.”

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