Thursday, 23 September 2021
THE chief executive of the Henley Festival has hailed this year’s event a success after selling out three nights for the first time in more than 10 years.
Charlotte Geeves said capacity crowds of 6,400 people attended shows by Rita Ora on the opening night, Nile Rodgers on Friday and Curtis Stigers on Saturday on the “floating” stage.
A total of 27,300 people attended the 37th annual five-day extravaganza of music and the arts, compared with 26,500 last year.
As always, men were dressed in bow ties and dinner jackets, while women wore colourful ballgowns and cocktail dresses as temperatures reached almost 30C before the nights drew in and the headliners took to the stage.
Ms Geeves, who has run the festival since 2015, told the Henley Standard: “It was a great success. I just think we put on a very solid festival this year that the audience thoroughly enjoyed and we’ll continue building on that in years to come.
“We have had incredibly positive feedback throughout the whole week and since the festival finished and, because of that, I would say it was an incredible result.
“It was a varied programme that we put into place after the festival we had last year, which was incredibly well received and gave our audience the opportunity to see such a variance across the week.”
Grace Jones on Thursday night attracted a crowd of more than 3,500 people in what Ms Geeves called an “extraordinary” show, while 2,700 people attended the classical night on Sunday, where the English National Opera performed.
Ms Geeves praised “solid” performances across the five days in every venue and said organisers had listened to audience feedback from last year.
Two of last year’s headline acts — DJ Goldie and funk songstress Chaka Khan — came in for criticism by audiences following their performances, which sparked walkouts.
Ms Geeves said: “We did a survey last year and got some very good responses from our audience and we took that into our programming meetings and developed the programme based on a lot of that and all the other factors.
“Across the five nights there wasn’t as much pop. There was a jazz night, there was a classical evening and while Nile Rodgers is pop, he is actually more disco and funk and Grace Jones moved into the world of soul and funk rather than traditional pop music.
“I think, therefore, we have responded to the audience feedback in programming a wide variety and genres of music on that floating stage and across the site.
“I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed the festival and have a belief in it moving forward. I want to build on the success of this year for future years.”
Last month there were fears that classical music may be axed from the Henley Festival programme in future because of poor ticket sales.
But sales picked up in the last two weeks and Ms Geeves said she was delighted with the response and Sunday’s performance, calling it “exceptional”.
She added: “The audience response to the performance was overwhelmingly positive. They had two standing ovations at the end of the concert and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.
“After our appeal in the Henley Standard, the response was incredibly positive. Our audience really rose to that challenge and we can’t thank them enough.”
She also singled out the performance by the Henley Symphony Orchestra on the Saturday afternoon saying: “It was great to see our local orchestra on the floating stage.”
Ora, who opened the festival on Wednesday night, lifted the spirits of disappointed football fans following England’s World Cup exit.
The popstar’s performance was delayed until after extra-time had finished as England lost to Croatia in the semi-finals.
Ora joined thousands of black-tied and ballgowned guests in the Henley Royal Regatta boat tents to watch the game before starting her performance. More than a dozen screens had been attached to the boat racks and crowds gathered before the star’s performance to watch the match.
The singer started her performance shortly after 10pm. As she was driven up in a 4x4 the crowd screamed and frantically waved at her as she made her way up to the stage.
Ora was introduced by the festival’s artistic director Stewart Collins, who promised the singer would make the crowd forget the 2-1 defeat. He said: “The boys did well. If anyone is disappointed that is going to go out the window with Rita and her band.”
She was joined on stage by a troupe of dancers, dressed in black cycling shorts and vests, for most of the performance.
Ora opened with Your Song and after finishing, she complimented the crowd on how “beautiful” they looked.
She followed this up with 2014 number one I Will Never Let You Down, Body on Me and Summer Love. Ora then confessed she had a gown to wear and had thought about wearing it. Instead she wore patterned “balloon” trousers, orange trainers, a white vest and an orange waistcoat.
Later in the performance she swapped the vest for a white bralet.
She then performed her latest single Girls before launching into Doing It, a collaboration with Charli XCX.
Ora dedicated her performance of Lonely Together to Swedish DJ Avicii who took his own life earlier this year, and with whom she collaborated on the song.
After the song finished she shouted out to a group of teenagers with whom she watched the football. “Shout out to those 15-year-olds, who were giving me life,” she said.
Ora followed it up with Black Widow and 2012 number one Hot Right Now, the first single she released when she featured alongside DJ Fresh.
She told the audience: “This song changed my life.” Towards the end of the song she jumped off stage and was mobbed by fans behind the railings in the front row. Ora closed her set with recent singles For You and Anywhere. The performance, which lasted an hour, ended at 11pm and was followed by the traditional fireworks display, which returned this year after a one-year absence.
Crowds danced along and were on their feet throughout the show and some revellers climbed on to the shoulders of friends to get a better view.
Afterwards, Ora tweeted to praise the crowd for their energy saying: “Everyone was in such good spirits and even though it’s not coming home we had a lot to be proud of today.
“Thank you England, you brought us all together! Next time we will bring it home! Also, what an incredible crowd tonight! Mwah!”
On Thursday, Jones wowed the crowd in a series of glittering outfits and headdresses.
The Jamaican-American singer, actress and supermodel kept the audience waiting for an hour before arriving at the side of the “floating” stage in the back of a golf buggy.
She opened with Nightclubbing dressed in a black corset, billowing black cape, gold skull mask with black feathers and white patterned body paint and was accompanied by a six-piece band.
Eight costume changes followed with the singer donning a series of elaborate wigs and hats in a set lasting about 90 minutes.
She told the crowd: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t come out until the sun went down. I’m a self-proclaimed vampire.
“I love it – I’m actually playing on the river. Everywhere I live, I live on the river.”
Her set also included This is Life, Private Life and Jones played the cymbals when she performed Leatherette.
She also played My Jamaican Guy, Amazing Grace and Love is The Drug and drank two glasses of red wine on stage during her performance, brought to her by a stage technician.
She was also joined on stage by a man who performed gymnastics on a pole while she sang.
Jones quipped that she normally performed naked apart from body paint and underwear, but had donned a black corset to fit in with the festival’s black-tie dress code.
She also commented on the current heatwave saying: “I was in Jamaica, wishing I was here. I think you’re really missing the rain now!” Towards the end of her set, with the crowd on their feet and dancing in the aisles, she sat atop a man’s shoulders and did a circuit of the lawn in front of the stage during Pull Up to the Bumper while greeting fans who rushed to get a picture of her on their phones.
Jones told the crowd: “You’re the best. I thought I was coming here to play to a really boring bunch of people in ties and I’m going to have to jump on their tables and drink their champagne! This is a good surprise.”
The festival fireworks were set off before she finished and she played Slave to the Rhythm as an encore while spinning a hula hoop around her waist for the entire song.
She performed the feat at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert in 2012 and told the festival crowd: “Since I did this for the Queen I’ve not been able to stop!”
Before she left the stage she thanked the crowd and told them: “Pray for Trump”.
On Friday, Mr Collins introduced Nile Rodgers and Chic as “a show we could have sold out twice over”, adding: “We’re in the presence of a band that’s iconic and a frontman who’s a legend.”
Following a brief pre-recorded introduction, the band and Rodgers all ran on stage at the same time.
His six backing musicians were dressed in white suits and trousers while he wore a darker suit with a loose white beret and played a light blonde Fender Stratocaster guitar.
He shared the spotlight with female singers Kimberly Davis, who wore a shimmering blue dress and sang lead vocals for most of the set, and Folami Ankoanda-Thompson.
Rodgers said: “Are you ready to party and have a good time? There might be seats but this is definitely going to be the kind of music where everyone should be standing!”
Everyone was on their feet before the band had even started playing the first song Everybody Dance, which was followed by Dance Dance Dance and I Want Your Love, all originally by Chic.
Throughout the show he would often stand side-by-side with bass player Jerry Barnes and the two would dance in unison while trading funky riffs and melodies.
He told the audience: “This may be the most amazing crowd I’ve ever seen in my life. Whoever came up with the concept of a black-tie festival is a genius — you guys look like the cover of a Chic album!
“It looks like you all have pretty good jobs but I’ve got the world’s best job as I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible musicians like David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Daft Punk and many more.”
They then played a medley of I’m Coming Out and Upside Down, both by Diana Ross, and He’s The Greatest Dancer and We Are Family by Sister Sledge, all of which Rodgers either wrote or produced.
Ankoanda-Thompson took the lead for Like A Virgin by Madonna then Davis stepped back into the spotlight for Lost in Music by Sister Sledge and Notorious by Duran Duran, during which the occupants of passing boats waved white lights in time to the music.
They then performed Get Lucky by Daft Punk, starting at a slow tempo while asking people to wave their phone torches around in the air before going up to normal speed at the first chorus.
Before playing, Rodgers said: “A few years ago, I was diagnosed with extremely aggressive cancer and my doctors weren’t sure of the outcome. They told me to go home and contemplate my future.
“During my recovery I got a phone call from Pharrell Williams and two French guys called Daft Punk so we got together and wrote some songs including this one. As I stand before you tonight, now cancer free, I feel like a very lucky man.”
People cheered and screamed loudly as he continued: “When I was thinking about my future during that time, I decided I was going to write more songs and do more live shows than I’d ever done in my life.”
They then played Chic Cheer by Chic with a funky drum interlude incorporating the “uh-oh, uh-oh” melody from Beyonce’s Crazy In Love. This was followed by Let’s Dance by David Bowie while the crowd jumped up and down on the spot making the grandstand vibrate.
Rodgers shouted: “It’s time to freak out!” before Le Freak, the penultimate number, and ending with a medley of Chic’s Good Times and Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang.
For the last number, about 50 members of the audience were invited on the stage to dance along. They smiled and waved to friends in the audience while security held back and turned away others who were trying to climb up and join them.
Jazz musician Curtis Stigers brought a touch of class to the festival as he performed a Frank Sinatra medley on Saturday. The American singer and saxophonist played alongside the Ronnie Scott’s Big Band on the festival’s “floating” stage and even brought out comedian Rob Brydon to sing with him.
Thousands of people watched the show on a warm evening, many removing their dinner jackets due to the heat.
After a brief delay as audience members filed in to the enclosure, Mr Collins introduced the act to the stage by suggesting that making lots of noise would ensure any stragglers quickly made their way to their seats.
After the band played an instrumental number, Stigers emerged and complimented the crowd on their attire.
He joked: “I may not be the first but I’m certainly the drunkest person to say you look fabulous”, before pointing out one man who was wearing a top hat in the crowd.
He added: “I usually like to try and look better than the audience but it’s not worth it tonight!” Stigers sang some of Sinatra’s best-known hits including One For My Baby, Don’t Worry ‘bout Me and I’ve Got You Under My Skin.
He also performed some of his own hits, including Hooray for Love and I Wonder Why, as well as playing the saxophone.
He also did a cover of Bob Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
The crowd cheered as Brydon unexpectedly made his way to the stage and joined Stigers for several duets.
The comedian said: “How nice for you to see some of this country’s inner-city deprivation. Some of these people are down to their last Porsche!”
Despite initially refusing to do any of his trademark impressions, Brydon was jokingly reminded of his “contractual obligations” by Stigers, complete with a large paper document.
He proceeded to sing a verse of Fly Me To The Moon in the style of actor Michael Caine, playwright Alan Bennett and comedian Ronnie Corbett.
Brydon later emerged for a rendition of The Lady is a Tramp as the set finished with a flourish.
On Sunday, the festival came to a close with the English National Opera under the baton of music director Martyn Brabbins.
They performed operatic favourites Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, Madam Butterfly, Turandot and La Traviata as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, with award-winning young Welsh soloist Natalya Romaniw taking the female solo parts.
This year also saw the return of the the festivals traditional fireworks show at the end of each night, instead of the pyrotechnics show held last summer.
For the first time this year, the festival partnered with BBC Introducing Berkshire who picked five up and coming artist to perform on the floating stage ahead of the headline concert each night. They included Pearl TN, Lorne, Alex Green, Cecil and WolfNote.
The comedy line-up featured Phil Jupitus, Paul Merton, Jon Culshaw, Lee Nelson, Lucy Porter, Mark Watson and Dominic Holland as well as up and coming comics including Suzi Ruffell, Rhys James, Flo & Joan, Alfie Brown and Adam Rowe.
This year Michelin starred chef Angela Hartnett took the reins of Europe’s largest field restaurant, while Paul Clerehugh returned with his Crooked Billet pop up. Guests could also choose from a range of other pop ups, including Spice Merchant, Snob Lobster, Jessica Prosecco, Moët champagne bars and Black Cab Coffee Cocktails.
Some of the biggest names in contemporary art exhibited brand new works in the pop-up galleries across the festival site. Scottish sculpture and Turner prize nominee David Mach showcased his Spike sculpture, a leopard made entirely out of coat hangers.
The UK’s premiere landscape photographer Charlie Waite also appeared along with wildlife sculptor Rosamond Lloyd, and Dellasposa Gallery which featured works by the likes of Francis Bacon and Alexander James Hamilton.
Tickets sold over the five days have helped to raise funds for the festival’s two charities – the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust and the Teenage Wilderness Trust.
The former helps young people with mental health issues and teaches them to maintain wellbeing while the latter helps children who find traditional education difficult and works with Path Hill Outdoors at the Hardwick Estate, near Whitchurch, offering educational and therapeutic programmes.
22 July 2018
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