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Livewire Festival Feat. Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Jacksons & more: Towerhead Arena, Blackpool

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Mon 28 August, 2017

One of the world’s biggest superstars comes to Blackpool. Shaun Ponsonby takes in the first ever Livewire Festival, starring the one and only Will Smith.

Everybody had the same confused reaction; “Will Smith is playing Blackpool?”

Well…yeah. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince chose a seaside resort in the North West of England to play not only their first full-length gig in decades, but their first ever in the UK. A major worldwide coup not only for Blackpool, but for the Livewire Festival.

This is Livewire’s first year. At times it shows, but the pulling power of one of the world’s biggest superstars has undoubtedly worked in their favour. It is probably going to be a question that we will ask for years to come – “How the hell did they get Will Smith to make his comeback in Blackpool?

It actually started pretty bizarrely for us on Friday.

We got to Blackpool and we had to wait for passes because they were apparently “just looking for a new area” for us. I had no idea what they’re talking about, but the lady at the box office gave us Mini Cheddars and Fruitellas to keep us occupied, and was delightful company, so I let it go.

What followed was a bizarre series of events that hit its peak when we appeared to be held captive by security backstage. It seems there was a bit of confusion over who we were and what we were doing there.

Regardless, it was all sorted out in the end, and every member of staff who spoke to us was kind and courteous, even if they were as confused as we were. So it was hard to fault anyone. Hey, these things happen. But it’s always a bit daunting when the phrase “Get security” is uttered in your presence.

With the gates opening at 4pm, there was a long wait until opening act Fudge and The Frequency took to the stage. No doubt a thrill for them to be opening the event, it was a bit Jamiroquai-lite for our tastes, and the following set by The Christians was marred by a heavy shower contributed to what sounded like a pretty underwhelming audience response from where we were standing.

Once the rain passed, Mica Paris played a short set that was a little more well received, though her singing to a backing track felt a little cheap. Thankfully, her personality and voice rose above and she managed to avoid it coming across as karaoke.

The delay before Friday night headliners The Jacksons seemed longer than anticipated, which meant some of the set started to feel a little rushed by the end.

But The Jacksons are pros, even without Michael. I have heard people mention how pointless it is to see the current incarnation, but they honestly couldn’t be more wrong. As Michael’s live career continued as a solo act, he became more robotic. The Jacksons are looser. You feel like they are having the time of their lives on stage. It is about time the other brothers got a bit more respect.

They played all the songs you would expect – I Want You Back, Blame It On The Boogie, Can You Feel It?, Shake Your Body, Show You The Way To Go. But they also played a couple that you probably wouldn’t, from State of Shock, to Michael’s obscure solo track Can’t Let Her Get Away.

The only moment we would question would be Tito‘s solo spot, promoting his new album. Though fine in a full length set, songs such as Enjoy Yourself and Lovely One were dropped in favour of this spot, and you would be hard pressed to find an audience member who wouldn’t have preferred to hear those classics.

It seems that The Jacksons are just delighted to still be doing this. It is impossible to not fall into their enthusiasm, and ensured that the first Livewire Festival got off to a successful start.

Saturday was given over to a celebration of Pete Waterman’s Hit Factory. The man himself hosted the day, with the likes of Pepsi & Shirlie, Brother Beyond and Sam Fox taking to the stage. It was all quite end of the pier, but for the people who bought tickets it was pop heaven.

Weirdly, the start of the show was the most enjoyable. Sinitta revved up the camp (as well she should!) and Go West put everybody else to shame.

It made Jason Donovan’s headline set feel like a bit of a damp squib in comparison. Probably a bit too much talking for such a big crowd. But when the hits did come, the crowd lapped them up.

We’re not going to pretend to be the biggest fans of Stock Aitken and Waterman, but those who are would have been overjoyed by the show.

Besides, it will surprise nobody that it was all about Sunday.

The size of the crowd for Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff led to problems that weren’t previously an issue.

As we entered the site, we noticed a long, snaking line to get in. Doors had been open a number of hours by the time we got there, and it became so bad that they had to make an announcement from the stage (which was completely audible outside) asking people to be patient, and that they would ensure everybody would be allowed in.

A strange rule of only allowing bags that were A4 in size that wasn’t announced on all the festival’s channels meant that we had to go all the way back to the car for one of our party to put their bag away. On the plus side, this meant that we killed some time without having to join the queue. We went for a drink in a nearby bar to pass a little bit of time before we headed back to brave the line.

Thankfully, by the time we got there, the issues appeared to be sorted, and we were basically waved straight in.

But then as we headed inside, it became apparent that there was only one bar for 25,000 people. This was definitely not on the right side of planning, and there was confusion as to where the queue even began. We decided to forgo the drinks (which, incidentally, were £6 a pint anyway), and grab a soft drink from a food vendor. However, by this point in the weekend, most of the food vendors had run out of drinks too.  This meant that you had to wait an eternity at the bar if you even wanted some water. On a hot day by the seaside, this was potentially dangerous.

That said, Phats and Small proved to be a pleasant distraction. Opening with their 1999 smash Turn Around, they proceeded to play a crowd pleasing DJ set full of summer anthems. If Smith and Jeff had entered the stage right then and there, it would have been phenomenal.

But we had Fatman Scoop to contend with first. It was hard to figure out what he does for a living. He spoke too much to be a DJ, not enough to be a rapper. I guess he is a hype man, but without an MC to hype. To be honest, the plethora of instructions made his set come across more like an aerobics video. It started off as fun, but became a little grating.

In fairness, there is only one reason anybody was here anyway – the stage return of Will Smith.

It has been so long since Will Smith made music that there are a lot of people who forget that he was even a rapper.  Not just any rapper – the first rapper to win a Grammy, the rapper to bring hip-hop culture kicking and screaming into the mainstream.

Walking around Blackpool, there were hundreds of people in Fresh Prince attire. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this is the biggest star to ever visit the town.

The stage went dark and Jazzy’s voice was heard introducing “DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince” before Boom! Shake The Room kicked off with pyrotechnics that would even give Kiss a run for their money. Will came up through the floor of the stage, and to many seemed to appear through a puff of smoke.

Straight away, it was clear that Smith was hyped. I interviewed Jazzy earlier in the year and he told me that Will had never intended to quit music, he just became too successful in Hollywood for it to work. That definitely showed on stage. He looked like that he had been waiting for this moment as much as his fans had.

It’s easy to forget how many hits he has had between the two “Fresh Prince”, and later “Big Willie” eras. They came thick and fast. Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, Men In Black and an extended Miami kept the party vibe alive in the first half of the show.

At the mid-point, Will started reminiscing about how the duo recorded their first hits in Jeff’s mum’s basement, before playing their earliest hits, most of which were accompanied by a little backstory. Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble and Parents Just Don’t Understand were expected, but they managed to sneak in deeper cuts such as A Nightmare On My Street and I Wanna Rock too, the latter allowing Will to pay tribute to the magnificent Jazzy Jeff, who let it be known that his turntable skills are among the best in the world.

After slowing it down for Just The Two Of Us, they premiered a new track. Get Lit was more of a club track than hip-hop, and they were savvy enough to know that a new song in a set full of tunes the whole crowd grew up with may require a little more to hold attention, and the pyro once again set the stage on fire.

As a song, it fit pretty well into the Smithian oeuvre. It is more mature lyrically, commenting on the confusion of the world he sees around him. But at the same time, the song shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. How successful it was in bringing those two strands together is debatable. But no doubt the arbiters of good taste will trash any new song the duo release anyway.

After ending the main set with Summertime – arguably the best song he ever cut – he returned to the stage to perform his last major hit, 2005’s Switch. To the delight of the thousands assembled down the promenade, he mashed it up with the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I can unequivocally confirm that if you’ve never screamed “Yo, home to Bel-Air” with 25,000 people, your life has been a failure.

As we left the arena, there was a humungous firework display. Somebody told me that it cost £40,000, and that Will had footed the bill himself. Clearly, he was determined to make it a special occasion. And it was.

Despite a few setbacks in organisation, it ultimately ended up being worth it. The acts that Livewire picked to headline their first year seems to have set something of a precedent. Perhaps they did err a little on the corny side for some of the choices, but that definitely works with the seaside location. The best moments of the weekend felt like a beach party, and that was undoubtedly the intention.

Plus their main event was probably the biggest coup they could possibly get. How many people can say they have seen Will Smith? It may have been nostalgia, but it felt like an event. They’re not trying to save the world, they’re trying to save our smiles, and they most definitely succeeded.

 

  • Image: Livewire Festival

 

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