We’ve settled in to quite the routine for Brighton Pride celebrations, starting off with getting down early to watch the parade. We join the others lining the streets along this year’s new route. Rainbows, glitter and face paint are all out in force and the city is awash with colour and good moods. The parade is made up of dancers, drummers, singers, big floats, decorated double-decker buses, outrageous outfits and the occasional cute dog. It brings with it the excitement and joy of Pride, and the crowd response from all ages is always one of the highlights of the weekend.
We leave others to party in the city and arrive at Preston Park to see Zak Abel warming up the mid-afternoon crowd. Things start early here and it takes a while to realise that this party is a marathon and not a sprint, and in the glorious sunshine you’ve got to pace yourself. Perhaps.
Rina Sawayama takes the stage bringing soul-infused pop music, in a dazzlingly bright, ornate blue dress, making the point to the audience of reusing plastic so it doesn’t end up in the ocean.
You might know Fleur East from X-Factor or I’m A Celebrity, or maybe you don’t, but her stage presence and ability to captivate the crowd shows real confidence. Accompanied by two dancers, she does a cover of ‘Uptown Funk’ and recent track ‘Favourite Thing’ which both go down a treat.
You can feel the crowd growing ahead of the massively popular Clean Bandit (one of only a handful of acts to have a song rack up two hundred million views). Bright colours and big smiles on all their faces, stunning live vocals, they’re clearly happy to be here and everyone is singing along to their hits ‘Symphony’, ‘Baby’ and ‘Rockabye’.
Full credit to the staff on the festival site; no-one let slip who the special guest was, and we asked around a few times. Emeli Sandé took the penultimate slot and was joyous and full of warmth and positivity. Her set suited with the atmosphere perfectly as the sun set and the evening drew in.
Anticipation was run running high ahead of Kylie, a true icon with an array of classic pop hits at her disposal. Mic in hand and wearing a sparkly blue jumpsuit, she appears to a hero’s welcome from a crowd bursting with enthusiasm. She opens with ‘Love At First Sight’ and moves seamlessly into ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. Her dancers bring out large letters spelling out KYLIE and she strides across the stage dancing among them to ‘On A Night Like This’. During ‘Especially For You’ Kylie’s troupe enact a gay wedding, and it’s a nice touch that same sex couples are dancing together.
Unlike at Glasto, local hero Nick Cave doesn’t make an appearance, yet Kylie does sing a few lines of their 1995 duet, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, as she picks out a member of the audience and gives them a red rose. The set naturally packs in the hits including ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, ‘Better The Devil You Know’, ‘The Loco-Motion’ and ends on ‘Spinning Around’. Fireworks and an intimidating web of streamers burst over the crowd for a crescendo that’s going to be hard to top next year.
Sunday begins as a much quieter affair. Many are probably still in bed or waiting on hot food deliveries to recharge themselves, and the streets are strangely empty.
Local singer Grace Carter eases us in to the afternoon, channelling her influences of Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone to deliver a wonderful, soulful set.
It takes a lot to talk to a crowd this big and keep them engaged, but Nina Nesbitt has everyone on board with her her stories of relationship troubles and dealing with exes. She also locks on to the dancer in the crowd and clearly makes his day with her compliments. Among storytelling songs of love and loss, it’s ‘Love Letter’ that stands out. As it segues in to Destiny’s Child, we know we’re on to something.
Rak-Su are here to boost the festival’s energy levels and suddenly the front row is full of screaming girls. We’re told on good authority that they’re the 2017 X-Factor winners. Part boy band and part dance troupe, these guys have clearly been practising. The r’n’b group manage to excite almost everyone with their choreographed dance moves and interactions with the crowd. The nineties vibe is strong.
When House Gospel Choir come on, it’s by far the most people we’ve seen on stage this weekend. House music and dance classics are refreshed and remixed with the added layers of a chorus. However, unreliable microphones prove frustrating for the festival fixtures whose rousing efforts are hampered by several of the members singing without any amplification. Still, they take turns to parade up the catwalk, smiling, dancing and clearly having the time of their lives.
You wouldn’t want to be the technician to have to tell Grace Jones about sound problems – fortunately, the issue seems to be resolved for her set – but the incendiary veteran Jamaican-American would be a superheroic sight with or without a working mic, if only for her magnificent artistic taste in costumes. She begins in a black cape and feathery headdress, a gold skull attached to it by a silver clamp, luminous orange and green rings circling her wrists and ankles. “Most of my crimes are of optimism, 40 thousands volts of recognition,” sings the boundary-breaking 1970s Queen of Gay Disco on ‘This Is’.
Off stage, a man in a white suit with black trim and bow tie can be seen blowing exuberant kisses at Jones, who is swiftly part-changed into a spindly black headdress with crimson eye rings. Elaborate swirls of white bodypaint decorate her long limbs and the faces of her band who, later, will be seen wandering around Preston Park looking like intergalactic explorers fallen to earth. Their tight funk provides the backing and accompaniment to Jones’ own instrumental capabilities, especially when she grabs two drumsticks for ‘Warm Leatherette’, first to orchestrate the audience and then to tap two high hats either side of her, enacting her command to “hear the crashing steel”.
Having risen to her feet after crawling around the front of the stage, she catcalls, laughing – “you gonna say what?” – then sprawls around a couple of metal bars while wearing a phallus. “Grape juice? Really?” she sneers, discussing the drink of choice in churches in Jamaica while clutching a glass of wine. She’s wearing a corset, billowy monochrome dress and circular hat now, and referencing her strict religious upbringing in Spanish Town while delivering her own blessings. “God bless your soul,” she concludes, briefly sojourning into ‘Amazing Grace’ while holding a pole.
‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, from her 1981 album, ‘Nightclubbing’, and her first trip into reggae-hopping new wave, gets the biggest crowd rendition, by which time that pole has become the plaything of a muscular dancer wearing only a thong. Jones mounts the shoulders of a security guard who walks her into the crowd, hand-slapping and hollering as she goes, before returning to hula-hoop through the irresistible r’n’b of 1985’s ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. The world is hers, but the looks of the faces on the big screens demonstrate how existing alongside her is more than enough.
While Jones presents a brilliantly sleazy, wickedly teasing love letter to empowerment and freedom, Jessie J is the polar opposite, slathered in pre-watershed polish. Yet she is no less sincere for those willing to surrender cynicism, as well as all the self-doubt this ultra-modern pop star outspokenly scorns. She spells it out on a bodysuit bearing the message “Love Is”, bearing more than a whiff of a My Little Pony onesie, and transports the visuals from gigolo smut to lava lamp mood lighting.
The first vocal acrobatics arrive on ‘Do It Like A Dude’, her breakthrough single from 2011, which seems a distant dot in the context of a career crammed with stage and television appearances (including her role as a judge on reality show The Voice). The first statement of her non-stop charm barrage is to insist that she has arrived on stage early because she wants to sing as many songs as possible, one of which extends her saunter through self-history even further. ‘Nobody’s Perfect’, written when she was 17, has lyrics laser-cut for a show awash with implorations to embrace self-love and acceptance, despite being as slight on record as much of her studio material.
There’s also ‘Queen’, from last year’s ‘R.O.S.E. (Sex)’ album – an acronym, naturally, for Realisations, Obsessions, Sex, Empowerment. The ballad expounds at length on the importance of adoring one’s body and skin, and is a quieter moment in a meticulously scheduled set of peaks and troughs.
Under the singer’s watch, helped by the brash, daft chart hits such as ‘Bang Bang’ and ‘Price Tag’, even a spot of questionable beatboxing and a procession of speeches about remaining true to essences and getting in touch with emotions feel forgivable. One line about personal bravery lands at the exact second smoke cannons fire off and the entire audience seems to jump as one, a spectacle that would require superhuman grumpiness not to enjoy. A guitarist and bassist add little in the way of heft, but relentless earnestness and force of personality turns a dearth of style and substance into a spiritedly convincing – if near-exhausting – triumph.
As the crowd files out of the park and the monumental clean-up operation begins, we’re aware that for many the night has only just begun. The trains back to London are full of rainbows and good vibes, while for locals the parties continue across the city. Brighton Pride as an event has become a strange and multi-headed beast, but there’s nothing else like it.