With its wishing trees, ambient forests and magic meadows teeming with gaggles of Gagas – this year's fancy-dress theme is Pop Stars and Divas – Bestival is the granddaddy of the surrealist boutique festivals, and the first to expand to big-league status without losing its fantastical spirit. If only its stars could make such a leap; this tribal gathering of 50,000 costume-box caners finds leftfield electro acts struggling to deal with huge outdoor crowds in a suitably cutting-edge manner. Instead, they demean themselves with big-gig cliche: no purveyors of innovative electro-soul resembling trip-hop developed by NASA should ever shout, "I say Magnetic, you say Man! Magnetic!". Friday's headliners Pendulum – as if their relentless hybrid of goth metal, drum'n'bass and early rave wasn't cringeworthy enough – demand we put our hands in the air and jump so much we feel like Pineapple Dance Studios.

Bestival's true spirit resides on the margins. Here, Friendly Fires conduct "a six-hour experiment into the future of dance music" by putting on monkey masks and providing laptop accompaniment to guest bands. Meanwhile, the likes of Danish chanteuse Oh Land and flamboyant orchestral-pop futurist Patrick Wolf epitomise Bestival's ethos of eccentricity and wonder with, respectively, her sultry techno-soul, and his diamond-cutter voice.

Once a black feather-festooned PJ Harvey has celebrated her Mercury win by filling an enthrallingly witchy set with Let England Shake tracks while trilling like the queen of the crows, the massive smiley faces adorning the main stage are extinguished for the arrival of the Cure. Unnecessarily, it turns out: battling spiderhair-ruining winds, they deliver 180 minutes low on existential anguish, high on lovestruck goth pop and positively bursting with hits.

A set this size has movements. A sublime atmospheric opening segment featuring Fascination Street and a brooding Open gives way to a bright-eyed dash through Smith's most upbeat romantic flushes, from the yearning pop of Lovesong and Just Like Heaven, to jubilant rattles through Inbetween Days and Friday, I'm in Love, with Smith whooping stratospheric high notes like he's just found the love of a lifetime.

Forty minutes of gothic blueprints such as A Forest, One Hundred Years and Disintegration later, the first encore is equally sparky, building from slinky classics Lullaby, The Lovecats and Close to Me to the horn-blasted pop frenzy Why Can't I Be You?. Finally, encore two throws back to the Cure's earliest post-punk material (Boys Don't Cry, Jumping Someone Else's Train, Killing An Arab), capping a breathtaking greatest-hits set that will embed Bestival 2011 in myth and legend. That, of course, and the pub staffed by dwarves.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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