Has any music act playing at the Henley Festival ever got everyone in the seated areas (including the Grandstand) on their feet within three songs of the start of their set – and then kept everyone on their feet for the next hour and a half? No. Not until Saturday night at the 2022 Festival.
Pete Tong’s Ibiza Classics with the Essential Orchestra and Jules Buckley did just that. In fact a lot of the audience were on their feet from the minute the first dance beats echoed from the stage. It just took the rest of the crowd a few minutes longer to get up and dance. We’ve never witnessed anything like it in over 20 years of going to the Festival.
Not only were the crowd on their feet and dancing, their arms were waving in the air, punching the air, making circles with their arms. Along with whistling, cheering – and singing. Yes, dance music hit Henley-on-Thames like a thunderbolt on Saturday night and with the temperatures soaring, the crowd might have thought they had been transported to Ibiza although last night’s sunset over the river would have topped any sunset there.
The dance classics started at the beginning and never stopped coming. Including Stardust’s Music Sounds Better With You and Calvin Harris’ I’m Not Alone to name but two.
A few minutes later, after Gouryella’s Gouryella, the master DJ himself, Pete Tong, high up on his decks behind the orchestra and overlooking the crowd, took to the microphone. “Are you ready for a rave or what?” Seems like the audience were, given the deafening roars of approval that responded to his question.
“I know you’re all dressed up, but…” and the rest was unsaid as the opening piano bars of Robert Miles’ Children floated from the stage.
Among the next songs were Let Me Be Your Fantasy by Baby D and The Chemical Brothers’ Galvanize.
Then Mr. Tong again. “Thanks for having us, what a lovely spot!” He continued: “I was bit worried when I saw the seats but you’re all standing!”
At which point the familiar distinctive opening bassline of Adamski’s Killer fills the air. The song is played slightly slower than the original, with the band and orchestra really adding something new to the song. It is followed by Rui da Silva’s Touch Me In The Morning.
It’s worth noting that on stage are a full size orchestra conducted by Jules Buckley and a traditional “rock’n’roll” band of guitar, bass, keyboards, brass and drums – and vocalists. Plus Pete Tong at his decks. So all the tunes are played ‘live’, as ‘real’ songs. I’m sure there are some samples, fills and musical ‘creativity’ in the show, but this is to all intents and purposes Electronic Dance Music being played live on stage by ‘real’ musicians. It really is a truly excellent aural experience and expertly executed. Bravo, Mr. Tong.
Next up, what brought the house down? An all-time classic. As soon as the opening drum beat and timeless synth riff of Faithless’ Insomnia are played, the crowd seem to bounce even higher than anything before. The lasers from the stage create a mesmeric light show, dancing in time with the music. In fact the light show was excellent throughout the set.
The lead vocalist then says, “Time to see those hands” and instantly the lawn area is a mass of waving arms everywhere. As is the Grandstand. And as are all the passing boats, cruisers and paddle boarders on the Thames behind the floating stage listening in to the show. Even Hobbs’ The Waterman has a top deck crammed with folks dancing along and waving their arms as they pass by.
And when it came to Insomnia’s bridge, there’s that slight pause, and then the synth riff kicks back in, seemingly louder than before, and the crowd go (more) wild…
The tunes keep coming, like When Love Takes Over by David Guetta. But the end is nigh.
The end of the main set is a bit confusing, Tong saying “Thank you” as the song ends and just disappearing off-stage. It was only when members of the orchestra started gesturing to the crowd that they should start clapping for ‘more’ that the penny dropped that we were into encore territory. But I guess you can’t take a full orchestra off the stage to indicate ‘the end’ and then quickly bring them back for an encore…
Tong then re-appears: “Not time to go home yet?” Hardly surprisingly he is greeted by a wall of sound screaming “No”!
We get a reggae-themed song first up and then the opening electronic tinkle of Candi Staton’s Ibiza anthem, You’ve Got The Love, which, accompanied by raucous singing (and dancing of course), almost brought the house down as much as Insomnia.
The show is over. Pete Tong comes down to the front of the stage, thanks the orchestra, its leader, the conductor and each member of the band. “Henley,” he says, “You’ve been so wicked. Thank you and good night.” And then he walks off the stage to tumultuous cheers and applause.
We must admit to being somewhat sceptical before the show about dance DJ legend Pete Tong playing with an orchestra. What would it be like? A Night at the Proms? Far from it. From the first beats to the last, Pete Tong emphatically dismissed any doubts, certainly from our minds, about dance music being played by an orchestra. It was an absolute triumph. A night, with great music, to remember for a long, long time. And from the euphoric comments overheard from patrons as we exited the stage area, we weren’t the only ones to think that. Can he come back next year please?
The Script were good on Wednesday. But if the Festival has ever seen anything to compare with – or better – this show… what’s the saying? “I’ll eat my hat.”