A summer’s evening, boats ambling up the river, an array of fabulous frocks, men suited and booted, gourmet pop-ups, glasses brimming with champagne and Pimms – so far, so Henley. But wait – throw in Rita Ora and Grace Jones delighting the Floating Stage with their vocal genius, Phil Jupitus and Lucy Porter sending the comedy tent into sniggers, and the elegant strains of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and the English National Opera, and it’s clear that this is no rowing regatta. This is the Henley Festival.
The festival dates back to 1983, but in its current guise is a five-day extravaganza of music, art, comedy and food. Days one to four are a sophisticated Black Tie affair (the website helpfully informed us that “You can never be overdressed at Henley”), whilst the final “Family Sunday” sees the arrival of an array of child-friendly performers and entertainers.
Our visit this year fell on the Friday evening. Having made it past the bizarre but comical human sniffer dogs (yes, that’s a person in a dog costume and security jacket), we charged our glasses and headed to the Salon Comedy Club. On the bill tonight was one of our favourite comedy collectives – Paul Merton’s Impro Chums (aka Paul Merton, Lee Simpson, Richard Vranch, Suki Webster and Mike McShane). Their skill at turning audience suggestions into comedy sketches is something to behold, whether it’s Suki and Mike creating impromptu musical lyrics or Paul Merton guessing a convoluted and implausible job description from the rest of the troupe’s pun-laden clues. Perhaps the most enjoyable moment though, was when one Trump-related audience suggestion was shot down by Merton on the grounds he was hoping to have an evening that didn’t involve the Donald…
Next stop was dinner – and there’s no shortage of options. The festival has five bookable restaurants, several walk-in eateries, and a host of pop-ups serving everything from pizza to crispy squid. We opted for lobster rolls from the Snob Lobster van – brioche-stuffed buddles of deliciousness.
As dusk started to fall, it was time for the main event of the evening – the glorious Chic featuring Nile Rodgers on the festival’s Floating Stage. It was door to door service for the star, who arrived at the foot of the stage in a chauffeured car, to rapturous applause. With barely a pause for breath, the band launched into Everybody Dance, followed in quick succession by Dance, Dance, Dance and I Want Your Love. If anyone was still sitting down, they certainly weren’t by the end of the trio. It was only at that point that Nile addressed the crowd; “For those of you who don’t know what I do, I have the best job in the world”. If the first part is unlikely, it’s hard to disagree with the latter.
The next part of the set saw Chic ripping at lightning speed through an incredible list of covers, all of which Rodgers has written, produced and/or featured on. From Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out and Upside Down, to Madonna’s Like A Virgin; and from Duran Duran’s Notorious to Bowie’s Let’s Dance, it was a reminder of the talent and hard graft that the headliner has bestowed on the musical industry.
Perhaps what the audience will most remember though, was Rodgers’ poignant description of being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and being told to go home and contemplate his future. Such news would floor the strongest person, but for Rodgers it was clearly a galvanising moment. In his words “I stand here before you tonight and am cancer free. What was my decision when I was told to go home and contemplate? – I decided to go home and write more songs and play more music”. One of these songs was Daft Punk’s Get Lucky feat. Pharrell – a track full of energy and fun, but which after that introduction saw the crowd (and the band) as emotional as they were euphoric.
Sentiment aside, if there’s one thing Chic know how to do, it’s how to entertain. Closing the evening with Good Times, Rodgers invited a parade of lucky audience members onto the stage to join his “Disco Party”. And party they did, a whirl of colour and fun – a fitting end to one of the most celebratory concerts I’ve send in a while.
After all that excitement, we needed something a little more mellow to round off the evening before the long train journey home. We found the perfect thing hiding in The Jazz Club: Yolanda Brown and her stunning saxophone. Unusually, it was a cover that really touched us – an achingly tender instrumental version of Adele’s Hello.
There’s no denying that the Henley Festival attracts a certain, well-heeled and fine-living set. But there’s something for everyone – whether you want to eat like a king, unleash your inner disco or just soak up the atmosphere. We’ll be back!