Review: Pet Shop Boys at Henley Festival

On the evening of 7th June 1991, aged 16 and celebrating the end of my GCSEs, I visited Wembley Arena to see my first ever pop concert. A few hours later, I headed for home pretty convinced that I still hadn’t been to a ‘pop concert’, because Pet Shop Boys’ Performance tour was more of a theatrical production, mixing quirky dance and costumes with sound and staging that was a joy to behold. As soon as a video of the show became available, I bought it, and later replaced my worn out VHS copy with a DVD.

My sister at the sparkly entrance of Henley FestivalTwenty six years later, after belatedly purchased their most recent and rather wonderful album Super, I found myself falling back down a Pet Shop Boys shaped rabbit hole and becoming obsessed with seeing them live once more. I’d missed getting tickets for the Royal Opera House shows. I missed out on tickets for the Teenage Cancer Trust show at the Royal Albert Hall too, but then my sister let me know that PSB were headlining the Thursday at 2017’s Henley Festival. I’m not sure how prepared she was for how excited I was by this news!

Henley Festival cannot be lumped in with other UK summer festivals, as one brief glance at its website shows. It’s described as a ’boutique event’ and has a black tie dress code, plus it happens in Henley-on-Thames so it’s definitely not for those whole like their festivals large and sprawling with tents and wellies! As someone who even chickened out of camping at the very first Vintage Festival (which is a bit more glamorous than most!), the appeal of a small glamorous festival that is only open in the evenings was inevitable. Once my sister had secured us a pair of tickets, I transferred her the money and we started to think about outfits.

The champagne bar at Henley FestivalOn the day, I arrived at Fi’s house to get ready and then go for a late lunch in a pub in Wargrave so that we could make the most of our time (and money) whilst inside the festival site by not having to worry about getting dinner. Although there are plenty of food options at Henley Festival, they’re not cheap and we didn’t want to find ourselves rushing to the main stage without having checked out any of the other entertainment first. This was how I found myself several G&T’s in by the time we arrived at the rather sparkly main gate (see above).

Once inside, we went for a wander to get our bearings and admire the lovely views. Fi looked like a movie star in her Vera Wang dress, and I’d gone for my Vivienne Westwood Anglomania frock (purchased from the wonderful clothing exchange Bang Bang, before it sadly closed) and my Irregular Choice ‘nicely done‘ shoes, so we asked some friendly festival goers to take a photo of the two of us. This gives you an idea of just how pretty the location is!

Lori & Fi on the riverside at Henley Festival

When we walked past the Mot Champagne Bar, we couldn’t resist a mini bottle each to wander round sipping. Just as I was thinking of cheekily asking for a straw, the bartender popped a little gold plastic funnel on the top so that we could elegantly drink from the bottle, like we were at the Golden Globes. Sadly, all that champers meant I was too giddy to think about popping this little gadget in my bag to take home with me afterwards!

Browsing the art gallery at Henley FestivalAs we sat in the early evening sunshine, drinking our champagne, we heard Vonda Shepard playing on the floating stage. We then browsed some work by local artists in the Jazz Garden Gallery, before catching Paul Zenon‘s show in the Salon Comedy Club. So far, so glamorous. Even when the inevitable effects of all the champagne (and those earlier G&Ts) took hold, the world’s classiest festival toilets were on hand to provide queue-free relief. Securing ourselves a full size bottle of Mot (because YOLO), which came in a handy gift-bag-ice-bucket, we headed to the floating stage ready for the Pet Shop Boys and I could not have been more excited.

The show was a fully fledged part of the Super Tour and featured many of my favourite songs from their thirty year career – from early hits West End Girls and Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), right through to The Pop Kids and Inner Sanctum from their most recent album. The sound, visuals and sheer energy were spot on from the start, with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe appearing wearing helmets that would make Daft Punk jealous and launching into their hits with great aplomb. I couldn’t put it better than Malcolm Jack who, when reviewing an earlier tour date for The Guardian, said: “decked out like dystopian gameshow hosts, the duo put on a gloriously overblown show that recaptures the triumph and optimism of their heyday.”

Pet Shop Boys at the 2017 Henley FestivalEven though it was a relatively small crowd we were a bit too far away to see clearly from the back of the grandstand so, after a short while, we left our allocated seats to try and find a spot closer to the stage. After some dancing down the aisles and nonchalantly sneaking into gaps in the lawn seating as if we were supposed to be there all along, we successfully managed to get close enough for the remainder of the show that it felt like Neil and Chris could probably see me energetically singing along to every word. They finished with the joyous synth pop of Always on My Mind, an Elvis cover that went to number 1 in 1987, which was also the song that kicked off the final encore they performed at my first gig back in 1991. I left the main stage area on a massive high – partly due to the champagne, and partly fuelled by laser-pop-disco.

We ended the night dancing in a tent with a DJ playing a great mix of 70s, 80s and 90s tunes. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Henley Festival, but a cracking headline act meant it felt well worth the ticket price. I must admit it was a bit odd the next day realising I’d spent all my cash on champagne rather than merchandise though. Is this how the other half live?

Main image of Pet Shop Boys on stage taken from Fiona Beckley‘s Twitter account, with permission. Bottom image by Fiona Deane. All other images by lipsticklori (except the one of the two of us which was snapped by a kind stranger).

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