Isle of Wight Festival, Seaclose Park, Newport

Old guard coast on pleasure island
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The Independent Culture

The lightning crackle as Neil Young plugs in to play "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" sets the seal on the best Isle of Wight festival since the Stones headlined two years ago. Not coincidentally, this lumberjack-shirted folk singer connects the festival to its past, when Bob Dylan spoke to a revolutionary audience. Young's Sunday night set is almost wholly of early work, in acoustic mode at first. He is hunched over, leg ploughing forward, more so when the electricity comes. The crackling Link Wray rumble of "Pocahontas" summons contradictions and possibilities, as he finds challenge in nostalgia, addressing rock's times and what can be done with them. The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" becomes a benediction for a sated crowd.

"Where's Your Head At?" Basement Jaxx meaningfully ask back on Friday, as badger-masked dancers peer at the rammed and wasted melee below. A black girl as psychedelic ring-master in box-fresh trainers adds to the spectacle, as the Brixton-based band ransack global pop rhythms. The Prodigy's driving aggression follows, and dates less well than Basement Jaxx's bottomless endorphin rush. The once terrifying Keith Flint now looks an ageing geezer who's been at it too long.

Saturday dawns with The Zombies' Colin Blunstone apologising for missing the festival until now, claiming, "I retired in 1967". Like Judy Collins' bell-pure activist folk on Sunday, and Young, The Zombies recall the festival's late-Sixties origins. The TV ads on the big screens and the Carling bar signs say that this is a different time. But when Blunstone's miraculously undiminished high soul voice launches into "She's Not There", its beauty is timeless.

The Human League and Bananarama are among the 1980s revivals. The dry ice is cheered before Ultravox's entrance, though Midge Ure's showbiz perkiness spoils their shadowy mystique. "Vienna"'s stark synth-drum pattern is all it takes anyway to have this great song's pompous disaffection roared on.

Indistinguishably bouncy sons of The Libertines represent the current indie scene. The Rifles sing "The General" but remain well-meaning foot-soldiers, while Maxïmo Park singer Paul Smith's star-kicking, bowler-hatted entrance has the nervous energy of a man visibly striving to force his intelligence into mainstream pop. The "yearning for mystery" he admits to, looked for in mundane moments, still sets them apart.

That mystery is also sought (and found) by Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue as he mixes effeminate fragility and bombast in singing about love lost. He is followed, with odd appropriateness, by Will Young. As White Lies go through their polite, gloomy routines elsewhere, Young is unmistakably and graciously gay, skipping in a sunflower straw hat and singing with light soulfulness. It's nice to think of his and Mercury Rev's crowds crossing over.

Young's charismatic crowd-pleasing can't be matched by Razorlight's Johnny Borrell. He tries hard, but only "America"'s simple, unreached ambition escapes his studied rock star pose. Saturday's headliners, Stereophonics, carry resentful petulance from when Kelly Jones was, as his good old song says, "Just Looking". There's rough grit in the tunes, and in Jones's red-lit, glowering face, balancing out a grudging dourness.

The Pixies are Neil Young's warm-up act, and play his "Winterlong". "Fool!" Kim Deal grins at her alleged ex-lover Black Francis, and married-couple banter punctuates a show where they otherwise barely look at each other, but seem comfortable again in their great band. Their newly loosened, celebratory music is a perfect aperitif to Young. His reminder of rock's ambitions closes a weekend summarising its high and lows, under sunshine on a strange, lovely island.