Onefest. First Festival of the Year, or Coldest Festival of the Year.
The festival season kicks off in mid-April with Onefest, which claims to be the first festival of the year, or could be the coldest festival of the year. The headline act is Damon Albarn with his new project Dr Dee, which premiered at Manchester international festival last year and is set to be part of the cultural Olympiad in June this year.
We arrive at this garden fete style happening in a small field, surrounded by another massive field in Swindon, Wiltshire. Immediately we are freezing due to the deceptively British weather, people begin to realize they should have brought their hats, scarves and extra thick socks. A good excuse to spend time in the beer tent, the only place to warm up. There are a few coffee stands, a couple of market stalls, must be about 1000 people here.
Cannot find any programmes apart from a little poster on the edge of the stage, take a mobile phone shot for a programme. The line-up is at first glance unremarkable, but there are a few good acts to check out: Dry the River, Jodie Marie, Raghu Dixit, Young Blood, Crash and the Bandicoots, and of course headline act Dr Dee. There is quite a world music element to the content: indie rock, singer-songwriter feel, and the theatrical Dr Dee stuff left for the end when our bones are really shaking. We check out Young Blood first of all, reminiscent of Kaiser Cheifs, Klaxons and a bit Oasis in places. They have attitude, good songs and a certain modesty. This is melodic lad rock. Back to the pie tent to warm up, we catch a bit of world/folk style music from Indian band Raghu Dixit on the way: celebratory, upbeat fun, full of Krishna love.
Crash and the Bandicoots are the best discovery of the day. The lo-fi four piece pop band from the South West of England stand out with their performance art rock, providing a sound mash style, noise effects, guitars, harmonicas, bleached blonde new romantic hair wedges, tiger shirts, Bowie style vocals. Lyrically they seem nonsensical, defunct computerized output 'don't have any legs, u don't have any legs to run.' 'Plug me in, plug me in.' has a dirtier vocal, and noisy guitars.
(image: Crash and the Bandicoots)
We continue to freeze for a while, then catch 'Jodie Marie', a brilliant singer songwriter from Wales, currently working in development with Bernard Butler. Her lyrics and style contain a certain honesty and purity. Her vocals are of a rock, folk, bluesy vibe, at times with a lilt of Janis Joplin, possibly Billie Holiday. Her breath is a fog as her vocals warm us up. With lyrics such as in 'Summer Days', she expresses her love in different ways 'You give everything I need, without you I'd make a dream exactly like you.' 'I Got You', is more rocky, more Cat Power's style, 'I got you deep down in my soul,' intense and sensitive, as she draws her emotion from deep within. Her words seem to drift effortlessly to the surface.
(Image: Dry the River)
Warm up again with a quick glass of wine in the beer tent, slightly warmer than outside. Then over to 'Dry the River'. They are amazing, with beautiful songs, like a brilliant psychedelic, rocked out Mumford and Sons, and a whole Dirty Three thing going on. In 'No Rest', they are emotionally torn, as their hearts rip out, 'I loved you in the best way possible.. did you see the light in my heart, did you see the sweat on my brow?' Time to hang out in the cold again, waiting for the highlight of the day: Dr Dee.
as old, creaking instruments, a choir of operatic singers
'Dr Dee' is the new project from Damon Albarn. The theme is based around Queen Elizabeth I's assistant Dr John Dee; medical and scientific adviser, occultist and astronomer, and is inspired by cartoonist Alan Moore. As the performance begins we are thrust into an Elizabethan age. It is cold, it feels like we listen in silence, as old, creaking instruments, a choir of operatic singers. Damon the organ grinder (officially the harmonium) sits on his throne, with massive chimes in the background and his acoustic guitar to the right. The historical instruments include viola de gamba, shawm, dulcian, drumhorn, recorder, lute. The African Kora stands tall and the brilliant Nigerian drummer Tony Allen plays drums. Damon's African influences are prominent, his eyes light up and spring from his head as Madou Diabate, plays the Malain Kora, he encourages the crowd's applause and sympathises with our coldness, as frosty clouds of breath leave the mouths of the performers.
The pace is slow, and contemplative. The beautiful choral singers perform like the angels that Dr Dee had once claimed to have communed with, Christopher Robson's vocals reach into the highest part of the heavens and resonate through time into the night sky. Anna Dennis and Melanie Pappenheim provide further divine sopranos, cutting through the icicles forming in the audience's hearts, like a high 'c' cutting through glass. The angelic voices distract our attention as we momentarily forget the cold.
Damon runs forward to the front of the stage and puts on an old 78 record on
There are a few disagreeable comments in the crowd, they came to see Damon Albarn. That’s Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen, Blur. Instead they got an extract from the 16th century. The Royal Albert Hall might have been a better setting to have fully embraced the performance. Somehow the coldness did add to the ambience of Elizabethan times; cold, courteous, formal, a constant fear of death. It's good to experience this perfomance historically, suddenly Damon runs forward to the front of the stage and puts on an old 78 record on a record player. It is Edith Piaf, 'La Vie en Rose'. Within seconds we are transported by music from Elizabethan times to a post war era. This is an incredibly moving moment, something about the passing of time, the wars, the struggles, it feels like everything is the same and all for nothing.
As the Elizabethans were charmed by these ancient instruments, we see how they might have been mesmerized by the record player. The feel is of olde English mysticism, through the historical instruments and their relation to paganism and African influences. The feel is for the sublime and mystical, food for the spirit, as Edith Piaf provided to so many after the war with 'La Vie en Rose', written with compassion for all those who survived. We spent the whole day waiting for this moment, the unveiling of Dr Dee, when it arrived, provided something incredible and conceptual. We were torn between whether it should be at the Albert Hall or not, but maybe in the end it was our shaking bones that added to this sublime experience.
All Images: Simone Cechetti, except final Damon Albarn image by Ky Charles