it's the fans that make or break bands

OnBlackheath Festival – 2014

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7.0 10 well-curated
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OnBlackheath, the first festival sponsored by John Lewis. Harvey Goldsmith was backing it, and some big names were signed, but really? John Lewis? It would be all to easy to take the piss, and your reviewer went along with exactly that intention. Well, also because the line-up, for an event this size, was pretty damn promising.

There was apparently some celebrity chef-ery going on elsewhere in the park but, hey, this is a music review, and a couple of burgers and some falafel – complemented by, mmmmm, pints of 4% festy-beer in cardboard cups – are all that are going to appear here.

Endearingly, the organisers had tried to do absolutely everything they’d seen the mega-festivals do through the summer – tweeting how-many-sleeps-til-the-gates-open, “.. here’s the main stage being built” on Facebook , “..weather’s lovely this morning” on Instagram, all the hokum. They’d even – nawwwww, you guys – produced a map of the festival. A map. Of an area roughly 200 by 600 metres, with the two stages in opposite corners. Cute!

On arrival, the first thing that struck was that OnBlackheath had ‘borrowed’ something else from a festival: they appeared to have stolen Bestival’s giant mirror ball, stripped the glass off and painted it orange. Rumour has it, it was a giant peach, but no-one really seemed to know. It was not elevated and spun around on the last night, so presumably Rob Da Bank can stand down his lawyers.

Perhaps it was entertain the tens of tiny’s who’d been brought along. The ankle-biters divided into two camps: old hands who watched the acts – through ear protectors – on Dad’s shoulders – “its just like Latitude, Mummy!!” – and newbies who stood covered in organic tofu crumbs, crying forlornly as their fourth balloon drifted away over the main stage toward Greenwich.

Meanwhile, on the Village Stage, Jarvis Cocker had been roped in to do a DJ set. If that’s his chosen musical path, he must be thanking god for the royalties from ‘Common People’. Lacklustre choices, poor mixing and a grand finale of feedback and CD st-st-st-stutter mean Calvin Harris can rest easy on his latest celebrity girlfriend. The Pulp frontman has probably not left the stage to ringing boos many times in his long career, but hey, if doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger, eh? And at least no-one leapt in front of him and waggled their bottom, though several seemed tempted.

As Jarvis slunk away, Grace Jones strode onto the main stage. As mad as several boxes of frogs, she delivers enormous value, and some fantastic tunes. Tottering around in six inch heels and a high-cut leotard, she was not so much on a different songsheet to her backing band, more a different planet, but they were adept at following her, and her strong voice and hilarious banter – “I don’t like my legs .. but everyone else loves them” ; “.. are you looking at my ass? It’s ok .. from below..” kept the crowd rapt and fully onside.

After Grace had been recaptured, and presumably sedated, darkness fell, and a suspiciously large amount of mist formed, most of it on the main stage. Into this red-lit fog strode a group of musicians appearing in the UK for the first and only time this year; a group that are clearly at the height of their powers.

Massive Attack delivered a towering set, filling the night with flawlessly executed music. While the Waitrose MILF’s and the Jack Will’s hoodies may not have appreciated the strident political messages that flashed onto the backdrop, they – and everyone else – were more than happy to yell their approval of the aural treats being dished up.

‘Angel’ was hair-raising – blistering, pure and perfect; the subtle but triumphant fist bump between vocalist Horace Andy and guitarist Angelo Bruschini showed that they knew damn well they’d absolutely nailed it.

Sunday morning saw everyone fresh-faced and in clean clothes, something that comes easily to a festival with no campsite. Most people had been in their own beds overnight, rather than face-down in some pasta vomit under a burning marquee, and all looked better for it.

Everyone should be able to remember at least one track from Athlete, and from the nodding – often grey or balding – heads across the park it was clear that everyone did. Music for sitting-in-the-sun to, this was a quietly but well received set. Toward the end, Joel Potts went solo and acoustic, singing a sweet song to his nephew “out there in the crowd”. Well, a song that was – by the singer’s admission – sweet when the target was a gurgling baby, but slightly inappropriate for a teenager, in all probability enjoying an underage lager in behind the ‘Heavenly & Friends’ Stage.

The mellow, nostalgic mood Athlete had crafted was blown away in seconds when The Levellers took to the main stage. Their wild gypsy energy and boundless enthusiasm soon had everyone on their feet. Imelda May joined them ahead of her own set and had the whole crowd singing ‘What a Beautiful Day’. Just when we thought we could jig no more, a rousing rendition of ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ got everyone up again.

Imelda May had to cope with a crowd who thought they’d given their all to the Levellers, but she did so admirably. It’s a difficult slot, right ahead of the headliner – everyone’s had a couple of beers and fancies one more and a quick burger – but her powerful voice and engaging tunes ensured she carried the crowd.

And so to the day two main stage headliners – Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. Famously the hardest-working man in Rock’n’Roll, dedicated fans of Frank will know that he did his soundchecks here in the morning, popped over to the Invictus Games to do a surprise gig ahead of the Foo’s ‘n’ friends, then rejoined the Sleeping Souls for his performance here.

And what a performance: all the old favourites – and there are plenty – along with a couple of freshly minted songs. During new song ‘Angel of Islington’, as Frank sang from the heart, of hope and new beginning, wags in the crowd thought it hilarious to shout out other, presumably competing, London districts. “What about New Cross, mate?”. Fellow Soul Matt Nasir may have found it amusing, but from the front, we could see the flicker of irritation cross Frank’s features.

Far too professional to let this glitch spoil things, Frank continued with his customary energy and good humour: he even rolled out ‘Prufrock’ to the near-hysterical delight of the word perfect die-hards.

In consideration for the local ‘heath dwellers – whose front windows were visible mere yards beyond the boundary fence – the festival drew to a very early close: most revellers were drifting away before ten. But somehow, it really didn’t matter: two very full days of well-curated, beautifully delivered music left everyone as full as the gourmands staggering from Gizzi Erskine’s ‘Chef’s Club tent.

Cheers Harvey, thank you Blackheath – same time next year?

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Relieving my mid-life crisis with large doses of live music. Usually the oldest guy in the mosh

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