Faded away under the murky skyline clouding the affluent London suburb of Blackheath, an imposing figure stood ominously across the ghostly common. Unfortunately for Arthur Conan Doyle fans, this wasn't Moriarty striking an imposing vision of menace in the background, but the gargantuan main tent of London's newest festival On Blackheath. Slotted away at the tail-end of the summer calendar, the two-day event promised a different stance on the traditional festival layout. Licensing issues may have delayed the festival's début several years ago but the organisers were keen to forget the legal wrangles as the inclusion of top chefs, quirky drink options and a healthy topping of exclusive musical performances, made for an appetising mid-September weekend. Frank Turner, Athlete, and Levellers were waiting in the wings for their Sunday performances, but it was left to the army of soul, jazz and electronica-based artists, including the brilliant Massive Attack, to celebrate the first ever day of On Blackheath.
Within seconds of entering the festival site, menus were distributed, listing a selection of main courses being cooked by a number of Michelin starred-chefs. It was already clear that this was a festival that would radiate a pocket of warmth within the greying South East London climate. To the soundtrack of the leftfield DJs and global artists enveloped under the aforementioned big top, a respectful audience observed the culinary artists conjure up a range of dishes that would ultimately be served to ravenous revellers as two-course meals. Sadly this was not a vegetarian-friendly zone, so fellow herbivores had to make do with inventive beverages such as vodka ginger beer and Maltesers milkshakes, thankfully with no turgid mainstream lager in sight.
The main-stage artists would not grace the podium until the middle of the afternoon so dancers, masseurs and poets gallantly showcased their talents under a Tim Burton like setting of giant sculptures of rabbits and strawberries. The more studious folk descended on the 'Pun in the Oven' tent, trying to guess the musical-related reference to a random amalgamation of objects in a cooker. The zany combination of Fireman Sam and tofu in a microwave oven would have been enough to freak out those who had enjoyed more than tipple or two from the Craft Cocktail bar.
Following sets from DJ Heather Wall, and the Afro-beat infused Ibibio Sound Machine in the big top, aka the Giles Peterson Worldwide Stage, Young Fathers opened proceedings on the main-stage. Dressed like a cross between Prussian soldiers and nightclub bouncers, the five-piece violently slayed down rhymes including the 'Queen Is Dead' and the fiercely tribal 'War'. The bruising, loud percussion and intimidating rapping could only be likened to Death Grips punched in the face by a gun-tooting Senator and now on a righteous and angry path of political vengeance.
On a lighter note, Aloe Blacc was up next, best known as the perennially smiling Californian who begs for dollars while coated in Armani attire. Fashionably entering the stage midway through the band's intro, Blacc preached to the crowd to say 'hey' after he uttered 'downtown' as he smoothly entered his own take on political disgruntlement. Sadly the timid 'Love Is The Answer' did not quite have the same energy as Young Fathers' ball of rage. However despite a set more middle-of-the-road than a pile-up involving John Legend, Katie Melua and a lost foal, the rapport with the jigging audience was evident to the extent that organisers might have faced calls to rename the festival On Blaccheath. Well maybe not, but this was still a triumphant performance for the speaking majority.
DJ sets from Hot Chip'sJoe Goddard provided the interludes between the main-stage performances giving opportunities to check out the evolution of the Worldwide Stage. Jazz act Swindle was amongst the later acts on the packed schedule, spinning on his decks flanked by a trumpeter, saxophonist and a guitarist, the enjoyable set included a guest appearance byTerri Walker and the whole crowd sitting down and jumping up again upon his command, possibly demonstrating the puppet-master control of the ruling classes or more likely a whimsical game to warm the cockles.
As the night drew in queues for absolutely everything under the setting sun emerged. Lines snaked into other lines to the extent where many had to venture into the town to avoid grumbling both on the outside and in. The farcical proceedings even extended to the entrance to the guest area, a rare blot on the otherwise well-organised event. You could almost imagine Indiana Jones turning up exclaiming 'snakes, I hate snakes' but it was another star of eighties cinema who 'graced' the stage instead, Bond girl and all-round musical legend Grace Jones. The undoubted highlight for many, Jones opened her performance swaying on a balcony sheltering her bandmates at the top of the stage before descending down onto the stage on a venture to bring Jamaica to this posh enclave of the nation's capital. Covers of Iggy Pop and The Stooges and The Proclaimers were the score to the quick-fire changes into increasingly flamboyant and raunchy costumes. Precariously holding cymbals aloft and claiming to be a vampire were merely part and parcel of an eccentric and popular set rounded off by her name world famous 10-minute long hula-hoop routine through 'Slave To The Rhythm', showing agility many half her 66 years would kill for.
It was a hard act for headliners Massive Attack to follow, but the seminal 90s trip hop were unnerved. Commencing with founding member Robert Del Naia's dark and brooding 'Battle Box 001', the Bristolian's calmly slid through their extensive repertoire of old and new classics through the varying vocal styles of Martina Topley-Bird and Horace Andy. The mellow 'Ringison' and the piano-led 'Paradise Circus' were played as binary numbers and random new stories about Tony Blair and the Big Brother House scrolled on the imposing screen behind. The popular double-header of the searingly stunning 'Teardrop' and 'Angel' from their Mezzanine album showed a timeless level of experimental brilliance absent from today's charts. The crowds were thinning at the end but those that remained were keen to end the festival on a high and there could be none grander than the beautifully chilled-out classic 'Unfinished Symphony' to finish.
There may have been problems seeing On Blackheath come to fruition and the nonsensical queues proved that work was still to be done to ensure future editions went smoothly, however overall this was an encouragingly classy festival to rival the more renowned all-day events in Central London and Victoria Park.
latest on this festival
OnBlackheath 2019 Review - Saturday
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