With new owners, a new calendar position and two decent headliners, ONBlackheath was back fresh from years of mediocre attendance and typical September blustery weather. Now in July, competing with the second BST Hyde Park weekend crowd, it’s clear that the festival is going for a different demographic. Blackheath is an affluent village in South East London; and locals and families are its appeal. As headliners, Jamiroquai and Grace Jones are exactly on brand and decent pulls, and now with a presumably much sunnier forecast all the elements appear to be in place.
As for the Saturday, Jamiroquai certainly delight the crowd. Jay Kay’s crew, a genre almost in themselves, haven’t changed at all since they went away. Waistline aside, even Jay admits that “this dancing was easier was I was 27”. The sound is fantastic and the setlist, with hit after hit ranging from Canned Heat to Space Cowboy, has the crowd dancing and singing along throughout. So much so, that Jamiroquai do an extra encore song after crowd demand, and Travelling Without Moving allowed Jay Kay and his fantastic band of musicians to “Take Libs”. The set was ninety minutes and finished early at 2215, we are told because of “complaining neighbours”. This was a UK exclusive performance, and a good booking for ONBlackheath. Attendance felt high, sometimes it felt too over-crowded even.
The earlier bill was decent support fodder, deftly aimed at the middle-aged family dynamic. The Roots, with Quest Love and co in tow, gave the rhythm whilst Soul II Soul brought the soul in the second stage tent. Incognito, proudly celebrating forty years, paid tribute to the Londoners in the crowd, and Jacob Collier, clearly a rising star (and a Grammy haul) wowed with his harmonies on the main stage.
You couldn’t fault the music or the bill.
Troubles ensued elsewhere sadly. Every aspect had unhealthy queue lengths. Toilets saw lines round the block. Photos leaked to social media quickly. Bars and food stalls had lines of thirty people deep almost extensively. Worse, many of the stalls ran out of their allotted food and drink by as early as 7pm. The festival enclosure felt too small, and a hostile over-busy and claustrophobic air hung around all movements. The aura seemed too over-stuffed with the loud bass thus of fairground rides; it felt like a fairground with a Stage for music rather than vice-versa. Irritatingly, the ground was littered with those inflatable sofa-things that seemed to just get in everyone’s way and make navigating the map area difficult. It never felt like the relaxing Summer Saturday it should have been. The Main Stage seemed absolutely tiny and positioned awkwardly. There just didn’t seem to be enough food and drink stalls, and worse, not enough toilets.
Naturally, punters and social media have been brutal. So much so, that ONBlackheath have put out a statement saying they’ve listened to complaints and have boosted staff and supplies and stalls for the Grace Jones Sunday. Whether this repairs the credibility damage remains to be seen, which is a shame, as musically it felt that ONBlackheath had found its stride.
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