A windswept field in rural north Buckinghamshire seems an unlikely place to hold a reggae festival. Tropical Montego Bay it certainly was not, nor Handsworth or Notting Hill, but irie vibrations still boomed from One Love’s stages and sound systems, the same type that shake the ground beneath you feet and massage your internal organs. Delicious aromas of jerked meats roasting in barrel barbecues mixed with more pungent scents and gave the fresh country air a flavour of Carnival. People strolled, smiling in the sunshine, enjoying the sights and sounds as they walked in the rhythm of the one drop beat. When darkness fell they congregated around the Sound Systems and Stages to witness performances from the many first class entertainers and artists over the weekend.
The festival’s biggest Main Stage audience came out on Saturday night for John Holt hoping to see a master work through his back catalogue of hugely popular and influential songs. Having kicked off with ‘A Love I Can Feel’ the hits came thick and fast ‘The Tide Is High’ delivered beautifully by horn section and singer. All too soon though the set came to a dramatic end when Sir John collapsed and requests went out for a paramedic to come to back of the stage. It was relief to hear from the MC at Sunday morning’s The Reggae Choir Sir John was at home, safe and as well as could be expected, for which news the crowd showed huge respect and gratitude for the effort he had made to play for them.
Other big names peppered the Bill. Support on Saturday came from the legendary Skatalites who celebrated their 50th anniversary at the festival - although much of the current line up didn’t look like they’d attained that age yet themselves. Other legends playing the main stage included a silky smooth finale show on the Sunday night from Cornell Campbell, and a wonderfully educational and entertaining set from Don Campbell on Saturday afternoon.Sadly Macka B & the Roots Ragga Band were unable to attend after reportedly becoming stuck in Spain. Travel difficulties also meant Randy Valentine's spiritual war had to be put on hold temporarily whilst he fought the traffic. The Majestic stepped up straight from the cosy confines of the Madiba stage to the Main and provided enjoyable cover for him, less enjoyable were Legacy Roots Vibration who were lacklustre without the sadly deceased Bobby Melody. It wasn’t clear what happened to the Friday headliners Dom Dem & Ras Dem on the main stage was left abandoned after a set of party tunes from Dubcatcher ft DJ Vadim ft Governor Tiggy which would have set them up nicely.
As it happened it was all about the Saxon Sound System on Friday night. DJs and singers took turns to work the speaker stack and entertain the crowd. The night culminated in a epic selection from Channel One, which saw us grooving into the small hours. Saturday evening saw Aba Shanti-I Soundsystem at the controls, the system bounced to his roots and culture vinyl delights which set the bass level indicator up into the business end of the scale.
The bizarrely named Dubshack – a big tent,bearing no resemblance to a shack – was home for Instrument of Jah Sound System and staged the festival’s highlight– Sunday night’s ‘Battle of the Dubplates. This full-on soundclash featured four ‘Sounds’ who competed under supervision from Trojan records stalwart Earl Gateshead, the winner of each round judged solely on audience reaction. The clash was as packed with swagger and bravado,taunts and intimidation, infringements and recriminations as it was dubplates and specials. Sentinal Sound were first to be ignominiously eliminated. Natural Affair Soundsystem had the tunes but not the crowd following, I made them winner of the vocal dubplate round,but it was Sir Coxsone Outernational, and Fatman International Sound who went through. In the end Fatmanemerged victoriousover Coxsoneto receive the 2014 trophy from special guest, legendary Jamaican music producer Bunny 'Striker' Lee.Then ensued a wicked dance which brought the festival to a fitting end at its midnight curfew.
Although most of the weekend’s acts hailed from a traditional reggae background, there was representation from familiar names from the festival circuit such as Mixmaster Morris, Gary Clail, and Smith & Mighty. I also came across a couple of young bands to watch out for; The Piratones Friday night set featured an epic sax and bass jam which rightly earned them appreciation from the decent sized crowd they drew to the otherwise poorly attended Madiba stage. Babilondon’s set on the main stage was perfectly pitched for a Saturday afternoon,instrumental dubs and skanking vocals created a real buzz in the audience, not least for their ‘Culture International in Dub’ which shook both blonde and black heads of dreads.
One Love does show a distinct cultural cross-pollination. As you’d expect there were plenty of festival food concessions, but they focussed almost exclusively on West Indian cuisine. The usual rows of hippy tat stalls were replaced by stalls stacked high with red, gold and green Rastafari merchandise, decorated with the motifs of Haile Selassie and Jamaican flags. Whereas the hippy tatt ends to stay on the stall it arrived with, Rasta-Brand tat did much better business, with virtually everyone on site sporting at least one of its emblems. The organisers have clearly identified some of the better quality elements of festival culture to bring to their event. A cordoned kids area full of drums and things to do was busy through the day, as were the chilled out craft workshops.
The Chai tea tent produced one of the best cups of spiced tea I have ever tasted, the essence of cardamom still tantalised my tastebuds long after I’d recycled the cup. The Red Squirrel Brewery bar in Saxon Sound marquee had an amazing selection of real ales, cider and a mind-blowingly good London Porter. Perhaps the most notable element though was the composting toilets, the type you have to pay to use at other events. A far cry from the usual wooded shed construction, these metal framed units with cool graffiti on the doors were big, clean and largely odour free - once people had figured out what the big bag of mulch was for.
The festival did suffer from the besetting vice of smoking in tents, and at this event passive smoking had noticeable effects. As the haze got thicker and thicker inside the marquee, the bar staff became more and more laconic. You had to feel for them, I suppose one upside of the nagging wind was that it did at least give them some ventilation.
Another noticeable issue at One Love was the sparse attendance. At times acts on both stages performed to audiences of just a dozen or so. On Friday night we felt more people would come for sure on Saturday, on Saturday we thought maybe Sunday it’d pick up. It wasn’t to be. The emptiness was emphasised by the layout which created a massive space in centre of the field which a few stalls couldn’t fill, and this made the site look even emptier than it actually was. By contrast the campsite was packed, tents pitched guy to guy and peg to peg, the balance between camping and the festival ground could definitely have been better struck.
It puzzled me as to why the festival wasn’t better attended. There was some clearly some overlap, but One Love wasn’t competing for core audience with bigger events held on the same weekend like Beautiful Days or Green Man, and despite its rural location the festival was only just over an hour from Brixton by train and taxi. Perhaps the history of changing sites has worked against the festival building the following it deserves. One love is definitely a festival I would go back to, a feast of reggae music and culture and a fine example of how a genuinely diverse audience can be united by one shared love.
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