Review: Onefest and Damon Albarn kick off the festival season

Robin Denselow braves the Wiltshire wind to hear Damon Albarn and a host of world and folk music stars

It’s cold. Very cold. The wind is blowing across the Wiltshire countryside into a little festival site in a valley, where an impressive selection of artists are playing to a small crowd. Backstage, Damon Albarn explains he has just made a trip into Marlborough, the nearest town, to buy thermal clothing. Raghu Dixit, who has flown in from Goa, complains “my guitar and my voice weren’t prepared for this weather. It’s a wonder how you guys manage to live here”.

OneFest is the first music festival of the season. It only lasts for one day, and feels like an easy-going secret event because it’s so small, and because the music is so good. The site is a scant few hundred yards long, but there’s room for one stage in a tent and a larger outdoor stage, along with a few food stalls (the chorizo was particularly good) and an adequate selection of loos. And because there are so few people there’s no trouble getting in and out, or taking a break for a walk up on the downs. And it’s only the artists who seem quite so unprepared for the weather.

The festival is run by the manager and promoter Stephen Budd, who clearly knows how to attract decent musicians. Last year Laura Marlingwas here, and now Albarn is headlining. Those hoping for a warm-up for Blur’s Hyde Park show are in for a shock, for he’s performing songs fromDr Dee, a concept work based on the rise and fall of an Elizabethan mathematician and scientist. It was first performed at the Manchester international festival last year, but the album isn’t released until next month, and so few, if any, of the crowd know what to expect.

That doesn’t worry Albarn. He says he wants to perform the songs at a venue where there is “no pressure – just to see how it goes”, and on stage he launches into the piece with no introduction or explanation of the story. He’s centre-stage, singing and playing keyboards and guitar, surrounded by three other vocalists and seven musicians who play anything from Elizabethan instruments and electric guitar to west African kora (there’s some fine solo work from Madou Diabaté). There are echoes of Renaissance styles, church music and opera, mixed in with some sturdy Albarn melodies on Saturn and The Moon Exalted (I’ve heard an advance copy of the album, so knew what to expect). Then there are edgy, rhythmic passages and powerful, sometimes spooky solo vocals from Christopher Robson (who is playing Dr Dee’s nemesis, Edward Kelley).

It’s not until the end of the manic and edgy Watching the Fire That Waltzed Away, that Albarn starts chatting to the crowd, and decides to repeat the piece “because it will help us get us warm again”, but then explains “that’s as much excitement as you’ll get – it goes back on itself now”.

It was an intriguing work, and I suspect it would sound even better in a concert hall than a cold field where many in the audience were more interesting in chatting than listening.

The rest of the bill included guitar ace Nick Harper, Michele from the Magic Numbers, and impressive teenage newcomer Rae Morris. Raghu Dixit showed off his new band and a few new songs, and Dry the Rivershowcased their beards, high voices, and a slick pomp-folk-rock styles that should do well in America. On a warmer day this would have been the perfect little festival.

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