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Onefest 2012 review: Damon Albarn's Dr Dee, Dry the River, Raghu Dixit

We headed to the Marlborough Downs in April to check out Onefest to see Damon Albarn bring his Dr Dee Opera to Wiltshire

Onefest 2012 evolved this year from Honeyfest 2011, the one day festival that featured in the BBC documentary Village SOS. With its eyes set on growth, and arguably a bit less grief from locals, the festival was moved from the grounds around the Barge in Honeystreet to the Marlborough Downs and with it came the change of name, from Honeyfest to Onefest. Being so close to affluent Marlborough I could imagine the discussions over the name "we can't use Me-fest, or I-fest, surely Onefest would be more grammatically correct?" The result was a much larger site with plenty of parking and set away from any signs of population and nestled into the rolling hills of Wiltshire.

Aside from a number of far from obscure acts the big pull and festival coup was the appearance of Damon Albarn, performing Dr Dee, his Opera about the mathematician John Dee. That's a huge name for a small festival, and one that raised a number of eyebrows when it was announced, so anticipation was high.

The festival site consisted of one main outside stage and another smaller tented stage (Tumuli Stage in association with BBC Introducing), the ubiquitous bar and a small smattering of stalls for food, a very short shop and some entertainment for kids. The connection with a village fete was sealed by the inclusion of welly wanging. One surprise was a feature that I haven't seen at a festival for a long time; they allowed dogs. The festival was being as inclusive and family friendly as it could be, but could the music match this?

The Music

Onefest didn't have a wide range of musical genres but there were plenty of acts to choose from and if you are a fan of acoustic singer songwriters then it would have been right up your street. There was a gentle performance from Marie Byrne and the Broken String, a self confessed third ever performance from Old Colours (I'd keep that to yourself if I were you) and Swindon based band Young Blood struck a chord with me in more than one way with songs dedicated to the town I had the misfortune to spend a lot of time in.

Bluegrass band Kidnap Alice were introduced by John Robb from Goldblade (who compered the main stage for the day) and was an Alka Seltza for the crowd, like a Hayseed Dixie without the cover versions. This warmed everyone up ready for renowned folk star Nick Harper, but this put pressure on Gaz Brookfield's set, who confessed how it felt to be following "the country's best acoustic singer songwriter". Both acts were solo on stage with their guitars, but Gaz held his own with a shoeless set which had strong echoes of Ed Sheeran and Newton Faulkner so he had nothing to worry about.

As the day progressed there were performances from Crash and the Bandicoots and Jodie Marie in the Tumuli tent but we got our first chance to hear Blackpool's Rae Morris, a young, talented solo artist who sang and played beautifully on the Main Stage. On a purely aesthetic point her hair was a real talking point, not in a bad way, they were like the sort of locks you would only see on a wig worn by Charles II or Louis XIV and widely envied.

I was keen to see Raghu Dixit, a name that keeps popping up and the only Indian band to be playing at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert. It's no wonder they will be at Buckingham Palace, they were bright, colourful, lively, fun, powerful and incredibly musical. They interacted with the crowd and even managed to get them to sing along to one song in its native tongue - there won't be any points handed out for fluency, but they had a good crack at it.

Dry the River are fresh from a stint in the US and have returned to hammer the festival and gig circuit again this year. I flit between being moved by their songs and a bit bored, based on the mood I am in and theirs, but this time it was the former. There is a lot of music in these guys and we're set to see more and more of them in the coming years, it's just a matter of time before they have that one hit or moment that promotes them to much higher levels. Unfortunately for me I cannot remove the association I have with the lead singer, Peter Liddle, looking like the double of Mackenzie Crook and now that it's been lodged in my brain I fear it may never come out. Sorry Peter.

When you attend any UK festival you have to be prepared for, let's say, inclement weather, and that's during the Summer, so a festival in the middle of April is definitely an optimistic scheduling challenge. A week or so prior to the 14th April saw some of the country's hottest April temperatures ever, followed inevitably by a sudden cold spell and heavy rain, so it was always going to be hit or miss for Onefest, particularly as its new location is beautiful but very exposed, without so much as a tree in view to protect you from the winds. Fortunately aside from a small spell the torrents of rain held off for the day, but as the day went on the temperature plummeted and wind picked up to chill even the sternest constitution.

By the time Michele Stodart from the Magic Numbers took to the stage the site was absolutely freezing and punished by a stern, icy wind. People huddled in the tents and around the patio heaters, desperate to keep warm. The Magic Numbers have done some cracking songs, but this was Michele playing in her own right with her own material, and although the songs were really nice it was too slow to stir the soul to dance and move enough to warm up which detracted from the enjoyment. I hope to be able to catch Michele again when I am not so parky.

Damon Albarn's Dr Dee

Finally it was time for Damon Albarn's Dr Dee, the much anticipated headline act. By this time I have to be honest, I was freezing cold and shivering, and anyone who knows me will know that it's rare to see me out of shorts and a T shirt for the entire Summer, let alone wearing a jacket and woolly gloves while taking photos. I was really looking forward to the set, I knew we weren't going to be getting Blur or Gorrilaz, this was an operatic piece based on a 16th Century Elizabethan mathematician. As with other projects that Damon has created as the driving force he was happy to not take centre stage to allow all of the performers to be seen as equal and he kept behind his piano except to play the bells behind him. There were 8 performers visible on stage with Damon, either singing or playing instruments, but rarely at the same time; this was orchestral and operatic and not for the faint hearted. It wasn't a rousing singalong set but a more thoughtful, esoteric piece of music, but we all needed something to get the blood moving again, to get the circulation back to our extremities. Aside from one track around halfway through (which Damon played twice as he had a piece on his piano around the wrong way) the set was impossible to dance to without drawing unwanted attention to yourself … What I would have given to see Damon jump up and give us a few verses of Parklife.

It wasn't just the crowd finding it hard, you could see the orchestra desperately trying to warm their hands too and although being able to see their breath condense in the air added to the whole gothic effect of the opera I don't think there was a person who wasn't hoping for a little less cold. "I'm afraid that's as active as it gets" said Albarn after the more upbeat song, "but what do you expect when you do this in April?" Quite. If I was at home, with my feet up on the sofa with a nice cup of tea or at least in the warmth I would have been able to really absorb the work that had gone into the Dr Dee music rather than clock watching and counting down the minutes before I could escape to the relative warmth of, well anywhere else, but April in the UK can be a harsh mistress and we all suffered because of it. What a real shame.


What did I think of Onefest? Considering the first time use of this small capacity site and the restrictions this placed on the number of stalls and facilities I think they managed to squeeze as much out of the festival as they could for the day. The list of bands was impressive and the atmosphere good throughout. Whether all of the 3,500 capacity was taken up we don't know, it seemed short of this, and we saw a number of people leaving from around 6pm. There was a lack of enough food stalls for the crowd who were desperate to keep warm which may explain an increased demand, but stalls had 30 minute queues for pies and the chorizo stall kept running out which is a tough ask of people with young families. One of the coffee stalls closed up early and left! As ever the bars were well served, but when you're trying to keep warm a cold drink is the last thing on your mind, but this extreme cold is of course well outside of the control of the organisers.

The one area that I thought needed a bit more work was the family friendly aspects of the festival. It's great to encourage the whole family to come to an event, but to do this you need to be able to entertain the young people for the duration of the day. There was a kids' tent with juggling and circus paraphernalia, face painting, the aforementioned welly wanging (see here if you don't know what this is, city folk) and those swing boats which would keep the little ones out of mischief for a while, but they have very short attention spans. What was not geared for the children was the music which was not easily accessible for kids who will have probably never heard of Nick Harper or Crash and the Bandicoots. Combined together the festival on the one hand was aimed at families, but the music was more for adults. We spoke to a number of families with bored children.

Overall Onefest is definitely a festival to check out, it's only its second year and it has already bagged a disproportionate amount of quality acts for such a small one day festival, so we think that it is perched well to continue for more years to come. If it does remain in its current mid April spot then as long as you are prepared for the beast that is our weather then we would recommend that you pop along.

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Derren Nugent
14th April 2012
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Onefest 2012 review: Damon Albarn's Dr Dee, Dry the River, Raghu Dixit

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