Taking place on the gorgeous – if under utilised – Lewisham end of south London’s sprawling heath, with the far-off towers of Canary Wharf looming in the distance, OnBlackheath has everything going in its favour to be a perfect urban weekender.
But to describe OnBlackheath is to tell the tale of two festivals. Although weekend tickets are available, the musical line-up and clientele are so different on each day, it doesn’t look like many people plumped for that option. The Saturday is, frankly, bizarre – as though an alien looked up how the middle classes like to spend their disposable income and took the A-Z option. It’s very family-focussed, with a children’s area packed with circus acts, sports day races and face painting. By the main stage, children on shoulders pop up like those seaside whack-a-mole games.
Elsewhere there’s a huge, John Lewis-sponsored food area crammed with foodie pop-ups; cookery demos from celebrity chefs; countless champagne bars; craft cocktails being sold by the flute and even a make-up salon. And then there’s the music…the three stages seem to be have programmed completely at random; the Heavenly-sponsored tent with an electro-leaning line-up attracts scores of hyperactive toddlers, to the bemusement of the likes of Hooton Tennis Club, Temples, the brilliantly lo-fi Drinks and stunning psychedelia of Stealing Sheep.
The main stage is just as mish-mashed; a west end singer who’s about to open in a musical about Burt Bacharach plays a couple of hours before Anna Calvi, whose Nick Cave-ish pop-noir is endlessly moreish and intoxicating but completely at odds with the sunny, playground feel of the far end of the festival site.
Manic Street Preachers played a few hours after the announcement of the Labour leadership election but steered disappointingly clear of politics. They didn’t keep their mischievous side hidden away all night though; from their opening greeting to their parting line, they dropped F-bombs all over the place, much to the horror of grimacing parents throughout the crowd. Their set was a standard greatest hits/festival offering, with a few gems – notably Suicide Is Painless and Masses Against The Classes – thrown in to keep the handful of glitter-drenched fans camped out in the front row happy. They joined in festivities by offering themselves up for the sponsor’s now infamous Christmas ad’ campaign which, brilliantly, sparked a change.org petition to be created almost immediately.
Elbow headlined the Saturday night with the ease of a band who know their audience well. Guy Garvey coaxed them into singing along so well that poor Summer Camp, who played a disco-infused set to a handful of people at the teeny Meantime stage, had to crank up their sound just to be heard.
On paper, the Sunday looked equally as thrown together. So it was a surprise to stroll in and find something that felt entirely different. With Madness headlining, a good percentage of the children who roamed about the site yesterday appear to have been replaced by fezes.
With a programme propped up by DJ sets from Jerry Dammers, the day had far more direction and sense of identity. He used his sets between main stage acts to pay tribute to his friend and collaborator Rico Rodriquez, who died the previous week, delving into his enormous back catalogue to set the tone for the day – an eclectic exploration of the music which influenced tonight’s main attraction.
Gilles Peterson hosts the ‘other’ stage today, and bonkers Belgian experimentalists STUFF raise a few eyebrows early on. Elsewhere Hollie Cook is on safer territory; her sugar-spun reggae got almost as many people dancing as local band Brass Roots, whose brass interpretations of pop songs inspired many a dad dance. Over on the main stage, Laura Mvula’s voice has never sounded better, and as she belted through Flying Without You, Let Me Fall and Sing To The Moon, she bagged herself a field of new fans, who stood and stared in awe throughout her set.
Organisers certainly got their money’s worth out of Kelis who, to a main stage soundtrack by the cast of The Kinks musical, Sunny Afternoon, hosted a cookery demonstration and cooked a two course meal for 100 people who stumped up £29 a head for her set menu before she even set foot on stage. Not that you could tell; despite a busy day and being heavily pregnant, she ripped through a set of brass-tinged greatest hits including Milkshake, Trick Me and Acapella.
Surely the highlight of the entire festival was Seun Kuti. After his 10-piece band – which later swells to 13 – is introduced one by one, the son of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti quite literally bursts on stage. Whether he’s battling the keys, working his way around the trumpet, singing like his life depends on it or wiggling his hips like they’re possessed by Elvis, he’s hypnotic to watch. Afrobeat meets funk and soul…it’s a heady mix which is a much a visual show as an aural one.
A true star who’s more than happy to share his take on the weekend’s political news – “Congratulations Labour Party. Mr Corbyn, prime minister to be,” he winks. Before warning him not to “pull an Obama”. He goes on to touch on immigration (“We need to discuss immigration consequences, not crisis”), feminism and the IMF (“international mother fuckers”) in the lead up to Black Woman – about the women he hopes will change the world. His absorption in of some of the most unsettling issues in the western world, while referencing far graver issues going on in his home continent, is startling and exhilarating.
Kuti’s slick, well-rehearsed and impassioned performance seems at odds with the headliners Madness on the main stage, as Suggs laughs off mistakes in Mummy’s Boy, saying “We learnt that in the dressing room”. But beyond the chaotic, ramshackle performance, and a set list that anyone could’ve guessed – 20 years ago – the sheer joy that overtakes the entire field is an experience to behold. The cherry on the top of a well considered, but never too obvious second day which, while being more sure of itself than Day 1, remained true to its goal of being a family event. It should give organisers some (celebrity chef created) food for thought as they look towards next year’s third edition.