OneFest / Damon Albarn’s Doctor Dee

Very late on Friday night I was lucky enough to come into a pair of tickets to Wiltshire’s OneFest. I leapt at the chance to go, partly because of the festival’s billing as ‘the first of the season’ (I like to get to at least some things early), largely because it featured a headline set from DAMON ALBARN and at least a little bit because I bloody well needed to.

After getting stung for an eye-watering £42 train ticket (65minutes’ transportation?!? really? That’s nearly a pound a minute – worse than a phone box call to an 0870 number… Thanks First Transport) to glorious Swindon we couldn’t face a £20 taxi bill so decided to take the local bus to the festival site*. Although they tried to help, the bus company (First again..) hadn’t been briefed very well about the festival and we got off at the ‘wrong’ Oggenden –  so we had a refreshing 1 1/2 hour walk to the site itself.

The atmosphere at the festival (which was fairly small with a medium-sized main stage and smallish BBC Introducing tent) cosy and intimate, as promised. Let’s get the feedback bit out of the way: although the ambiance was great and toilets and other H&S seemed very well cared for, there was a shortage of food sellers throughout the day and the box office and production staff seemed a bit vague when it came to things like taxi numbers and running times. The bar was brilliantly well stocked with some really affordable and tasty local ales and cider though, and the PA (on a very windy day) had good balance and projection (though a bit light at the bottom, the bill was mainly guitar-based to the loss wasn’t noticeable.)

Two highlights (aside from Damon – more of him in a sec) were Raghu Dixit (above, appearing live on Later…) and Crash And The Bandicoots (below.) Raghu (as Wikipedia told me, and will repeat to you in a few brief seconds) heads up a folk / fusion collective of Western-influenced musicians from Mysore in India that have played the UK several tmes to critical acclaim, blah blah blah. Whatever. The point is they somehow managed to whip a crowd of slightly disgruntled scenesters from London and slighly tiddled Countryfile-ers from Marlborough into something that looked very like A Good Time Festival Crowd. In 14-degree drizzle! Wearing saris! Great musicianship and stage presence + interesting takes on Western rock staples (take it up! Take it dowwwwn.. Take it up! Bring it dowwwn.. etc) and not least, boundless, sincere, infectious enthusiasm had a lot to do with it. Though how they manage at home breaking that many strings is anyone’s guess..

Crash And The Bandicoots are a young gang from Bath in that uniquely all-powerful, heady, and optimistic first flush of success. There are four of them (one’s a girl, yesssss! Sorry, but I think we all picked up on that) and they do a great line in danceable indie à la Talking Heads / Darwin Deez / Fight Like Apes. They’ve got bags of energy live (of course) but also a genuine sense of fun, excitement, and I think I got a taste of a restless musical inventiveness that should hopefully see them progress a lot further, if they can balance the hours of slog on the road against the music making they obviously enjoy so much. Good luck to em.

Damon Albarn is one of my main inspirations precisely because that irreverent musical flame – some would say compulsive silliness, but they can have a tenner – has burnt so brightly througout his whole career, from Leisure on (the sped-up organ outro on ‘Sunday Sunday’ a fave of mine since my C60 days in Joe Allen’s parents’ practice / living room.. hard to replicate on a Boss guitar multi-FX but worth trying.)

His newest project (an ENO co-production for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) is a ‘folk opera’ with Rufus Noris based on the life of Elizabethan mathematician / occultist / astronomer / astrologist / general polymath John Dee (1527–1608.) Dee’s story is compelling enough – in and out of favour with the despotic, capricious Good Queen Bess, sporadically broke, possibly borderline insane – but since most of the libretto is written in the first person, and it’s on record that Albarn’s approach to the subject was personal rather than historiographical I found myself musing on the parallels between Dee’s life and Damon’s own. Given the recent revelations surrounding previous heroin use in Blur Heights during his least productive years, a fall-from-grace narrative certainly fits. Thinking that lot over during ‘The Virgin Queen’ (one of the most poignant songs in the work, an sonorous royal anthem / lament) brought a bit of a lump to my throat. Okay, I was thinking about my ex at the same time.

Fair enough, you might say, but does this work represent a genuinely interesting and innovative step forward for English music, or just an expensively-assembled canvas (featuring several niche instrumentalists including kora virtuoso Madou Diabate as well as an incredible male mezzo-soprano / countertenor who I sadly can’t credit) for Albarn’s impish whims?

Well. Although the recordings are officially unreleased (7th May through EMI/Parlophone), for me the live experience at least broke new ground. Although it took a while to adjust to the arrangements – some aping period styles, more contemporary, even urban – there are some really strong melodies in there (‘Apple Carts’ another favourite of mine) but some really avant-garde stuff too that Cage might have taken a second look at. There was also a great energy and vitality about the whole ensemble that really brought the music to light, Damon’s dilettantism here harnessed to bring a sense of unbounded adventure to what could easily have been a po-faced musical Olde Tymes-style re-enactment, but is in fact a very fresh and relevant major new work.

Essentially my only complaint stems from jealousy at the great position Damon Albarn finds himself in. And the fucking anarchy at Paddington on the way back when our train slouched in an hour late after the last Tube!

Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

*Edit – Shuttle busses had been laid on for free by the festival. Having only heard about the tickets the night before (and having then celebrated our luck liquidly and liberally) we were a bit late in a) discovering the shuttlebusses’ existence, and b) in booking them. Hence our local bus / taxi dilemma.

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  • Giles Dee-Shapland

    I am a descendant of Dr John Dee (1527-1608) and am very keen to meet with Damon Albarn about his forthcoming opera Dr Dee.  Is there any way this message can reach his attention.  My email is  Regards Giles Dee-Shapland