OnBlackheath 2014 – Live Review
aaamusic | On 15, Sep 2014
Saturday 13th September, London
Trapesing across the open expanse of Blackheath Common, it suddenly hit me as odd that no one has thought to stage a two-day music festival here before. Spilling out from Greenwich Park, and not a stone’s throw away from the bustling capital, the Common has always been a quick-fix solution for Londoners looking to get out and stretch their legs on a summer’s day.
Now, in September 2014, Blackheath has finally experienced its inaugural taste of live entertainment – provided by a host of strange and eclectic acts whose brand of fuzzy electronica and brooding themes at times sat at odds with the infants and smoothie-slurping parents that made up the crowd.
Given the confines of the OnBlackheath festival – a mix-match of food stalls, marquees and a main stage walled-off in the middle of the Common – the change in mood from one corner of the arena to the other was bewildering. Over on the main stage, Young Fathers kicked things off with their brand of urgent, brash hip-hop while over on the Gilles Peterson Worldwide stage, Brighton’s Anushka unleashed a mid-afternoon set of dance-along pop that had young and old twitching their feet to Victoria Port’s delicate vocals.
And, just a few yards away on the Neff-sponsored food stage, spectators young and old nodded their heads in approval as Adam Simmonds gave advice on the best way to fry mussels and squid.
Despite the slightly surreal air of the arrangement, the organisers had undoubtedly done their homework, and while Aloe Blacc attempted to wow the audience with his sing-along R&B chart entries ‘I Need A Dollar’ and Elton John homage ‘The Man’ on the main stage, it was the Gilles Peterson line-up that was causing a stir among the more adventurous festival-goers.
As if on cue, the tent quickly filled up as the hotly anticipated Hiatus Kaiyote took to the stage, provoking a mixture of excitement and first-time curiosity in the audience. The Melbourne-based quartet first burst on to the alternative scene in Melbourne, Australia back in 2011 and released their debut album Tawk Tomahawk the following year. Sporting Mickey Mouse ears, the group’s singer and guitarist Nai Palm tore through 45 minutes of abstract soul and bubbling synths that made for one of the strangest sets of the day – if not for the nonsensical lyrics, then for the thickness of bassist Paul Bender’s impressive beard.
Shortly after the last of the weed wafting through the crowd had dissipated, funk-jazz guru Swindle stole the limelight from the Aussie soulsters with a more grounded but irresistibly infectious set that had the crowd quite literally jumping for joy. Riding the grime wave that gripped London in the mid-Noughties, Swindle may have little public recognition but the DJ has become a staple of the UK hip-hop scene, having produced for both Chipmunk and Professor Green – now household names of the genre. Live, his lush hip-hop and funk-infused productions were indicative of OnBlackheath at its best; cut and paste dub beats mixed against a backdrop of a crooning jazz band that arguably received the most rapturous reception of onlookers across the whole day.
Then came another act that was generating a lot of interest prior to the festival – Badbadnotgood, an improvisational electronica outfit whose generous helpings of distorted bass and freestyle jazz helped create a second wind of energy across the stage. Championed by the likes of Frank Ocean and Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator there is a dark undercurrent running under much of the Canadian trio’s music that gave way to a general feeling of foreboding. The crowd loved it, and Badbadnotgood’s reputation for ‘mixing things up’ was cemented when they delved into III, their third album released in May this year.
As the light began to fade, the perils of holding a festival in mid-September – in what has become renowned among artists and revellers alike as the last weekend of the season – were unavoidable. As temperatures plummeted outside the Gilles Peterson tent, spectators shivered and grumbled as they queued over an hour for trays of battered cod and lukewarm chips.
This lack of foresight (and planning on behalf of the organisers) inevitably detracted from the mood of the festivities, and it wasn’t until Grace Jones’ brand of self-styled Eighties pop got into full swing on the main stage that we felt the party start to warm up again. A Jamaican icon and cult favourite, Ms Jones reminded everyone that long before Lady Gaga was causing controversy by wearing meat, she was the one pushing the boundaries with her revolving wardrobe and ever-changing choice of head-dress. Given a certain amount of overlap with the Gilles Peterson billing we only caught the end of her hit-heavy set, as she hula-hooped her way off stage to ‘Slave to the Rhythm’. Breathless and eccentric, she fit the OnBlackheath bill perfectly; and let’s face it, how many other acts could boast to bedding 007?
But, inevitably, it was the Saturday headliners Massive Attack that were to steal the show – arriving on stage 15 minutes late to rapturous applause. For anyone expecting wall-to-wall Blue Lines there was bound to be disappointment, but for a band with so much material to draw on, Attack were surprisingly generous with their helping of hits. Moving like a panther through the smoky neon lasers, Daddy G made an early appearance, oozing cool as he and fellow trip-hop pioneer Robert Del Naja gave their wheezy execution of ‘Risingson’.
Martina-Topley Bird was also on hand throughout the night to cover a slew of Heligoland tracks, her hypnotic stage presence and sublime vocals shining through on ‘Paradise Circus’ and ‘Psyche’. Undoubtedly the star of the show, it was unfortunate that her rendition of ‘Teardrop’ – arguably the gem in Massive Attack’s back catalogue – was obscured by bass so heavy that her performance was rendered almost inaudible.
Horace Andy was also a welcome presence on-stage, his distinctive vocals breaking through on ‘Girl I Love You’ and Mezzanine opening hit ‘Angel’, which erupted in a blinding flash of white light.
Lights and lasers are not Massive Attack’s only live staple; the trip hoppers are famous for their political messages, from the 2003 Iraq invasion to the ongoing Gaza conflict. Statistics, hypocrisies and orders to ‘engage the enemy’ filled the screen, feeding off and contributing to the dark energy of the music. At one point, an image of the notorious ‘James Foley’ video flashes up on screen; chilling given news of David Haines’ execution upon exiting the festival an hour later.
If it’s the band’s intention to guilt the crowd or simply to raise awareness of international issues, they don’t show it. There is a tremendous roar as Deborah Miller comes onstage to cover Blue Lines classic ‘Safe From Harm’, returning for the encore finale ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, which had the crowd dancing all the way back to the bar.
The first day of OnBlackheath showed plenty of promise – a bizarre culmination of eclectic dark jazz, pounding bass and retro and contemporary acts. But has it nailed the right audience? Brooding references to ISIS sit uncomfortably next to cookery shows and organic milkshake stands – for 2015, this mini-festival may need to figure out exactly what it wants to be.