Damon Albarn plays Dr Dee
Dry The River
The newest addition to the festival circuit is also the first one of this year’s calendar, so barely three weeks after winter has had its skeleton tree’d, endless darkness and smirking cold blues banished from the calendar up pops Onefest. Heralding the start of the muddy boots and talking about the weather with a high decibel soundtrack to another unpredictable English summer.
Set in a beautiful location Ina natural amphitheatre of hills in the Wiltshire countryside, Onefest looks like it’s on to a winner. A perfect boutique festival, it has 2000 like minded people decked out in the hardy perennial festival gear putting up with a sudden cold snap and sniffing at the threatening rain clouds and getting off on the music which is eclectic yet linked together with the folky, singer songwriter vibe that showcases the best of that form.
Nick Harper is the son of the legendary Roy but is very much his own man. Armed with a DADGAD tuned acoustic guitar and his powerful emotionally skree’d voice his solo act is compelling and intense. With all the power of a hardcore band at full flight and the eyes closed passion of someone who is really giving it up this is a totally unexpected head turner of a set. Harper’s guitar sound is amazing, all eastern drones and occaisonal sitar like flourishes, he totally blew me away with his unexpected passion and musical invention.
Rae Morris has been featured on this site a few times and is a LTW favourite, her crystal clear voice and deeply personal songs have an hypnotic lustre that keeps the audience mesmerised. Her very English melodies and deeply soulful songs with just her and her keyboard should, on paper, be impossible to play at a festival. The normal dynamics of these kind of things are bombast and showmanship but with music of this quality and captivating, hypnotic power she has the crowd transfixed with her beautiful songs and her charismatic, self deprecating asides.
The fact that she is from Blackpool, of course, scores highly with your author who also spent his youth in the tatty seaside town but a good quarter of a century before the youthful singer songwriter.
People talk a lot about work ethic but Raghut Dixit and his band underline it with a tour routing that makes those bands that moan about driving from Manchester to Aberdeen look, frankly, a little bit silly. On Friday night they played a gig in Goa, an outdoor event that was 38 degrees hot whilst the following day they are here, straight off the plane, for an early evening slot at the near freezing festival. In bare feet and their colourful Indian costumes the Bangalore band’s effervescent onstage demeanour and upbeat hypnotic rock songs with an Indian flavour get the audience dancing and nothing, not even broken strings can stop their positive rush.
Dry The River have been on tour in America and those months on the road have given them a hairier, greasier look and those thousand yard stares of young men on the road. This bout of living had toughened up the band’s sound to good effect and whilst they retain those inch perfect harmonies they now have the added muscularity of a band fit for stadiums. At one time they were touted as the latest English folk types but now have a tough edge that doesn’t affect their subtler flavours like those aforementioned harmonies or the almost African hi life drumming and well thought out guitar interplay.
Last year I went to see Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee on its debut night in Manchester and was lost in the brilliance the piece. The play, about the Elizabethan alchemist, was a perfect rush of dark atmospherics and costumes that searched for the soul of England both modern and medieval and was accompanied by a varied band playing a brilliant soundtrack of very English melodic folkish songs from Damon and his battered acoustic guitar and wheezing Harmonium and a band of players that combined medieval and African instruments with opera.
Tonight Damon Albarn has taken those songs out of the play and is presenting them as a live set, a mini folk opera that is an ambitious and powerful piece and perfectly suits the swirling darkness and gloom of the encroaching early spring evening in one of the most English places I can think of in the rural hills of Wiltshire where the modern world of mobile phones has become redundant with the signal Konkerell out.
Credit to the audience who are prepared to be taken on this trip without baying for familiarity. This is not an easy work and that is part of its genius. The ensemble sit in a semi circle with Damon Albarn in the middle sat at his keyboard playing, singing and conducting as they journey through a whole gamut of sounds that are equally challenging and entertaining.
There are some stunning operatics from the female singers including the pure voice of Victoria Couper, An amazing falsetto from the male opera singer. The instrumentation reflects the creator’s interest in all kinds of music from African with the chora to the long necked Theorbo plucked from a middle ages musical troupe.
The music creates atmospheres that have their own humour and their own textures. There are no easy hook lines or singalong choruses and yet when you allow yourself to get lost in the swirl of sound and enjoy the twist and turns and surprises you get compelety involved in the genius collage of its creativity.
The fact that they had only had to rehearse this complex and engrossing piece twice and yet make it sound so effective is tantamount to the ensemble’s musical skills.
Pre set in the dressing room Damon is playing a collection of wax 78s on a cranky old wind up player. The song’s crackling intensity cuts through decades and his fascination with music hall sparks off a conversation about the music and it’s influence on London bands from the Sex Pistols to Blur and yet it’s lack of influence on northern groups although he thinks the Buzzcocks and maybe Morrissey may be touched by the long lost form. It’s an interesting discussion and and I wonder if the 78s will be part of the set tonight, he laughs and says they are now and ends the set by setting up his player and dropping the needle on some long lost 78 and mic-ing it up, a brilliant piece of spontaneity from a restless, creative mind that refuses to be trapped by pop conventions and a perfect off the wall ending to a quirky new festival on the circuit.
Dr Dee will be returning to the stage as a full play in the summer. Well worth checking out.