Once upon a time Blackheath was the edge of civilization, where armies of revolting citizens gathered before attacking the city, and thieves and traitors hung in gibbets as a warning to the wayward. The vast, wind-whipped fields weren't good for much, and to be honest they still have that grandiose sense of desolation: more like bleak heath.
All of which makes it the perfect place to hold a music festival. You can spread the crowd out as wide as you like (and still only be a blip on the green), and you can turn the music up as loud as you goddamn please. And so, at the weekend, the throb of the bass was palpable in the quaking turf long before you could actually see the four stages, giant maypoles and oversized inflatable fruit that made up the expansive venue for long-awaited two-dayer, On Blackheath, with much to enjoy round the edges.
The vast setting, actually looking down on the seemingly-stunted Canary Wharf cluster, elicited two epic performances from Massive Attack and Grace Jones on Saturday night, followed by a knees-up supreme on Sunday.
Jones came on as the sun began to set, after soulful performances by positive motivator Aloe Blacc and Mercury Prize nominated trio, Young Fathers. “I don’t like the daylight,” she purred, “because I like to think of myself as a vampire.” Hiding in plain sight perhaps, because on paper, Grace Jones seems like a physical impossibility. A 66-year-old grandmother, she somehow starts her show by kung-fu kicking her way across the stage, then ends it by hula-hooping for 10 solid minutes as she belts out her biggest hit, Slave To The Rhythm.
With that Amazonian body (on show in a skimpy leotard and tutu) her energy and titanic stage presence combine to make her seem like some nightclub Nefertiti from another dimension, licking her lips as if she’d just eaten Rihanna for lunch. And naturally, she was dressed to kill: donning a black leather cassock for Pull Up To The Bumper, then a white Venetian mask for the tango-tinged Strange, and a mirrored bowler onto which a cascading spotlight exploded during new favourite, Williams’ Blood.
It’s the delicious edge of madness that makes Jones so hypnotically charismatic, something she has in common with Saturday’s headliners, Massive Attack; though the madness at the heart of the veteran Bristol band is of a much darker, twitchier, itchier variety. Known for in-fighting, paranoia and heavy-handed politicking, all the negative forces that first created Massive Attack’s pioneering trip-hop sound then threatened to destroy that very legacy, were channelled on Blackheath into a pulverising show full of shock and awe. And that’s not just rhetoric, the restless stage behind them spat out statistics of refugees from war-torn countries alongside vacuous headlines and absurd search terms from Google. The anger surged through metallic new material and infused old songs with a raw, thrilling force — stand-outs included Teardrop, Safe From Harm, a haunting version of Angel, and Paradise Circus.
Founding members Robert Del Naja and Daddy G impressively translated their intricately-built studio songs to the expansive open setting with the aid of sublime vocalists Martina Topley-Bird, Horace Andy and Deborah Miller, who seemed taken aback by the power of her own voice during the encore rendition of Unfinished Sympathy.
And as that song crescendoed amid a storm of red lasers that made it feel like the heath was under attack from extra-terrestrial terrorists, it became clear that day two of the festival would surely be underwhelming in comparison. But smart programming led to a different kind of line-up that didn’t try to compete. The mood the next day was more like a lock-in at a local pub writ large: raucous, rowdy and fun. Irish singer Imelda May got the more mature members of the audience jiving early on with her feisty take on 50s rockabilly. The Levellers and Athlete added grit and guitars and the kind of folk-inflected spirit that often brings a field in the sunshine to life. Closing the festival, Frank Turner’s pirate punk had the crowd electrified, especially when he was goading it into a mass hoe-down and then had it wailing along with the refrain "there is no God" from The Logic Anthem.
On Blackheath has been a long-time coming, following wrangles with locals and organisational issues, but patience has paid off with a faultlessly-run display, led by veteran promoter Harvey Goldsmith. And the much-hyped foodie element was also impressive with upmarket (and more or less fairly priced) stalls around the perimeter, plus critic Gizzi Erskine overseeing a demo tent for Michelin-starred chefs cooking up braised pig cheeks and fish dusted with fennel pollen (and telling the head-nodding yuppies watching just how easy it was to find the incredibly hard to find ingredients they were using).
Add to that two other music tents for up-and-coming acts, including one curated by Gilles Peterson and there was literally, something for everyone here. Hopefully it will all happen again next year, as a big finish to the summer festival season — and who knows, given time On Blackheath may even have the potential to grow into London’s Glastonbury, they certainly have the space up there.
Londonist saw this event on a complimentary ticket.