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The Big Chill   Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

Stephen Dalton

The hills of middle England were alive with the sound of muzak last weekend as  the summer’s most mellow festival kicked back and relaxed I the rolling Herefordshire countryside. Marking it’s sixth year in the picturesque grounds of Eastnor Castle, the big chill turned out remarkably dry and sunny considering this site was almost under water  two weeks ago.

Awash with face-painted children, cross dressing dads and fortysomething professionals still nostalgic for their clubbing years, the overall atmosphere was somewhere between a family picnic and a fancy dress party. Fashionable North London neighbourhoods must have been left like virtual ghost towns by the mass exodus west.

Music is secondary to ambience at the big chill, which helps to explain it’s prevailing blandness. Decaffeinated dance beats, flaccid reggae and pastel-shaded jazz were all inescapable in Eastnor, much of it instantly forgettable. It seems a little bizarre that the generations who lived through punk rock and acid house have come to embrace the kind of pipe-and-slippers aural wallpaper that would have sounded tame to their grandparents.

Thankfully much of the festival’s best music had nothing to do with calm contemplation. The Mercury Music Prize nominees New Young Pony Club and Brighton’s The Go! Team both played lively sets of brash, boisterous, multicoloured disco-pop. The former Orbital member Paul Hartnoll also made an impressive live debut with his new project, the Ideal Condition, a chamber orchestra missing electronics with strident strings and soaring voices.

Many of the weekend’s celebrity DJ’s went down well too. Grant Marshall, aka Daddy G of Massive Attack, spun a fine collection of vintage reggae on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, the former Dexy’s Midnight Runners mainstay Kevin Rowland had the crowd dancing with classic disco, soul and glam rock. Later the legendary Specials founder Jerry Dammers rounded of the evening with more timeless reggae and ska.

After his DJ set, Dammers donned what looked like a sequinned tea cosy to play keyboards with his latest band, the Spatial AKA Orchestra. Essentially a homage to the late sci-fi jazz visionary Sun Ra, this playful and ambitious ensemble struck a welcome note of dissonant weirdness after three days of overly tasteful background noise.

The Big Chill is a lovely island of fluffy calm in a hectic world, but no substitute for muscular music that demands to be heard.