The Big Chill, Larmer Tree, Pleasure Gardens, Wilthire

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The Independent Culture

While it would be foolish to equate the Big Chill with the Conservative Party – the Big Chill is far too popular, for a start – this must be where Tory libertarians are getting their new ideas from. The setting in the shires is green and pleasant, dope-smoking is more or less mandatory, and asylum-seekers do something useful, such as playing Latin percussion instruments.

There's a lot to be learnt, too, from such a successful exercise in branding. What began six years ago as a festival in the Black Mountains for ambient or chill-out music has now gone global, with its own record label, club nights, and even a package holiday operation on a Greek island. The voters can't get enough of it, either: this event sold out almost as soon as last year's finished, but there's another one at Lulworth Cove, Dorset next month.

It's not difficult to see why the Big Chill is such a hit. For a pop festival, everything remains on a very human scale, and even the security staff are friendly. Also, while drawing on a wide-ranging constituency of middle youth, including sensible ravers, old soul boys, tribal Womad types and "Yeah, right" DJs, there are no crusties or fence-jumpers to spoil the decorous fun. Appropriately, the entertainment goes beyond music (just as well – Big Chillers aren't particularly good listeners) to encompass other arts. Thus, over the course of the weekend, you could have heard a talk by the novelist Geoff Dyer, walked through the festival's "art trail", seen a pre-Edinburgh performance by the League Against Tedium, or watched Dovzhenko's 1930 silent film classic Earth with a live musical accompaniment. Or you could just have sat on the grass and, well, chilled – the option most people appeared to go for.

The fourth annual Enchanted Garden event at the wonderful Larmer Tree pleasure gardens on the Wiltshire/Dorset border had been slimmed down to a capacity of 3,000 after complaints about last year's increase in numbers. Happily, despite rain on Friday, everything ran like clockwork. As usual, the music was split between the main stage for live acts and the Club Tent, where DJs rule. For bands, playing the Big Chill must be a slightly unnerving experience, because no one appears to care. The singer of the excellent ambient-soul group Spacek, who performed early on Saturday night, had to keep asking for reassurance. "You're alright? You're just chilled, right?" he'd call out to the audience. "Yeah!" they'd reply, briefly looking up from their roll-ups.

As the closing act in the Club Tent on Sunday night – by which time most happy campers were more than a little frayed round the edges – the immaculate figures of LTJ Bukem and his MC looked like visitors from another, much cooler, planet. "This is LTJ Bukem and his spectrum of sound," the MC intoned magisterially, rather like the bloke who does the honours for BB King. The music was great too, although – as with a lot of music in the festival – it sounded suspiciously like old-style jazz-funk. But by then most of us had decamped to the main stage for the headliner, Terry Callier and his band, who gave us still more jazz-funk. The highlight of an absolutely blinding set came midway through "What Is the Colour of Love?", when our Tel sang of the blue of the sky and the blue was there all about you, as the sun finally set and the stars began to come out. It was a perfectly chilled moment.

The Big Chill Festival 2001 is at Lulworth Castle, Dorset, on 17, 18 & 19 August (020-7688 8080; www.bigchill.net)

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