Where macaws jostle for space with the DJs

The Big Chill | Larmer Tree Gardens, Wiltshire Mark Eitzel | Dingwalls, London
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The Independent Culture

What do ambient electronic music, records by Ian Dury, Ray Parker Jr, Michael Jackson and Madness, ornamental gardens, site-specific art installations, sunshine and peacocks have in common? Not enough that you'd expect to find them all at one small festival. Nevertheless, last weekend's third Enchanted Garden festival, organised by London's Big Chill club, had all this and more.

What do ambient electronic music, records by Ian Dury, Ray Parker Jr, Michael Jackson and Madness, ornamental gardens, site-specific art installations, sunshine and peacocks have in common? Not enough that you'd expect to find them all at one small festival. Nevertheless, last weekend's third Enchanted Garden festival, organised by London's Big Chill club, had all this and more.

Founded in 1994 by Pete and Katrina Lawrence, the Big Chill fused live music and DJs, information technology, visual and performance art into an alternative, post-rave, entertainment environment. And in the Larmer Tree Gardens, an English Heritage Park of National Importance created by a Victorian explorer and inhabited by exotic birds, they found their ideal festival site.

In a reversal of the usual trend, the DJs spinning the fastest beats are housed in the dance tent, which is just outside the main site, whereas music that would be relegated to small chill out zones in any conventional club is promoted to the main stage.

For Mixmaster Morris - whose involvement with the club since its conception, exquisite ambient music and distinctive gold lamé shirts make him a sort of unofficial Big Chill mascot - the attraction of the festival is simple: DJs can play what they want.

With around 70 live acts and DJs performing in three separate arenas, it was, of course, impossible to see the lot. Of the live acts, Sounds From the Ground, Another Fine Day and, in particular, Amba and Biosphere, all achieved moments of sublimity, swathing us in unique electronic tones and textures. Muki, Nitin Sawhney and Homelife achieved similar results with live vocals, conventional instruments and various combinations of funk, soul and Asian music.

Of the DJs, London Elektricity and Jazzanova both filled the dance tent with melodic drum'n'bass, while Mr Scruff and Fred Deakin of Lemon Jelly took a more eclectic approach, mixing up disco, dub and soul with their own special brands of off-beat dance music. And they had both sussed out that if you really want people to dance, just pretend you're at a school disco, hence "Reasons to be Cheerful", "Ghostbusters", "Billie Jean" and "One Step Beyond".

The Enchanted Garden, to some extent a victim of its own success, has doubled in size this year, so that Chillers were roughly split between the 2,000 or so devotees that thought it had lost a little of its intimacy and magic, and the 2,000 or so recently converted who thought its experimental programming and intimate, unpretentious, relaxed and friendly atmosphere to be unmatched by any other festival.

They were all right, of course. The Big Chill has proved that a festival can be small, but perfectly formed, can be harmoniously integrated with a naturally beautiful site, and can attract capacity crowds without advertising, by providing diversity and quality rather than a handful of superstar DJs.

But they can't continue supplying the entire demand for an alternative to conventional festivals on their own, so let us hope that other promoters now follow their lead.

For 12 years Mark Eitzel was the songwriter and frontman of American Music Club, a San Francisco-based alternative rock band whose commercial success was inversely proportional to their huge critical acclaim. Since going solo in 1994, he's released three albums, variously fitting his acerbic, morbid lyrics to more jazz, pop or folk-tinged music and each time meeting critical success and favourable comparisons to Leonard Cohen - all of which means little to Eitzel because, as he has pointed out, "journalists don't buy my records. They get sent them for free." He is currently without a record deal.

You might think that Dingwalls, usually host to a comedy club, would be an inappropriate venue for this notoriously depressed performer, but you'd be mistaken. It seems Eitzel has accepted his following for the small but loyal cult that it is, and felt relaxed enough to send himself up with witty, extemporised reworkings of his best known songs, and introduce the new ones with a sly, self-deprecating humour: "You'll love this one. It went down really well with the 40 to 50 people at my last show. It's a singalong." No kidding. He actually got the whole audience singing along to the chirpy chorus ("I don't know if I will ever love again"), first off with a French accent and then as a David Bowie impression.

Later, he asked if there were any good-looking lip-synchers who could get him a slot on ITV's chart show, CD UK, and then sang a song about converting his cat to Scientology, which either indicates a radical new direction or a rare talent for improvisation.

Actually, the other new songs - of which there are apparently three albums-worth awaiting release - suggest Eitzel hasn't radically altered his world-weary view of life. It's just that this informal, friendly relationship Eitzel has with his audience, utterly bereft of any rock star pretensions he may once have had, makes the brooding, sometimes cathartic melancholy of his songs even more immediate and involving. I sincerely hope there were some record company A&R men present.

Other summer festivals: Carling Weekend: Temple Newsam, Leeds and Richfield Avenue, Reading (020 7344 0044), 25-28 Aug; V2000: Chelmsford Hylands Park, 19 Aug and Staffordshire Weston Park (020 7287 0932), 20 Aug; Creamfields: Liverpool Old Speke Airfield (0151 708 9979), 26 Aug

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