Wychwood festival, Cheltenham Racecourse

Family-friendly festival kicks off with style, and even avoids the floods
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The Independent Culture

When it comes to festivals, it pays to be first. Getting a jump on the big guns of Glastonbury, V and Reading, as well as local rival Cornbury in neighbouring Oxfordshire, has been the ace in Wychwood's hole. That, and its setting at Cheltenham Racecourse, with green, lush, rolling hills around the track, but also all the amenities expected at a venue more commonly associated with the sport of kings.

When Sunrise down in Somerset is cancelled because of flooding and its refugees make their way to Wychwood, it makes sense to be on higher ground where the going might be soft but everything else goes to plan. It's therefore no wonder that Wychwood, now in its fourth year, has won so many awards and become the family-friendly three-day event par excellence.

Artists enjoy the festival too and keep returning like homing pigeons, most notably Eliza Carthy, who will make it four Wychwood appearances in a row tomorrow when singing with the Imagined Village, Simon Emmerson's folk history in the making project.

The festival kicked off in style last night with sets by Robyn Hitchcock and Dreadzone, two acts who have also played Wychwood before, and headliners The Proclaimers, who brought singalong goodwill from Leith to Gloucestershire.

Find of the day earlier on the Wickwar Stage were The Maladies of Bellafontaine, a psych-folk group who, despite an unwieldy moniker, seemed to bridge the gap between the Cowboy Junkies and Belle and Sebastian. Hitchcock keeps changing the name of his band – they're now called The Psychedelic Trams – but gets better the greyer his hair. He didn't bring John Paul Jones, with whom he recently supported REM at the Royal Albert Hall, but an impressive batch of covers to match his suitably skewed compositions.

Best described as Syd Barrett's true heir, wearing violet trousers and a black-and-white polka-dot shirt, the former Soft Boys frontman looked and sounded like the Pink Floyd founder might have done if he'd thrown up a dose of caustic wit rather than swallowed a dodgy tab of acid. His surreal stage introductions were a match for warped songs like "Brenda's Iron Sledge" and "Kingdom Of Love" though sterling versions of the Elvis Presley standard "Mystery Train", with fellow Soft Boy Kimberley Rew making like Scotty Moore on lead guitar, and Beatles curios "Within You, Without You" and "Old Brown Shoe" shone like crazy diamonds.

Dreadzone, perennially described as festival favourites, lived up to their reputation with their heady mixture of dub and dance, which sounds as fresh as it did when first heard on the John Peel show more than a decade ago. As the sun set and hit the sunrise depicted on The Independent stage backdrop, the clarion call of "Little Britain", Dreadzone's biggest hit, had everyone smiling, parents bouncing kids on their shoulders in time to the beat.

Short of the east end of London, it would be hard to find a more unlikely place for The Proclaimers to appear than Gloucestershire but the Scots twins went down a storm. It helps that they have quite a catalogue of hits – "I'm On My Way", "Letters From America" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)"– and that their voices can be as soulful as Kevin Rowland. Indeed, there is more than a hint of Dexys Midnight Runners about them but less of a second-hand element about their music. At times, as on "Restless Soul" and many of the selections from the current album, Life With You, they really sounded like The Band. Their cover of Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World" became the festival anthem it was always meant to be.

You can go to festivals all over the world but none will be quite as homely as Wychwood.

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