Wychwood Festival, Cheltenham Racecourse, Cheltenham

A festival that's here to stay
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The Independent Culture

Launching a festival at the start of the summer season takes not only guts, but good programming and meteorological luck. An excellent line-up from Britain, Europe and beyond - over a weekend buffeted by the elements but just holding off from heavy rain - meant that the Wychwood Festival drew enough support in its first year to ensure that there will be a second.

Launching a festival at the start of the summer season takes not only guts, but good programming and meteorological luck. An excellent line-up from Britain, Europe and beyond - over a weekend buffeted by the elements but just holding off from heavy rain - meant that the Wychwood Festival drew enough support in its first year to ensure that there will be a second.

It takes its name from an ancient yearly gathering in the forest that once covered much of west Oxfordshire, which was said to draw tens of thousands of revellers. Wychwood's 21st-century revival filled a site overlooking Cheltenham racecourse and the Cotswolds beyond, and the ambience was very much towards the relaxed, family-oriented end of the festival spectrum.

The two main stages drew strong crowds, while beyond there were a range of consciousness-raising workshops, talks and - in keeping with the general ecological theme - a solar-powered cinema showcasing films about the gypsy singer Esme Redzepova and the Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore alongside the early Soviet film classic Man With the Movie Camera. It was the kind of intelligent, left-field programming that typified Wychwood, dominated as the festival was by a musical palette of country, folk, world, roots, jazz and techno.

Radio Tarifa headlined Friday night with their fusion of medieval, Moorish sources and the crunchier end of hard rock, while the 10-piece Norwegian group Jaga delivered a set that ranged from echo-drenched psychedelia to delicate, shimmering passages of brass and percussion that gently blew you away.

On Sunday, fellow Norwegians Susanna and the Magical Orchestra - two former members of Jaga - delivered a delicate, shimmering, hoarsely melancholic set that we're likely to hear more of in future.

There were plenty of crowd-pleasers here - Baka Beyond, The Alabama 3, festival favourites both - but there was plenty of music to demand your attention, and a lot of it on the main stage. The Cuban conga player Anga Diaz guested with Omar Sosa on an afternoon set of hard-hitting, abstract free-form playing, while Sunday's lunchtime performance from The Warsaw Village Band was close to being the festival show-stealer. They've been dubbed the Pogues of Poland, and who else would give us a Galician rebel song, or a Slovakian raga? The music rattles like a beast in chains - or at least its ghost. It's Eastern European swing dominated by the eerie jauntiness of the cimbalom, the ominous knock of the bass drum and dark, taut playing on cello and violin.

Launching Saturday's evening session, Eliza Carthy starred in a brilliant collaboration with the Finnish band Varttina - led by three Wagnerian ultra-blondes specialising in soaring, arctic harmonies. Carthy was in top form vocally, peaking when the stage cleared and she performed solo, the crosswinds producing curious phasing effects on her violin.

Mory Kante's band have been thoroughly road-tested, and their seamless, superbly performed set drew largely on his spectacular acoustic album, Sabou, along with reworkings of a handful of his Afropop hits from the Eighties. Their sound ranges from Kante's intricately delicate guitar picking to dense, multilayered soundscapes flowing across the inventive work of his two balafon players.

Kante's massed ranks were followed by the festival headliner, Steve Earle. "Here's one of several songs I've written about juvenile delinquency in the 19th century," he said, early on in a set that ranged from historical vistas of the American Civil War to the conscript's lot on the front line in Iraq. Earle is a historian, the voices in his songs bear the full weight of carefully examined circumstances. But there were tender love songs, too. Earle likes to talk, and he talks sense, whether it's about revisionism or the Fenian role in the Civil War. It's easy to forget what a rare, valuable figure he is. Festivals like this bring that value right out.

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