Rock star Alex James tells Tim Hughes how he has been motivated to make this weekend’s Big Feastival the best one yet
For a man who has lived the high life as a rock and roll superstar, Alex James is disarmingly down to earth. He also gets excited by the simplest pleasures.
Take this weekend’s Big Feastival — the three-day festival of music and food he hosts at his Oxfordshire farm, with his celebrity chef friend Jamie Oliver.
While the line-up is stunning — featuring Fatboy Slim, Jamie Cullum, Kelis, De La Soul, and Laura Mvula, the fast-living Blur bassist, gentleman farmer and father-of-five is today more interested in another arrival through the farm gates — thousands of colourful Lego bricks.
“The big news is that we’ve just had delivered a shipping container of Lego!” he tells me, while taking a break from a busy week which has seen him and his team putting the finishing touches to Oxfordshire’s smartest and safest music festival. “They’ve arrived in a box shaped like an enormous yellow Lego brick. The kids are very excited!”
Now in its fourth year, The Big Feastival has grown into a highlight of the summer — delightfully quirky and with an enviable line-up of musicians, entertainers and chefs — not to mention celebrity visitors.
Alex calls it a celebration of his three great loves: food, music and family. “That’s what motivates me to do this — and we got a really great mix this year,” he says.
“Jamie describes it as a turbo-charged village fete,” he laughs.
The festival gets underway at the mixed dairy and arable farm at in Kingham, near Chipping Norton, tomorrow, with, for the first time, a full programme on the Friday night.“Jamie describes it as a turbo-charged village fete,” he laughs.
The festival gets under way at the mixed dairy and arable farm at in Kingham, near Chipping Norton, tomorrow, with, for the first time, a full programme on the Friday night.
“The Big Feastival gets bigger and better every year,” says Alex proudly. “We’ve gone from 10,000 to 15,000 and now 20,000 people, and added an extra day.
“Having 20,000 people is quite a sweet spot. It means we keep our boutique feel, but can have an extra stage and a bit more. And more people want to come because they are happy with it.”
Music will also come from Cowley-based folk-pop band Stornoway, American r&b star Kelis, three-piece Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti, reggae act The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, Notting Hill Carnival stalwart Norman Jay, Ward Thomas, The Cuban Brothers, Duke and Molotov Jukebox.
For those arriving tomorrow, there will be sets by 80s legends Soul II Soul, along with Nathan Watson, Kimberley Anne and Levi Roots. There will also be special guest appearances from Abba and Fleetwood Mac tribute acts Bjorn Again and Fleetwood Bac.
The biggest name is surely Fatboy Slim — aka Norman Cook. “I called Norman and said ‘you’ve got to do it; you’ll love it!” says Alex. “And he didn’t need much encouragement!”
Alex James on stage with Jamie Oliver last year
Alex, who has developed his own range of cheeses while playing occasional shows with Blur, will be showing off his skills as a fromagier, while co-host Jamie will share kitchen techniques with fans. The culinary line-up will feature demon-strations and question-and answer-sessions by chef Gennaro Contaldo, one of the stars of BBC’s The Two Greedy Italians; Le Gavroche Sous Chef and MasterChef star Monica Galetti; and Ashley Palmer-Watts, Nathan Outlaw, Valentine Warner and barbecue expert Christ-ian Stevenson — aka DJ BBQ. Foodies can also join workshops in the Big Kitchen and have their fill of delights at stalls featuring the best of British street food, and the produce market.
For the children, there will be appearances from CBBC stars Justin Fletcher and Mr Bloom. Countryfile presenter Adam Henson will be bringing along animals from his Cotswold Farm Park at Guiting Power, and there will be hands-on fun in the Workshop and Little Dudes Den, including that Lego area, a vintage funfair, and that perennial favourite, Alex’s climbing haystack.
“I’m really happy with the music line-up,” he says. “The same goes for the food. Jamie is fantastic with food and there are some brilliant chefs involved — some of whom are coming back after being here before.
“There’s some great stuff going on — though we know the haystack is going to be the biggest hit! It’s been hard work — but it does you good. having 100 things to do gives you a sense of pleasure and torture at the same time. But it’s almost ready now. “Now we are just making it look really pretty.
“The festival flies up and comes down again really quickly. Two weeks after the event you wouldn't know 20,000 people had been here.”
Alex makes no secret of his attachment to the West Oxfordshire countryside, and the chance to take a step back from the dizzying whirl of showbiz.
“The farm and I needed each other,” he says. “It means everything to me. Coming here was a wake-up call. It was like jumping off a huge cliff. But it’s a regenerative thing.
“The countryside has risen me up on the crest of a wave and I love it. I felt at home from the moment I came here, and I’m not going anywhere else.
“The farm is a huge fountain of joy and everyone who comes here finds something they love. It’s a really beautiful part of the world and we’ve made something work, which is where the satisfaction comes from. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.
“It’s a 12-month bun fight to make it come together, but seeing all these happy faces is a wonderful thing. If you have a good idea, and work hard, it will pay off.”
He adds: “It’s taken a whole year of planning but it’s now happening. Now we’ve just got to light the touchpaper and stand back! I’m so excited!”
Following his star turn with the Cuban Brothers last year, is he planning on picking up his bass and taking to the stage with Jamie and any of the weekend’s other stars? “I could tell you... but I’d have to kill you!” he smiles.
“Playing with the Cuban Brothers was one of the best mom-ents of my life. And when Jamie and I are toge-ther, there is always a chance of interesting one-off things happening.”
The Big Feastival
Day tickets (£30-£55 adults) and weekend (£115 adults) available from jamieoliver.com/thebigfeastival or call 0844 995 9673. More on the door.