Secret Garden Party Review: The hippie utopia proves that smaller festivals can be just as exhilarating as their bigger cousins

Secret Garden Party (SGP) might be small, but it is a perfectly-formed festival situated in the heart of Cambridgeshire. Attracting big-name acts, rising stars, and a whole raft of brilliant food and drink stands as well those stalls that only seem to sell clothes made of patchwork-cloth, the halcyon days I spent there were sun-drenched and wonderful. The festival proved that, in terms of festival experience, size really doesn’t matter: Secret Garden Party is a hidden gem in the UK festival scene.

The first thing that strikes you about the festival is how generally chilled-out the festival is – it’s a far-cry from the seething masses of Glastonbury or Isle of Wight Fest. The sun was out, which aided the festival’s pleasant vibe; SGP is a festival that’s geared towards the sun. It’s surely one of the only festivals where you can swim outdoors. It is definitely the only festival where you can do this and listen to minimal techno coming from the stage the outdoor ‘pool’ borders. This particular stage was the Lost Woods Stage, hidden in a copse.

The stage played host to loads of great DJs, in particular to one of the best artists I saw all weekend, the incredible Eats Everything. He didn’t put a foot wrong during his entire set and, despite it being a Thursday night, it still felt like a culmination of the whole festival.

Another hotly anticipated DJ was DJ Shadow, playing the Next Stage on Friday night. His unique blend of avant-garde hip-hop, trip-hop, ambient and electronica drew a large crowd. Though the set occasionally got a bit tiresome, he was technically incredible. His mixing was sublime, adding his own colour using scratching and live drums. You can see the progression from giants like DJ Shadow to the couple of the less impressive DJs who played the Next Stage on Thursday night; they were playing great tracks but in terms of actual DJing, they were useless.

Although they, the ‘Resident DJs’, were streets behind DJ Shadow and Eats Everything, it’s testament to one of SGPs best aspects: the huge range of music on offer. You had a full musical evolution, from new bands like Swim Deep and Ardyn, to established artists like DJ Shadow and Caribou, then into the old guard, with artists like Air and David Rodigan.

SGP is not all about music, however. There are all manner of stalls and food and drink places, meaning you are given the full festival experience. There were countless mouth-watering food places that I couldn’t begin to name them all, but one place of note I found myself in on Friday afternoon was The Whiskey Lounge for a whiskey tasting. I smelled it the proper way according to the compere, I sipped it the proper way and, yet, it still hurt. Of course it did, it’s whiskey. However, for whiskey lovers, I’m sure it must have been great. The Whiskey Lounge people were a lovely bunch and clearly had a real passion for their disgusting drink. A festival that is able to cater to all tastes, both musically and literally.

Every year at SGP, there’s a theme, and this year it was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Whilst on the theme of drinks and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, SGP had made their interpretation of the infamous Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (PGGB), the drink that’s akin to ‘having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick’. While the effects weren’t quite as powerful as their accompanying tagline, the drink was still weird and wonderful and just as strong. The theme brilliantly pulled everything together with a consistent space-age aesthetic, from the stalls, to the stages, right down to the programme.

If the PGGB was akin to having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick, watching Swim Deep on the Friday afternoon was akin to having your head gently slapped by a lukewarm lettuce leaf. I was expecting inoffensive pop and their set started with inoffensive pop, and ended with inoffensive pop. There were a few tolerable slightly Primal Scream-esque acid house moments, but they sounded slightly tacked on, like they’ve listened to Acid Trax and gone ‘hey now, this is *real* music’, let’s imitate this instead!’ Better but equally samey were Friday headliners Maribou State. There were some nice moments in their set, which comprised of dreamy minimal electronica, but it mostly just blended into one. I was told by one reveller that once she stopped listening and allowed it to become background music, and after that it was really quite nice. But this isn’t really what you want from a Friday night headliner.

Another band that deserves a mention were the Gloucestershire-based Thee Ones. Although I only caught twenty minutes on Friday night, their rollicking set of psych and r ‘n’ b was superb – definitely ones to watch. Another band to look out for are another band from Gloucestershire, Ardyn, who played to a slightly hungover, dazed crowd on a baking hot, muggy Sunday morning. Interestingly, their set had more of aggression than their recordings. Their second track, ‘Bologna’, was quite heavy compared to some of their other songs. That being said, most songs followed a similar pattern, all ethereal vocals and gossamer-light melodies. Aside from an affected American accent on ‘The Garden’, the vocals were definitely the stand-out point.

One of the acts I was most looking forward to was Caribou, who were the main event on Saturday night. Unfortunately, the set turned out to be a little samey, although there were still some great moments, like ‘Sun’ and of course, ‘Odessa’ which rounded of their set perfectly, landing like a PGGB. It was also great to see lots of acoustic instruments used onstage to make their complex electronica.

It might seem that there wasn’t a huge amount of artists that were really phenomenal, and you’d be right. However, SGP is such a great festival in of itself that this really doesn’t matter; this is a great and rare thing, and the atmosphere more than made up for any gaps perhaps left by the musicians themselves.

On Sunday afternoon, you could see smell David Rodigan’s set before you saw it. And, by that, I mean the sheer scale of the regular cumulus cloud of cannabis smoke floating about the crowd. Rodigan surprisingly drew what was probably the biggest crowd I saw all festival with his mixture of old school dancehall and dub. Again, the range of acts that SGP booked was on show. You had Ardyn, The Young Pretenders, then straight after, the veterans of Rodigan then The Temper Trap – there was something to suit all musical tastes. The band played their song (you know the one I mean), and it was a moment of beauty.  Apart from the haze that is ‘Sweet Disposition’, the band provided some brilliant fuzz bass on a few of the songs. Dougy Mandagi’s vocal’s were also consistently fantastic, sounding like a cross between a Moog and a Theremin. Although I only saw the last ten minutes of Mt Wolf’s set on the Next Stage, they blew me away. The singer had a completely unique voice, and their cross between shoegaze, slowcore and choral music was another highlight. Especially, their last song ‘Hex’, which battered the sparse crowd into a trance.

The real hot ticket though for Sunday night was for French electronica titans Air on the main stage. Though it took a while for their set to really get going, once it did, it was great. They had obviously tried to evolve their songs for live performance which is commendable, but often they weren’t evolved enough. Having said this, ‘Alpha Beta Gaga’, ‘Sexy Boy’ and their superlative closer ‘La Femme D’Argent’ were all highlights of the whole festival.

You can often separate the good festivals from the great ones by how much is still going on way into the wee smalls (Reading closes at 11pm, go figure). Thee Ones played from 3am on Friday night till the sun came up. Even in the graveyard of Monday morning, right up till about 6.30am, there was still a tent serving booze, and some DJs playing bangers – that’s real value for money (the beers weren’t). This comes back to the generally lovely vibe of the festival. Even the constant procession of drug dealers past the tent did little to dampen the atmosphere. The security guards were constantly friendly and polite, everyone was nice to each other in that special festival atmosphere wayand it was the sun was out for all to see.

For fear of descending into hippie prate, I’ll round up by saying that SGP is not just one of the best smaller festivals, but certainly one of the best festivals in the UK.

Will Ainsley

Image: FestivalMag

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