Houghton Festival 2017: A Review

The sellout status of Houghton Festival’s debut edition, plus the announcement of an extra day of programming added shortly before the Norfolk event, is testament to the cumulative esteem of its curator and producers. Needless to say the 7500 ticket-holders, many underground music aficionados, were expecting a great deal. At the very least if you knew who Craig Richards and Gottwood were, you knew this was going to be something special.

Gottwood are masters of intricately crafted production, decking the grounds of Grade I listed Houghton Hall out with a stylish set-up all too familiar to anyone who’s been to their Welsh wonderland. The unspoiled forest, the calming hues of multi-coloured lights accentuating its natural beauty, the house overlooking the lake; all made their contribution to an enchanting ambience that other small festivals can’t match. But for Houghton there was room for more. The increased nature in size compared to Gottwood warranted an extra designated grassy arena for more purpose-built stages, a solid selection of food vendors (shouts to that mac and cheese w/ crispy onions aka the stuff that dreams are made of) and some very well stocked albeit expensive bars with staff that couldn’t have been friendlier.

‘Art and music’ festival is perhaps a bit of a stretch for a description. There was some intermittently dispersed sculpture around the lake, and Craig Richards himself could be seen painting abstract faces on boards in the arena, but Houghton Hall’s permanent sculpture park was only accessible via a mini train with limited capacity and a bit of a minimal guided tour. Visiting it in gloomy overcast weather was a worthwhile venture though, and the fact you had the option of doing this at 6am to wind down after a night of music really was a nice touch.

This makes it all sound serene. But the reality was that much of the site became a setting for three days and four nights of debauchery. The vast proportion of sets were 3 – 4 hours long, which meant all the familiar names on the lineup delved far deeper than usual into their record bags, proving to us all exactly why Craig had personally invited them to play. It was all too easy to get sucked into one and find yourself having missed that live set you’d meant to see to mix things up a bit musically. Ditto the evening cinema and yoga sessions. But that’s this scene epitomised – same spot for hours on end losing all sense of time and obligation.

The festival had a 24-hour license, meaning the most hardcore ravers could carry on til 11am, if their bodies were strong enough to let them. One of the most notable moments was all of us feeling right to our core the relentless bass of Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos’ 8 hour set, which wrapped up at 11am on Sunday, regardless of being right there at the wooded Pavilion stage or tucked up in our sleeping bags. The fact this daytime raving was an option is breaking some quite extraordinary ground in the UK festival circuit.

The Giant Steps yurt built by London venue Brilliant Corners deserves a specific mention. Created in collaboration with The Analogue Foundation, it was a fully enclosed tent with a round wooden dance floor surrounded by plants, sophisticated mood lighting, four precisely placed hand crafted speaker stacks hooked up to individual amplifiers and 1970s turntables formerly used in BBC broadcasts. The brains behind it told me that they wanted to emulate an intimate house party vibe, where dancers enjoy the music facing each other rather than being fixated on the DJ. And it was a privilege to learn that the woofers were the very same used in Marvin Gaye’s studio for the recording of ‘Heard it through the Grape Vine’ in 1968. Yes, really. The attention to detail was astonishing. It was warmth I’d never quite felt at a festival before, and a sound system I’ll never forget.

[Giant Steps: Hunee]

Ben UFO’s set on Friday night in here was nothing short of ridiculous. Beginning with minimal mixing and an almost eerily slow pace, he crashed out of nowhere with Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggy Dogg World’ (writing this down is as entertaining as the moment itself was), and cruised through Pink Rhythm’s ‘Melodies of Love’ and Billy Paul’s ‘Only the Strong Survive’, before moving into polar opposite heavy territory with an audacious electro rework of Juan Atkins’ ‘Track Ten’ and some raucous jungle tracks. Only Ben can pull something like this off, and I couldn’t help but think an after party in his front room must be something along these lines. Floating Points too took full advantage of the intimacy on the Sunday evening; Faith Evans’ sexy R&B track ‘I don’t need it’ going down especially well, and Karl Denson’s jazz funk number ‘Bougainvillea’, really making you want to grab hold of the person next to you, stare into each other’s eyes, and embrace the connection shared by everyone in the room.

Outside the yurt, first impressions of the main ‘Derren Smart’ stage were that it was aesthetically quite commercial; think Radio 1’s Big Weekend with the DJ raised far away from the crowd and the backing visuals a little garish. But it was a nice spacious setting on Saturday afternoon for Derrick Carter’s set; the Chicago legend absolutely beaming as his audience swayed to The Revenge’s edit of ‘Cadillac’ by Hot Chocolate and other old-school disco jams. Nicolas Jaar’s set on Saturday night then completely changed my perspective of the stage, and made for probably the most euphoric few hours of the festival. It was two hours spanning multiple genres; the unrelenting stabs of electro belter ‘Peace of Mind’ by Claro Intelecto gave goosebumps early on, followed by a carefully mixed selection of original edits, including a sample of Rihanna’s BBHM that got everyone talking, leaving us all spellbound. Despite the desperation in recent days from members of The Identification of Music Group to find the ID’s of Jaar’s weird and wonderful creations, no matter how hard they seek, they shall not find, because many were no doubt one-offs that may never be released.

The Quarry stage, an aptly named rocky basin with the most impressive lighting on site, revealed to us some musical gold from some of the scene’s veterans. The godfather of smooth and mysterious mid-tempo progression, Andrew Weatherall, was outstanding; John Talabot’s remix of The Golden Filter’s ‘Kill Me’ being a personal familiar favourite. Then Optimo rocked up to deliver, for me, the best four hours of music of the entire festival. It was moody, dark and aggressive for the most part; electro intensity balanced with lighter arms-in-the-air 80s numbers like Timo Maas’ remix of ‘Enjoy the Silence’ and pacing house tracks ‘Ohh’ by Mood II Swing and Sparky’s ‘Black Swan’, a moment that had a few of us stopping briefly to exchange that look of ‘oh my god, what are we witnessing here’.

[The Quarry]

Craving some new music after watching so many of the scene’s crème de la crème, it was nice to branch out into unfamiliar territory. On Saturday night we headed to the whopping metal barn that was The Warehouse, for Akufen’s live set. It was primarily glittery, delicate piano-infused house that made for a mellow soundtrack to the sunrise between 4 and 6am, and with only about 50 of us there to enjoy it it felt like a private party. Who doesn’t love a bit of exclusivity? Seth Troxler on Sunday in the small and simple Magic Carpet stage (sadly not ‘The Magic Crumpet’, like we thought on day 1) was wholly enjoyable for new music’s sake too, playing fresh-out-the-kitchen releases – Four Tet’s twinkly ‘Planet’ and Grant’s Detroit house influenced ‘The Depth’ – by a few of our generation’s most stylish producers; on repeat since I got home from Norfolk.

So much quality music everywhere you turned. All through next-level sound systems that were so powerful we even deliberately lingered back at The Pavilion and The Quarry a few times to spare our ears (out of character, so says a lot). Where at so many electronic music events you have to compromise on sound quality for dancing space, this was far from the case at Houghton.

It was near-perfect summer weather throughout as well and the lack of phone signal forced sheer escapism on all of us, creating a staggering weekend altogether. It’s a remarkable achievement for the first edition and what will no doubt will be a staple each summer for many more years to come.

Julia Connor

(All images: Jake Davis, Hungry Visuals)