Secret Garden Party 2016 continues to lead the way as the UK’s most pioneering and endearing major festival.
In a summer of uncertainty, you could be forgiven for avoiding festivals for fear of washouts. Few could have predicted the outrageous sunshine that blazed over Secret Garden Party this year, so all the more credit for those 35,000 odd revellers who were so richly rewarded.
Despite not selling out for the first time in years, this year’s festival was a success. Not only was the weather superb, but the left field line-up delivered an unusual and somewhat original event. Headliners were not super bands, nor was the line-up bulging with must-see names — but that has always been SGP’s way, with the festival offering a great deal more besides your run of the mill offerings in every farmers field across the land.
Like many of the better field-based gatherings, festivities start on the Thursday, and NEN wasted no time diving in following a somewhat disorganised entry procedure. No matter, with an abundance of treats on offer there was playtime to be had.
After some hours pottering about, tasting the other worldly delights on offer, an early woodland disco in the Labyrinth enclosure soon turned all the more serious at The Drop. Here, Hot Since 82 and The Martinez Brothers showed a callous disregard to the fact that it was only Thursday with some energetic – albeit quiet – sets straddling the boarders between darker house and techno.
Morning arrived like a kick in the teeth and we – like everyone else – camped outside the oven-like tents prostrate and pretty much naked due to the intense heat. Luckily for us, some midday relief arrived in the form of Natty’s chilled reggae which was about as upbeat as we could manage given the conditions. Taking refuge under the shade of the main stage tree, we witnessed some magic scenes that only Secret Garden Party can offer. A couple of gentleman played ‘throw the hat onto my head’, cheered on by hundreds of people each time a successful head landing was made. As Natty rounds his 45 minute set off with ‘I’m Alive’, baby frogs skip over the crowd, making their way from the top of the hill to the pond below.
The Skints are next on The Great Stage, increasing the tempo and adding oomph into the reggae vibes left by Natty, infusing their ska and punk overtones to the mix. The crowd love it, dancing like they’re not doing so in 30 degree heat. After catching a taste of Little Comets, we swung past The Maze stage to catch a little bit of Future Disco’s takeover. The stage is one of the many hidden, underplayed wonders that SGP does like no other major festival. A fallout bunker of sorts is found at its centre, with a delightful assortment of weird and wonderful characters patrolling the area. Among our favourites are a near-naked, tree hugging couple with the woman dominating her man, who is on all fours and at the mercy of his sexy, yet frightening partner by way of a dog lead.
After a little more Great Stage entertainment from Band of Skulls and Maribou State – who gave solid, but very different performances – the night descends into trips to The Pagoda and The Drop. While Eats Everything struts his stuff on The Drop, a total lack of timings for The Pagoda (and Labyrinth) means that no one has a clue who is playing. While few seem to mind, it is rather annoying, but not half as frustrating as the complete lack of volume emanating from the speakers as the hour grows late. Conversations should not be able to be had in the middle of the crowd, much less right next to speakers. Sadly, the music is barely audible and a bit of a vibe-killer…
After very little sleep and yet more sun induced pain, we took refuge in the woods throughout Saturday afternoon. The sumptuous shade and cooler climate were just what the doctor ordered. Sheltered, we caught By The Rivers for a captivating blending of ska, dub and soul that seemed as smooth as the iced drinks available from the forest bars.
Down the wooded pathway a little later we awaited the arrival of A Guy Called Gerald, who fails to show. Too chilled to be bothered; we appreciate some more of the wonderful people on display here. A young father does his best to entertain his three young daughters with classic cool dad-dancing, nuzzling each one with such warmth it’s difficult not to feel moved. Such is the relaxed and friendly atmosphere that the few families at SGP neither feel out of place or a nuisance for those wanting to party hard, something else that sets SGP apart from other sizeable festivals. Before leaving the Lost Woods Disco, we caught a version of Underground Transition’s ‘Resistance’, and happily ponder answers to questions the song poses: “Are you happy with your life? Your Friends? With what you are doing?” An unequivocal ‘yes’ on all fronts right now, thank you very much.
Fireworks are a given at any festival, yet SGP’s definitely rank pretty highly since they have the giant lake and props like a pyramid to play with. Submotion Orchestra’s set sees a (successful) marriage proposal, one of three we witness over the weekend, and then Caribou play the main stage as the night moves in. More nighttime missions to find a stage with decent sound quality again proved fruitless even with Jackmaster’s Mastermix featuring the likes of Craig Richards, Laura Jones and Skream. A real shame, and a wonder given the how remote the Garden is.
Sunday saw a repeat of the mad dash towards the sactuary of the main stage hill, with fresh gin and tonics on ice the only surefire way of combating sun-induced fatigue. Hot 8 Brass Band were an unexpected, but very welcome fusion of brass based jazz and funk, with their extended version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ the stand out tune in a set of genuine brilliance. Not quite as great, but palpably more entertaining was Beardyman. One of those ever present names that you never end up watching, we were amazed with the man’s versatility and outright bravery, and the crowd appreciated his unashamed, genre spanning performance.
The Paint Fight – one of SGP’s staple events – saw a sea of dust and colour settle before David Rodigan entered the fray, building on the silliness. Paying tribute to the late Desmond Dekker, who’s band The Aces performed next as a tribute to the reggae legend; who left us with such delights as ‘The Israelites’. Returning after Dekker and band mate Delroy Williams played and were consultants on the first Secret Garden Party 2005, the legend’s restored red Mercedes 190E was raffled off – a great prize with doubtless stories to tale.
As the evening drifted off, other festivities included the Dance Off Finals, and performances from Temper Trap and French band Air. Having been drained all weekend, a surprising amount of people stuck around to watch both from the comfort of the hill — and it was a fitting end to a relaxed festival. Before the evening rolled in, a couple of stunt planes played overhead, writing messages into the dusky sky, leaving a couple of hearts and the audience open mouthed. No sizeable festival compares when it comes to the details and idiosyncrasies of SGP, and despite a few sound issues we can safely say that the festivals’ reputation remains intact; that SGP 16 became the first UK based event to offer drug testing is a testament to its pioneering spirit that pervades here.
The theme this year was The Gardeners Guide To The Galaxy, and there was plenty of other worldly pleasures on offer from the outright stupid through to the mesmerising.
We’ll be back.