- Mon, 2011-09-12 17:48
Spread across three fields nestled around a lake in the heart of the Cambridgeshire countryside, Secret Garden Party is not so much a music festival as a temporary Shangri-La. As concerned with establishing an environment that draws out the silliness and creativity in everyone that attends as it is with compiling a line-up of amazing bands, musicians and DJs of all shapes, sizes and musical inclinations, it is a temporary community built on the principles of inclusivity and merry-making.
The site itself is a carefully crafted fantasy world. Clocks, birdcages, puppets and swings hang from trees, there is a helter skelter and a ferris wheel, a slide each of whose giant steps is a bed, a brace of mini-mazes in which to lose oneself, oversized versions of Hungry Hippos and Buckaroo, a village hall and croquet lawn and of course the lake, on which people float in rowing boats and punts, in which people swim, and at whose centre sits a floating stage under the shadow of a giant dragonfly. Food-stalls selling everything from Tibetan curries to paella to steak sandwiches line up next to tea houses, smoothie bars, boutique clothes stalls, beauty parlours, face-painting salons and gourmet ice cream vans. You can drop into the Never Ever Land Theatre for Shitfaced Shakespeare (it's exactly what it sounds like) or any number of sketch shows, slip between the ropes of the Town Hall boxing ring to try your chances in a dance-off, or head to the Collisillyum - a fortress made of hay bails - to indulge in some wrestling; be it the mud or the airborne sock variety (two contestants on bungee ropes attempt to de-sock one another).
Through all of this moves a constant flow of punters, many in outlandish fancy dress (kigus are particularly ubiquitous this year), drifting between the numerous stages or simply meandering about. The variety of musical styles on offer is vast. At Chai Wallah's we see classical music collide with big beats with the Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, sunny roots reggae from The Drop and Gypsy jazz from the impossibly energetic and crowd-pleasing Sheelanagig. On the amazing Where The Wild Things Are stage, surrounded by a tangle of twisted branches, we watch the up-and-coming pop-rocker Kyla La Grange, get a sneak peak at material from Slow Club's forthcoming second album and drift off to the soothing sound of singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich.
The main stage - situated in something approaching a natural amphitheatre - provides us with a pair of indie favourites on Friday night, Guillemots first charming us with their wistful flights of fancy before Mystery Jets headline later in the evening, managing to make everyone forget the weekend's only rainfall with a parade of irrepressible indie-pop gems. We follow them with a night hopping between the many dance tents. The Valley Of Antics offers an amazing array of dubstep, techno and future-garage (Throwing Snow gets us particularly excited when he drops Ramadanman followed by Wiley), but it's in the London Leisure Pirate's tiny Lion Air tent that we settle, raving until the sun comes up with a packed house of no more than fifty people.
On Saturday evening it's Blondie's turn on the main stage. Despite suffering from a lack of volume and being forced to vie for attention with an enormous, all-singing all-dancing dinosaur skeleton, she gets bodies moving with her classics. The party really kicks off with the ritual Saturday evening firework display and burning of the aforementioned giant Dragonfly, followed by a set by Leftfield so good that several of our party label it life-changing. There follows another night of tent-hopping, from disco-house in the hypnotizing surrounds of the laser dome to deep house in Team Love's tent. The undisputed highlight of the night is a secret show by Mr Bruce of The Correspondents, who treats the Lion Air tent to a rare glimpse of his ragga emcee alter-ego. There is nothing quite like seeing an ex-public school boy in an exquisitely tailored suit crowd-surfing while delivering rhymes of which a veteran junglist would be proud.
At the main stage on Sunday we are soothed by the bossa nova-come-jazz of singer-songwriter and comedian Earl Okin, treated to a brief history of everything reggae courtesy of the legendary David Rodigan and sweet-talked by the gentle beauty of Mancunians I Am Kloot. Soul legends Martha Reeves and the Vandellas are headlining, but we opt instead to relocate to the Remix Bubble, where Andy C whips the crowd into an absolute frenzy with a set of drum and bass so rowdily anthemic that some members of the audience are moved to scale the dome's inner scaffolding and rave from on high. Sadly there is a site-wide musical curfew of midnight, so afterwards we hole ourselves up in a tea-house to let our adrenaline levels return to normal, to chew over our favourite moments of the weekend and to try and fend off the inevitable return to reality for as long as possible.
Secret Garden Party is a very special festival indeed. It manages to be both intimate and expansive at the same time; a leisurely stroll from one end of the festival site to the other will take you no more than fifteen minutes, but over the course of your journey you will pass a wealth and variety of entertainment sufficient to keep you busily engrossed for a week. The atmosphere is relaxed or electric depending on where you choose to venture, but always convivial. Leaving on Monday morning for London's concrete sprawl and crush of disinterested strangers left us yearning for just a little bit longer in the Garden. Until next year…