Review of The Secret Garden Party in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire 23-27th July 2009 .
The Secret Garden Party has the boutique festival vibe down to a T! It's no surprise they won Best Small Festival last year and I can't imagine any other event pipping them to the post this year. It's less of a music festival and more of a four-day surreal party, a way of life.
Everything was hassle free; getting in, parking, getting around, it all reflected the laid back atmosphere. On entering the site you were transported into a beautiful enchanted world; magical forests, secret walkways, streams and little bridges - lanterns and streamers hanging from the trees. The focal point was the Great Lake which housed a floating disco with the huge wooden Tower Of Babel on top of it. This was surrounded by a little flotilla of boats, floats and punts - there was even an area for swimming and a surprising number of festival goes took the plunge! The highlight of Saturday night was the 'ritual' burning of the tower; compete with fireworks and swarms of Chinese lanterns rising into the night sky.
Everywhere you looked there was something surreal to catch your eye; it was a real feast for the senses. There were art installations, sculptures, the Hungamunga crowd ran a tent where you could let your creative arty juices flow for free, and we even spotted a band doing their set whilst suspended from a tree! The attention and care put into the event was evident; there were plenty of places to rest weary legs in-between dance offs; straw bales covered in red velour, hammocks and big cushions planted strategically under the trees - the organisers had thought of everything!
The festival goers played as big a part as the acts and they all got into the spirit of the party with fancy dress more common than not. From the ridiculous to the sublime; there were Smurfs, peacocks, Victorian costume, burlesque dress and then there were those who just adorned themselves in paint, glitter and lycra.in fact if you got home and you were not still covered in glitter, you had missed out!
And as if that wasn't enough, there were 101 random relaxing or hedonistic things to do at any one time. Whether it was yoga, sock fighting, summer snow boarding, hula, late night jelly-fighting or feeding the mind with one of the educational talks, there was always something to fill the time. A popular hangout was the straw bale Coliseum or Coli 'Silly' Um as it was aptly named. It housed the brilliant guys of Bearded Kitten who ensured that the music was thumping, the fancy dress was weird and the activities and games even weirder. Where else can you watch naked mud wrestling at two o'clock in the afternoon?!
The music almost played second fiddle to all the madness that was going on and there were so many stages, it is impossible to cover them all - but there were some really great bands performing. And although it would be a shame to miss out on some of the names on the bill, part of the beauty of the Secret Garden Party was stumbling upon little stages and impromptu performances. In keeping with the laid back vibe, the stage times were a bit hit and miss and although some bands suffered, it didn't seem to worry the majority of festival goers who were happy to wander in and out and see what they could. Despite this, Contactmusic.com managed to see a huge array of talent; here are our highlights.
The Great Stage
Again the attention to detail won out - the Great Stage (in keeping with the Eden theme) was in the shape of a serpent with giant fangs. Set in a natural amphitheatre the view and sound was spot on.
Jarvis Cocker was the main big name at the event and despite rumours that he might, he didn't play any Pulp songs which was a bit of a disappointment. But his solo material went down a storm, with Angela and Black Magic proving the favourites. He played to the crowd in the way only Jarvis can and it led to a mass stage invasion before he politely asked people to get off the stage so he could finish his set. The Do woke a lazy afternoon crowd with their eclectic euro-pop and Phoenix were also a high point of the weekend.
Where The Wild Things Are
This was a winning stage with an eclectic line up. It was intimate but had a great sound and was tented to keep the rain out.
The Golden Silvers' Friday night set was the highlight here and drew huge enthusiastic crowds. The trio's performance amid an atmospheric light show was one to remember; their rhythm, spot on vocals and emotive lyrics won out with True Romance and Arrows Of Eros getting the biggest reaction.
What happened to the stage time of the Chew Lips, I have no idea, but we managed to catch the end of their set and these guys just get better and better. Their electro synth-pop sounds, Tigs' distinctive vocals and strong stage presence are clear throughout. As the tinny beats and the catchy vocals of the popular Solo kick in, it makes you wonder why these guys aren't higher up on the industry's agenda.
We Have Band played a little earlier than billed but still drew a decent crowd with their funky disco-rock tunes. Dede WP was stunning, dressed head to toe in silver and with vocals to match; the band commanded the stage and the brilliant Oh and You Came Out showed just what they are capable of.
The Invisible played a highly charged set to a capacity tent, and the reaction they got from the crowd was immense. So much so, that the compare struggled to announce the Kooks' 'secret gig' over the shouting and it was only when Luke took to the stage and launched into Ooh La that people actually realised what was going on.
The discovery of the weekend was Run Toto Run; playing electronic folk-pop they combine keys and synths with a violin and Rachel Kitchenside's beautiful breathy vocals and stage presence captivated the audience and drew stragglers in from outside!
The Remix Vs Ninja Stage
Housed in a huge purple and white tent, with a booth like stage and a bar attached - this was the place for entertainment throughout the night. But it was a couple of early evening acts that caught our eye.
As Contactmusic.com predicted the MidiMidis didn't disappoint, pulling off a great set despite an over zealous smoke machine! Their fragile retro equipment producing the most inventive amazing sound we've heard in ages, like no other midi 8 bit band. That coupled with an accomplished guitarist, beautiful emotive vocals and a frantic energy to their performance, made their set one of the highlights of the weekend!
Sunday afternoon saw a much more chilled out affair when London based hip hop artist Speech Debelle captivated the crowds with songs from her Mercury Prize nominated album Speech Therapy - definitely one to watch.
When we got home, we were still covered in glitter and two days later, I'm still smiling from the whole experience. It's strange that at the end of the festival you almost feel like you have missed out a bit. There is so much music to see so much fun to be had and only four days - all the more reason to go back next year.