Review of the Secret Garden Party Festival in Huntingdon on 22-25th July 2010

The Secret Garden Party came into bloom once more during a generally glorious July weekend. 15,000 people, or Gardeners as they are affectionately known, gathered in the fields around an ornate and picturesque lake to let their exuberant side shine for a few days. Costumes and characters were in abundance in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Demographically speaking there were more cross-dressing men than you could expect to see if you devoted a year long run of Jeremy Kyle shows to them 'Transformers', the boutique hilariously brought to life in Miranda, or whatever its High Street equivalent is, must have done a roaring trade pre-festival!

This years Garden Party theme of Fact Or Fiction was broken down into four main areas of Adventures & Inventions, Twilight & Voodoo, Edge Of The Future and Dreams & Fables. Each themed area was individually bedecked and thoughtfully accessorised. There was even an abundance of Art dotted around, from the glass and metal wave machine of Tom Wilkinson, the Kirk Simpson "phantasmagorically synaethetic installation", Fractopus, through to the mid-lake 'Blimp' constructed with the help of The Pirate Technics group. There was an Alice In Wonderland style tea party, an enormous sand sculpture that took shape over the course of the weekend, as well as a Circus for kids and an early hours 'Skandalous' casino. In fact there was so much going on it was impossible to enjoy it all. The 'Dave Off', a competition to find the best Dave, would be a casualty of my scheduling, such were the plethora of choices before me. If you wanted to ditch the music for the weekend you would still struggle to fit it all in.

Secret Garden Party

Having arrived on Friday and found our bearings based around the strategically placed land marks of The Ferris Wheel, Helter Skelter and the Pontoon Bridge, we soaked up the sun by the Pavilion. Whilst contemplating our next move, over some very nice sausage n' Mash aside the Remix tent, it was already clear that the atmosphere was building nicely, people had come to have fun, and for this weekend at least, there was no such thing as being over dressed.

Later that afternoon those with an abundant wardrobe, and quick access to the showers, had at this point, opted to enter The Collosillyum, a four walled, three tiered auditorium of mayhem amidst the Edge Of The Future arena. The mud wrestling spectacle was a big crowd puller and vantage points to catch the action, and avoid the water hose, were at a premium. The back flip somersault entry of one 'Gladiator' was particularly impressive.

Opposite the Neanderthal near nakedness Kids On Bridges set the Remix Tent alight with their North-Eastern blend of dirty filthy electro beats and pop panache. Christian and Danny +1, worked the crowd up nicely with cracking versions of Anywhere But In The Middle, the straight to the point, no nonsense Y Don't U and an interrupted "We've lost the drums, this doesn't happen to The Gorillaz" finale of Check Your Head.

The Lovely Eggs brought some very humorous and delightful ditties brilliantly to life over on the 'Where The Wild Things Are' stage. The duo of Holly and Dave, one of many performing at different venues around the site over the weekend, captured carefully observed scenarios delivered with a Northern Lancaster twang in a ShireHorses meets Billy Bragg kinda way. The eventual car journey home was enlivened by our rendition of their ultimate 'Earworm' Digital Accordion, a song once heard you will find difficult to dislodge, it's that damn catchy.

Over on the Great Stage Goldheart Assembly were gradually gathering the Gardeners with their very melodic and harmonious tunes, whilst southern French outfit Gagadilo layed down some very impressive Ska laden instrumental grooves over at the Planet Of Antics. Steve Mason, he of The Beta Band, warmed the crowd up still further on the main stage with a very Elbow esc set. Heart clearly glued to his sleeve he mixed in a little Beautiful South soulfulness and at one point sounded like The Eels doing Jungle Telegraph. The Boys Outside saw Steve and his band perfectly in tune with each other to deliver their best song of the day. The Jessie Rose Trip were in fittingly frenetic form prior to the headline act. With her Kate Nash hair do, speaker stack guitar solo and unstoppable pogo-ing this girl was wired. You Won't Forget Me Boy, think Lady Ga Ga meets the B52's, rounded off an energy packed set.

A quick run down to the Where The Wild Things Are (WTWTA) stage to catch more comedic capers courtesy of Naive New Beaters. Tongue, firmly in cheek the trio of electronic wizard, guitarist (Martin Luther BB King) and vocalist (Borrowing one of JK's hats) were somewhere between Madness and The Beastie Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads and Happy Mondays thrown in for good measure. "You guys are the most elegantly dressed we've ever seen, I see some boats, I see some potatoes." he chortled.

Marina and the Diamonds headlined the Main Stage on Friday night. Marina looked resplendent in ankle length black dress, white blouse and matching day-glo nail varnish and lip stick, the shade of a Dyno-Rod van! She captivated the late evening crowd with a set list drawn largely from The Family Jewels. 'Girls', 'I Am Not A Robot', 'Obsession' and 'Seventeen' ensured that the gathered Gardeners were digging her groove. "This is the first Festival I have ever headlined, thank you." she most humbly admitted. Marina mixed up the tempo with punchy numbers and exquisite piano accompanied slow ballads, her voice cutting through the moonlit night with perfect clarity. A day "stranger than fiction" was certainly one not to forget.

After a cup of splosh from an old Citroen van, somehow infinitely better than that from the white Transit that sits outside your local B&Q, The Momeraths got Saturday started with their almost Belle & Sebastian sound. Clare, a fan of The Mystery Jets ..."I'm quitting this band and joining theirs." and her band were on fine form closing with The Boyfriend Song and A Single Cup Of Tea before packing up the ironing board once more. There were to be few lowlights to Saturday after such a pleasant beginning.

Kate Walsh owned the main stage during her midday set. Her voice was epic, filling the sun drenched arena with her finely honed instrument together with guitar and a sublime cello. "Hope you're all feeling sleepy" she said as she set about entertaining the crowd with superb versions of the Seafarer, June Last Year and As He Pleases. Next up Sarah Blasko, the Ausie decamped in England to try and win us over, skipped through her numbers whilst dancing like Aunt Sally and being prompted by the band to "Sell it, Sell it." Unfortunately her haunting overtures seemed unable to win over the subdued crowd. I Blame Coco faired a lot better and drew in the first substantial crowd of the day....."You're a brilliant crowd, probably the best." she commented.

Over at WTWTA an Iraqi magician, by the name of Kasrani, was making the introductions.."You are the people and somewhere there is Will." Troubled Pro kicked off a joyously lively set that had the crowd increase in number with ever new tune. The Ska and Reggae infused sound was just the ticket in the summer sun. A party atmosphere was quickly created with Will And The People's infectious blend. Lion In The Morning Sun and Mr Sketchy, both from their forthcoming album, helped keep the dance floor hooked to the beat of a band clearly enjoying SGP as much as its gardeners. The free laughing gas went down a treat too, and this was just one of their 3 gigs, on 3 stages within 6 hours.

Taking in the mini BMX racers, water slide and watching a very hotly contested instalment at the seemingly always busy Dance Off Stage was exhausting enough to warrant food. 1x Chicken & Ham pie, chips and gravy later, I was suitably equipped for the first of the early evening treats.

Pearl And The Puppets gently took you by the hand into the sun lit summer evening. With her happy disposition and skippy beats the Scotts singer, actually called Kate, had a disarming manner as she played her way through Because I Do, Mango Tree and the more up tempo crowd pleaser Make Me Smile. Pearl And The Puppets is a 2010 take on Altered Images, with similarly fine pop credentials.

Continuing in the same vein but upping the ante somewhat I headed over to The Living Room, a tent of modest proportions that wouldn't look out of place on the village green in Midsomer Murders. Furnished splendidly with arm chairs, sofas, sideboards and chandeliers the venue was packed to the rafters with eager onlookers. The booking of Eliza Doolittle was made well in advance of her recent chart topping stardom. Billed more as a folk/acoustic tent and serving tea and crumpets it was fabulously mismatched. Eliza tore through her eight numbers with great enthusiasm and giddy energy. "This is the most beautiful festival I've ever been to. I've got a boyfriend right, but you're all so beautiful." From her opening track Missing right through to the recent singles Skinny Genes and Pack Up* Eliza and her band of barber shop fashioned boys delighted the crowd in the very, very hot tent.(* Eliza was later guest to Gorillaz Sound System on The Great Stage to perform a dub-step encore of her hit Pack Up).

Time to take up a prime vantage point for another must see event. The Blimp, a mid-lake dance floor with a paper zeppelin atop its structure, serviced by various landing craft, had until a few hours ago been pumping up the volume with floor fillers. Now, with a back drop of a magnificent fireworks display, it was set alight, literally. The flames lit up the night as the whoops of joy that followed each ascending firework sounded out across the sky. Chinese lanterns floated through the air as the Blimp burnt into nothing but the original frame work. A really breath taking spectacle.

Whisking my way through the huge assembled crowds I made my way back to the Living Room to catch most of the latter part of James Yuill's set. It was well worth the effort. The one man show managed easily to fill the room as if he were a six piece band. The synth heavy electro beats were very well received. "It's hot in here, I'd like to think that's my creation, if that's all right." The penultimate song This We Love saw choreographed morris dancers before James asked the crowd for its choice of closer "Choice, climactic shit or No Surprise? ....Yeah Yeah, I'm playing No Surprise." Crowd pleased, job done.

Sunday morning started with a borrowed conundrum over heard from a nearby tent. Posing the question, once asked by Alan Partridge, the fellow camper who's conversation I was ear wigging addressed his audience...."Who is the best Lord? Lord of the Rings; Lord of the Dance or Lord of the Flies?" A fittingly fantasy flavoured ponder on the last day of SGP.

An early morning acoustic set by The Hoodlums in the Press Tent was followed by an enchanting experience over in The Small World Tent. The Half Sisters, a trio of 2 sisters, Isadora (Mesmerising), Freya-Rose (If Nina from 24 ever had a daughter this is what she'd look like) and best friend Fifi all from Brighton gave a deliciously charming performance. The pixie and harlequin dressed girls, who are about to release their first EP, beguiled the crowd with their Ukulele, flute and acoustic guitar set of delicately bright and perky tunes, the best of which were Our Dancing Skeletons and Come On Louise. For me, easily the find of the Festival.

Anna Calvi was a further delight later at WTWTA, with her velvet voice and wonderful guitar playing. Billed as "One of the best female guitarists around" she gave a performance that was at times stunning and didn't merit the somewhat sexist programme description. Watched by a couple wearing matching Disco Ball crash helmets I'm not sure that the American was ever quite at home. A solo of metal proportions rounded off her set, whilst across the way two men dressed as Ice Creams reached the front of the queue at the Ice Cream van and fittingly bought a couple of 99's.

Sunday also saw Panda Su do her best Kiss meets Donny Darko impression whilst singing songs about Bees but failing to connect. Ivan Campo returned to The Living Room to do a Paolo Nutini at quarter speed and Drugstore enlivened the barely awake Sunday crowd with her choice language and 'Heroin Chic'.( I think she forgot the chic part). The man dancing in his speedo's, who was rapturously chanted off to "Speedo's Speedo's Speedo's" was the highlight of their set. Greenland's Nive Nielsen & The Dear Children were a nice curiosity with their Blue Hotel like Pirate Song a layed back treat.

Enter 59 year old DJ David Rodigan to get the party restarted. His love of Jamaica and its music got the crowd back in the summer time vibe. Giving a brief lesson with various tunes he got the ever increasing crowd to their feet. Dreadzone, and then Horace Andy, didn't let up and kept the crowds at the Great Stage moving. The Reggae and Ska flavoured dance hall beats were spot on. The hill was packed with well chilled revellers, all in great spirits and fabulous costumes. Keith Richard's, The Mad Hatter and a male Marilyn could all be seen enjoying Andy's big sound.

Darwin Deez
took control over at WTWTA. Their set was broken up with fantastically choreographed pieces between tracks. The stages biggest crowd of the weekend witnessed a take on Thiller and Automatic as well as a game of spin the bottle......"If it lands on a dude no tongues, if it's a girl, a bit of tongue." Darwin, with a head band suitable for a 118 118 commercial, worked the crowd like no other that day. He evenhad a small set of screaming fans in the wings. The enjoyment was clearly mutual as they played a blistering set complete with Constellations and Radar Detector.

More Ska heavy tunes were to be heard over on the main stage courtesy of Skatelites. Following nicely on from the afternoon and early evening slots, started by DJ Rodigan, I couldn't help feel that they were an odd precursor to Sundays headliners, but then that is just one of the joys of the non-corporate, fun flavoured, other worldly joy that is SGP. Mercury Rev took to the stage with a presence of ownership and belief that was evident throughout their accomplished performance. The experience of years filling stadiums paid dividends as the band of brilliant musicians rounded off a weekend that was as good as they come.

The costumes were looking a little weary and battered around the edges. The size ten stilettos had run their course and the sand sculpture had been obliterated. No more topless beauties would revolve around the Helter Skelter and the Pink Plane Car had made its last journey. The stilt walkers had climbed down and pole dancers of The Last Aid had spun their last. The Fabulous Flirt Factory was closed for business. The Secret Garden Party 2010 was at an end and for all its imagery and themes its best tag line was still to be found in the final part of the directions to get there......."The Secret Garden Party, you can't miss us." and nor would you want to.

Andrew Lockwood.

Pictures in order; Holly from The Lovely Eggs, Kate Walsh, Sarah Blasko, Pearl & The Puppets.

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