Friday 25th to Sunday 27th July 2014 – Secret Garden Party @ Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon
Words: Patrick Davies
Secret garden Party returned to Abbots Ripton in Cambridgeshire to celebrate its decade anniversary last weekend. Having grown to be bigger and better every year since its inaugural outing, what started as a reaction to the monotony and predictability of mainstream festivals is now one of the most anticipated events of the summer calendar.
The organisers seem to have taken the extra pressure in their stride though - with weird, wonderful and downright spectacular goings on ready surprise lucky ticket holders as soon as they are through the gates. This year they went for a Wizard of Oz-themed vibe, or more specifically ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’.
Over the weekend, numerous punters can be seen indulging in the kind of hedonism that could be considered a little subversive to be part of the famous family-friendly musical, but the magic is certainly present right from the start.
Upon entering the festival through the pedestrian gate at the foot of the site, a world of enchanting fixtures can be sampled before any of the main stages are underway. The Sanctuary offers an instant wind-down for those who want to keep their psyche on the level, although the sauna and hot tubs don’t quite prove as popular as expected amid a weekend that hosts some of the most searing temperatures of the summer.
However, those wanting more of a cool off don’t have far to go far, with inflatable water slides cascading down the mound in the centre of the field and the shade of the birch trees that populate the intriguing Badger Woods at the north side of the festival.
Once everyone is pitched up, it’s time for the soundtrack to kick off. Since day once, Secret Garden Party has strived to curate line-ups that might raise the odd eyebrow (and for a few maybe even underwhelm), but for vibrancy and genre-hopping unpredictability, there aren’t many that can better it.
On the Great Stage, by far the largest on site, all-girl blues-rock duo Deap Vally can be heard coercing some eager revellers to bring out the air guitars before the first afternoon is even up. Perhaps suited better to the rumbling confines of a sweaty tent than an open air arena, but all look entertained nonetheless.
A stone’s throw from the main stage is the Where the Wild Things Are field, which plays host to a foliage-decorated performance area, where (during the festival’s opening moments) the onlookers would rather sparsely lounge than crush up to the front barriers.
Irish indie outfit Southern are an apt booking for the stage following the release of their single ‘Where the Wild Are’ - a track that receives a rapturous reception to boot. The sound is a little clean compared to the best of their blues-rock contemporaries, but all in attendance toe-tap their way through the set.
The following performance comes from the complete other end of the scale thanks to Brixton rabble-rousers and all round chaos machines Fat White Family. With antics that enthral and offend in equal measure, the sextet of wiry former squatters are nothing short of exhilarating. Tracks like ‘Auto Neutron’, ‘Touch the Leather and ‘Why is it Raining in Your Mouth?’ get the evening off to a flyer.
Over at the Crossroads tent in the middle of the site, another of the most promising guitar bands in the UK, Telegram, get off to a false start and have to leave the stage because of technical problems. But they return to an audience that - although numerically underwhelming - is determined to bring the house down. With only a couple of single releases under their belt, this Welsh psych-rock band will surely be one of the most sought after bookings when summer 2015 comes around.
Switching things up completely, proceedings then get a bit more beat-heavy with the Great Stage’s headliners Little Dragon. The Swedish dance-pop band have experienced a gradual rise to prominence hat has been helped in no small part by collaborations with the likes of DJ Shadow and SBTRKT. Their set is not the strongest curtain-closer of the weekend, but those who have packed out the main field are not scared to get into the spirit of things.
The second morning of the festival plays host to heat that some appear to be finding unbearable. The smatterings of ‘posh-wash’ showers might imply more about the event’s socio-demographic than its concern for hygiene, as some attendees can be seen cooling off by taking a dip in the decidedly murky water of the lake.
But those in the know appear to be taking the sweltering edge off in the best way possible, with a DJ set under the shade of the Temple of Boom tent courtesy of dub legend Mad Professor. The veteran instantly has the crowd in the palm of his hand and brings out a host of dubplate cuts that span reggae, ska, hip-hop, rock and pop - with one of the most feverish responses coming in the surprising shape of Lorde’s ‘Royals’.
The early part of the day seems to be the time for most to grab a bit of respite. Some lounge outside the Soulfire Cocktail Bar - an area that acts as a source of both thirst-quenching relief and financial despair for the hordes that had spirits confiscated on arrival. Others prefer the solace of the Komicare tent, where mind, body and soul can be pieced back together against a backdrop of chilled-out serenity. But perhaps the biggest hit of the festival is the Winter Wonderland, offering sub-zero temperatures and an ice rink that provide the antithesis of the spiky heat found outside.
Such alternatives couldn’t be further from the minds of audience who have packed out the Great Stage for soulful trip-hoppers Morcheeba. Trademarks like ‘The Sea’ and ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day’ are married with newer material for the ideal afternoon soundtrack.
After an atmospheric show from Submotion Orchestra - which incorporates soul, R&B and dubstep - one of the most spectacular moments of the weekend comes just before Saturday headliners Public Enemy. A mesmerising display of pyrotechnics catches hold of the gaze of not just those at the Great Stage, but the entire population of 30,000 festival.
With the audience geed up to boiling point, it is then time for Flavor Flav and Chuck D to prove whether they’ve still got it. In all honesty - with Terminator X now more akin to ostrich farming than hip-hop turntabling - the band have become a sanitised version of their former selves.
Classics like ‘Bring the Noise’ and ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ offer memorable moments. Flavor Flav’s attempts to retain his political edge by (occasionally over-graphically) dedicating tracks to the world’s oppressed, however, take away the feel-good vibes of a set that was never going to host a social revolution.
Over at the Temple of Boom, there is a swelling crowd waiting for what proves to be the biggest draw of the weekend. Dance heavyweights Chase and Status appear to have been prematurely outed as the evening’s secret guests and many find themselves unable to enter the tent. But ultimately, it matters not as bass-filled euphoria ripples through the whole site throughout the performance.
After an early hours storm gets many expecting a cooler climate for the finale, their suspicions prove unfounded. The intimacy of less-populated tents like the Small World Stage and the Living Room are an undoubted hit, soothing the humidity with folk and acoustic blues and a great remedy for overcoming the excesses of the night before.
Another extra that must take a significant slice from the organisers’ budget is Sunday afternoon’s ‘Paint Fight’. At 3pm, revellers are handed thousands of bags of paint that its dispensers concede “might stain your clothes, but are definitely not toxic”. After a duo of hype-gathers with the personalities of sugar-jacked children’s TV presenters explain the rules, the audience are then rather naively expected to hold tight during ten-second countdown.
Inevitably, a huge section launch their paint instantly, making the barrage of confetti and dry-ice that follows a little off-kilter. Regardless, the chaos offers a level of unbridled entertainment that could even risk eclipsing the proceeding DJ set by David Rodigan.
This human reggae encyclopedia is far too good for that though. A rip-roaring selection of bass-heavy cuts by the likes of Bob Marley, Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker have thousands in full voice and embracing the glaring rays.
Security guards can be seen frantically pulling attendees out of the lake as they stray into undesignated areas, but the house-infused soundtrack of the pier-style stage in the centre is in no such danger of having the fun toned down.
The final evening plays host to an undercard who is possibly one of the biggest legends ever to grace the Great Stage. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the biggest hit-makers on Motown in the 1960s and despite now being 73, the frontwoman still knows how to put on a barnstorming show.
Between soul and R&B classics like ‘Jimmy Mack’, ‘Nowhere to Run’ and ‘Dancing in the Street’ there’s a lot of chat from the band - possibly to give Reeves chance to catch her breath. But every single member of an excitable audience (and a vibrantly colourful one after the earlier paint fight) are in awe.
Final headliners Fat Freddy’s Drop arrive on stage late, but only enhance the party atmosphere. Their genre-hopping live show spans reggae, soul, dub, jazz and hip-hop effortlessly, marking the end of one of the most vibrant events of British summer time in the most fitting way possible.
All weekend, the adjacent lake has held a centrepiece resembling the Wizard of Oz’s ‘Emerald City’. In one final mindblowing act of combustion, the effigy is set alight and continues to burn bright until the Kiwi headliners bring their set to an albeit slightly abrupt end. There’s been no time for an encore, but after such a high-octane weekend there are few who need one.
Photos: Scott Salt, Rachael Wright, Andrew Whitton