The Secret Garden Party 2011
aaamusic | On 01, Aug 2011
The Secret Garden Party used to be a bit of a secret. When it first quietly crept onto the UK festival scene in 2004 it had but 1000 attendees, an understated lineup, and a giddy sense of being part of something truly hush-hush. In 2011, the festival (remaining in its country house grounds’ location, in Cambridgeshire) managed to squeeze in up to 26,000 attendees (aka ‘gardeners’), enough security to clean up the streets of Brixton, and a lineup mainstream enough to rival Central London’s commercial festivals. But if the secret is well and truly out, at least the festival organisers have managed to retain most of the intimacy, charm, and – for lack of a better word – quirkiness that originally made it the most unique stop of the UK festival circuit.
The fact that it remains a fully independent festival – no corporate sponsoring-advertising-funding nonsense – is no doubt the reason that The Secret Garden Party has managed to retain its relatively coverage-free magic, but the reason that it has been able to remain independent is no doubt thanks to the fact (luck) that chief organiser – Freddie Fellowes – is the son of an extraordinarily rich Baron with an estate big enough to host a festival.
Although there are a handful of acts playing on the Thursday, the shenanigans don’t really get going until Friday. The afternoon is spent at The Great Stage – aka the main stage, despite its surprisingly small size – checking out the energetic blues rock of Kill It Kid and the inconsistent, grunge-inspired indie of Tribes, both of which go straight over the head of the handful of gardeners who’ve gathered here. Crowd-wise, things get no better for the next two main stage bands – The Boxer Rebellion and Hot Club De Paris – who, despite their acclaim and relatively lengthy careers, only manage to coax over a criminally small amount of people to the stage. Enjoying a last minute set-time extension, The Boxer Rebellion are on fine form today (despite main screen visual problems) – their brooding indie displayed no better than on standout track ‘No Harm.’ The pop-punk-math-rock of Liverpudlian trio Hot Club De Paris is joyously jangly, and their tight set is beefed up with some comedic between-song anecdotes. Then a haystack commits flaming suicide and the crowd slow-claps a fire engine that arrives half an hour too late.
Sadly, Peter, Bjorn and John have had to pull out last minute (due to bloody Bjorn feeling ill), so it’s over to the Wormfood tent in the Valley Of Antics to catch Ghostpoet – after checking out a one-man-rap-metal-band, a cycling piano, a giant guinea pig, and the end of a secret Ed Sheeran acoustic set (no, surprisingly Ed Sheeran and the giant guinea pig were not one and the same). After announcing that this is his first set since he received his Mercury Prize nod, Ghostpoet ploughs through a set of sleepy jazz and electronica-laced hiphop – managing to look and sound less mellow that usual (after all, and as he notes, this is his Mercury celebration gig…).
An executive decision is made to boycott Mystery Jets – who this reviewer doesn’t quite feel are ready for a main stage headlining slot – for the Valley Of Antics’ secret guest, and while waiting I am treated to half an hour of the delightful bass and beats of French producer Débruit. Then out comes the dependable and likeable Jamie Woon for one of the weekend’s many secret guest slots. Backed by just a DJ, rather than his usual band, Woon sings his neo-soul out while the rain pours down outside – the looped beat-boxing and vocals of ‘Spirits’ proving the musical highlight of the whole Friday. After managing to check out a bit of The Whip’s hectic live set in the Remix Bubble – an excellent orb tent with projections from all sides – it’s back to Wormfood for the eclectic electronica of Mosca (unusually quiet), George FitzGerald (a sublime garage-heavy set), and Dark Sky (not quite reaching their potential)…
…Music-wise, Saturday doesn’t really get going until Slow Club’s show on the Where The Wild Things Are stage, a stage literally made around a tree, overlooking the giant Secret Garden Party lake. Normally a folk-rock duo, the added musicians allow Slow Club to rock out a bit more than usual – with Rebecca Taylor’s voice and additional drumming (unnecessary since they have an actual drummer, but novel nonetheless) sounding first-rate, especially on the bouncy ‘Giving Up On Love.’ It’s then over to the woodland of The Artful Badgers for some lounging, where I stumble across a mysterious group of spacemen slash robots known as The Raving Llamas, pulling in punters (including, briefly, that giant guinea pig from yesterday) to take part in the K-Olympics – essentially a hilarious, fancy dress-heavy dose of egg-and-spoon, wheelbarrow and three legged races. Then it’s across the lake’s flimsy, floating bridge to get back to The Great Stage for the two biggest acts of the festival. Before them, Mylo treats the growing crowd to an uninspiring 80s electro set (at least he seems to be enjoying himself).
And now for the legendary Blondie to blast through their hits like veteran performers while Debbie Harry conveys the collective stage presence of every band that went before her in a single refrain of ‘Maria.’ No quite – disappointingly, Blondie’s sound is terribly quiet, and Debbie Harry looks and sounds like a parody of herself. Yes the hits are enjoyable, but no more enjoyable than they sounded at your karaoke party. Thankfully, headliners and dance pioneers Leftfield save the night, but that’s not before the biggest spectacle of the weekend takes place. The manmade island of the lake (basically a giant boat designed to look like a dragonfly) is exploded using an impressive display of fireworks, while SGP minions unleash a cloud-covering flock of balloons and perform a choreographed fire-staff show around the lake.
Backed by a full live band and a tantalising visual show, Neil Barners proves that the departure of Leftfield’s other half – Paul Daley – is no big bother as he pounds down some big-beat-house on The ’Garden – the raving, crowd mania of closer ‘Phat Planet’ being one of the fondest memories of the whole festival. The night is far from over as much of The Great Stage crowd heads over to the Remix Bubble to continue the rave. A surprisingly dubstep-heavy Subfocus set goes down a storm, before a dependably dubstep-heavy Nero set goes down a storm (Subfocus just about emerging as the better act. Sorry Nero). With the night time temperature feeling particularly warm, there’s a quick stop on the small and busy Pagoda stage for a dance – literally a jetty poking out onto lake – before a portly looking Tayo and a frantic Marcus Nasty bring the night to a close in the Village Of Antics.
Sadly, due to unforeseen problems with my stubborn automobile and the painful incompetence of The AA (who needed a total of 6 AA trucks, 6 mechanics, and 26 hours (!) to transport my car from the SGP car park to London, a mere 1.5 hour drive), this reviewer was not able to see the festival’s closing act – the Motown legends Martha And The Vandellas (they sounded pretty good from the car park!) – but was able to catch the atmospheric Alpines (losing some of their atmosphere by having a daytime slot), the indie rock of The Bees, the hit and miss folk-rock of I Am Kloot, and an impeccable acoustic set by pop-soul singer-songwriter Tinashe. Oh, and a giant, pre-planned powder paint fight at The Great Stage.
Overall, the music of The Secret Garden Party 2011 was impressive, but this festival has always toyed with the slogan that “the music is secondary.” People come to this festival for the carnival-cabaret-craziness, the attention to detail of the incorporated art installations and stage designs, and the general eccentricity of the festival goers’ antics and costumes. With Glastonbury taking a break next year, and Bestival becoming more commercial and music-orientated, The Secret Garden Party is going to be where all the hippies, party addicts, lunatics, and giant guinea pigs gather next summer. Let’s just hope those whispers that the UK’s greatest independent festival has been bought out by Festival Republic remain unfounded.
Author: Clive Rozario