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Secret Garden Party 2014 – Live Review

| On 30, Jul 2014

SGP - Big Burn - by Andrew Whitton

The Big Burn – by Andrew Whitton

Friday 25th – Sunday 27th July, Cambridgeshire

Secret Garden Party has morphed into an odd beast of an independently run boutique festival – no matter what way you look at it, these days it’s a mainstream festival. Since its inception in the early noughties as an alternative to mainstream music festivals – allegedly amounting to a large party for organiser Freddie Fellowes, the son of a Baron, and a few hundred of his hedonistic, aristocratic friends – the Cambridgeshire event has grown into a sizeable, 30k capacity priority for those who missed out on Glastonbury tickets or have frequented Bestival one too many times. The folk who descend upon the rolling greens fields of Huntingdon are no longer free-range, acid-laced hippies but young, beautiful trend-seekers; well-spoken, pristine in their presentation and bored of all the usual festivals sponsored by some brand of cheap lager and headlined by bloody Chase & Status.

What sets SGP apart from the mass of other UK music festivals is its stubborn and commendable insistence on remaining independent (and therefore sponsorship free), keeping music secondary to the arts, games and totally surreal nature of the event; something Glastonbury can no longer proclaim with any credibility.

There are just so many great features and areas to explore: some secret – like the hidden sunflower garden only enterable via a fake, locked portaloo door; some exclusive – like the perfect floating Pagoda lake stage, featuring an endless succession of unscheduled DJs and eternal one-in-one-out queues; and some downright mythical – I have never been able to locate the wooded ‘Labyrinth’ area, which many claim is the festival highlight. This year’s theme was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which meant that half the obligatory fancy dress was Wizard Of Oz and the other was Elton John related; the centrepiece of the grounds’ stunning lake, itself the centrepiece of the whole festival, was a floating model of the Emerald City.

SGP - Sunflower Garden - by Gobinder Jhitta

Sunflower Garden – by Gobinder Jhitta

Aside from an impressively eclectic array of music – including outstanding performances from Public Enemy, Little Dragon, Submotion Orchestra and Clean Bandit (scroll down for a detailed report…) – ‘Gardeners’, as they are affectionately known, were able to bask in the glory of one of the most incredible firework displays I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve been to Disneyland), amplified with water fountains, holograms, lights and an explosion of paper ‘helicopters’ fitted with LED lights. There was also endless hilarity in the Collo-Silly-Um with naked jelly wrestling and harness-suspended boxing, inventive moves at the Dance-Off final (with the victor utilising bouncing stilts), coordinated Spitfire jets (must’ve cost a pretty penny), and a playful nudist pond masquerading as a luxurious spa. Oh, and Prince Harry, who just happened to be partying topless in the crowds – seriously!

There was also the best food I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at ANY festival, with trendy pop-ups galore – for the foodies reading, the highpoints were Meatcure’s exceptional pulled pork, Anna Mae’s bacon and basil covered Mac N Cheese, and the chilli beef covered chips from Saucy Chip. I’m literally salivating onto my keyboard as I type. All this hedonism wouldn’t have been half as pleasurable were it not for the magnificent, near-tropical weather; the more the sun radiated, the more radiant the festival and festival attendees became.

With all that said, the musical lineup at this year’s Secret Garden Party was by far and away the best it has ever been. Join us for a detailed report…

SGP - Little Dragon - by Rachael Wright

Little Dragon – by Rachael Wright


Friday was all about the Great Stage (aka the main stage). Fired-up, Danish electro-pop singer , who thrashed around both on stage and in the crowd, featured a rocking band and was particularly peppy on brassy highlight ‘Don’t Wanna Dance’. Clean Bandit, who were denied their primetime Temple Of Boom slot last year when Great Stage headliner Regina Spektor complained about noise-clashing (what a bitch…), followed, pulling in one of the most rabid audiences of the weekend. The classical dance troupe stormed through hits like ‘Extraordinary’, ‘Mozart’s House’ and ‘Rather Be’, mixing Disclosure-esque house with dominant strings and poppy vocals.

It was then over to the wonderful, Where The Wild Things Are stage – a stage built engulfing a large tree and with decorative woodland features – for up-and-coming singer Rosie Lowe, who looked elated as her all-female band ran through her brooding, post-dubstep layered neo-soul, with each cut from EP Right Thing rivalling any contemporary RnB track of the last year. Back over at the Great Stage, the eccentric Hercules & Love Affair won over an audience (sticking around post-Clean Bandit) with their camp disco house and a livewire show, before headliners Little Dragon – one of my most anticipated acts of the weekend – delivered one of the best UK shows of their career. Armed with more lasers than bloody Chase & Status, the Swedes put on a truly spectacular show as the shades of night descended. Frontwoman Yukimi Nagano’s soaring vocals come across rather light on record, but live they propelled the jazzy synthpop skyward, with songs from their last two albums – Nabuma Rubberband (2014) and Ritual Union (2011) – sounding mighty fine, especially the title track of the latter.

After trying and failing to see secret guests Nero at the Collo-Silly-Um (I was there, it wasn’t them – unless they were very early or very late) the rest of the night involved bounding between brilliant dance stages The Drop and Temple Of Boom. Situated next to each other, both of these stages have been superbly enhanced over the past three years, after starting out as small, production-less afterthoughts. Disco convert Skream did his dubstep-less thing at The Drop – a stage sunken beside a bank and hay bales to create a ‘dropping’ effect, now complete with dazzling AV screens – while house duo Gorgon City softened the crowd at the main dance tent – the Temple Of Boom, curated and hosted by Eddy Temple-Morris – before breaks legends Plump DJs brought the night to a close with a particularly bass-driven set.

SGP - Public Enemy - by Rachael Wright

Public Enemy – by Rachael Wright


With the sun still blazing, the start of Saturday was spent easing myself into the festival by wandering around the mainly music-less area to the north of the lake. Whilst gently hydrating my body, I wondered around the organic produce stalls, the world music mini-tents and pretended to listen engagingly to some oh-so-serious debates in The Forum about the future of energy sources (the conclusion: we’re fucked).

It was then over to the Great Stage to see folky trip-hoppers Morcheeba, who smashed out a summery set heavy on their career-defining 1998 album The Sea, with the title track and ‘Blindfold’ sounding gloriously nostalgic. Dub Pistols’ mixture of electronic music and live dub reggae didn’t seem to go down quite as well with the crowd, but pop starlet Foxes fared better – despite her clubby synthpop feeling a little out-of-place this afternoon, ‘Let It Go For Tonight’ had hands in the air. Submotion Orchestra, who followed, proved to be the surprise highlight of the weekend, with their fusion of jazz, retro soul and experimental dubstep sounding more epic than ever before. Matthew Halsall’s right hand man, Taz Modi, continued to prove his worth as one of contemporary jazz’s best pianists, the pulsating sub-bass reverberated through the audience, and singer Ruby Wood’s quivering tones hit even harder than Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano. Highlights came courtesy of a ravey ‘It’s Not Me It’s You’ and a transcendental ‘Blind Spot’.

SGP - Fireworks - by Rachael Wright

Fireworks – by Rachael Wright

Following the incredible, aforementioned firework display, Chuck D then took to the Great Stage for Public Enemy’s headline slot. I had been apprehensive about their live show, as live Golden Era hip hop tends to be disappointing, with many artists content with lazily going through the motions (I’m looking at you, De La Soul), but Public Enemy proved an exception to the rule. Supplemented by some live musicians, including a wicked drummer, PE ploughed through a career-spanning set, initially led by a solo Chuck D before Flavor Flav appeared to a huge reception, teasingly without his trademark clock necklace. When he suddenly pulled the clock out from under his shirt, as a beat dropped, the crowd again went mental – a true showman. Obvious highlights included ‘Bring The Noise’ and ‘Fight The Power’, but this was a perfectly balanced set of classic tunes, politicised PE rhymes, covers, solos and anecdotes. Take note, De La Soul.

It was then over to The Drop to see the in-demand Maya Jane Coles’ deep house set. Although she sounded as atmospheric and on-point as ever, the crowd was heaving and it was very hard to settle in, so I popped next door to catch Foreign Beggars at the Temple Of Boom. It’d been years since I last saw the grimy UK hip hop collective, but they were just as pumped up as they had been at the turn of the millennium, with the MCs shouty delivery sometimes coming across gratingly but always rhythmically, and the DJs augmenting the breakbeat with gritty dubstep.

SGP - Paint Fight - by Sebastian Barros

Paint Fight – by Sebastian Barros

It was then time for SGP’s big, super special, secret guests to dominate the Collo-Silly-Um. Last year they had managed to rope in bloody Chase & Status for a DJ set and I was assured the guests were just as big this year. Now, it’s not that I loathe the mega-dance duo, it’s just that I’ve seen them 560,000 times over the years; they are not exactly the most imaginative of bookings and I voiced that opinion last year. But back to this year…and the special guests are…BLOODY CHASE AND STATUS. I mean, come on! Two years in a row!? Whatever, the punters went berserk. I, however, ended the night with a mass huddle in the Artful Badger woodland area, where scores of zonked out ravers awaiting the sunrise lay sprawled over logs and hidden in tree houses. Bliss.


SGP Sundays are always fairly chilled compared to the rest of the weekend, with generally less music and all the stages pulling the plug at midnight, often leaving party-heads panic-stricken and congregating at the nearest sound system of any sort (e.g. burger van radio, the jukebox near the Pagoda…I even once saw an attempted rave around a smartphone).

The afternoon is always centred on the traditional Great Stage paint fight, this year with added paint-like fireworks. This immediately followed the outlandish and rather messy party music of The Correspondents, featuring MC-singer Mr Bruce bouncing erratically while spitting silly lyrics. The paint fight was extra colourful this year, with the audience making full use of the additional dry paint and kicking up a technicolor dust storm above the stage while they moshed to House Of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’. Like last year, David Rodigan MBE followed with his trademark mixture of oldschool and newschool dub, reggae and hip hop (a setlist extraordinary similar to last year!), while the ageing, white DJ emceed and danced, much like an embarrassing but loveable Dad dancing at your mate’s wedding while constantly doing his best Bob Marley impression.

SGP - Fat Freddy's Drop - by Danny North

Fat Freddy’s Drop – by Danny North

Later on, ‘60s Motown legend Martha Reeves and her Vandellas gathered a sizeable crowd at the Great Stage and although her voice isn’t quite what it used to be (and that is an understatement – she sounds like an out-of-breath sea lion being slowly steamrolled), it’s pretty amazing to see such a young audience singing back the words to classics ‘Heatwave’‘Jimmy Mack’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’.

I can say with some certainty that The Drop featured Sunday’s best music, with Jackmaster, Joy Orbison and Optimo performing an epic five hour B2B. A set brimming with all the inventiveness you’d expect from some of the best DJs of the past few years, there were heavy doses of oldschool garage and grime as well as house exclusives and warped bass music. As they dropped choice cut after choice cut, and with the sun setting, two lit-up Spitfires flew overhead in tandem, creating shapes and patterns out of spoke and lights (the highlight obviously being the giant smoke penis) – it was seriously mesmerising stuff!

After a quick pit stop at the gay bar (I don’t wanna talk about it) it was back to the Great Stage. As the floating Emerald City was set on fire during ‘The Burn’ and the lakeside main stage became aglow with the colours of the bonfire, reggae jam-rockers Fat Freddy’s Drop closed out the main stage with the biggest audience of any of this year’s SGP headliners; their rootsy, brass-laden blues music offering the perfect soundtrack to the Garden comedown. Take me back.

Clive Paris Rozario