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Secret Garden Party 2013 Review - Or How I Learned to Ditch the Timetable

Posted: 29/08/2013 23:21

Bank Holiday Weekend is over and it's officially the end of one of the best UK summers in years. And what was my highlight of those wonderful long months of sun and fun, the kind we haven't seen since, oooh, 2006?

Was it my first trip to the Ashes, on the first day of the final test at the Oval last week? Brilliant, but not quite. My first polo tournament at Mint Polo in the Park in June? Again, an ace day, but... My tennis barbecue, held while we watched Andy Murray win the men's singles title at Wimbledon? An unplanned block party on London's South Bank? Taking my mum to see Robbie Williams at Wembley Stadium in a fancy box? All pretty special, for sure. But no.

My summer highlight by a country mile, even on this most special of ray-soaked seasons, was the Secret Garden Party festival last month. Just like in 2006. Okay, Lily Allen, Graham Coxon, Ok Go, Utah Saints and The Long Blondes weren't on the bill this year like back then, but frankly, it never matters really who plays Secret Garden Party. In fact, it was the acts who weren't on the bill that made it even more amazing this year.

Hands up, I'm biased - I DJ there every year and have done since it started (and no, I don't get paid). But even so, my times behind the decks this year were some of the best ever, and I've DJed since the Eighties at the likes of Reading Festival, Oasis aftershows and even regularly at a bash in Barbados.

Why is SGP so special? For those who don't know, it's a lovingly-crafted, brand and sponsorship-free, four day music and art-fuelled idyll in beautifully-landscaped grounds in Cambridgeshire. It's unashamedly influenced by Burning Man, but with a very British sensibility. Most of the gardeners are there to put back, either by taking part, playing, creating art or by just dressing up. You turn up and you give your all. I guarantee your face will ache when you get home because you've been smiling so much.

I closed the second stage, Where The Wild Things Are, on the Friday night. It's a fabulous affair made of trees so you look like you're DJing in the most far-fetched forest ever - but to say I was worried was an understatement. Was it because this year's festival theme was Superstition?

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Me DJing on the Where the Wild Things Are Stage in the early hours of Saturday


I was wrapping up the night after the marvellous Public Service Broadcasting - think a krautrock Boards of Canada meets the Battle of Britain - which wasn't the problem, more that because they have such a huge stage set-up of backdrops and video screens, the DJ decks couldn't be set up until after the band had finished. I was concerned that the crowds would disperse after the band finished while the set-up happened, and I was right. Cue me coming onstage at 1.30am to an audience in a field in Cambridgeshire comprising pretty much of four of my festival-going friends.

But then the magic happened. Hopefully because of the tunes I played, but mostly because SGP gardeners are the best party people ever, within half an hour, I'd filled the place with a field-busting, fist-pumping posse.

I've never felt happier being up at 3am, fuelled by adrenaline and caffeine, playing my last record into an inky black night studded by magical lights and the warm fug of music-induced euphoria. People were even booing when I played my last track.

Next day saw me DJing on the main Great Stage between bands like Dreadzone, which is a different proposition, but still huge fun, watching hundreds of people spread across the beautiful lakeside country setting jigging in the sun.

But aside from my deck-bothering, SGP is all about the unexpected. And this year, it's 11th, discovery was the thrust behind an identity-realigning shift. Proper secrets were the fuel that fanned the flames of fun - apt when you consider the massive 'Big Burn' on the Saturday night (that's when just before trusty headliners Faithless, a life-sized sculpture of galleon while being attacked by a kraken whilst floating on the most beautiful lake was set on fire, accompanied by the most incredible fireworks show I think I've ever seen. It might have chucked it down that night, but the lasers looked so pretty through the rain).

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The Big Burn on the Saturday night


The site was abuzz from start to finish with rumours of sets not listed on the main programme - and though I failed to catch most of them, the chase was brilliant and led to me seeing and doing stuff I wouldn't have done otherwise.

Jarvis Cocker DJing in the dead of night? Was it in the Badger Woods? We made our way there, to be treated to a man and woman dressed as a penis and vagina doing bongo dancing. This was funnier than it could ever be in print. Then we realised it was the Black Cat stage, not the Badger, so ran over, but there was no sign. We'd got the time wrong. But indeed Jarv played half an hour later and was amazing.

We also missed secret sets by Chase and Status and Sister Bliss, mostly through some supreme fannying about, but we did catch Goldie's set in the Temple Of Boom, surely one of the highlights of the whole weekend.

There were also excellent (planned) turns from the divine Django Django, bluesy maestro Willie Mason, old school rock'n'roll from The Strypes, deranged one-man delta stomp from Son of Dave, crazed party tunes from The Correspondents, hardcore rave from Hadouken, summery electro pop vibes from Bastille, and reggae DJ legend David Rodigan, who deserves props for unashamedly playing Bob Marley on the sunniest of Sunday afternoons.

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The magnificent David Rodigan on the Great Stage


Just wandering around with no particular agenda meant we also caught some ridiculously cute pig racing, a hilarious hotdog eating contest, the dance-off finals, Spacehopper racing down a specially-watered hillside slide, an urban hip hop moves class, some bizarre wishbone snapping ceremony, revelled in the new huge wild swimming pond and saw an impromptu human sheep show. And cuddled a giant fox. Whilst wearing a magpie on my head.

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Me and magpie


My new favourite band of the whole weekend however were south London art rockers Dog Chocolate, who we chanced upon played The Village Hall. Songs about being on a roundabout and another about an umbrella were sublime and possibly unintentionally hilarious. I couldn't breathe for laughing at one point.

Ignore the people who say a timetable is a must, disregard those who want running orders, de-friend the die-hards who reckon a plan is de rigeur. SGP proved yet again that the sun shines on those who just go with the flow.

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Roll on 2014... it's the only thing that's going in my diary.

 

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