The Secret Garden Party retains it's "boutique" feel and even the largest stage, The Great Stage, has a feeling of intimacy due to the natural amphitheatre, created by the grass verges that surrounds it. With it's Sea Monster surround and green grassed seating areas, it proves an ideal spot for the music fans to enjoy the sun, atmosphere and fine music. This includes some smashing sets, such as that provided by Bastille. In many ways, they encapsulate the festival, given their own meteoric rise from the smaller stages to the Great Stage this year and gathering worldwide success on the way. On the Friday evening, things could not really get more perfect. The weather was dry and with an early evening haze and they were playing to a crowd that had been drinking in the sun and were peaking ahead of the full weekend of partying. Bastille pitch their set just right and it is engaging, atmospheric but still anthemic. They also make an early bid for best cover version of the weekend with a cracking cover of "Rhythm is a dancer" by Snap.
In contrast, The Strypes are a band who have appeared out of no where in a blaze of hype and praise, to go straight to high billing on the Great Stage. This, however, does not appear to faze the band one little bit. Whilst the crowd gathered is not as large as that witnessed at the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury, the band still kick arse. It really feels like seeing the Rolling Stones when they first started out and were playing tiny venues. God knows how a band this young have built up this level of technique and confidence. It's pure rock n roll, but with a maturity well beyond their years. It has the feel of one of those gigs where hundreds of thousands of people will be declaring how they were one of a few hundred who saw this gig. Even when they slow it down for a couple of tracks they still sound awesome. For once, it appears that the likes of NME may have actually got it right with all the hype.
The festival has also been able to attract a good few acts from across the entire Globe, including the American Singer Songwriter, Willy Mason. He plays a set of Americana, folk and blues songs to a good sized crowd on the Saturday. It is a set and sound which actually has a bit of a Johnny Cash feel to it. It is not a long way off an American country style but is a million miles away from the old dungarees, straw hats and hoe down image of old. Instead it has that "Cash effect" of, despite being laid back, being edgy and cool.
One of the only disappointments of the weekend is that the eagerly anticipated and attended performance by Two Many DJs takes place during what can only be described as a massive and torrential rain storm. The crowd are admirable in their determination to watch and enjoy the songs. As will be described later, the band will go on to deliver one of the highlights of the entire weekend.
Away from the Great Stage, the other home for the indie style bands is the "Where The Wild Things Are" stage, which really benefits from an enchanting environment. It is almost hidden away in a small cove covered by trees and with a stage covered with twisted branches. It is just to the side of the enormous lake which, due to the weather, proves to be the focal point for not just the sunken treasure ship but also as a large amount of swimmers. The location of the stage and the shade offered by the trees provide the perfect spot, depending on the band, for either sitting and sipping a cold beer or grabbing a cocktail and dancing to the beats. The variety of the acts is shown by the trio of acts that perform on Saturday Morning. This includes Strange Fruit who appear to be a Florence and The Machine esque band. Although, admittedly, this is a somewhat lazy, easy comparison due to the lead singer who has the same floaty look and combines it with an atmospheric and haunting sound. In contrast, this is followed by Earl Oakin, who actually looks like he could be the Dad of Elvis Costello! In many ways, he is a classic crooner, who also happens to do one of the best trumpet impressions with his voice that you are ever likely to hear! He also has an excellent line in stage banter with an ongoing entertaining explanation of his role as a sex symbol and musical genius. He then tops his entertaining set with a great Bossa Nova version of Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus, which, again, needs to be heard to be really appreciated. The variety then continued with the unusually monikered, Beans On Toast. This is actually a solo act who is a veteran of The Secret Garden Party and quite rightly declares it his favourite festival. His act actually comes across as a comedy Frank Turner, with one highlight involving bringing a member of the audience up to beat box on a 'rap song'. It is something of a surprise that not only is the song good but the member of the audience is a cool beat boxer.
One of the other coolest venues for live music is "Cross Roads". This is the blues and soul stage which is set up like a Deep South Voodoo bar. A venue set up for the drinking of moonshine or whisky and enjoying some good old Americana themed sounds. One of the highlights of the weekend were the appearance of the Ruen Brothers. Surprisingly, despite some decent pre festival press, the actual crowd is somewhat disappointing. This is probably due to the fine weather being more attractive than being inside. The band themselves are dressed in black and they have a look and sound, which seems like how you would imagine The Beatles did when they first performed at the Cavern Club. It is Rock N Roll but with pop sensibilities and they have all the right moves and sounds. It's really cool fifties rock n roll and thankfully the enthusiasm and quality of the songs does get people up and jiving. This is definitely a band to file under ones to watch. Another band to place in to this category is Lady Killers . They are dressed in black, with red ties and have the look and sound of the Hives. They are all Ramones influenced punk rock. Another band that stick to 'a look' which features red and black are Urban Voodoo Machine. If ever a band was ready made and perfect for this venue, then Urban Voodoo Machine are this band. They deliver an absolutely majestic set which is made up of rock n roll, blues, voodoo drums and gypsy tales. They play to a hugely appreciative audience who are keen to dance and enjoy everything that the band has to offer. The beauty of this band is not just in the quality of the songs themselves, but also the delivery which offers a feeling of vaudeville and theatrics.
As already advised, there is a whole host of venues across the site with a huge range of stages and tents offering just about every type of music you could possibly wish to hear. This includes the Oddball Dance Hall which boasts a variety of acts, which appropriately included The Electric Swing Circus. They provided a late night set which gave a modern and entertaining twist on the traditional swing style sound. The eclectic sound was delivered in both a professional but also loose and fun style. It will come as no surprise that their set was then shortly followed by a heart stopping trapeze act.
The dance fans are also more than amply catered for, with the huge Temple of Boom venue. A site which literally had a crowd dancing all day and night and through to dawn the next day. An equally impressive line up of DJs was available to the hard core dancers across other venues such as The Drop and Bearded Kitty's Collo-silly-um. A special mention must also go the Dance Off, which was a boxing ring where the DJ played appropriate fun tunes so that audience members could challenge each other to a dance off. This provided an entertaining and sometimes hysterical show which saw dancers ranging from the ridiculous to the quite exceptional.
One of the venues which most clearly demonstrated the variety of the festival and it's ability to truly deliver something spectacular was The Black Cat Bar. This was a bar which promised mysterious characters delivering hedonism and debauchery at its finest. By example, late on Friday night, you could have experienced the wonderful Lady Rizo, who was described as a cabaret superstar, comedienne and chanteuse. It was a mix of 1950's lounge/jazz performer with a nice turn of comedy and sauciness thrown in. Hailing from Australia she had a great voice and was a real performer.
This venue, which was really nothing more than a large marquee, also produced one of the biggest surprises and highlights of the entire festival. Firstly, it was the venue for a secret set by Two Many DJs, which in itself would be somewhat special and enough to create a huge following. However, this was made even more exceptional by the presence of the legend that is Jarvis Cocker as guest DJ. It will come as no surprise to hear that the atmosphere was truly ecstatic. The crowd reaction was wild during the entire set but reached a rabid state any time there was a word uttered by Mr Cocker. Importantly, the set and music itself lived up to the status of the DJs themselves. It was the classic Two Many DJs set of banging dance tunes mixed with the occasional dropped in favourites such as "Rock The Casbah" by the Clash. The highlight of the entire weekend, however, must have been the chance to hear Jarvis Cocker, no more than ten feet away, singing along to "Don't You Want Me" by Human League. It really was one of those "I was there" moments that will never be forgotten.
As already highlighted, it is impossible to fully describe all that Secret Garden Party has to offer. Even if, during the four days, you discovered the Spa and Sauna, The Yacht Club, The Pagoda and even the Pig Racing! you would still have definitely missed out on something.The last page of the programme actually offers some essential advice that really should be adhered to. It rightly warned against using the programme as an ultimate guide and creating a must see timetable. Instead the focus should have been on forgetting the outside world, and the future or past, but for the four days of the festival concentrating on living in the present. The advice was to let your phone run dry and your mind run free and your body run wild. Simple words and advice but, if followed, would have ultimately led to a weekend of pure fun and joy. One thing that is for certain is that The Secret Garden party should be added on to your must do list for 2014!!
Review & photos by Paul Hastings