It’s tricky to preview Secret Garden Party because, of all the UK’s splendid weekend festivals, this is the one where the music matters least. That’s not to say there’s nothing of interest; far from it. As in previous years the festival has a pleasingly eclectic mix of styles from reggae to folk to drum & bass. The festival’s licence now allows it to have 26,000 people on site and 15 stages, a far cry from the single stage it had on its 2004 debut.
However, an unbiased look at the 2011 line-up will tell you what regular punters know: this festival isn’t about loading the bill with big-selling household names. But don’t be put off. What the organisers don’t spend on booking the latest US stadium rock bands, they put to very good use on a myriad of extra-curricular entertainments.
The most visible of these are the grand artistic creations, including a giant floating island, maze and trees festooned with coloured flock. The organisers are heavily influenced by the Burning Man festival in Arizona, where artists create lurid art installations in the desert that last for the duration of the festival before being pulled down or set alight.
Then there are the action camps. These are made by festival goers themselves, who are granted up to 500 and free tickets to let their imaginations run riot and operate an activity of their design for six hours a day. These can range from mud wrestling to dance competitions to a tent where a top-hatted circus conductor goads the crowd into a frenzy as they bet on snail racing.
Nearly everyone dresses up in flamboyant costumes, though the themes seem to be getting more abstruse by the year. This time around it’s something to do with the future and the past, but I’m not exactly sure what. Have a look at the decidedly purple prose on the festival website.
As for the music… On the great stage are Leftfield, Mystery Jets and the Guillemots. New Wave veterans Blondie are sure to draw a big crowd, not least because lead singer Debbie Harry is a fashion icon to hundreds of the trendy, artistic types who make up Secret Garden Party’s core audience.
The festival’s fondness for reggae shows in its selection of Susan Cadogan & Dawn Penn. The British DJ widely recognised as the pioneer of Jamaican music in this country, David Rodigan, also makes an appearance, following an enjoyable set last year. Fans of Motown-era soul will also be eager to check out Martha Reeves And The Vandellas.
Another interesting show will be Brassroots, who seem to have been promoted to the main stage after an electrifying performance last year in one of the smaller tents. Great news for those who like pop songs covered exuberantly by brass bands.
There’s also some decent dance music from the likes of Nero, Sub Focus and Andy C, plus a whole stage dedicated to blues and soul.
Then there is a selection of speakers-cum-intellectuals, notably Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist, and Marcus De Sautoy, a mathematician and populariser of science. De Sautoy is working with a sculptor, composer and choreographer on a performance work that explores the concept of infinity.
In sum, this year is shaping up to another hugely creative, if a trifle pretentious, festival.