Live Music + Gig Reviews

Secret Garden Party 2006, Day 1 @ Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon

18 August 2006

Secret Garden Party was the first festival I’d managed to get to this year. It was a perfect choice. There were minor organisational hiccups, but I don’t think I would have known I was at a Festival if there hadn’t been any at all. The important thing is that each and every one was handled efficiently and quickly, and with the best interests of the public at heart. Congratulations to the organisers on all counts.

I arrived as the gates were being opened, and was amazed at how fast the relatively long queue was cleared. There was a frenzy of tent-pitching and ground-staking going on, and I was lucky enough to pitch camp between two very helpful Irish stewards, who were quick to give me a hand putting my tent up, and the Shelter camp, under whose gazebo I escaped the rain each time it started (more about Shelter and the living room tent later). At the time, I thought this was a great stroke of luck, but as I realised as the weekend progressed, everybody at this festival seemed to be friendly, cheerful and helpful. I cannot recommend small festivals enough for just this reason. At the end of three days I felt like I knew everybody there, performers included, and there wasn’t a soul I wouldn’t grab a drink with back in the real world.

After getting my tent up, I headed out to see the grounds, and was duly impressed by graffiti-art decorations and the wide variety of bars and other entertainment dotted around. Another mark of uniqueness at Secret Garden was the variety and quality of the food on site. I ate well all weekend, and didn’t get to sample at least half of the food I wanted to. There was something for everyone, ranging from full roast lunches to smoothies. For those seeking festival authenticity there was even a pizza stall.

Friday afternoon saw the weather take a turn for the worse, and the first few acts played through the rain, to relatively small crowds. The music started off soft and easy-going, and picked up in pace through the rest of the afternoon. The first act to draw a really big crowd was Lily Allen, who played an hour earlier than scheduled, and had people running from all over the site to get to the main stage when she started. Unfortunately, her act was relatively short, and the audience was left wanting more.

For me, the highlight of the night was Robots in Disguise. Not being familiar with them, I made a point of catching their set as a curiosity, and was really impressed. They put on a spectacular performance, played what seemed like a much longer set of varied music, and generally had the crowd moving. At one point the two guitars were discarded for a bit of crowd-surfing, with one of the audience attempting to carry one of the ladies back to his tent.

The Automatic played later in the evening, again pulling almost the entire festival turn-out to come and watch. Another crowd-pleaser, they seemed to be the last ones to play at their scheduled time, and I managed to miss Graham Coxon, who finally took the stage about two hours after he was scheduled to. Apparently he surprised the crowd, not playing any of his favourites, and generally not performing as well as expected. I did however manage to catch the Egg, who gave a great performance, and another band new to me whose name I didn’t catch, and wasn’t on the programme. If anyone knows who that was, please let me know, they were worth keeping an eye on!

There is one more high-note of the evening worth a mention. Between the main performances, there was a DJ spinning discs on the main stage. Seldom do you see a female DJ turning her act into a real performance, and even less seldom do they look like they’re having as much fun as the crowd. Goldierocks is a name to remember. She kept the crowd at the stage between acts, and drew her own crowd later on in the weekend at the Tree Stage, the only time I saw a crowd of any size there.

A couple of other things bear a mention. Firstly, the Shelter Living Room tent: the charity Shelter helped to run a small stage, that although it was hidden away in one of the darkest and least-visible corners of the festival, was packed from open to close (and sometimes beyond) every night. They opened the stage to small, little-known and new acts, which is always a gamble, but on the whole, the selection of the acts was brilliant. Two highlights of this tent were Moe Foe, and Badwell Ash, two more names to listen out for in future. Shelter ran a tea-bar (with an alcoholic top-off of your choice) in this tent, (proceeds to their charity) and generally made the whole area feel like the bands were playing for your benefit alone, in the comfort of your own home. Not easy to do in a small tent with about 150 other people.

Secondly, another up-and-coming act who opened the main stage on Sunday morning, Evi Vine. Great mellow rock, good start to the day, culminating in some real wake-up noise. I look forward to seeing them perform again.

Finally, the last act I saw (I delayed my leaving time after reading a review on musicOMH. The Puppini Sisters are a peculiar mix of spectacular stage performance and incredible vocals, true musical entertainment, as opposed to mere music. The thing that truly touched me about this band though, is something they did after their performance, not during it. A young girl who arrived with her father too late to see them on-stage was literally in tears over having missed her favourite song. They stopped what they were doing, and gave her a private performance right there. I have never seen a child happier than she was after that. On behalf of that little girl, and for renewing my faith in the music industry, a big thank you to The Puppini Sisters.

To round this up, I recommend this festival to anyone looking for a small, intimate, fun festival. The music was top-notch, and everyone, from staff to the general public was smiling and happy all weekend. The organisers have sworn they won’t let it get bigger and commercial, and as long as they stick to that promise, it will continue to be an experience not to miss.

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