A giant eyeball duels with a mime artist as a man in his mid-forties sails down the hill on a wheelchair, all watched in the company of a member of Goldie Lookin’ Chain, accompanied by his mother and child in a kids’ crche. Welcome to the Huntingdon Secret Garden Party.
Arriving late on Friday afternoon to a downpour only rivalled in the bible, one could have been forgiven for fearing his immediate fate, but the true Mother Indie smiles in mysterious ways, and her East Anglian tears fertilized the ground for an outlandishly colourful weekend.
Walking into the heart of a festival for the first time has a certain likeness to testing the water on another planet, and with Lily Allen doing her Nu-Reggae groove, Robots in Disguise shimmering like a rock coral, Flipron anarchically fantastic in the Up All Night tent, and DJ Goldierocks whipping up the main stage with utterly voluptuous tunes (including Kim Wilde‘s perfect Kids in America), what was left of Friday induced a copious appetite for the fun and games ahead.
The setting here is as near as you get to perfect, a clean lake giving it a rural air of serenity, and the variety on show is truly insane in the best sense of the word, never just for the sake of it. Perched at the top end of the grassy knoll which forms the spine of the Party’s idyllic landscape is a tent with a cartoon smile, and there’s something about watching crazy cats dancing for their lives in a booming, translucent caravan awning that is pretty marvellous. Opposite this, at the end of a splendid row of alternative food bars, is a venue called The Penthouse, quirky and elegant with DJs with ears for slinky and blindingly good alt pop and a mini grand piano which oversees the happenings inside like an omniscient Mozart smile.
A small, unnamed tent at the knoll’s centre provides another stark twist, playing the most fucked-up and thrillingly uncommercial hip hop imaginable, while the Shit Tent down the other side, perpetually grooving with children of ganja and jive, stares down the main stage with a dissolute wink. Of course there are certain bands that are made for such events, and the appearance of The Chalets early Saturday afternoon puts into the mix true and unadulterated pop. With two picturesque polka-dot dressed coquettes at their head, the Irish fivesome treat us to an immaculate set of bittersweet songs and synchronised moves taken to robust highs by the male members on either flank, and if the sun itself could have chosen a band for the mid-afternoon slot, this would have been it. With The Pipettes currently shimmying their way into the charts with similarly informed nuggets, it’s a great time for The Chalets to end a year-long hiatus.
Over at the Up All Night tent, governed by London’s very own Boss Hogg, Viv Youell is a quieter revolution. Revolting against a power cut as her set gathers momentum, the rare quality of her pop-tinged folk shines like a beacon during some improvised acoustic songs, Youell and another guitarist coming closer to the crowd and inviting kids to dance around them as they play numbers of sheer grit and beauty that stalk fine ground between contemporaries Kat Flint and Catherine Feeny.Mike Rosenberg can’t claim to have the same alternative charm, but his set equally reminds of the grace of a perfectly formed song. Indeed, anything remotely commercial at the festival thus far seems to have a rosy innocence, and while Rosenburg’s voice is a perhaps unfortunate mix of David Gray and James Blunt, if either had the soul and scope of labyrinthine numbers like Stray Dog they’d conquer the indie scene too, before God strikes them down.
The Up All Night tent revelling in a golden period, The Duckworths provide a timely boost of tongue-in-cheek surrealism as we shelter from the late afternoon sun, their gritty lyricism paralleled by a jazz hall slinkiness and some fine indie humour that will stand them in good stead for the future, but a visceral call from afar means we’ll have to leave them to it for now.
Judging by the people I’ve spoken to so far, the most eagerly awaited act of the festival are Australia’s Howling Bells. Resplendent in bright red jump suit, frontlady Juanita Stein is making sure that the dual mics for her faintly PJ Harvey-esque vocals are spot on, and as the band launch into stunning single Blessed Night, her audience, including the English National Badminton team, descend down to the front in a typically dancing rush. Rarely has a band been more appropriately named than the Bells, and they satiate the most fastidious of desires with an epic exhibition of brooding guitar melancholia and intrepid beauty.
In fact, given their increasing popularity, it’s a surprise that they’re on so early, but the easy twilight that descends at the end of their set provides the perfect time to check out Stage Tree.
The Secret Garden Party seems to revel in converted trees, and here we have the big architectural daddy. Liggers With Attitude are on at this blessed time, and as their two DJs move and groove in the tree-house above the speakers designed like a giant stereo with glitter balls hanging from the tree branches, the bulging remixes of classic indie and hip hop are met with dancing alacrity by the crowd on the hey down below.
The temptation to reach up and swing on a glitter ball will rarely have been so strong, but the rain forces the more cowardly of us to depart early, and the kids crche offers up a great opportunity to be creative, though I have to admit that my prize-winning painting conceived there was a direct copy of something that was hanging up nearby from a ten year-old named John. I’d like to suggest now in the best spirit of chivalry that my prize be given to him.
The darkness of the summer night fits the devilish glamour of Eyelash like a magic glove, and their set back at the Up All Night tent is a raucous concoction of punk pop thrills, the festival unearthing another bona fide star in singer Ru. Moving about the stage and introducing a duo of amazingly beautiful professional dancers at will, Ru cuts a terrific figure at the head of a vivacious attack on the senses, and to cap it all the dancers know all the words. If I knew it to be true, I’d say the party really started here, because that’s the thing you have to say about bands like Eyelash.
Suitably calmed again and somewhat inebriated after walking through the Shit Tent on the way back to the festival’s alternative heart, we venture into the smallest tent at the venue, the central, unnamed tent with half a garden table outside, and marvel cosily at a super set of jump cut beats and hip hop glitches from the resident DJs that would have the likes of Chicago mavericks Yea Big and Jane Dowe smiling ear to ear. And really, what better a way to end Saturday than at a hearty public campfire, as UFOs decorate the sky and fairies dance. The cider here’s good, too, if a bit pricy, and tomorrow’s an imminent dream.