Those of us old enough (and cool enough) to remember Drugstore will recall such grungy pop standards as Nectarine and their “featuring Thom Yorke” masterpiece, El President. Isabel Monteiro always dominated the band as a strong but flawed frontwoman. Her voice is cracked and at times weak, yet packs an incredible punch as it delivers tales of sex and drugs and hope. She pleads with us that she wants to get some action this weekend (and her Twittering later on suggests she did), and she basically behaves like a rock star. While it takes a few songs before the set really takes off, by the end she has a hapless bunch of eccentrics (we counted Mr Speedos, Cybergoth girl, somersault dude and cycling-on-his-back man) all dancing in their own special ways. It’s great to have Isabel, and her ability to inspire madness, back.
The Great Stage is dominated by old school reggae today, the highlight being a superb DJ set by David Rodigan. Middle-aged and bespectacled, he makes an unlikely looking hero of the genre, but he darts around the stage, wiggling his hips and lathering his enthusiasm over every track he plays. He takes us through a potted history of reggae, including a tribute to Desmond Dekker as he goes. As he bounces around it becomes impossible for him to hide his excitement and his love for what he’s doing and, as he closes his set, he gets the biggest cheer of the weekend, forcing him to come back for an unlikely encore. Following Rodigan proved difficult, but the reggae continued with old stars Dreadzone and then Horace Andy, known these days mainly for his work with Massive Attack. It’s great fun for a while, but eventually too much reggae reggae sauce starts to burn and we head elsewhere.
The Where The Wild Things Are stage can always be trusted for something good and we catch some more New Yorkers promoting another debut album. This time it’s Darwin Deez, the man and the band, with their glitchy pop tunes. Now, as much as their self-titled album is a good listen and has a few gems on it, it can also be a bit samey and monotone. However, we’d been told that seeing the man live was something different. And so it proved. Backed up with his three cohorts, they’ve put some serious effort into coming up with a show that’s there to be enjoyed. It’s all about the choreography as the four of them use their own form of synchronised robotics to accompany their tunes. It’s something that you need to see, but really, they’re brilliantly entertaining. Getting his audience involved, Darwin also orchestrates a game of spin the bottle which ends with him getting pashed by two pretty ladies. Which worked out well for him all things considered. Oh, to be in a band.
That stage is situated next to the Secret Garden Party’s ultimate one, The Pagoda, which we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to experience firsthand this year. However, it is worth mentioning as over the weekend we walk past it many many times and keep hoping that a time will come when we end up on it. At the end of the lake, and by a beautiful ornate pagoda, it floats, pumping out all sorts of music. You don’t need to get into a boat to get to it, but you do need to queue at any given time. Which we never feel like we have the patience for. This means we miss out on the likes of Late Of The Pier, Filthy Dukes and on this last day, the comedown bliss of Zero 7.
Instead of queueing up for that we find ourselves in the Small World tent where we find the Undercover Hippy, aka Billy Salisbury playing some soothing light acoustic songs in an entertaining set. He’s a fixture on the Secret Garden Party calendar, playing, by our count, four gigs over the course of this weekend. He’s a young man but an old hand at this, and turns out to be a good listen.
Mercury Rev close 2010’s Great Stage with a beautiful set of grand shimmering ballads. It sees them retread old songs as well as play a few lovely cover versions, including Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill. As David Baker owns his stage with theatrical poses and silhouetted lighting, the set ends a little abruptly and after 15 minutes of waiting, the audience files out without an encore and without Goddess On A Hiway. Of course there were a hundred other things to go to, so a little disappointed to be left without more, we move on.
There’s no denying that there is something special about the Secret Garden Party. It remains a small festival despite its growth. Everything’s tightly organised so you can hardly take two steps without coming across something new and intriguing for your entertainment. However, for a regular festival-goer, but a first-timer at this one, the expectation was perhaps for something “unique”. It didn’t really come across as that far removed from, say, a smaller version of the Big Chill. The demographic and the general ambience felt pretty similar. Whether that’s something that’s happened since its rapid ascent is unclear. Perhaps when it was just a few thousand people, it had a very different feel – one where you would literally bump into the same people all weekend. It’s now expanded beyond that, and it’s very easy to get lost among the crowds. We’re assured that this is almost as big as it will ever be, as the organisers don’t want it to lose that boutique feel. That’s good to hear, because at 20,000 people on site, it’s on the cusp.
For all that, the Secret Garden Party remains a grand fixture on the summer festival calendar, and it’s pretty much impossible to come away from it having had anything other than a superb weekend.