Eight naked people came running out of the sauna tent as we trooped to the main stage for the final headliner at Secret Garden Party. With a whoop they plunged into the lake and splashed around, blissfully heedless of the passersby who stopped to laugh and take pictures.
It sums up the festival, really. Secret Garden Party should have this as its motto: forget your day-to-day life and act like a child for a long weekend. Dressing up is practically compulsory; face-painting is de rigeur; there’s a dance-off competition and a giant haystack structure called the Collo-silly-um where punters can mud wrestle; there’s a ferris wheel, operating round the clock; there’s even a helter skelter.
Plus, the site is beautiful. Coloured lights illuminate the trees throughout the night and unexpected art litters the woods. This year there was a fireworks display and fire show that ended when performers set alight a giant dragonfly floating on the lake.
Secret Garden Party prides itself on being independent and it shows in the line-up. Its the selection someone would choose if they were free from the constraint of trying to be current’; an eclectic and often unexpected mixture. Reggae singers Dawn Penn and Susan Cadogan stood out hardly household names but each with a string of brilliant tracks to play and a delightfully upbeat attitude. Cadogan in particular was pure class dignified and tender as she counselled the crowd that love hurts so good.
Another impressive act was Brassroots, essentially a covers band who did lively versions of pop records with a brass ensemble and drum kit. There were further oddities like Earl Okin, who performed light jazz and bossa nova interspersed with rambling about love, sex and German people.
The biggest act of the weekend was probably Blondie, who played while the sun came down on Saturday. Unfortunately, this reviewer was too far back and couldnt hear (one festival gripe: the main stage sound system is not loud enough). Luckily, Leftfield proved more lively when they followed with a thumping set that had the crowd screaming.
There was a serious undertone, though, as news filtered through about the death of Amy Winehouse. Artists of all stripes paid tribute. Some were effusive, such as Alabama 3, who seemed to dedicate all of their mostly acoustic songs to her. Others were surprisingly poignant, such as the reggae DJ David Rodigan who, after a thumping afternoon set of vintage dubplate specials, declared his respect for Winehouse by dedicating to her that most simple and sincere number, Is This Love by Bob Marley.
But though Winehouse cast a long shadow, the weekend really belonged to an older singer, the Motown belle Martha Reeves. Accompanied by the Vandellas, she played the last set on the main stage on Sunday. Dressed in gold sparkly attire and with a great session band, they sang out classics like Nowhere to Run, Heat Wave and Jimmy Mack.
What made it all the more touching was their clear delight at being there a testament to Secret Gardens independent spirit. A Motown act isnt an obvious choice to headline a festival in 2011 and it seems unlikely that Martha and the Vandellas are doing any other shows like it this year. But that meant they were all the more glad to be there. Indeed, Martha was having so much fun she shouted leave me alone! several times at the sound man who tried to end the set. Martha had to be practically hauled off stage in the end, like a joyful child who doesnt want the party to finish.