Live Music + Gig Reviews

Secret Garden Party 2008, Day 1 @ Abbots Rippon, Huntingdon

25 July 2008

There is a lot going on at the Secret Garden Party; at least seven stages with live music, and others with occasional bands, beatboxers, rappers, poets, and strummers.

It doesn’t even really feel like a music festival. The emphasis is clearly on “party” from the outset, despite there being a main stage at what might be, depending on your priorities, the centre, a side, a corner, or a backwater of the site.
Like many others, I arrived on Friday, so the few acts that took to the various stages on Thursday were lost to me – unfortunately both Molloy and Jeremy Warmsley had been scheduled on that day of the programme.

Nevertheless, Friday has a whole day of music and a hell of a lot more to offer. A tour of the site takes up a couple of hours, moving slowly in the blazing sun, I am distracted by various action camps, the galley in the middle of the lake, the veritable swarms of dragonflies hawking over the water, and people dressed as zebras. Nevertheless, flanneuring eventually lands us with MC Xander.

Human beat boxing is the sort of thing that kids do really badly at the age of 11 to show off (like Michael Jackson dancing at a school disco) and most importantly it’s the sort of thing that, like the dancing, isn’t especially easy to do. But MC Xander is clearly better than a puff-chested prepubescent swanker, and his meek, beardy, laid-back demeanour is endearing enough to make his talents seem impressive.

Next, it’s off to the main stage to settle in. The end of Absentee‘s set provides some glorious baritone indie pop. Sweeping and buoyant it chimes with the sunshine. As does the rockabilly fun of The Sugars – a band that combine image and sound and an enthusiastic live performance despite the heat.

The All New Adventures of Us provide a pleasing enough, if uninspiring indie backdrop to the first beer of the festival. A lager later, we move onto cider and the Post War Years. Up-beat grungery draped with a few synths, their sound is not a million miles from that of the Futureheads. Quite a crowd have gathered for their set, which doesn’t exactly set the place alight, but is pleasing enough in a familiar kind of way.

I must confess to hating Alphabeat. Their music sounds for all the world like a CBeebies soundtrack to me; and dressed in brightly coloured outfits and play-people hair, they look like a children’s cartoon too. But never underestimate the capacity for people in a sun-drenched field high on life and with a couple of ciders in them to enjoy the simple things of life. Leaving some to grumble into pints, a large crowd gathers and goes wild for the piece of aural plague that is Fascination. Many Secret Gardeners would have listened to Alphabeat for the rest of the festival, so who are we to put them down?

A stone’s throw away, Crystal Fighters are shouty and vibrant and the darkened Valley of the Antics stage could seem like a late night in Ibiza, less saccharine than Alphabeat, the Fighters’ set is a little samey, but enjoyable enough for a few tracks.

Given the brightly coloured squeaky youth pop uniting the two, I am surprised a only about quarter of the audience that gathered for Alphabeat reconvene for Operator Please. But if the Swedes are saccharine and childish, the Aussies are caramel and full of teenage angst. Amanda Wilkinson is a front woman with more presence and bile than her age should allow. The tour through the debut album released earlier this year shows their angrier side to great effect, and the musicianship is impressive. Keeping a brave face in front of a diminishing but appreciative crowd, Operator Please win back a few of the crowd with a popular, well-executed, and spirited cover of Salt ‘n’ Pepa‘s Push It.

A broken leg, we hear later, has caused Cage The Elephant to pull out from their set on the Where The Wild Things Are stage. So another quick stroll around the site finds me back at the main stage with the Shout Out Louds. As the sun sets, their dark indie is a pleasing contribution to the line up, there is something of The Cure about them, which, of course is no bad thing.

As the evening draws to a close Shantel And Bukovina Club Orkestar provide a gypsy-reggae carnival atmosphere that is entirely fitting to the eclectic festival spirit. Metronomy draw a large crowd to the dance tent. But the whole site has turned into a huge house party, walking from room to room to find someone playing a guitar in one, someone DJing in another, a group skinning up on the stairs, and five people dressed as superheros in the back garden.

Maybe you’ve not been to a house party where a group of people start performing Hamlet at 2am, though; The Factory‘s roving performance of the bard’s greatest play lasts until 5am, the actors bravely competing with the party around them, which they even incorporate into their performance. The hours fly by, and before you know it, everyone is dead and it’s time for bed.

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