The Secret Garden Party 2007 - Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon

When you arrive at a festival only to be greeted by an unforgiving downpour that makes putting up the tent a more unenviable task than usual, you can be forgiven for, however briefly, wishing you hadn’t bothered. As the most hardened Glasto survivors know, rain is part and parcel of the festival experience, especially during this Rhianna-cursed summer. Thank God I didn’t act upon impulse and immediately backtrack then, as the experience I had at Secret Garden Party 2007 was one that was unique, ultimately sunny (for the most part) and certainly worth the hellish forty soggy minutes it took to set up base in the campsite.

Those who entered the festival site during the late afternoon hours of Thursday were treated to one more evening’s worth of entertainment than those latecomers who headed down for the first ‘official’ day of music on Friday. I don’t regret my decision to be an early bird because the fun and frolics had on Thursday set the tone for the weekend to come. Initially (a word that here means ‘before the cider kicked in’), time was spent getting one’s bearings and checking out the stalls and various art installations that surrounded the site’s impressive lake centrepiece. Once various silly headgear was acquired and a few alcoholic beverages consumed, the first of a series of blurry nights kicked into fifth gear. Whether playing giant Connect 4 with complete strangers, dancing to gypsy music in a tent full of hay or making friends in the AMP arena to a party-starting set courtesy of DJ Kaine Sounds, revellers were certainly not at a loss of things to do. Before returning to the tent to catch some kip before the real fun began on Friday, the night was capped off as we were all invited to dance around ignited campfires as part of a fire show, the first of many that weekend celebrating New Day’s Eve and the frivolity to come…

Day One: Friday

Although sleep proved to be elusive throughout the night, due to music still being blasted out in the indoor arenas well into the early hours, the anticipation of the first full day of SGP-organised fun won out. Raspberry cider before twelve replaced the comparatively mundane outside-world breakfast, and the first port of call was The Living Room. This was an intimate and cosy little tent, where the stage was adorned with lamps and a fireplace and patrons could watch the performances while lounging on settees and armchairs. I was one such patron during a set unlisted in the programme from jazz-blues improv group, Bijoumiyo. As with most of their breed, the band’s songs were sprawling and overly long but this did not stop their technical skill impressing during their extended jams. Their vocalist also possesses one of the most striking soul voices this side of John Legend.

Music, however, is not the sole attraction of such a boutique festival. Moving on from The Living Room, a Friday afternoon that can only be described as ‘odd’ was spent painting vagina moulds, eating hummus, and watching braver men than I tackling each other in the Suicide Sports Club’s mud wrestling tournament. This eccentric array of activities was a far cry from the non-music fare offered at more corporate festivals like V, and the festival was all the better for it. In a way, there was too much to do and this excess made me appreciate the festival all the more, knowing anything could be happening from one hour to the next. Indeed, after enjoying the Stick It On party hosted in the Fish Seeks Bicycle Looniverse tent, where festival-goers played their own favourite Madonna and Bon Jovi records, I was soon spinning a hula hoop around my waist along with several other overgrown children at the Kids Camp.

Of course, with this site being CD Times, we don’t want to stray too far from the music. My definitive moment of the summer thus far (and, trust me, it will be hard to beat) is dancing to ‘remix resident’ Jim Slim on the lovingly-crafted Pagoda, a stage that really makes use of the setting by jutting out over the lake. If you’re as lucky as I was, you would have happened to be learning dance moves with new South African friends, Red Stripe in hand, while overhead the sun glinted on the water. This perfect moment almost made me want to forget about the rest of the line-up and stay put all night. However, despite the change of setting, keytar-toting electro-heads Shy Child were worth the move into the Remix Arena and kept energy levels high. This duo are not pedalling anything radically new, their brand of synth ‘n’ drums cool-rave carrying on where Presets and Klaxons haven’t really left off. No-one really gave a toss though, dancing with smiles on faces to the likes of their most notable track, the pleasing racket of Noise Won’t Stop.

After all that pogo-ing around, it was time for something of a different tempo. Lying on the grassy banks of the Great Stage, listening to perhaps the closest thing to headliners this festival had, Echo and the Bunnymen, was the ideal contrast. Ian McCulloch was compelling a front man as ever, and he can be forgiven for displaying a smidge of arrogance when he claimed, before a spine-chilling rendition of The Killing Moon, that it’s the ‘greatest song ever written’ because, frankly, it quite possibly is. The anything-goes nature of the festival continued when a crowd member, trumpet in arms, began jamming along and both band and crowd applauded the fellow in question. The lack of People Are Strange was disappointing but the set was a welcome showing from a band that, unlike most of the weekend’s acts, have a back catalogue to pick and choose from as they see fit.

Young pretenders, however, can be just as much fun and, in the case of the next two acts of the night, far from pretending. The Noisettes opened with should-have-been huge single Scratch My Name and, for the duration of their set, kept fans rooted at the front of the stage with their rock ‘n’ roll funk-soul-pop. Singer Shingai is extraordinary, bounding around the stage like a hyperactive puppy and proving to be a focal point for the band’s interplanetary noise. They’re not destined to be massive, though, unlike the breakout stars of this festival and others besides: Reverend and the Makers. True to their word, this lot could very well be the heavyweight champions of the music scene. Making fun and danceable indie pop that appeals to the nu-rave kids without isolating fans of the bands that the group themselves obviously love - Primal Scream, The Charlatans, etc. - is no easy feat but the Reverend and his cohorts pulled it off with style, transforming the Remix Arena into a party for all. If next single He Said He Loved Me isn’t huge then I’ll be forced to eat my novelty festival cowboy hat!

Suitably pished out of my head at this point, the remainder of the night belonged to dance music. Utah Saints, kings of breaks and beats, delivered a set of instantly recognisable dancefloor monsters from Josh Wink and Daft Punk. While this united the festival crowd in big singalongs, perhaps some surprises would have been preferred. I mean, two Klaxons remixs within half an hour? This was enough to make even the mashed-up and desensitised move along. Chilling out with friends in the Centre Camp, while drinking tea and eating oranges, proved one of the more surreal moments before heading off to beddy byes at three in the morning. No need to dance all night when there were still two full days left, right?

Day Two: Saturday

Once again, sleep pretty much evaded me so it was a case of not rushing into the fray (except for a short excursion to grab a bacon butty) and lounging around the tent for a while before starting all over again for a second day. Hearing Frank Turner's set travel over the lake and to the campsite made me realise what a great voice he possesses and how much better his protest songs sound when accompanied by a band. Having heard him play solo earlier this year, the soundbites I heard at SGP almost make me regret I didn't head over to the Great Stage earlier. I'm glad I didn't though, for I would have surely been knackered out on what would prove to be the longest and most fulfilling day of the festival - and one where I got into the spirit and donned myself up as a pirate. The slow start allowed us time before focusing on the musical acts of the day to witness some of the strange and wonderful sights of the festival, as well as to visit the Feast of Fools stage and discuss the merits of a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a man dressed as a fawn!

Needless to say, my friends and I eventually got our acts together and decided to catch some live music, although the snatch of the kid's sock wrestling tournament we witnessed almost made us decide otherwise. Thankfully drawn by the allure of Candie Payne to the Great Stage, I for one was certainly not disappointed with the sultry blues delivered by this Scouse lass and her band. I Wish displays her smoky voice to full effect, sure to make grown men quiver, and confirms her status as the only contemporary female artist to rival Amy Winehouse when it comes to who should sing the next James Bond theme tune. Go on, be nice and get her album.

The feminine draw proved as strong later that afternoon when it was time to see Vote Show Pony at the minimalist Where the Wild Things Are stage. As with Shy Child, this lady ain't doing anything particularly new, although this time it's joyous synth-disco on offer. VSP herself (the alter-ego of pretty Sorcha Hawkins) was an arresting performer and, backed by her male band, got those in attendance dancing with her infectious guilty-pleasure pop. However, I couldn't help cutting my time at her set short to return to the Great Stage, intrigued by the notion of teenie-boppers Kitty, Daisy and Lewis and their modern update of rockabilly. Actually, 'update' is a misnomer because their music is unashamedly retro; this is hardly a bad thing, though, especially when it led to the crowd uniting with unabashed enthusiasm for the young siblings and bopping along to their heart's content.

Nap time had arrived but, before any major shut-eye was enjoyed, it was already time to leave the tent once again and trek to the Great Stage for the night's main acts. Fujiya & Miyagi and their Hot Chip-esque brand of charmingly leftfield electronic soundscapes were fun but little more than a warm-up act for recent Mercury nominees, New Young Pony Club. Although they are probably the least worthy winners of the coveted prize, NYPC's dirty-girl electro-sleaze is still a winner and drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. As was expected, Ice Cream ended up being the festival anthem but, with The Bomb and Get Lucky, more than enough savvy edge was displayed for all to enjoy.

Preceding NYPC's outing, an effigy of a giant pink hand residing on the lake was transformed into a bonfire before a series of lanterns purchased by fellow Gardeners were unleashed into the night skies. I'm going to blame this spectacle of light and fire for inviting the rain to come play because, for the rest of the night, it was torrential. Running back to the tent to procure my wellies, I happened to lose a special kind of festival virginity and fell over THRICE within five minutes on a mudslide of a bank, and so was transformed into a variation of the Swamp Thing. I was having such a bloody good time, though, that my only thought was to get my footgear in time for the Remix Arena playing host to Goose. I needn't have rushed because, due to the longest soundcheck ever, the band didn't arrive onstage until half an hour after their scheduled slot. When they did, however, they didn't neglect to bring their barrel-load of great tracks with them. Shy Child were good but, when you feel the energy of a boozed-up crowd raising the roof to full-on anthems like Bring It On and Everybody, you realize these Belgian boys are in a league of their own. Harder than the Klaxons and with bigger breakdowns than most of the club tracks currently soundtracking Ibiza 2007, it is a crime that Goose aren't played in every indie or dance club across the UK on a weekly basis.

Post-Goose, the midnight hour had arrived. At most festivals, this would be when the music winds down and everyone heads back to the tents. SGP's 6am indoor music license meant that we could carry on dancing until dawn, and we weren't about to miss out. It's all a blur really but I do recall hopping to and from various tents, boogying on down with old and new friends alike. When feet needed a little rest, though, a trip to the Vampire Action Camp allowed us to rest up in a coffin. Not morbid at all, then. Warming up by a campfire afterwards with like-minded folk, singing Beatles songs and Christian hymns whilst simultaneously planning to take over the world with a 'nu-rave' church, assured us we were still very much alive and taking advantage of it. Come four 'o' clock, the fire had died and dancing to Coburn's DJ set was a welcome return to a high-energy pace. I can't remember the choons for the life of me - with the exception of a male-vocal house version of Blondie's Rapture - but I do know I was raving it up which I would take as a good sign that they did the trick. Leaving the Remix Arena and trudging back to base at six in the morning, sun on the rise, it was with a warm knowing glow that festivals don't get much better than this that I drifted off to sleep.

Day Three: Sunday

Oooooh, I felt it this morning! The previous three nights and their heady mix of thrills, booze and lack of sleep had reached climax point and, when I woke up on Sunday in the tent, my ability to formulate coherent thoughts was severely compromised. A late start was just what the hangover doctor ordered, and so I didn't venture out of my tent until around noon. Thankfully, Manor House were on hand to aid my rehabilitation. Lounging in Centre Camp and listening to this London Symphony Orchestra string quartet, who performed a set of covers of classic pop songs, was the perfect start to a day that was drastically different in tone to what had come prior. I guess the majority of attendees were a bit, well, shattered and, as a result, the vibe was much more chilled all day. Maybe this is why the quartet and their comedy covers, ranging from Britney's Toxic to rock gods like Guns N Roses and Led Zeppelin, got such a rapturous reception. Alternatively, it could just be because they were marvellous, transforming many of the unlikely songs into gorgeous string versions. Whichever is true, they proved an unexpected highlight of the entire weekend.

Taking it slow by grabbing some lunch and braving the toilets, it wasn't until a couple of hours later that my next choice act of the day took to the Centre Camp stage. Having been tipped off by a friend, I was interested in checking out Peggy Sue and the Pirates from the get-go. The acoustic tales of useless boyfriends and the like from this Brighton-based female duo are lyrically and sonically very Regina Spektor. Despite this, they are engaging and could very well nick some of Kate Nash's mainstream audience. Oh, and they're pretty to boot!

Speaking of Kate Nash, BOO to her. Well, boo to her management. A very sarcastic announcement on the chalkboard outside The Living Room informed us all that Nash had cancelled due to her 'people' thinking she is much too big for a teeny-weeny festival such as this. Pfft. It's a shame that someone like Nash, who would undoubtedly go down a storm with SGP's music-lovers, a bunch who would appreciate her for her songs and not just the hype, is incapable of stopping her management dictating where she plays.

Ah well, there's plenty more Kates where she came from. All hail Kate Walsh! Admittedly, she's not the big name Nash has recently become but, who knows? Give her a couple of months and Walsh's Tim's House could soon become one of those huge sleeper hits following on from the massive debut albums from Dido and Norah Jones. Yup, Walshy isn't exactly nu-rave (that's the last time I use that term in this review, I swear!). Her voice has a purity many of her ilk lack, though, and her sweet songs cast a calming spell despite subject matter that is pretty standard. Indeed, the crowd in this packed-out room was suitably impressed. Top marks for the flowers-in-hair look she was sporting, too!

All this acoustic stuff was pleasing to the ears after a coupla days of more upbeat sounds, although I do blame it for sending me back to the tent for much-needed sleep rather than catching the last few songs from Scroobius Pip's set. Dulcet tones and gently plucked guitar strings do not make for a revved-up wide-awake young laddy. Determined to make something of my last night in this Garden of Eden, though, I forced myself to grab a cider and sit idly on the bank to watch SoKo perform on the Great Stage. And, boyo, I ain't half glad. Not only did my makeshift snakebites fail in causing me to retch, as I feared they would after the morning's hangover (they were actually pretty darn tasty!), this deceptively naive French gal proved to be the surprise hit of the weekend. Going in blind can always be risky, and I had never heard of SoKo before this weekend. Her innocent delivery, which bears an uncanny resemblance to CSS's Lovefoxx despite the difference in country of origin, and risky lyrics (all cock-sucking and killing dogs) blend perfectly. Accompanied by a guitarist and providing her own keys, it's pretty minimal but also very charming in its own skewed way. I look forward to discovering more of this lady's music, and this is surely a morality tale for all those who decide to give the music a miss on the final night and sleep it off instead. Don't miss the next big thing, kids...

Having entered the final stretch, I was tempted to see I Am Kloot's Johnny Bramwell performing his band's songs during a solo set at the Wild Things stage. After the bolt from the blue that was SoKo, however, Bramwell's acoustic performance was a bit tame and so I didn't stick around for Over My Shoulder. A sense of the festivities winding down could be felt throughout the entire site, and so my motley crew descended upon the Egg Action Camp to see the Party off in style. Worshipping a giant egg by singing tampered-with versions of Elton John's No Sacrifice and the Beatles' I Am the Walrus (yup, the 'eggman' line played a bigger part overall) and then throwing eggs at said egg before dancing around it with painted faces will live on in memory as one of the most hilarious fifteen minutes I have ever spent. Not long after, and it was time to howl at the full moon while bouncing on a trampoline, not caring how stupid I looked because, hey, no-one else did.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, that was all. In bed by midnight, a full eight hours sleep (gosh!) was enjoyed and then it was goodbye Secret Garden. Ready to have a long hot shower and escape the terrible loos, a travesty from Sunday morning onwards, it was still bittersweet to leave a festival that had obviously had so much effort and attention to detail put into it - and all for the benefit of us, the paying customers! I doubt the more straight-down-the-middle festivals will ever be as fun now, as I'll always be thinking of this experience in comparative terms. It wasn't without its hiccups; for starters, the act I was most excited about seeing was Duke Special and it turns out info about him, as well as the stage he was meant to be playing on, were completely absent from the programme and none of the staff I spoke to had a clue. Oops! I'm guessing he and the Up All Night stage were cancelled at some point - or maybe I just hallucinated it all? Some inevitable organisation issues with the schedule, as well as bar/food prices that didn't stray that far away from the more corporate fests, also proved to be a minor pain in the bum. However, when everything else - the bands, the location, the choice in activities, the great food options, and, most importantly, the people - all added up to create a festival that is quite easily the most enjoyable I've ever been to, then the slight negatives don't really hold much weight. Let it be known it is no secret that I intend to return to the Party in years to come, as should you.

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