We arrived around Thursday lunchtime and after a brief fumble with our tent, began a once-over of the festival site. First impressions left us wide eyed with wonder: rolling hills and sparse woodland clung around a magnificent lake at the site’s epicenter. A tour of the site only perked our curiosity further. At seemingly every turn, it was noticeably that immense care and consideration had gone into transforming this private estate into an alternate reality. In every nook and cranny was tucked some small beauty, from the matchstick house that adorned the inside of one tree, to the cryptic signposts (“you are now entering a reality-testing area”)that were strewn throughout the site. The overall impression was one of immense vibrancy, the glorious July sun providing the perfect foil for this beautiful place to blossom.
Whilst the festival proper would start the next day, our Thursday was not spent in any state of anticipation. Stumbling upon a museum of curiosities aboard a disused train carriage, we were invited by two dashing chaps in Victorian get-up to bear witness to the shocking power of electric cucumbers. We moved around the site, and happened across the Guerilla Science tent where a seminar on lucid dreaming was happening. The lecturer offered insights into how we can raise our awareness during dream-states, and testimonies from the audience of fellow gardeners attested to the power of the human subconscious. It was noticeable that whilst music hadn’t started on the main stages, a lot of the tents and independently –run venues at the festival were putting on music that begun that evening. On a recommendation, we caught a set from one of London’s most interesting outfits. The Boxettes are a five-piece a-capella girl group, ostensibly led by Female World Beatbox Champion Bellatrix Ehresmann. Theirs was a finely honed set, delivered with precision. It was short, but held the audience captive. Boxettes have an unconventional a capella sound, with tight beatbox work set against dreamy, sundrenched harmonics as each of the girls took turns narrating through melody over the top. Lyrically, their work seemed to focus on classic themes of love and lust, but were retold with a omniscient sense of distance. These were yarns to recount, folk tales of love lost and of self-empowerment, made for recital in a soulful hip-hop. By it’s end, the tent was full and bouncing to every beat and scratch.
Friday came, and with it the first full day of music. We started our day, however, with a swim in the lake. A quick hop off the custom-made ‘wibbly-wobbly’ bridge, and the cooling lake waters provided the perfect start to our day. Onto the music , then! It all started with a dreamy set from Leeds’ Submotion Orchestra. A tight mix of dub-influenced bass and live electronics overhead, it was a relaxed and emotive introduction to the day’s bill. Following their set, the six members of Tin Roots took to the stage and the tempo was raised. Vocalist Ruby Taylor gliding soulfully over her bands’ genre mashing, a style that took in reggae, soul and contemporary blues against an everpresent metronome of hip-hop beats. The lively set went down a treat, and was topped by an inspired cover of Miike Snow’s recent hit single ‘Animal’, here reinvented with trumpets and sax as a bouncy ska number.
On the main stage, pop starlet Marina was entertaining the kids with all of her Diamonds, a rabble of tweens forming a pseudo-pit in front of the stage and gleefully singing along with her. Frankly, this reviewer doesn’t see quite what the fuss was about, but the inclusion of a couple of token pop acts on an otherwise musically sound bill shouldn’t detract from what was an altogether fantastic line up. It’s hard to say whether punters attend Secret Garden Party in any way for the music on show, but the line up didn’t relent in providing wonderfully summery tunes, immaculately performed.
Steve Mason followed, performing tracks from recent solo album ‘Boys Outside’. This reviewer has always had a soft spot for Mason’s introspecting crooning, throughout his career with Beta Band and that affection continues. For me, this set could have lasted forever. Mason was warm, conversational, inflicted with the mood of the occasion. Although his songwriting has never been that musically complicated, this simple craft allows for an enormous outpouring of emotional weight. Closing the set with the rare ep track ‘Walk the Earth’, it was a euphoric ending to a set that many people seemed to genuinely appreciate.
And so we made our way back to the Chai Wallah tent, where accomplished Bristol act Yes Sir Boss were preparing for by far the day’s heaviest set. A fine group of musicians, YSB seem able to draw from a multitude of influences whilst rounding these into an impressively cohesive whole. Their five members, including a two piece horn section, gallivanted through a rousing set which opened with the stomping ‘Christian Soldier’- a ska-influenced rock number that had the entire room pogo’ing. The band were clearly in their stride and enjoying every moment; the interplay between guitarist Luke Potter and bassist Josh Stopford was a fine thing to see, and the audience reciprocated with an outpouring of love. Arguably, though, it was vocalist Matt Sellors who captured the hearts of this captive audience; growling in hisses and fits at the microphone, thrashing at a disheveled guitar, at once both coy and brazen. It was an enthralling set, closed with a monster rendition of their eponymous single- it’s juggernaut riff sending the audience into a frenzy.
This moment was only topped by what was about to occur. After a short break, they returned, promising a very special guest, and they did not disappoint: R&B singer Joss Stone appearing, clearly beaming, to a rapturous response. Stone and the band (with help from Smerin’s Anti Social Club) whipped through a electric performance o f ’Come Together’, an explosion caught somewhere between the Beatles’ croon and Michael Jackson’s showmanship. This was a fitting end, a euphoric opportunity to ramp guitar amps to eleven- Stone was impeccable, from the moment her mouth opened and that first note resonated around tent. It is a sad irony that in her, we probably have one of a generation’s finest voices, but that too often not been self-evident. Here she was in her element, set against a proper band of rock musicians, making the kind of noise that makes R&B sound like elevator music. This was a ‘festival moment’, there was no doubt about it, the kind of gig that confounded expectations and raised the bar for the rest of the weekend.