Houghton Festival Review
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
For someone who apparently wasn't the biggest fan of festivals, Fabric resident Craig Richards has pulled off the job of running one of the best outdoor dance events this year. Houghton Festival - set on the grounds of the beautiful Houghton Hall in Norfolk - was without a doubt a game changer for festivals in the electronic and dance music arena. Almost a quarter of a century beyond the Conservative Party's 'Criminal Justice Bill' that tried to stop people gathering together in groups of 10 or more, something progressive was happening in the grounds of the home built for arguably the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. In 1994 the newly made law stated it was illegal to listen to repetitive beats in such gatherings, but that would not have registered with the majority of the crowd who would have been just a twinkle in their parent's eyes.
High praise has to go to Richards who curated the event and picked some of the best of underground, quality global dance and electronic music talent. Often people scoff and laugh at the idea of festivals and music events being curated as it can seem a little too pompous or vain for one person to dictate such a big event. Houghton on the other hand laughed in the face of such naysayers as everything felt like the sum total of all its component parts at what was a special inauguration. There were of course a few things that felt left of field among the majority of long DJ sets, but they were more of a tasty side dish than welcome distraction.
The venue was one of the best festival sites I have ever been to, not as epic as Glastonbury's hills or Green Man's iron age mountains. It was almost on its own, lush green and broken up by a beautiful lake that lit up once the sun went down, despite the lack of hills, it had a Big Chill feel about it all. Norfolk isn't the most interesting of landscapes, but Houghton Hall's mixture of woodland, pastures and lake made it an outdoor clubbing wonderland. Of course the weather also helps with festivals and except for a few hours of rain, most of the weekend was bathed in sun and warm cloudy shade.
This of course is not the first dance music festival, not by a long chalk. Going back to the illegal parties and camps of the early rave scene, to the Glastonbury Dance Tent, to Creamfields and Tribal Gathering, it feels like it is a logical progression. In recent times we have had Glade, Lost Village, Low Life, Beat Herder and various one day events with many leaning towards the populist end of the dance music spectrum. With the likes of Gottwood, who were working behind the scenes at Houghton, and other smaller discerning party festivals, this felt very vibrant, fresh, grown up and European. Houghton didn't get everything right, but there were three things it got perfect and step up the game from other similar events.
One of the main reasons that Houghton felt different is that it felt like a lot less rushed and there were a few reasons for this. Firstly most of the DJ sets were longer, often four hours long with many going beyond that. So DJs were not forced to cram 60 minutes of tracks into one memorable high octane set. How many times have you gone to a event or festival where the dance tent's roster of DJs is longer than your typical toilet roll? Often these events try to please DJs by trying to squeeze as many behind the decks as they can. I remember DJing at an event in the 1990s where I was paid £50 to DJ for 15 minutes, naturally I tried to shoehorn as many tracks as I could into the full quarter of an hour, it is not a pleasant experience for anyone. The sets were all masterfully executed as the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Nicholas Jaar, Ben UFO, Craig Richards and possibly the star of the weekend Ricardo Villalobos among many others carefully built, dismantled and rebuilt sets over several hours. It meant that there was no rush, no need to make a massive impact on the crowd and grab their attention from track one. Music for the weekend rarely drifted above 120 BPM and it chimed with a more relaxed vibe on site as the crowds paced themselves knowing that they had a full night ahead of them.
Another reason was Houghton's 24 hour licence which was a huge coup and was perfectly executed bar a few teething problems in getting some of the areas opened on time. There were nine different areas that included two in a quarry, two in the woods, an open air stage and one that had a sound system that was out of this world. The main quarry was where most of the action took place as security carefully ran a 'one in - one out' policy due to its popularity after 8pm every night. Some of the stages had been artfully designed and built by the Fables Creative with one the best perched on the side of the lake with the speakers facing deep into the adjoining woodland. The Warehouse also proved to be a popular destination as a large hay barn was turned into an epic club venue with a suitably resplendent sound system. This was the third ingredient that made Houghton special - the sound was simply superb. Music always sounds enticing when drifting across the wind, and the combined sounds of house, disco, sublime techno and reggae all played out at a loud level, but never crashed into each other. It never felt like you needed to shout as the sound was so crisp and clear, with the Beautiful Corners winning the award for best sound. Complete with shiny wooden floor, large palm plants, four incredible audiophile speakers and an old school DJ setup that would not have looked out of place at Mancuso's Loft, it was heaven to spend a few hours in there enjoying the likes of Frankie Valentine and Floating Points.
The live music was more limited than your typical festival but very select as Adrian Sherwood - complete with huge mixing desk - dubbed, remixed and jammed classic tracks from his On U Sound back catalogue - it was masterful. He started with almost an empty field and in 90 minutes had filled it, it was effortless. Hercules and Love Affair kicked the festival off with a colourful and lively set of diva lead electronic goodness. Howie B delivered two live sets that twisted and turned using subtle acidic basslines and chords to mellow a small but appreciate crowd. Whilst Radioactiveman dropped a masterclass in live electro in the trees that would later shudder to a three hour dub reggae set from Weatherall the next morning. Sunday's open air stage was treated to variations of jazz from different eras as Kamaa Williams Ensemble, the legendary Tony Allen and finally Cobblestone Jazz complimented each other nicely with the former bringing that funky electronic Underground Resistance vibe to end the evening. Villalobos also debuted his Vilod live show which at times looked to go off on its own tangent as Villalobos wore a bemused expression and posture as tracks suddenly developed a life of its own. The whole live show was superb in how it continued to move, change and keep the audience on the toes, always reigned in by Villalobos and his two companions.
Something else that was notable for such an event, that for except a few live performances, there was no sign of a laptop anywhere. All the DJ slots were either vinyl or on CDJ. No beat syncs going on, no posturing in the air, no rushing for selfies with the eager crowd. Every DJ looked focused, at times with the likes of Weatherall, like they weren't there, but instead locked in a groove, running a music marathon, eager to please, try out new tracks and take everyone with them on a journey.
Not everything was perfect about this first Houghton Festival, there was some disorder in the opening of the stages for the first time, and there weren't enough food outlets as most had sold out and closed up by Sunday tea time. Security was occasionally lax and inconsistent, there could have been more toilets and parts of the site were left looking like the scruffiest parts of Glastonbury, but that reflects on the crowd rather than the organiser. These things are all easily rectifiable and Houghton will have been made aware of these issues no doubt. Teething troubles are normal for most festivals as they start out. There is no doubt that pretty much everyone at Houghton had a great time, there was a special vibe, a happiness that was aided by a lack of a phone signal. It was a break from all the rubbish going on in the world, a chance to dance, to smile and appreciate that repetitive beats and crowds of people are a thing we should embrace more. Well done Houghton, really looking forward to what 2018 brings.
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