Secret Garden Party 2012 festival review

'A weekend of no-questions-asked-fun'

Photographer:Trevor Eales

Rebecca Laurence - 23 July 2012

A giant green balloon hovers on the edge of a hill. Several lasers shoot up from the ground, while a ghostly arch of lighted dots floats behind, and beyond that, the garish neon of a real ferris wheel blinks in the distance. A crowd, faced towards a wide lake, stare, open-mouthed, as giant floating sculptures burn in its middle. As the summer night sky is filled with shimmering firework after firework, Orbital’s hypnotic ‘Time Becomes’ loops.

In a moment of communal wonder, this crowd is, on closer inspection, no ordinary one. Wandering amongst it you might see a fish, a mannequin, He-Man, aliens, peacocks, Mad Hatters, troupes of tigers, brides and skeletons. You might even come across Death, casually perching outside the drinks tent. This is all in honour of a 10th birthday – and a very special edition of the Secret Garden Party.

The clue’s in the name. It’s hardly a secret – what was an invite-only gathering back in the day now welcomes around 30,000 performers, artists, workers and punters, all ‘gardeners’, all made to feel like interactive participants in each event. But a strict ‘no-filming’ policy, a press tent the size of a teepee, and no cameras or massive video screens, ensure an intimate, no-holds-barred environment prevails.

The garden – it’s hard to picture a more beautiful setting – is a rolling valley in the Cambridgeshire countryside, centred around the scenic lake, surrounded by shrubby woods. Stages, tents, bandstands and seating spots are dotted around a site which is small enough to walk around while varied events are arranged in such a way to create little unique pockets – mini-parties of their own.

Ah. The party. Well-known as one of the more hedonistic events, the gardeners at Secret Garden Party come ready to plunge feet first into a weekend of no-questions-asked-fun, from Colo-Silly-Um’s naked mud-wrestling to all-night raving, dance lessons to lake-diving. Nudity is prevalent at SGP, and when the weather suddenly turns from grim to glorious, from skinny-dipping to the ‘Pool of Wonders: The Heart of Naked Liberation’, you quickly get used to resisting the urge to snigger ‘LOOK! They’ve got their bits out!’

SGP is less of a music festival than a collection of happenings around a central theme. This year’s was ‘standing on ceremony’, in which the organisers aimed to ‘explore those ceremonies, rituals, initiations, anniversaries and carnivals that bind us together’. Saturday was the breathtaking pyrotechnic display and Orbital in the ‘Big 10th Birthday Burn’.

Sunday’s birthday party involved a mass paint fight, a giant birthday cake and paragliders shooting into the lake astwo planes created a love heart vapour trail in the sky. Away from the main stage, there were hundreds of tiny evocations of ceremony – from a lowly, promenading brass band, leading a funeral parade of weeping freaks, down to the ‘Tea Ceremony at the End of the Universe’.

That said, there was plenty of music on offer, but rather than following the more traditional theme of three big headliners on a main stage, a wide selection of eclectic but largely smaller acts are dotted around the site.

Up-and-coming girl-trio Stealing Sheep (7/10), played to an amphitheatre made of hay bales - endearingly shambolic, with ethereal, tub-thumping tunes in ‘Genevieve’, ‘Circles’ and ‘White Lies’.

Lianne La Havas (9/10) played a solo set (the first of two that day) to a packed-out Living Room stage filled with cosy sofas (and a mud floor). Charmingly effervescent in between songs, when La Havas begins to sing and play ‘No Room for Doubt’ or ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’, she’s note-perfect, powerful, and you can hear a pin drop.

Over on the main stage, KT Tunstall (8/10) played to the afternoon crowd and party spirit, staging a mass human beatbox and performing a kazoo solo version of ‘Seven Nation Army’, while Tim Minchin’s (7/10) poignant ode to an unrequited love of cheese and his expletive-ridden Pope song were similarly rousing. More break out stars came in the form of Alabama Shakes (8/10) and Jake Bugg (8/10) who drew big crowds, while Little Dragon (9/10) showed their love for SGP by returning for a sparkling, bass-heavy set as the sun set on the lake.

It was fitting that the legendary Orbital (9/10), as they began quietly with gentle ‘Wonky’ opener ‘One Big Moment’, were backing band to the pyrotechnic display. As the shower of sparks faded away, new songs like the awesome ‘Beelzedub’ dominated the first half of the set, interwoven with old friends ‘Chime’ and ‘Belfast’.

As wonderful as they were, it’s not necessarily Orbital who were the stars of Secret Garden Party 2012 – it’s the spectacle. From giant foxes, to underwear trees, merengue classes to burning sculptures, Secret Garden Party takes a little bit of the crazy hedonism of Burning Man, the healing spirituality of Glastonbury and its own colourful magic, to create, well, a great party. Happy Birthday.



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