Secret Garden Party, Abbots Ripton, Cambridgeshire
They're practically ten-a-penny these days, yet amazingly, many festival organisers fail to see the benefit of digging deep to sprinkle a little characterful magic on their no doubt bank-breaking jaunt.
Thankfully the team behind SGP don't quite fit that mould. You see, their blossoming creation, is as much, if not more, about the extra-curricular head-fuck shenanigans, as it is about the music. A cunning tilting of the scales if you will.
As you descend into the main arena, instantly you're engulfed by hoards of kaleidoscopic clans, each brazenly promoting some wonderfully realised, madcap theme. There are no run of the mill, out-of-a-packet cowboys visible, or half-arsed McEnroe impersonators, unashamedly cheesing it up – no sir, the Secret Garden prides itself on a far more creative and meticulous breed of dolled-up-nutter. Much of this painstaking effort can be attributed to the incredible temporary world, here lovingly created for its guests to lose their marbles in. The main stage for example, is sculpted like a Great White's mouth. Then there's the picturesque and pivotal neon-lit lake – which comes complete with pirate ship/party boat; not to mention the decked-loaded pagoda which overlooks its very own jetty dance floor - it's proper acid-laced, Alice in Wonderland nonsense.
Musically, it's largely up-and-coming bands and DJs that dominate, with a smattering of bigger, more established acts. On Friday, feisty Aussies Operator Please and Swedish upstarts Shout Out Louds steal the show, while the next day we're served up corking sets by Bonde Do Role and The Back2Basics crew. It's on Saturday night however, where the organisers truly surpass themselves; as live and direct from the shark's mouth, it's the mighty - and we don't use the adjective lightly - Grace Jones. Little surprise then, that this takes the SGP '08 mantle – a classic festival moment. But it's after watching the lunatic disco diva that the painfully frustrating and sole flaw of SGP emerges. Picture the scene - there we are, some twenty strong ravers, dressed to the hilt in outrageous garb, suitably seasoned and itching to get involved.
One am hits, and we're in full flow - initiating camaraderie with fellow Garden lunatics, both indulging and helping administer the cacophony of mentalism surrounding us. Then, after frolicking like tits for a little while, it's now 3am, and we're gagging for some heads-down musical titillation. Ok, what have we here - hmmm, an acoustic hippy love-in... OK, what about here? Oh, that's closed....here? Ouch, horrible MC!... maybe here?! Maybe not - a cramped tent with people drinking herbal teas while a pair of nitrous corrupted trustafarians murder the bongos at the back.
While there are still places open, the quality of music available to infringe upon your carefully honed state (or perhaps that should be statelessness) seems somewhat lacking. The likes of Glasto's Trash City and Shangri La areas, positively teem with suitably twisted music and great little atmospheric haunts to explore. Maybe we just weren't searching hard enough, but it does seem apparent, that at SGP, the true purchase is reserved for daytime japery.
Minor gripe aside, the festival has a shed load going for it. The setting is mind-blowing, the atmosphere constantly electric, production (bar some of the sound) exceptional, and the music on the whole, varied and strong - Sunday, it has to be said, throws up some real sonic treats - Ali B, The Shortwave Set and festival closers Late of the Pier, all excellent - but as soon as the Alkan proteges' final rhapsody rings out, you're once again left, chasing that sonic dragon, in the vein hope you'll stumble upon that perfect accompaniment to the bountiful mischief that SGP so brilliantly bestows. Next year, next year…