Houghton Festival 2017

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  • "I don't really like festivals," Craig Richards once told RA. "Playing in a big tent, banging the hell out of it... It's not really me." That in mind, Houghton, a new festival curated by Richards, was never going to be ordinary. But few could have predicted just how special the four-day event would turn out to be. As I left the site, after 72 hours of non-stop music, some people were suggesting it might be one of the best festivals in Europe. Houghton, which was produced by the team behind Gottwood, took place on the grounds of Houghton Hall, a picturesque estate next to one of The Queen's residences. The site sat among verdant British woodland and a wide, reedy lake. Unlike most UK festivals, there were few sound restrictions and the music ran for 24 hours. On-point production and a quality lineup completed the package, creating a kind of surreal rave utopia. Each stage felt like its own contained world and, with some DJs playing for seven hours plus, the experience was often totally immersive. Add to that a serious lack of phone signal and minimal signposting, and you had a scenario where punters were encouraged to lose themselves. One of the most spectacular stages was The Quarry, a subterranean bowl that turned into a bizarre, laser-filled amphitheatre. The Pavilion, an open-air stage among deep foliage, was also fantastic. But the stage that perhaps best displayed Houghton's commitment was Brilliant Corners. The space was transformed into an audiophile house party, complete with plants, throw cushions and a wooden dance floor. Hanging lamps lent a warm ambience and the smell of incense filled the air. Outside hung a neon "Giant Steps" sign referencing the classic John Coltrane album. The music sounded amazing, powered by extravagant (and impractically fragile) Klipsh speakers and a vintage Technics turntable unit. The result was a supremely classy vibe few festivals could hope to recreate.
    Across the weekend I heard some remarkable DJ sets. Andrew Weatherall in The Quarry was a masterclass in restrained tempo and unhurried track selection. He'd let his chugging disco cuts stretch out for ten minutes or more, closing his eyes for long sections while the sounds washed out over the crowd. Raresh in The Warehouse was another highlight. Playing at sunrise in an open-air hangar, he abandoned the minimal sounds he's often associated with in favour of tantalisingly unidentifiable house bangers. Sonja Moonear, who played a semi-secret stage accessible only by train, was also great. The closing moments of her set displayed a brand of euphoric, melodic techno that you rarely hear. Possibly the the most anticipated set of the weekend came from Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos. The pair played back-to-back for eight hours on Sunday morning. Much like their performances at fabric, the opening moments were uncomfortably busy. But as the crowd thinned, and the vibe loosened, things improved. As the sun glinted through the canopy, the music began taking strange twists. Vincent J Alvis's UK garage track "Body Killin (M Dubs Remix)" was mixed into Liz Torres' '80's classic "Can't Get Enough." Villalobos played a drone sound for a mind-bendingly long time, cutting a drum track over almost at random. Later, he disappeared from the decks for what felt like ages, only to return and pull-off an outrageous mix using two copies of the same record. Even at this freakishly early hour, three days into it, the atmosphere was jubilant.
    In total, Craig Richards played for more than 20 hours across the weekend. In between sets, he could be spotted taking in other acts. On Saturday morning, he was one of only a handful of punters enjoying Gideon's excellent roots and dub set. I'm sure Richards slept at some point, but I couldn't tell you when. His stamina reflected the energy running through Houghton. Many DJs used their longer slots, mostly four hours or more, to show off new styles. Midland, whose Friday night set moved from new wave to brutal techno, told me that 30% of the records were tracks that he'd wanted to play for a long time but hadn't found the right moment. Overall, Houghton had the kind of hedonistic vibe you'd probably associate with the best raves more than festivals. Drinks weren't cheap—£6 for a beer—but the stages were so elaborate and ambitious that at least you felt the money was being well spent. The logistics, certainly for a first edition, were spot on, while the weather, which was almost perfect, also played a massive role. (Heavy rain might've made this review much less glowing.) There are plenty of festivals in beautiful locations with good music and impressive production, but very few combine that with a certain hard-to-define magic. It's this secret ingredient that's already earned Houghton such a special place in people's hearts. Photo credit / Jake Davis, Hungry Visuals