A Winning Formula: Gala 2021 Review

Art & Culture

I’m utterly certain that I won’t be alone in the fact that the absence of a live music event over the last 15 months has left a gaping hole in my life. I don’t want to bore you all with the classic spiel of how hard the last year and a bit has been as I’m sure that conversation topic has been rinsed to death by now but… the fact of the matter stands. The world without live music is pretty crap. Unlike many others, I didn’t have the chance to queue up until midnight on the 19th July for the return to nightlife or even make it to anything that immediate weekend, so I had a sizeable dollop of jealousy before I would eventually meander back to the familiar site of GALA at Peckham Rye Park on the weekend of the 30th July to soak in the likes of Eris Drew, Bradley Zero, Jayda G and Motor City Drum Ensemble.

GALA 2020 was obviously initially promised but got torn away from us with only a few months to go, sacrificing that valuable May bank holiday to an incredibly forgettable weekend spent at home. 2021 looked more promising; vaccines were doing the job, infection rates were beginning to get under control and the government were (sort of) doing all they could to get the country back on track. Like a painfully inevitable sense of deja vu though, it all got cancelled once more and the thought of being on a dance-floor listening to a DJ seemed like a completely alien concept again. The double-header of Saturday and Sunday (which would actually later become a triple-header) was a solid plan for a bank holiday but when the date was eventually confirmed for the end of July, it made slightly less sense. The hardcore still braved the double and got that holiday booked off for Monday but it was just a slight inconvenience to add to the list.

Anyway, all of sudden we’re at the end of bloody July quicker than you can say ping-demic, I’m not convinced I’m emotionally ready for such a large weekend and the thought of having to be around so many strangers gives me levels of anxiety I never thought I’d feel. There were a couple of hiccups on the way to the weekend with a handful of DJs not being able to make due to various pandemic restrictions but with a negative lateral flow under my belt, I travelled down to GALA for the first time since 2019. The latest addition of the Friday unfortunately didn’t make it onto my agenda but a full day of Saturday and Sunday seemed more than enough to scratch that festival itch of almost 2 years – by now I would’ve taken any old DJ pumping some tunes into a crowdful of party-goers but GALA still pulled it out with some of top talent in the scene right now.

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like seeing that many people making their way to a large-scale event after barely being able to come within 2 metres of someone for almost 18 months. And the weirdest thing is that it didn’t feel weird. Spirits were obviously sky-high (even though the weather had other ideas) and even if you were on the anxious side of the spectrum, the look of pure joy on everyone’s faces was enough to put your worries to one side and just have a bloody good time. Some expansion had gone in to accommodate growth in the festivals popularity since 2019, with a whole new stage and area aptly dubbed The Rye slotting in to the left as you come through the barriers. The familiar sight of the Pleasure Dome was a sight for sore eyes and the pulsating four-to-the-floor kick drum hit the spot like a long awaited sip of beer after a hard working week. To be honest though, the Patio was the obvious first choice of stage upon entering, situated slap bang in the middle of the festival site with Secretsundaze pumping out the stompers to kick off proceedings. DJ Gregory’s remix of Nathan Haines’ ‘Earth Is The Place’ set the vibe and brought home those mid-afternoon festival vibes straight from the get go before mid 90s classics like KenLou’s ‘What A Sensation’ pushed the energy up towards late afternoon.

It was hard to drag myself away from the Patio to be honest, not wanting to break the spell of the novelty of being on a dance-floor, but a quick nip over to Mainstage to check out Dan Shake in action saw him dealing a sea of dancers a mixture of disco cuts and house party-starters with the like of Michael Gray’s ‘The Weekend’ getting thrown down – it’s the sort of textbook Dan Shake performance we’ve come to expect over the years. I’ve always been impressed with the Mainstage actually being a main stage as it really does offer a bigger spectacle over the other stages – as always it was drenched with a top notch sound system and production values coming out of its ears. Many people – myself included – still won’t get a full blown camping festival weekend fix in 2021 and at that moment at around 5pm on the Saturday, the festival feeling all came flooding back. The Mainstage was definitely the place to stick as Dan Shake made way for Midland at 5.30. Even though the prospect of  rain at this point was enough to potentially dampen spirits (sorry for that one), you forget how little you really give a shit when the tunes are on point. 

After finally hearing Pearson Sound’s ‘Like This’ on a proper system and feeling like life is pretty damn good at the moment, I became painfully aware that I hadn’t ventured into the Pleasure Dome yet. One of the great things about the GALA layout is how it’s virtually impossible to not get a flavour of every stage as you wander through. Now, if you’re like me and are easily distracted then Bradley Zero at the Patio is enough to reset the navigation system as you aim for The Dome. The Patio has perhaps had the biggest face-lift of all the stages, doing away with the leafy canopy look of previous years and adopting a more structural pillar look going down into the valley. A perilously slippy section of mud had to be traversed as I struggled down the hill and as a remix of ‘Brighter Days’ I’d never heard before came on (the John Made remix I do believe), I got suckered in. If you ever had any doubt that London day festivals situated in residential areas couldn’t crank the volume then you should’ve been at Bradley Zero at this moment – it was absolutely pumping.

With Eris Drew and Saoirse going b2b for 3 hours at the Pleasure Dome at 7pm, it was something that I simply couldn’t miss. And I obviously wasn’t the only one with that idea. At around the same time a really inconveniently timed bout of rain bucketed down which sent a significant amount of people to one of the only covered stages at the festival. It packed up fast but again, the slight niggle of an inconvenience was hugely outweighed by the fact I was dancing to one of my favourite DJs for the first time since 2019. With one of the most eclectic and fun sets of the weekend, all sorts were getting thrown down by the duo; remixes of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Spooky’, Metro LA’s ‘Here for the Love’ and I even noted down a trance remix of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ which I still can’t quite believe was played nor can I find any evidence of. But if that doesn’t paint the picture for you then I don’t know what will. Fantastic set design (shout out to Fables) and the brilliant addition of the dancers just made the whole experience in the Pleasure Dome fantastic. Even a bit of crowd participation from the dancers just perfectly tops off the no frills fun-fest that it was for those 3 hours; definitely the highlight of the weekend for me.

Before you know it though, it’s time to pick yourself up and leave. But thank god for the fact I was back there in around 16 hours as like a small child being told to leave the playground, I didn’t want to go home. Eris Drew and Saoirse finished with the recently released ‘Onion Cake’ by Baby Rollen whilst a quick pit-stop to Jayda G before departing saw her close out Mainstage with Prince’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’. Can’t argue with Saturday coming to an end with thousands dancing to Prince amidst a plethora of illuminated red beach balls – the mainstage production values delivering once more.

Back to it on Sunday. Even a bit of sunshine came out to play in Southeast London and putting aside the fact that I’m hugely out of practice for two day/nights on the trot, it was game face once more. Whoevers job was to sort out the mud honestly deserves a medal because I couldn’t believe I was at the same treacherous slip-fest I had to carefully navigate the day before. The sun was out and it felt like the slow-and-steady second/third day at festival whilst everyone meandered about before the energy kicked in. An understandably lighter crowd gathered for the final day of the weekend, as I’m sure the inability to have Monday off work meant many had to part with their Sunday tickets. Nonetheless, plenty was on the cards and after getting a pizza down me it was back to business.

The Patio once more seemed the best initial congregation spot for everyone arriving – with a nice spot to sit at the top of the hill on the hay bales you can survey almost the entire festival. Now with the rain gone, it seemed like you had more time to appreciate all the details that make GALA so good. Great food selection (Honest Burger would’ve been the go-to had it not been for the gargantuan queue), plenty of bar areas as well as plenty of staff to serve (don’t think I waited longer than a few minutes for a drink all weekend) and some thoughtfully dotted details and seating areas for when you want a little breather. I have praised this side of GALA before but it’s just great to see it executed so well. Anyway, sitting down wasn’t on the menu for long as Leon Vynehall and Young Marco were out dealing the tunes to kickstart the day – starting off reasonably slow with moody chuggy house before really heating up the dancefloor with the likes of Harris & Hurr’s remix of Fun Fun’s ‘Give Me Your Love’.

Kornal Kovacs was one of a few artists that appeared more than once across the weekend, and in absence of paying him a visit the previous day it seemed like the right time to go get some Mainstage action whilst he was at the helm. At first, the lesser numbers on the Sunday seemed like it might not provide the same vibe of the previous day but to be honest, it was actually welcome. After having so long not been around more than close knit family and friends, I’m sure quite a few people who did the double header enjoyed perhaps a bit more space to dance on the final day. Regardless of the smaller crowd, the vibe was high at Mainstage and with tunes on the fruitier side of the spectrum with the likes of LSDXOXO’s ‘Death Rattle’, the day was shaping up nicely. 

After a few line-up changes, the 5.30 – 7.30 slot at the Patio finally landed on Craig Richards. Although I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit gutted about the absence of Joy Orbison, Craig Richards didn’t hold back and went for it with a tasty blend of house, electro and techno including a raucous remix of ‘Backtracking’ by Trevino which garnered quite the response. Again, the Patio got some of the best vibes of the day. Although Craig Richards was killing it, I was brought back to the Mainstage to catch CC:DISCO! – someone who’d I’d heard many good things about. Following very much on from Kornal Kovacs vibe, CC:DISCO! kept up the bouncy and funky tunes and was one of the most enjoyable act of the day. Tracks like ‘Bottom Heavy’ by Danny Tenaglia perfectly summarising the set into early evening.

A very brief trip to the Pleasure Dome around 7pm was timed badly due to a mass migration to catch Horse Meat Disco as they opened their set to Inner Life’s version of ‘Ain’t No Mountain’. Horse Meat Disco have been a regular appearance at the Pleasure Dome over the years and as much as they provide top notch classics, I didn’t feel like I was missing much by giving up on the busyness of the Dome. Instead, I banked on lightning striking twice and went down to see Eris Drew once more as she took over the Patio until close. When the sun went down though, the Patio really came to life as the impressive lighting display came out. Amongst many reasons why Eris Drew is a great artist is just how much fun she’s having along with the crowd – she genuinely radiates so much energy. A similar eclectic mix of high energy techno and trance was on the cards and it delivered once more; classics like Mr Roy’s ‘Something About U’ and an unexpected remix of ‘Freed from Desire’ (playing a track by Gala at GALA Festival is not lost on me either) managed to keep me from wandering off the Motor City Drum Ensemble until the last minute.

Before ending up at Motor City, I did stray over to the Rye to catch Bradley Zero once more. Unfortunately that was the only time I properly spent some time over at the new stage all weekend and it is definitely a regret of mine – there have been especially a lot of great local talent that GALA have pushed forward and that’s honestly such a selling point of the festival. They have really integrated with Southeast London’s community and this year even hosted a talks programme on the Friday curated by Rye Wax. They are proving to be a brand that brings together all the top communities in SE and I hope that they continue to grow and provide more of a platform to local talent especially. Even beyond music, they have also been a big supporter of the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers and have been pushing sustainability initiatives with a cup collection scheme to reduce waste. 

The odds were up against GALA for this weekend; pandemic-related restrictions and the vacation from their preferred date of May bank holiday were big knockbacks, but it really did everything it needed to and gave everyone just what they wanted. The crowd was just happy to be there and I’m so glad that GALA didn’t take this as an opportunity to provide a half-baked experience – it was all more of the same of previous fantastic years. Not a huge amount has changed, but why change a winning formula? The added days and new stage seemed like natural additions and most importantly, the vibe still emits a community atmosphere and just feels quintessentially Southeast London. They are growing their brand even after 18 months of the events industry at a standstill and are becoming more and more part of the Peckham scene. I think my only gripe was the lack of any big finishing tracks on Sunday as the DJs closed out their stages… but to be honest it’s all over shadowed by the fact we actually had a genuine festival experience. I’m still a bit overwhelmed by the fact I’ve had a live music experience this year and I hope that whoever is still waiting for their return to the dance-floor doesn’t have to wait too much longer. Trust me, it’s just as good as you remember.

Visit the Gala website HERE