The inaugural Houghton festival promised much – curated by the enigmatic and at times limelight detractor; Craig Richards and produced by the clever folk behind Gottwood, the lineup was packed full of favours, diversity and a sense of the beginning of something very, very special. Expectation was high for an event which, in reality still didn’t even exist… until we stepped off the train.
The site had been scoped out for a couple of years and upon arrival it was clear to see why. The stately Houghton manor overlooks those arriving by car and coach while woodland surrounds the campsite on all angles. The fluid operation from train station, to queue, to set-up was an immediate signal that this was going to be a slick operation. As for the music, there was a palpable buzz after the set times had confirmed the rumour of a 24-hour license.
The opening night saw Craig Richards play the first 3 of his 136 hour schedule, setting the wheels in motion for a weekend of celebration. Meanwhile Move D closed the astounding Quarry stage, a space which became an instant favourite; boasting steep slopes on all sides, allowing for sound and atmosphere to be captured amidst the cavernous bowl. Strings of Life had the crowd bouncing as everyone got a little carried away and forgot that there was still another 72 hours of music yet to come.
After “a month’s worth of rain” falling on the Wednesday we couldn’t have been the only ones scrambling for a pair of wellies the night before. As luck would have it we needn’t have bothered, there was dry weather around the clock with the exception of a brief shower on the Friday night falling just as Hercules and Love Affair took to the Derren Smart stage. Derren, as some of you may know was someone very dear to Ransom Note’s heart and someone who was instrumental in the formation of this very site. It’s fair to say that without him we’d never have been given the opportunity of visiting the basement of Andrew Weatherall’s Scrutton Street studio all those many years ago, interviewing him for his A Night With… one of the many seminal parties that Derren curated where one DJ played all night. Back then this was a novel concept.
Craig and Derren were long time best friends – before he was so sadly taken from us – and it’s fair to say that their love of the long set rings out through everything that permeates through this festival. It’s fitting then that the ‘main’(est) stage was named in tribute to this most popular and influential London promoter.
It is here that Andy Butler’s Hercules & Love Affair project produced sounds as vital and unique today as they did way back in 2008 when they released their eponymous long player on DFA. By the time they leave the stage, the foundations are laid for the night ahead ahead without a raindrop in sight.
Friday brought the opportunity to explore the lake on which the site is centred. A winding path leads you through woodland to The Pavilion – a space that gives you exactly what you’d crave from a festival stage; outdoors, underneath the trees, completely lost in nature. Midland put paid to the peaceful setting though, stepping on it with an intense and attention grabbing 4 hours. Elsewhere in the woodlands, set deep amongst illuminated cat cut-outs and pulsating parachute globes was the hidden retreat of Trojan Soundsystem where Johnny Rock and Rob Mello crafted what was one of the long lost sets of the weekend. Balloons flowing on the tent ceiling, it’s here where we chanced upon many a hidden gem.
The final stage to open on the Friday was The Warehouse, a scene of stark contrast to The Pavilion with an imposing steel structure and dramatically prominent lighting. Sonja Moonear capitalised on this scene with an industrial house set befitting of the cutting stage she found herself. And there wasn’t any let up in the Quarry either where Houghton flexed its smorgasbord of a musical spectrum in an early evening lineup covering drum and bass where Calibre and dBridge kicked off proceedings.
Pre-Quarry Ben UFO warmed up for his set on Friday by playing at the Brilliant Corners stage. The Dalston venue has been sparkling around the festival circuit this summer and once again showcased their insanely good portable soundsystem powered by Audio Technica, which was ably assisted by palm trees and moon-like globes suspended from the ceiling.
As promised, visuals were just as an important part of the festival as the music. Intriguing art popped up in peculiar places as well as a sculpture tour which was available after toy train-bus ride. BUFO – as no one calls him – was on after Joy Orbison at the Quarry and as expected these two sets proved particularly popular. Making it into the space required an early commitment but hose that managed it came out bragging after what was a very special 7 hours.
Mr Scruff got Saturday shaking with feel good disco whilst half of R$N boarded the toy train for the art tour of the grounds of Houghton Hall. James Turrell’s incredible installations brought a tear to the weary eyes alongside Zhan Wang and Richard Long’s incredible arrangements. It’s these attentions to detail that set Houghton way, way apart from anything else we’ve experienced this summer. Returning to the site we catch Nicolas Jaar DJing who seems to have 90% of the festival congregating at Derren’s stage. Spanning radio frequencies to trance (‘Smart E’s – Loo’s Control’ was huge) there’s an impressive range in volume and tempo.
A jump back to the Pavilion to catch the peerless Radioactive Man aka Keith Tenniswood aka the man who makes all our record masters sound amazing and it’s time to bed in for 4½ hours of Ivan Smagghe and Vladimir Ivkovic who produce one of the highlights of the weekend. This is music from another dimension and you’d be hard pressed to spot even a tenth of what they play tonight let alone ‘Shazam in the pocket playlist’ it.
As Ivan and Vladimir wound to a close we’re spoilt for choice with Weatherall and Optimo seeing the Quarry out on Saturday in ear-bleeding style. Weatherall’s on top form, going dark and into the light before tearing the bowl apart with the finale of Timothy ‘Heretic’ Clerkin’s Excecute aka R$N Records #7. Then the turn of Optimo who were undoubtedly the set of the weekend in our most humble ear’s opinions. Highlights included a Hackney Parrot x Syclops’ Jump Bugs layering, the Icelandic Version of Nathan Fake's The Sky Was Too High, Enjoy the Silence and the record that refuses to die/just matures with age; Bawrut’s Ciquita! #strictlynorepress.
Villalolobos and Richards took us jumping through to the late morning with their mammoth 8 hour set which lived up to all the billing that had come before. And it didn’t end there, boarding the same toy train that had taken us to the art tour earlier ended in a new destination; the secret after-party set deep in the woods and down a rabbit hole where Ricardo and Craig play on into the very, very small hours of Sunday.
The final day was set up for a master class by Hunee but the sound, which had otherwise been at ear blistering volume felt unusually quiet. We took a chance and headed back to The Pavilion to see Gerd Janson. The blue and pink neon lights amongst the leafy setting was perfect for the party bangers he was digging out, with the crowd lapping up every note from his recent Surrender release. Roman Flugel then followed a treasure of so many different musical varieties. The real quality of Flugel’s masterclass comes when he twists and turns into paths unknown. His magnetic close of Arthur Russell – This Is How We Walk On The Moon takes us spinning off into the night knowing we’ve just experienced one of the most incredible weekends of the summer.
Bringing balance to non stop music and dancing, The Orchard provided a lovingly curated wellness area offering free yoga, sauna with plunge pool, healing tents with reiki, massage and one which offered ‘compliments and flattery’. Adding diversity to the entertainment was a cinema area which had been curated by cinephile Ivan Smagghe and a small converted caravan holding an audience of ten people for 15 minute long plays, acted out by just one leading lady at a time.
With four straight days of dancing at the festival goer’s disposal, food stalls had a real job on their hands keeping people fueled up. Over thirty stalls, clearly selected on the basis of variety and freshness, were on offer leaving us completely spoilt for choice. A particular shout out to the delicious paella hut and Turkish pizza stall which brought us back to life on a couple of occasions. The thinking behind bar locations, staff and water points were equally well measured, with no queues for these lasting more than 5 minutes the whole weekend.
The line-up, stages, crowd, subtly hands off security and production had no right to be at the levels they were for a first effort. Some make the case that the British summer is so packed full of festivals it doesn’t need another, but when the bar is raised like this you prove them wrong.
Houghton, a benchmark of 2017. It’s going to be difficult to top that… but then we said that about the expectation of the festival before it had even happened and looked what happened there.
A rare 10/10 from us. Outstanding.
Oh yeah… and cats!