There’s something very different going on here. Back for its seventh year the increasingly non Secret Garden manages to pack in twelve thousand Party goers, yet still allow you within a drainpipe of a leftfield British pop institution. Two years back it was Echo and the Bunnymen and Mark Lanegan stood feet away, last year Grace Jones filled the Great ‘Shark’ Stage with her oversized hats and persona, drawing the largest crowd the mad Gardeners had ever seen. Jarvis Cocker (pictured by BR, Glasswerk) attracted almost as many to the Snake dressed main stage, though his eccentric set up fits the best small festival far better. His show is intimate, jaunty and ended with the second stage invasion of the evening; members of the crowd shaking hands with Jarvis before being ushered away to allow a final number and leaving us right below his perfectly awkward angles. Even without a hint of a Pulp tune this was no ordinary Cocker gig, but that had as much to do with the Garden and all who create its magical atmosphere.
Before Jarvis’ Friday night headline slot the cream of ‘next big thing’ bands give notice of their talents. Others can’t even manage to find this hidden corner of Huntingdon. Screaming Lights arrive late and play the tightest show of the weekend. Their rocking post-punk has been dismissed as sub Editors, White Lies, and the many Joy Division tribute acts, but this Liverpool foursome rises well above that. The usual moodiness and fire is lifted a few rungs when their set is to be cut short, vocalist James Tredwell aims daggers at the crowd and fingers to the soundman before storming away. Hardly in the spirit of the festival but their darkness adds some much needed beef to the occasion. And, of course, Ireland’s finest new band Fight Like Apes never showed up to follow. France’s Phoenix are already hugely popular – their brilliantly infectious, catching pop ditties could take them ever higher – and have everyone dancing and eventually bobbing and crawling all over their joyful stage. If only they would sing, even speak to us in French.
Saturday mixes bands who have dominated the charts with those about to storm them. Noah and the Whale played a sunny, forgettable set to an uninterested few, the Kooks played secret shows – so secret we find out the next day. Fortunately, far better prospects arrive. The XX don’t create the same reaction their atmosphere soaked debut record summons. The lifeless black figures make beautiful, lusty noise but like Glasvegas spend too much time looking in the mirror and crafting coolness so that the music is suffering. Caribou don’t give a damn. Their druggy, grunge guitars mix with psychedelic bells and crashing drums that space us out so that their wordless set flies by – who needs lyrics when the guitars are turning daydreams into sound? Rodrigo and Gabriella’s unique show has little of the same looseness, their global following built with this perfectly crafted back and forth acoustic guitar playing. At times it is so perfect, the speed and skill so unbelievable, that it becomes a spectacle rather than music to get lost in. Eddy Temple Morris lines up huge tunes and infectious mash ups before Slagsmålsklubben bring their surreal beats to the dance tent. Lining up like Kraftwerk the six Swedes twizzle nobs, hit keys and mix samples to create music from another planet – think happy hardcore and euphoric club techno mixed with deep krautrock. It’s better than it sounds.
Sunday seems to consist entirely of painfully serious girl groups. The barrage is broken briefly as the mad Gardener rises behind the Great Stage on a crane singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ but the afternoon is a maddening stream of sound-alike tweeness. There are two big exceptions, however. Au Revoir Simone have finally broken through following their appearance on Friendly Fires’ ‘Paris’ and the release of their album ‘Still Night, Still Light’, which is one of 2009’s best. They look right at home here, in their third appearance, the enveloping synths and three part harmonies sounding even better live. Mummers can barely fit their range of bizarre instruments on stage and it hardly seems worth all the effort for a five song set. Judy Garland, Broadway, Mary Poppins, funfairs and the British seaside all pop to mind before they finish with Passion Pit’s ‘Sleepyhead’. Zero 7 are extremely dull in comparison.
The best bits come when wandering around this surprising place. We watch full on, blood drawing medieval sword fighting by the old mead bar; gaze over the beautifully lit garden as lanterns float away behind fireworks and the freshly blown up Tower of Babel; get splattered by the Suicide Sports Club’s mud wrestlers; sing 80s classics in the karaoke tent, Lennon on the banged out pianos up the tree house and ‘All You Need Is Love’ with a huge group led by a man teaching his followers his strange emu moves; watch acrobats tumble and dive in and out of conspiracy lectures, Zen tea tents and ska discos.
Bestival may draw the plaudits and big names but Secret Garden Party remains the original and best UK boutique festival.