You can never quite put your finger on it, but there’s something magical about a small gathering of great people and a few days of soul-nourishing music. Secret Garden Party, Gottwood, the now discontinued Beacons; all wonderful boutique music festivals praised for their intimacy and authenticity. In exactly the same way, it is Virgo Festival that joins this small cohort of beautifully unique, roots-level weekend gatherings.
Virgo is something of a hidden paradise; it lives and breathes escapism like every festival should, and in a constantly shrinking world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find true inspiration in our blasé Internet-driven hyper-realities. Even before you arrive at the festival there’s a growing sense of departure – turning left at the big oak tree takes you on a quiet little detour down narrow country roads. Unmarked tarmac soon turns into dirt track; the surrounding open green expanse retreats into secluded woodland. It’s an enchanting drive.
Passing through the citadel gateway onto the country estate is like moving through a portal. I already felt like I’d been on an adventure and I’d not even got my wristband yet.
Deep tribal beats rolled across the hillside to meet me. I was overwhelmed by how stunning the countryside was – all the more arresting after a frustratingly long drive from London. The rolling Devonshire hills were lined with woodland and instilled a real sense of calm. On the contrary, I’d not come for a spa-relaxation getaway weekend, quite the opposite. Having said this, absorbing the breathtaking scenery around is, on some deep experiential level, part and parcel of a holistic music festival experience. People had set up camp on a raised hilltop and in the distance you could see the mansion overlooking the lake, an idyllic setting for a festival if ever I saw one.
Once I’d set up camp, Soundstream’s ‘Dance With Me’ beckoned me over to The Jam – Virgo’s daytime stage held within a beautifully quaint walled garden. A set of stone-cobbled steps wind up along the side of the mansion that lead to the spacious green, complete with a handmade DJ booth, a marquee bar, and sofas around the periphery. To say that this was a sweet set-up was a gross understatement.
Madtech favourites Voyeur were laying down the chug with certain disco classics such as Chic’s timeless ‘I Want Your Love (Todd Terje edit)’. The pair pulled the whole garden into a full-on boogie with their fluid, loosely rooted house eclecticism; amongst the catch-up chat and overdue hugs lied an almost palpable anticipation for the weekend.
London stalwart James Preistley (catch our interview with him here) brought the incoming dusk with typically deep grooves, sliding effortlessly between smart cuts of tech house, lighter techno, and Chicago flavours. Priestley’s experience as a resident at his own secretstundaze parties always shines through – selections are never too evasive, yet have this subtle power to get a dance-floor grooving. Roots and Wings’s funk-RnB tinged ‘Come Over To My Place’ cajoled the crowd, while Kat Smith’s ‘That Track By Kat’ took things deeper as the sun retreated swiftly behind the hills.
For a fairly simple set-up, the sound was surprisingly good at the outside stage. Two Function Ones sided the booth and provided a crisp and punchy delivery – so much so that you could ID tracks all the way back at the campsite. By 11pm things had transitioned to the two indoor stages. If people were made up with The Jam’s idyllic walled garden, partying in the mansion was a whole other level.
In the main room: Ground Control, a back-to-back with Rob Cary and Aartekt had ensued, carrying the energy forward to peak levels. Dry-ice haze engulfed the room as moving bodies meshed with blue and violet light, stylish tech house kept the room bouncing, while others were still preoccupied with the disbelief that they were indeed partying in an 800 year-old mansion-cum-spacestation. We had lift off.
I later headed over to Major Tom, the second main room. The short walk around the front of the building and through an inner courtyard really complemented the festival layout. Inside, rising Mahogani artist Dan Shake had the room in a swoon, rinsing through funk bass-lines and high-energy selections to the likes of DJ Sneak. Shake, much like his Detroit peers, somehow manages to bring to the floor an inexhaustible energy – his typical mix of hard hitting kick drums and no-nonsense disco-house is both effortless and unabated. St Germain’s classy ‘Rose Rouge’ is a prime example of Shake’s flawless track selections and was the perfect slow-burner to build the crowd back up again, its suspenseful drum fills and saxophone solos working the floor to its breaking point.
Back at Ground Control, Aartekt and Cary had ramped it up with some wicked cuts of minimal and tech house, mixing it up with Timeline’s beatific anthem ‘Galaxy 2 Galaxy’ and old 90s power cuts from the likes of Carl Craig. It becomes immediately obvious how well versed these guys are at getting a party going – nascent years rocking Leeds’s notorious house-party circuit have had a lasting impact on their style. A cheeky detour through spaced out beats and acid bass-lines provided a much-needed switch. Vynehall’s ‘It’s Just (House of Dupree)’ provided an emphatic climax to their set.
Over in the other room it was almost another story entirely. The Menendez Brothers had worked the room into a fever with their maverick selections, storming through drum and bass, hip-hop, garage and bass-line. The open minded audience were more than willing to be taken on the whimsical delights of the DJs. Highlights from this set have to be the unearthing of old classics such as High Contrast’s timeless ‘If We Ever’ and Mosca’s ‘Bax’. A freer music policy in this room gave people options and it was actually refreshing to listen to a set that was equal measures unpredictable and enjoyable.
Ground Control had warmed up nicely for Jacques Adda to proceed with closing duties. The London-based DJ draws notable influences from the likes of Andrew Weatherall and has been cultivating a deep and considered sound over recent years. Opening with a legendary R&S release from Capricorn, the carnival percussion of ‘20Hz’ thundered through the room before heading back into its gliding psychedelic bass-line. Chugging grooves met with slick mixing on the decks, and a fabulous energy in the crowd urged Adda to take it even deeper, laying down exotic percussive riffs and cool bass-lines. Adda stormed through, serving up driving tech and minimal until closing – though the 4:30am finish time felt horribly premature. This was a sentiment that was unanimous with the crowd, and it was remarkable to see pretty much the whole festival still jamming back at the camping site well into the morning. Safe to say: an absolutely smashing first day of Virgo.
Jazz-tinged hip-hop jams wafted over as I awoke from my painfully short sleep. By the time I’d made it over to The Jam Bill Brewster – co-author of ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History Of The Disc Jockey’ and all-round UK musical treasure – was sound-tracking the afternoon. He soothed the jaded crowd as they floated to uplifting synth-heavy disco jams. Meanwhile dub and reggae sauntered out of the Apollo camp, a spacious tent that sat on the lawn over looking the lake – serving up teas, cakes and other wholesome goodness. People sought much needed sustenance and commenced last night’s debriefing while draped wearily across chairs and sofas. It was inevitable that after such a raucous first night it would eventually catch up with everyone; these were the repercussions. One consolation, if ever there was one, was that pretty much everyone was in exactly the same boat.
Dan Shake returned for his second set of the festival, lifting the awakening crowd with super smooth grooves. The set was perfect for the afternoon, transitioning between sweet soulful vocals and more Four Tet styled jilted electro, with some disco bangers thrown in for good measure.
Greta Cottage Workshop boys Onlyz and Winkles brought things down a notch and guided the floor into a mélange of awesome left-field explorations. The set as a whole had a 90s alt-progressive vibe to it, with lofty guitar solos and futuristic synth stabs. There was a real sense of journey, with a number of dramatic passages included. Where at times it felt a little indulgent, overall the pair’s unconventional track selections really provided something different and was very enriching. A couple of memorable moments were when they dropped two stunning piano numbers: Takahashi’s utterly spellbinding ‘Think Of You (Piano Edit)’ and another release on their own imprint from VTOTHED called ‘Future World’.
The skies were overcast with hints of drizzle, it was suddenly bitingly cold, but Jane Fitz switched things up with jacking tech-house, coercing the crowd into action. Where the response during the day might have been a little lackluster, it seemed that people had finally come round.
Fitz has a warm, accommodating presence at the decks and has this easy, fluid mixing style that’s great to bounce to. She later transitioned into slick cuts of dub house and techno, exuding that Panorama Bar kind of sound: groove-laden and effortlessly cool. The minimal framework with which she crafted the set allowed the audience to engage without committing too heavily – the art of the early slot. You get the sense that she’s done her time in the DJ booth. She ended with a good old tech number, ‘Mustafa – Circles’.
After Fitz closed up The Jam at 11pm, things moved back into the mansion where Arthur Barr and Mike Stockell were rolling out cuts of clubby house. Wandering outside, I was greeted by huge visuals projecting onto the front of the mansion. Psychedelic shapes and colours flowed mesmerisingly into one another, until a giant peacock appeared, its stunning feathers consuming the entirety of the wall – very trippy, if quite intense at times.
Louche’s very own Bruno Schmidt took over Ground Control with slower, more pointed house and break-beat selections, and was later joined by Mike Stockell for an interesting venture into more headsy territory. While both great DJs in their own right, at times it felt as if Bruno’s more off-the-wall selections were a little antagonistic toward the more flowing techno that Stockell was pushing. Nonetheless it was a great progression into the night proper – however, where things were really kicking off was in Major Tom.
Looking upwards to the ceiling in Major Tom was always a bizarre experience: several stuffed animal heads – antlers and all – line the walls, quietly overlooking an erupting dance-floor fist-pumping to driving electro synths. Bill Brewster was once again at the decks, though nothing could have prepared the room for such a masterful set. His versatility was impressive, having played an entirely different set during the day. The nighttime set was eclectic but seamlessly threaded crafty selections of deep house and tight grooves, through to Chicago bangers and acid-electro. We were well into the final night and Brewster had the room heaving with a slew of euphoric acid tracks, peaking as he entered the last half an hour of his set. Quite probably the standout set of the weekend.
Over at Ground Control Jane Fitz did an impromptu back-to-back session with Greta Cottage Workshop founder Onlyz. It was the pair’s first B2B outing but one got the impression they’d been spinning together for years. The pair rolled out sophisticated cuts of dub house and minimal tech, a really nice progression that took the room deeper into the final hours of the festival. Beer and O’Sullivan’s seminal ‘Breezer’ will give you some idea of the caliber of tunes these guys were dropping.
What was most noticeable with DJs such as Bill Brewster and Jane Fitz was the nuance and progression found in their sets, their brilliantly sourced track selections, and their great knowledge of the dance-floor; it was these qualities that put them a cut above. Moreover, what was so wonderful about the lineup generally at Virgo was simply how well crafted it was. Behind the relatively low-key bookings are some of the most experienced and venerated selectors on the circuit, mixed with some of the UK’s finest emerging names – it’s definitely not what you would call an ‘obvious’ line-up. At the programmers’ risk and merit, it was the sheer quality of music throughout the weekend that made it such a memorable festival.
The modern zeitgeist is bent on booking safe, predictable line-ups and increasingly elaborate lighting rigs, yet all this has achieved is a collective desensitisation that has slowly detracted us from what matters, undermining our overall experiences. ‘Bigger and better’ has been a running theme for progression over the past 10 years but we often forget about the basics, the true fundamentals to running a good party. These guys just stripped it back down to the essentials; it was raw and genuine, and it’s this that moved this weekend a fair few steps beyond the fallacies of yet another generic party.
The word ‘intimate’ is bandied around far too much these days but in this case the word doesn’t do it justice. What’s more, the wonderful DIY décor and production transformed the site into a completely different world – from the reflective silver sheets that engulfed the whole of Ground Control, to the hand-made DJ booths and huge screen projections in Major Tom and outside. For their first edition, Virgo had really nailed it. Of course, there were a few hiccups – a couple of issues with sound systems and certain amenities – but this can be expected and for the first run the festival actually went impressively smoothly.
Benjamin Diamond’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ vocals faded into the distance as I stepped outside, taking some time out to reflect; looking up to see a sky bursting full of stars, I was almost certain I could see the Virgo constellation sparkling silently above.
(You can read our interview with headliner James Priestley here)