An enchanted rainforest. A sunrise. Another enchanted rainforest, another sunrise. A lake. A view of the clouds through James Turrell’s Skyspace. Afternoon yoga. Life drawing. Scrolling through festival pictures for Houghton has been a repetitive litany of smug, pasteurised hedonism; or an engrossing, sometimes surreal, wordless poem to the festival weekend. Glitter on the face, hands in the air, a pair of groovy glasses. The rolodex of snaps amounts to more than the sum of its pixels. This year, Houghton Festival, curated by Fabric mainstay Craig Richards and produced by the team behind Gottwood Festival, together created an environment of unadulterated escapism in the Norfolk countryside. Featuring nine stages, a twenty-four hour music license, D&B Audiotechnik and Martin Audio sound systems, it was always going to be a magical and debauched affair.
Houghton Hall, where the site is situated, was built in the 1720s for Sir Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first Prime Minister. It was built to reflect wealth, taste and power of the English aristocracy. It answers the famous question about what God could have done if he had had money. This is it. A perfect location to host an all-out weekend rave, then. Some of my most satisfying moments were spent exploring the various stages and live acts playing across the weekend. With every artist and environment, you find yourself searching for new ways to express joy, astonishment, or a combination of the two. DJs played multiple times across various stages including Floating Points, Hunee, Ricardo Villalobos and Nicolas Lutz. I first caught UK heavyweights Joy Orbison and Ben UFO in The Quarry on Friday evening – a dug out pit bearing resemblance to a meteorite impact crater. Ben UFO’s performance was the best from the whole weekend, with ridiculous genre spanning transitions including a blend from Philip Glass’ ‘Glasspieces’ to wonderfully punchy techno. The sound and strobe lights were also superb. “They’re my lasers!” exclaimed a man standing beside me who eavesdropped on my conversation. His smile bulges.
After Ben UFO I made my way to the Warehouse stage where Raresh and Rhadoo delivered their signature Romanian minimal grooves, perfectly setting the scene for the weird and wonderful hours that followed. One of my favourite environments was the Pavilion stage – nestled deep within the woods with the vast expanse of Houghton lake situated behind the stage. On Saturday evening, Nicholas Lutz delivered a stomping set of nineties tech house, electronic & breakbeat, catapulting my ears into unknown territory – sounds which are unlikely to resurface anytime soon.
The most anticipated set of the weekend shortly followed, with Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos taking to the decks for a mammoth eight-hour back-to-back session; gliding through minimal to rolling tech house from start to finish, with some garage thrown in for good measure. Midway through Craig and Ricardo’s set, I headed to Terminus aka the secret stage, which really brought something special to the weekend. To get there you board a land train which arrives in the main festival area every twenty-minutes. I never thought, at the age of twenty-four, I’d get excited to board a land train, but Houghton Festival did it for me. Here I witnessed a relentless and uncompromising array of punchy minimal from Margaret Dygas, whose electronic experimentation sent the crowd into ecstasy. There are those wanted experiences of sublimity; the experiences we all hope to attain at a festival where all that matters is the moment. This was one of those.
Other memorable appearances included Cobblestone Jazz, Tony Allen and VILOD (Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer), and Nicolas Jaar, who all took to the Derren Smart Stage from Saturday to Sunday evening. Jaar glided through timeless electro records including Claro Intelecto’s “Peace Of Mind”, through to a sample of Rihanna’s BBHM. This was the best I’ve seen from him.
Finally, the Brilliant Corners yurt in collaboration with The Analogue Foundation offered a tranquil space of chill, an oasis, a chapel, a reserve against the escapism outside, bringing a fresh and spirited dynamic to the entire festival experience. Featuring their signature sound system, which includes Japanese TAD bass speakers created by Tom Smith of Cosmic Slop for Floating Points, sets from Hunee and Floating Points included warm and enticing selections of disco, soul and psychedelic rock. We stayed in Brilliant Corners and embraced the soothing melodies floating around the yurt until the early hours of Monday morning – a wonderfully peaceful and reflective way to ring out the festival experience.
Overall, the first edition of Houghton achieved something remarkable this year. Observing the current climate of festival productions today, many prove artificial rather than intelligent, with organisers focused on profits over experience. Houghton proved otherwise. The curation was superb, as was the quality of the sound, lighting and site production. Like any first outing onto the festival circuit, there were a few hiccups including the sheer absence of phone signal and access to timetables. But, as I’m sure is the case, my western-centric norms of comfort are partly to blame for my failure to embrace escapism in its somewhat disorganised entirety. All things considered, Houghton is, entre nous, one of the best festivals in the UK.