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Secret Garden Party: Cosmic Cosplay Meets Otherworldly Sounds

In 2023, Secret Garden Party is still a serious party...

Words Liam Cattermole (@liam_cattermole)

Photo Matt Higgs

Karl Hyde, one-half of Underworld, takes centre stage, flanked by strobe lights, his silhouette basking in the evening downpour. It’s Saturday night at Secret Garden Party, and as the thumping 4/4 of 'Born Slippy' rings around Abbots Ripton, thousands seek refuge in the electronic duo’s prismatic techno grooves. It’s wet, it’s muddy, but you wouldn’t find a soul at the Great Stage who cares. The four days of unhinged hedonism are in full swing and the weather, although unrelenting, isn’t about to stop the party.

Photo Andrew Whitton

SGP claims to be the 'festival that gives a shit', and after four days of otherworldly mayhem, such a slogan is difficult to refute. Renowned for its immersive spectacles and polymathic music displays, the vibrant party invites revellers to suspend their real lives and rejoice in a weekend of guaranteed escapism. 2023’s theme was ‘A New Hope’, and although Star Wars paraphernalia dominated the grounds, more original sci-fi costumes were everywhere to be seen too.

Thursday is all about getting your bearings. Leave your marbles back at camp if you will, but it’s easy to get caught up in the sparkly hysteria that unfolds during your first walk around the site. Pagoda, the lake’s Balearic peninsula, is rammed from the get-go, with ravers craving the cosmic house music thumping from its soundsystem. SGP do anything but ease you in on the first night. Before you know it, it’s time for Hodge and Peverelist in the Lost Woods; their mix of wobbling techno, shape-shifting dubstep and bass-loaded rhythms underline the magnetic blends that have defined much of their careers.

Lava La Rue steals the show on Friday. The picturesque settings encapsulate the sun-kissed psychedelia of her releases since 2021's EP, Butter-Fly. Playing to an intimate crowd, the south Londoner tears through the set as if it’s her last. Equally as compelling, Murkage Dave wakes up Where The Wild Things Are, blasting through his UKG and R&B-tinged discography.

As the sky starts to dusk, SGP’s more night-focused ­­­areas shock into life. Ruthless in her selections, Jamz Supernova takes to HE.SHE.THEY, mixing dexterously between UK and global dance genres. Few stones are left unturned in the 6 Music presenter’s sets and open-minded ravers seem enthralled by the kaleidoscopic sounds. DJs like Chloé Robinson have since come out in praise of the stage’s organisers. For the whole weekend, artists and dancers are comfortable in their performance and connect deeply with the crowd because of it. Even Louis Theroux, who showed up on Friday, seems at home in HE.SHE.THEY’s all-encompassing, amphitheatre-esque design.

Photo Andrew Whitton

Waking up to stormy conditions fails to dampen SGP’s overall vibe on Saturday. Capturing the thoughts of many, Biig Piig bellows, “Fuck the rain”, before unleashing into her standout single, 'Switch'. The Cork-born maverick pulls the first sizeable crowd of the day, as fans endure the drizzle to hear her ethereal alt-pop catalogue. Meanwhile, SGP’s tents become a haven for pint-thirsty party starters, keen on keeping themselves out of the downpour. Soundtracked by heritage dance acts, the night begins with some difficult decisions: “Leftfield or Faithless?” Is the question on everyone’s lips. Sister Bliss sets the tempo with her pounding acid house blends over at HE.SHE.THEY, and when pressing play on 'Insomnia', she provides one of the weekend’s most profound highlights. Few, if any, dance tracks are so vivacious and the late, great Maxi Jazz’s nasal slurs sound as poetic as ever.

Photo Matt Higgs

Slaves to the spectacle, SGP then focus everyone's attention airborne for a captivating UK festival first firework and drone display. The drones perform a neon space invader medley, while a geometric firework show floods the crowd with awe-inspired euphoria. It’s difficult to know where to look; the exhibition is mesmerising and foreshadows another night of dazzling entertainment.

The splendour continues into Sunday: a warm and jubilant vibe is permeated by the paint fight tradition, which leaves punters in a colourful state for the rest of the weekend. Original Soundboy David Rodigan then steps up to the mainstage, powering through his various clash-worthy dubplates. "Does anyone here like jungle music?", he asks before rattling the speakers with reloadable classics from General Levy.

Photo Matt Higgs

The main stage is the place to be on Sunday, as hip-hop veteran Grandmaster Flash, dancing Queen Roisin Murphy and New York rap group De La Soul hold down the fort before Fat Freddy's Drop. The New Zealanders are spellbinding with their funkadelic grooves and slick reggae cuts. "This is one hell of a festival," says vocalist Dallas Tamaira to the crowd, and after four days of untethered escapism, we don't disagree.


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