The English countryside has long been romanticised as pastoral paradise; since Marlowe’s 16th Century ‘Passionate Shepherd’, its rolling hills and luscious meadows have been the perfect place to tend to your flock of sheep, to take a breath beneath the shade of a sprawling oak and maybe canoodle with your shepherdess. Driving into the majestic grounds of Houghton Hall for the first edition of its eponymous festival, through the uniform white cottages of Houghton Village and up to the early 19th Century grandeur of the main house itself, the only thing that seemed amiss from this pastoral vision was said shepherd/ess and the sheep. Replacing them: 8000 revellers, drawn by the musical curation of Fabric mainstay Craig Richards and a 24-hour music policy which promised everything from an eight-hour back-to-back from Richards and Ricardo Villalobos, to jazz from Tony Allen, and disco from Hunee.
With its focus on the musical experience above all else, Houghton certainly delivered. Boasting nine stages, ranging from the cavernous rattle of a repurposed cowshed-cum-Warehouse, to the house plant-filled, burnished umber of the Brilliant Corners tent, the cave-like Quarry, and the mid-forest intimacy of the Terminus, each setting was an ideal match for the artists on display. Emphasis was placed on a diversity of selection, allowing for longer sets, freedom of collaboration, and multiple performances from the same artists. Richards himself played something like 20 hours’ worth of records during the weekend, including the aforementioned b2b with Villalobos, a stellar afternoon set in the Quarry – one which segued from bouncy house into UKG and even bassline – and a stomach-churning b2b with Nicolas Lutz at Terminus.
The Terminus was Houghton’s ‘secret’ stage. Invisible on the site map and only accessible by train – or foot, if you asked security – it was the setting for sunrise after-parties, including, as well as Lutz and Richards, a lean house impromptu b2b from Swiss producer Sonja Moonear and Toi.Toi.Musik founder Voigtmann, and an experimental party-starting selection from Berlin’s Margaret Dygas. Scooped out of the forest floor and surrounded by a copse of oaks, as the dappled morning sunlight fell through the leaves and onto the semi-conscious faces of those who’d been awake for the last two days, Terminus was bucolic beauty for 24-hour party people.
Similarly excavated from the verdant surroundings was the Quarry. With a sound-system that could rattle the fillings from your molars, the Quarry was the site for many of Houghton’s biggest acts. Highlights included the subaqueous bass selections of Back to Basics resident Ralph Lawson, the rare disco cuts, seamless transitions and squelching synths of Move D, Joy Orbison’s gnarled, hyper-fractal basslines, and Optimo’s near-perfect five-hour odyssey of intuitively speedy mixes and original edits.
Deeper into the forest and surrounding the picturesque lake, amongst which was housed a floating restaurant and Wellness Area replete with (optional nude) sauna, was the Pavilion stage. Owing to its sylvan setting, the Pavilion was a stage of two halves: morning dub and disco, and an evening club-focus. Of the morning variety, Saoirse delivered a wide-ranging mix of dub and EBM, while Floating Points played to his strengths, laying down a steadily speeding set of funk and disco, including crowd-pleasers like Sylvester’s ‘I Need You’, and Brilliant Corners founders Amit and Aneesh came through with a satisfying early afternoon of extended edits of Bill Withers, Gil Scott Heron, and Commodores. As the sun dropped behind the treeline, Midland blasted through a typically high-energy slurry of house, while Nicolas Lutz kicked into a blistering collection of breaks and hardcore, and Gerd Janson opened up his record collection, mixing disparate genres of ‘80s synthpop, ‘90s trance, and techno into a uniform narrative.
As well as playing a number of sets across the festival weekend, Amit and Aneesh also brought a Brilliant Corners stage to Houghton, complete with a dub-ready Klipsch analogue system provided by the Analogue Foundation. Taking advantage of the sub, Ben UFO played a short set of dub plates, prioritising selection over mixing, ahead of his later appearance at the Quarry, while similarly Floating Points and Hunee both took on selection-forward slots, letting each record play out as they showcased the best of their crate digging habits.
Finally, there were the live acts. Housed on the Derren Smart stage, a tribute to Richards’ close friend and T Bar promoter, the open field showcased the hardware and double bass ambience of Howie B and Borgar Magnason, and the live jazz piano and techno backing of closing act Cobblestone Jazz. While Nicolas Jaar’s set was self-serving in its constant disruption of a danceable rhythm in favour of lengthy breaks and stylized VHS visuals, an undisputable highlight was Tony Allen. Watched by Ricardo Villalobos from the side of the stage, Allen proved his status as an originator of afrobeat – a rhythm heavily used throughout the weekend during many DJ sets. Playing largely from his latest EP, A Tribute to Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, his loose, tom-heavy drumming provided the perfect embellishment to saxophonist Jean-Jacques Elangué’s noodling lines and pianist Jean Phi Dary’s scatting solos on reworked standards like ‘Moanin’’ and ‘Night in Tunisia’.
The inclusion of a jazz quartet might seem strange for an electronic music festival, yet it perfectly exemplifies the diverse and challenging curatorial attitude of Houghton. Much like the confluence of georgic scenery with a vista of faux fur-lined ketty fuckboys, on paper Houghton was a gamble, but one that paid off.
There were certainly faults: queues for certain stages were absurdly long and often managed by aggressive security, denying access to music that had effectively been promised with the purchase of a ticket. Line-ups were also only emailed to festival-goers on Thursday afternoon, yet there was little to no signal in the festival, therefore many spent the weekend never quite knowing who was playing when or where. And despite being billed as a music and art festival, the sculpture tours available were often misinformed and all-too brief.
For its first year, though, such hiccups are to be expected, and what was encouraging was the acute attention to detail when it came to near-perfect sound-systems and stages. This allowed the full spectrum of DJing – selection as well as mix-heavy sets – giving artists room to experiment. From a punters’ perspective, Houghton seemed like an ideal festival to play at, and the artists’ enthusiasm certainly translated to the crowd, leaving us to revel in our 21st Century pastoral ecstasy.
Words: Ammar Kalia
Featured Images: Jake Davis, Hungry Visuals.