Having blown it’s competitors out the park following a flawless debut, there’s no getting away from the fact that Houghton had set the bar immeasurably high for it’s sophomore session, at least if all the hype – and the fact tickets sold out in less than 48 hours – was to be factored in.
Yet take a moment to explore the premise behind Houghton, and the reasons behind its instant success becomes clear. In an interview pre-event, Fabric legend and festival curator Craig Richards explains; “as much as possible, I’ve tried to use my own experience as a DJ to create stages and environments where people can shine.” It’s here where Richards and his founding partners in crime, the team behind Gottwood, have struck gold. Taking place within the dreamlike confines of Houghton Hall with no less than 16 stages on offer and a 24 hour music license in play, the sound was as crisp in quality as the levels were impressively loud to perfectly cater for the extended sets promised across the four day duration. The fact there’s quite literally zero phone signal across the site only adds to the immersive and idealistic experience that Houghton had appeared odds-on to provide.
Although we weren’t quite treated to the glorious Ibiza-esque conditions to match the extended heatwave that would’ve been perfect for the predominantly open-air locale, the British weather has always treated us to unpredictability, and this was hardly a hindering factor to the weekender when the production, atmosphere, quality of DJ and non-stop programming at your disposal is at such a high level. With that in mind, we’ve decided to break down the all-important facets that should be taken into consideration and in turn, Houghton smashed the back doors off to give us one of the greatest festival experiences we’ve encountered to date. Time to dissect.
Situated on an isolated Royal Norfolk country estate, the festival centers around a picturesque lake encompassed within the royal grounds of the Houghton Manor. Eccentric sculptures decorate the pathways upon entry lending to Houghton’s wonderland-esque experience – even offering tours over the four-day weekend. The festival’s main lake holds together a few of the stages, teepees and even two acclaimed fully functioning restaurants offering three-course meals that have to be booked up early for any chance of a seat.
Once you get a chance to really explore the site it’s clear that Houghton is more than just stage production. As you circle the lake it becomes apparent that every last corner of the site has been thought, planned and executed with such a high level of detail. The journey in between stages is decorated with installations that really managed to compliment the grounds during the twilight hours. The weekend’s conversation regularly centered around Richard’s and the gang’s prowess in the ‘complete festival experience’ as each stage build felt comfortable, borrowing assets from tried and tested stages worldover. Sound clashes were avoided, and there were enough comfortable areas at each to enjoy the moment from a distance if preferred.
Even with bouts of rain from start to finish, the grounds and grass were never muddy or uncomfortable – a relic to Houghton’s upkeep which only added to the appreciation for choice of location with irreparable and messy soil so commonly being the catalyst for an early comedown.
The line-up was Houghton’s big draw in its maiden year – a ‘who’s who’ of selectors with no clear headliner. 2018 was pretty much the same with the notable names returning to the manor in Villalobos, Midland, Ben UFO, Hunee and Optimo who were obvious staples. In similar fashion to 2017 Craig Richards’ scrawled line-up immediately voided the DJ hierarchy with the usual suspects almost appearing as footnotes, and on second glance it’s even more apparent that Houghton isn’t trying to ‘tick every box’ with it’s programming (which has become so synonymous with the 2-day festival) the onus was centred on delivered a well versed euro-centric exhibition on the art of crate digging.
With limited phone signal and line-up printed out it was really just a free-for-all with little to no indication of who was scheduled to play. The likelihood of walking into an extended set or secret stage crafted extra appeal and tamed any kind of chaotic rush to the next location. Houghton was really all about music. With an average 3 to 4 hours for for full expression and the crowd responded with patience towards a care-free and experimental side of their favourite DJ’s.
2018 welcomed first-timers Helena Hauff and Call Super who put on a unforgettable performance. Super’s wet set will be written in legend and Jane Fitz’s tasked with opening up on Thursday set the bar extremely high which was reached on a multitude of occasions. Optimo delivered a fist-pumping quick fire techno into disco workout mixing The Beetles and even California Dreamin’ at one point. The small stages also really fueled the need for intimacy as DJ’s like Margaret Dygas exhibited an education in grooves and moods into the late hours of the morning. Ultimately It would be impossible to accolade everyone, with everyone evidently intent on bringing their A-game as the artistry in DJing was easily one of the best we’ve heard in a long time.
Having attended the launch of Richards’ illustrative book launch at the end of last year, the 88-page collection featured interpretive paintings and drawings from the man himself of caricatures from Houghton’s debut edition, and goes some way to understanding the level of detail that’s gone into Houghton’s production, not to mention the quality.
With a masters degree from London’s Royal College of Art, Richards has wasted no time in delivering premium memorabilia, with extensive programmes and collector’s edition merch available on-site over the weekend. To coincide, whilst there may not have been a grandeur involved akin to a Lost Village or Elrow Town with the level of decor, the stages have been curated with enough creativity that gives each one a clear identity, whilst always ensuring the emphasis is placed on perfect sound projection from DJ to crowd, allowing for maximum enjoyment.
The site itself is reminiscent of Gottwood’s, with a large proportion of the stages tucked away in the woodlands, all offering contrasting experiences of the weird and wonderful variety that ranged from intimate to larger scale. The Clearing was an immersive 360-setting with the DJ booth placed on ground level in the middle – allowing for everyone to utilise the space which in turn ensured no one section was ever packed, and the stage itself was always pleasantly spacious. In contrast the mini-Dome structure otherwise known as the Magic Carpet was largely 1-in-1-out, but it’s intimate, sweaty interior played host to an always-bubbly atmosphere that Krywald & Farrer made full advantage of, spinning latin and disco on the opening night to keep the wolf whistles high.
The Pavilion – facing over the lake and its remarkable star-shaped neon light structure, is a simple wooden shack-structure with a slightly elevated stage that rightly played host to a lot of the weekend’s biggest moments, in turn playing host to many of the biggest crowds along the way. With the pleasure of being able to see the sun set and rise with the lake as its backdrop, Hunee and Villalobos both got stuck into their 4+ hour sets, offering highlights befitting the conditions.
The Warehouse – with its hanger style structure plast host to some of the weekends finest peaktime tech-moments, with the likes of Adam Shelton, Cassy and Subb-An exploiting the Ibiza-inspired setting with quick-mixed grooves that brought back memories of Amnesia or DC-10. Whilst away from the lakeside there were several new stages on show, with the likes of Tantrum and Pinters introduced, whilst two arenas – The Derren Smart stage (known to most as the main stage) and the excellent on-site record store Trevino’s both did justice in paying homage to friends who have passed away, undoubtedly the most eye-catching of them all was the bowl shaped Quarry stage, a hollowed out rectangular shape that’s visible from all angles, and played host to one of the weekends finest moments in both Midlands ‘plants-in-the-air’ and Tristan Da Cunha’s cavernous lesson in supreme house grooves.
Whilst Terminus deserves serious props as the ‘secret’ circular stage hidden in the woods past the campside and accessible via an hourly (party) train, it’s excellent ‘after hours’ vibe played host to some supreme moments from Paradise regular Robert James and a 5 hour session from Richards himself alongside Nicolas Lutz. Yet serious shouts must go to the TLC that went in to Brilliant Corners – a plant-filled, house party environment complete with throw cushions and hanging lamps that really summed up the vast levels of effort and detail that went into ensuring the production was as exceptional as it was unpredictable.
Let’s not get away from the fact that a huge proportion of Houghton’s USP and exactly why underground music fans need to try it is down to the decision for every artist to enjoy an extended set, and several over the weekend at that.
Having lost count of the amount of hours Richards played over the weekend and wondering if at any point he managed to catch any hours of sleep, what that allowed him and every other DJ on show the chance to feel their way into their sets and in turn, try out rare or curveball selections they’d seldom get the chance to spin in your average club setting. It’s a special thing and one that also resulted in the genuine feeling that each and every artist wanted to bring their A-game for the weekend, an aspect that reminded us of the early years attending Dekmantel, in particular.
Aside from the extended sets, there was a distinct lack of stage signage around the festival site, with only two or three visibly displaying names which was initially frustrating, but an aspect of the festival that was evident was the ethos of exploration. With set times only accessible via the purchase of the programme on-site, it’s refreshing to be able to wander and stumble across great music instead of the usual ploy of sticking to strict timetables and rushing from stage to stage. Although impromptu B2B appeared to be relatively minimal, with non-stop music, longer sets and a lack of ‘headliners’, the idea to trust in the programming and Richards’ belief in every DJ offering a vast span of electronic music across an equally impressive array of spaces is something truly special.
Nestled away deep in the countryside, it’s become commonplace for that out of place crew at a festival who evidently have little idea who’s playing and to disturb the peace in the process, however Houghton’s lineup – devoid of any names of ‘superstar’ status, for want of a better word – meant that the crowd in place were all on the same page. To have a good time and be friendly in the process was the order of the weekend, with quite possible around 70% of the identification of music in attendance, the environment played into the hands of the DJ’s, who dug deep with the crowd’s appreciation evident via cheers, smiles, hands in the air and wolf whistles throughout. With no aggro, a friendly nature and casual fashionista’s left right and centre, the atmosphere from start to finish was special, and long may that continue.
If the last few months (and a devastatingly good set at Junction 2) is anything to go by, Joy O is back to top form again, coming correct on Saturday evening with an assorted bag of heavy-hitting UK-focused energy belters. As Saturday’s afternoon in the sunshine over at the Main Stage moved into evening, Joy O drifted through techno, UKG, Drum and Bass and even blended world influenced funky, gqom and some nostalgic post-dubstep all whilst keeping the set flowed really nicely with help from some flawless mixing.
Dygas was by far one of the stand out moments of houghton 2018. Her mid-morning set at the Old Gramophone pushed the boundaries of Minimal Tech, upfront House grooves and UK Garage. In addition, the Panorama Bar regular ‘did bits’ at the secret terminus stage – effortlessly playful and consistent over the entire weekend, and undoubtedly won over a fresh batch of fans along the way.
Moving into the last hours of the festival late on Sunday night, Sublevel DJ Doc Martin in many ways summed up everything there is to love about Houghton. Shelling down groove after groove on wax to a packed crowd at The Magic Carpet, the energy and feelgood vibes were at a maximum, as the US DJ showcased his incredible collection of rare house anthems to close out the weekend in perfect fashion. Seamlessly mixing through Kenny Dope’s ‘The Bomb’ and Tony Vee’s ‘Hot Hot Hot’, the biggest regret we came away with was missing his five-hour B2B with Tristan Da Cunha at Stallions the day before.
Optimo’s set at the clearing was the high energy fast paced yet shameless showcase that everyone needed. The Glaswegian duo’s characteristically stimulating fusion of post-punk, disco, driving techno and classics offered the most for the aggressive fist pumpers and singalongs.
Best Tracks of the weekend