As GALA patrons descend upon the intimate Peckham Rye site for the first time in two years, it's emotional. Settling back into raucous weekenders after 16 long months comes with some mild unease - but the crowds look as though they’ve been there all along. “It feels like I never left!” shouts one glitter-clad girl over the roaring soundsystem pumping two-step tunes from Horse Meat Disco.
“I’m just happy to dance close to people again,” says another punter, admitting she doesn't mind what music is being played, just so long as she can crack out a few dance moves along the way. But GALA is a self-assured festival and when it comes to bookings, it finds a way to drive the most prominent electronic talent to the forefront — and has done since its fledgling days. Now in its fifth year, London’s GALA Festival is back, more playful and outrageous than ever.
The looming threat of torrential rain doesn't deter a frenetic crowd sweeping through the gates on Friday afternoon. Inside, the Pleasure Dome tent is a clear favourite for many, with the regular return of front-row settlers across the weekend, packing in for a live set from Overmono on Friday night. In the same leg of the evening, p-rallel, Mr Scruff and Tirzah each head up different stages across the festival — before Chaos In The CBD imbued some final efforts to keep the party alive until close.
Organisers didn’t go without their worries this year, but GALA never once feels unsafe. COVID test status is checked upon entry, with partygoers unable to pass through the barriers without the proof of a negative result — something that we’ve all hopefully learned by now to clock in before a night (or in this case day) out.
“A cancellation would have been crippling,” says GALA founder Giles Napier after witnessing the devastation to the music industry as a result of the pandemic. “We’d heard rumours of more grant money for cancelled events, but even then there’s never a guarantee you’ll get it,” he continues, referencing Houghton as one of many. But Giles can’t deny that it’s “an indescribable high” to be back at the festival he helped create. “We feel an overwhelming sense of relief, emotion and joy,“ he says.
Driving full speed into Saturday, GALA boasts a delicious underground spread — TSHA and Mafalda take over the kaleidoscopic Rye Stage tucked into the corner of the festival site early in the afternoon, later headlined by Worldwide FM's Gilles Peterson. As the rain started over GALA, forcing everyone into raincoats and wellies, hundreds ended up back inside The Pleasure Dome for DEBONAIR’s high-charged EBM set. 90-minutes of body music later the rain passes, and it's time for revellers to reap the benefits of The Patio Stage — an outdoor haunt for the house heads, Bradley Zero delivered a 303-fuelled set as the sun broke out over the now muddied festival grounds.
Topping off the evening, Saoirse b2b Eris Drew induces countless chants from crowd members: “naughty”, “TUNE!”, or an overheard: “what a fucking legend” after a quick Daft Punk remix drop. Even hours after their set, murmurs between friends at the festival stay on one subject: "did you catch Drew and Saoirse?’".
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Going from strength to strength this year, Jayda G headlines the Saturday night’s main stage line-up. The London-based DJ has soundtracked the comeback of UK nightlife this year — first with her slot at Liverpool’s Circus test event in May, now at one of the first official unrestricted festivals since the pandemic began. Breaking out the exultant ‘Both Of Us’ towards the end of her set, Jayda sent off the final crowds in high spirits.
Sunday is the day of disco, and boy does it deliver. It’s not like GALA had a shortage of artists to choose from; CC:Disco! and Horse Meat Disco were two of many fuelling the Sunday classics. For those preferring a more off-kilter selection, Jamz Supernova steps in for a last-minute appearance on Sunday afternoon with a few UKG throw-ins, before Leon Vynhall and Young Marco’s b2b set. No single track went amiss in this four-hour takeover, with the pair dropping El-B’s ‘Celly’ and tantalising the crowds by going back and forth on the old skool tracks before stepping back to newer, darker sounds.
If we’re speaking in colloquial terms, GALA is just a bit of everyone, really. Never overshooting for a more upscale event, it’s a festival that doesn’t try to be anything but its authentic self. It now even claims a dedicated fanbase returning year after year, which, for obvious reasons, means that you’ll have to book out that ticket extra quick for the 2022 edition — see you next year.
Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter