Houghton set out a serious marker with its exceptional debut, launching in a blaze of glory as music and vibes peaked at optimum across a weekend radiant with sunshine. As a brand new fixture on the circuit it had the benefit of being unknown, and thrived off its freshness as well as its execution. The post-festival debrief bordered on the mythical. Dancers deified all kinds of different sets and facets; reviews gleamed with the sheen of five-stars; droll themes emerged such as the Rizla hat inventor sparking an acc-sesh-ory fashion movement. Those who missed out clamoured for information and ripples of FOMO soon turned tidal. It was official: Houghton was the festival of the year.
But having a successful formula in place is no guarantee for future success. The sophomore slump is a phenomenon that can afflict the sequel to even the most dazzling of debuts. The Matrix Reloaded exists; Claudio Ranieri was sacked months after leading Leicester City to the most historic title win of all time; and recently in the dance music sphere, London’s Sunfall festival was acclaimed for its inaugural bash in 2016 and then promptly liquidated without trace after a second edition was plagued with organisational chaos and dangerous queue crushes. Craig Richards and the Gottwood Festival team had quite the task on their hands to ensure Houghton mk. II lived up to its rapturous reputation
In the week leading up to the festival, something unexpected happened: weather forecasts were published predicting heavy rain. Much like last year’s Houghton, this English summer has been a fabled experience: so long and hot that the regular downpours of bygone BST have felt distant. But fortunately, rain torrenting down on Thursday as Houghton opened its gates was no precursor to a reality check. Like the transition from The Old Testament to New, the biblical storm was followed by a glorious second coming as Houghton once again pulled off a weekend that no other dance event in the UK compares to. (Despite a similarly biblical plague of wasps afflicting the campsite.)
The first word that comes to mind when describing Houghton is 'loose'. The atmosphere was a mix of friendly and outlandish, with a crowd that appreciated the headsy line-up while never taking itself too seriously, throwing up moments of collective exuberance such as an entire dancefloor waving ferns above their head at Midland.
Houghton manages to feel intimate and sprawling at the same time. The site is small enough to move around quickly but has the space to comfortably hold 16 separate areas showcasing music, art and spiritual sessions. And although the uncharted mystique of the first year had faded to an extent, a sense that a new thrill was waiting around every corner remained. Even with the timetable to hand, only the most eidetic of memories could keep track of the extensive program, so you tackle the festival as it unfolds, and each new set feels like a pleasant surprise when it comes around. Phone signal is practically non-existent, but this didn’t seem to present a problem as people move through the festival with a spontaneous fluidity. The occasions where long lost friend crews bumped into each other in the depths of the dance in a flurry of hugs and cheers felt like another entertaining and unexpected buzz to add to a weekend of many. Not in the least, the relentless stream of world class music hosted in across visually interesting settings, powered by weighty soundsystems that surpass even many clubs.
There were new stages to discover such as The Old Gramophone, Tantrum and The Clearing, which were fine additions, while some spots from last year were improved thanks to production and programming tweaks. Limiting the opening times for large stages like the Pavillion and Warehouse and concentrating the nonstop music on the likes of The Magic Carpet made sense, with the more intimate areas making for a livelier atmosphere as crowds dwindled down to the stamina crew. Which in fairness, is most of the festival.
As is to be reasonably expected, Houghton was not entirely without fault. Limited access to water spots was a potentially dangerous oversight, especially when 200ml cans of water cost £2 at the bar. White men dominated the bill again with wider representation needed. Changes to The Quarry had a detrimental effect and Terminus struggled with queues.The sound at the Pavillion was hamstrung at points, with Helena Hauff’s closing set on Sunday night barely audible away from the very front of the dancefloor, although we suspect local restrictions mean this couldn’t be helped.
But in light of all the praise and chatter, it’s easy to forget Houghton is in just its second year. Improvements can be made, but importantly they are largely variables within the organisers control. Most of the essentials for a festival are nigh-on perfect, including sound which is a recurring issue at UK raves and those hard-to-achieve intangibles like atmosphere. Come 2019, the team will face another tall order to progress the event again. All evidence points to Houghton continuing its ascent to becoming one of the world’s most essential dance music festivals.
See below for eight tracks from sets that stood out across the weekend for varying reasons, and check out a full 100-track playlist here.
Willow, THE OLD GRAMOPHONE Craig Richards ‘Sleeping Rough’
Willow had quite a task on her hands upon taking the reins from Bobby Pleasure on Friday night in The Old Gramophone, a new stage located within an intimate, three-pronged tent.. He finished on a one-two of Burial’s ‘Shell of Light’ into ‘Emotinium’ by Roy of The Ravers and pushed corners of crowd to emotive introspection. Willow needed a palate cleanser and her selection couldn’t have been perfect, drawing for Craig Richards’ throbbing tech-house number ‘Sleeping Rough’. Druggy as anything and released over five years ago, it’s not a record we perhaps expected to see incite wild cheers in 2018. But at The Nothing Special boss’ own-curated festival it went down a storm and ignited the dancefloor.
Pearson Sound, The Clearing Ploy ‘Ramos’
The Clearing was another new stage for 2018, located deeper within the forest beyond the Pavillion. It placed the DJ in a wooden hut in the centre of an opening, with the crowd spread around a 360° dancefloor. Pearson Sound’s set came at a perfect time in the early evening on Saturday. Sun was breaking through the gaps in the canopy above and the arena had started filling up with an increasing flow of punters ready to restart the party. Pearson Sound tapped into the mood and got the floor thriving with a string of characteristically percussive-led heaters.
Joy Orbison, DERREN SMART STAGE Mr. Virgo ‘Hypnotiq’
There’s no headliners at Houghton, officially, but Joy Orbison’s Saturday evening set on the Derren Smart Stage had a feel of top billing about it. The Hinge Finger co-founder went in for the duration of his three hour stint and had the crowd going ballistic. Moving through plenty of his favoured selections of UKG from the likes of the Zack Toms and Future Underground Nation, he also shelled out some outrageous bassline bangers and cuts like LSDXOXO’s dancehall vocal and broken jungle fusing ‘Death Rattle’. The dancefloor was absolutely bouncing and Joy O was thriving off the energy. At times he appeared to be laughing to himself, overcome with elation at the intensity of the crowd reaction. Humour shone through in some of his cheekier selections such as Tom Of England’s preposterously good ‘Care To Destroy?’, starring an 80s synth band-esque vocal cover of Sex Pistols’ lyrics. It was a heavenly session, and Joy Orbison was Houghton’s very own St. Pete inviting us through the pearly gates.
Call Super. The Quarry Deep Dish feat Everything But The Girl 'The Future of the Future (Stay Gold)'
One of the rare snags of Houghton 2018 was the significant changes made to The Quarry. Whereas last year the stage was set up down the bottom of the sloping pit in front of its flattest section of ground, this time the booth was moved onto a hill running alongside the side. The effect was the main dancefloor was on a considerable slope, and facing towards the speakers to soak up the best sound quality entailed an uncomfortable uneven stance. Call Super also had the misfortune of playing during the peak of a relentless rainstorm that bucketed down nonstop for hours. Typically he was killing it with top drawer selections, but even the sunshine euphoria of records like Deep Dish and Everything But The Girl’s ‘The Future of the Future’ struggled to sustain dancing vigour amid such a relentless drenching. In the end we called it and ran for shelter for fear of drowning, but by all accounts, the rave warriors who stuck it out witnessed one of the sets of the festival.
Ricardo Villalobos, The Pavillion DJ Koze ‘Pick Up’
You could say Ricardo’s set at Houghton was quintessential Villalobos, and by that we mean he was extremely divisive. The Chilean maestro tends to do whatever the fuck he wants behind the decks, which tends to provoke reactions split across the spectrum of ‘total genius’ to ‘total shit’. Either way he’s rarely boring - unfortunately on this occasion we found that to be the case. His back-to-back session with Craig Richards on the same stage in 2017 had been a standout highlight of the festival and this set had been one of our most anticipated, but it failed to meet expectations. The Pavillion is undoubtedly the wiggiest centre of the festival, and he seemed on a mission to send the crazed headspaces even further west. All the usual Ricardo tricks were on show: he was teasing in records over and over before pulling them off the platter without a full spin, some he repeated on loop, strange sounds were swelling over mixes atmospherically, but it wasn’t quite connecting as a musical experience. The set felt uneven and meandering without ever really getting going. The selection of DJ Koze’s house anthem ‘Pick Up’ coming out of a lengthy section of sludging basslines typified this feeling. Rather than working as a curveball against the grain of its preceding sounds, it came across as puzzling and unearned in a set that lacked direction.
Margaret Dygas, The Old Gramophone Moony '3 Days'
At 8am Houghton’s dance areas were still thick and alive with revellers, and there was no danger of energy levels flagging in The Old Gramophone as Margaret Dygas stepped up to shell out an exultant wave of UKG-flecked bangers. Sugary vocal chops, two-stepping rhythms and irresistible basslines charged through a set that burned with peak time vibrancy despite taking place long after most UK clubs have hit curfew. Ricardo Villalobos sat below the decks watching, and may have learned a lesson in how to draw for a house anthem as Dygas pulled out Omar S’ ‘Thank U 4 Letting Me Be Myself’, sparking mayhem and a bassline sing-a-long. Regrettably the generator blew before the set was due to end and the sudden silence washing over a crowd in the throes of ecstasy felt like losing a limb. The shock, though, was a testament to how immersive the jubilant atmosphere inside the tent had been.
Stratowerx. Tantrum Privacy 'NCSC'
Come midday on Sunday and the crowd had understandably started to significantly thin. Sratowerx was playing only to himself and the stage staff as we rocked up to Tantrum, but the London-based artist was admirably unfazed as he powered through a storming set. Playing all vinyl, he flawlessly stitched together a stream of weighty electro, from bubbling deep cuts such as ‘Acidlab’ from Convextion’s Time Light Curve alias to the lightning strike sizzle of Privacy’s ‘NCSC’. He deserved more than the handful of dancers in attendance, but any DJ on the rise will know the tribulations of performing in front of sparse dancefloors. On this evidence, he’ll be pulling bigger crowds soon enough.
Vladimir Ivkovic b2b Ivan Smagghe The Clearing Ramin 'I Can't Understand'
Vladimir Ivkovic and Ivan Smagghe closing out The Clearing was the perfect place to be for those experiencing a touch of Sunday night weariness. Their pitched down trance and techno selections, affectionately referred to as ‘The Chug’ by some, are energising without being overwhelming, and ideal to get a steady bop on to for the final hours. Their tracks move like military tanks, unhurried but resolute and purposeful, with an unmistakable impact in capturing attention. At one point we thought we heard MMM’s usually ferocious, adrenaline-charged ‘Nous Sommes MMM’, slowed down to the point of being unrecognisable. But the set was far from monotone. Airy trance vocals bursting to the fore and well-timed tempo shifts with flaring synth lines incited whoops, complemented by The Clearing’s dazzling strobes.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Staff Writer, follow him on Twitter