The Secret Garden Party, in the Cambridgeshire countryside, is a bifurcated experience. Indie rock in daylight hours competes with the sunlit uplands of house music, the latter largely outmuscling the former.
The Pagoda stage at any time over the weekend has hundreds of hopefuls in the queue craving access to an Ibiza beach bar simulator on the lip of a reservoir. The Drop and The Scullion stages provide the second and third choices for an incontestably vivified crowd keen on putting the legwork in early doors.
By dusk, however, the main stage headliners temporarily unify the tribes. Headliners are scored out on the on-site lineup posters but, like an abstract Wordle, edges of letters could be made out to spell Self Esteem on Thursday, Kae Tempest on Friday, London Grammar on Saturday and Metronomy on Sunday.
None of that dampened the rumours that hermitic enigmas Sault and the Chemical Brothers were going to headline. Spoiler: they didn’t. As with Glastonbury, the lineup is almost immaterial given most of the audience want to catapult themselves into pounding house most of the day and all of the night.
But in the unforgiving glare of daylight, Deep Tan bring math-goth and songs about adults cosplaying as animals (“This would be the perfect festival for furries,” says singer Wafah Dufour). Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning’s deadpan lyrics about the beautifully mundane multiplied through Emo Philips facial twitches seems to spook some tentative trippers. Dubliner Orla Gartland’s post-grunge indie pop, meanwhile, powers through a cycle of emotions. “The next one is angry,” she says halfway through. “Are you up for getting angry with me?” Surprisingly, many are.
As the sun stubs itself out each day, the main stage exerts a powerful gravitational pull. Danish singer MØ’s glitchy electropop has its industrial edge amplified by a stage that is so harshly backlit that the performers are barely visible. Despite excitedly introducing Blur as a “song with a Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar” – surely an audience enema – the crowd stick with her.
“The last time we played here was on a tiny stage 10 years ago,” says London Grammar guitarist Dan Rothman as he points far into the distance. Their sparse sonics and Hannah Reid’s folkish vocals across their big, sad songs such as Hey Now and Californian Soil is a risky move, bringing comedown vibes to a crowd industrially focused on the coming-up rush. They play in silhouette and at one point the stage is flooded in blood-red light that risks turning them into U2 at Red Rocks, thankfully without the dreary pomposity and galumphing flag waving.
The tents in the daytime provide succour for fragile minds and overworked bodies hiding from the sun. Ellie Dixon builds up odd little songs from layered loops, switching into covers of Toxic and No Scrubs to hold attention, before playing a song entirely about biscuits twice, the second time almost generating a mosh pit.
Without wishing to come across as a fragile dowager fainting clean away at the sight of the naked hedonism on display, the Secret Garden Party crowd is, unquestionably and unapologetically, there for the party. Backs of hands provide improvised ingestion platters as every tune played anywhere becomes the greatest song ever. Rather than worry too much about the secret nature of the headliners, just quadruple the size of the Pagoda at future events and the 12-hour party people will guarantee a sellout.