Houghton Hall, Norfolk
9 - 12 August

Everything you’ve heard about Houghton Festival is true.

From the music to the setting to the crowd, the festival, which is curated by Craig Richards and run by the team behind UK mainstay Gottwood, is about as good as it gets. Taking place amongst the trees in the English countryside, on the grounds of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the festival felt somehow private, like the scene’s best kept secret that everyone knows. Stages were nestled in small clearings the forest, with one even secretly tucked away in a sort of valley that got very intimate over the course of the weekend — thanks to a lack of cell signal, the trust between artist and crowd, and the certain inexplicable familiarity to the festival at large, the entire event was like its own little world.

Craig Richards explained his ethos in a pre-festival video for Crack like this: “As much as possible, I’ve tried to use my own experience as a DJ to create stages and environments where people can shine.” So much as evident in the sound quality across the entire festival: it was the best of the best where an outdoor music event is concerned. DJs playing vinyl had little to no issues, and live sets were pulled off without a hitch – not an easy feat when you’re working with over a dozen stages. This was the kind of environment that made it easy for artists to explore and experiment; longer set times as well, in contrast to the typical two-hour festival billing, provided space for DJs to properly build a set or invite the crowd on a journey.

Friday took the top spot for live acts with artists like Burnt Friedman, Mathew Jonson, Deadbeat, and Monolake delivering sets that were unique and thoughtful in later timeslots normally reserved for headlining DJs. It was a refreshing turn of pace, with Monolake’s live surround being a particular highlight. Classic festival bookings like Hunee, Tama Sumo, and Red Axes likewise brought the tunes, while Shanti Celeste and Saoirse performed an impromptu back-to-back that was a welcome, upbeat surprise. But the real heroes of Friday night were Jane Fitz, and Francesco Del Garda, whose sets were the talk of the festival the next day. Fitz, a festival circuit regular who has in interviews noted her yearning for top tier sound quality at outdoor events, seemed absolutely in her element all weekend, playing again on Saturday afternoon. And that was one of Houghton’s best features: most artists got the chance to play multiple sets over the course of the weekend. As audience, there was rarely an act you’d had to miss completely, as performer, you got the chance to, musically, leave no stone unturned.

Saturday was spent at the Pavillion stage where Pickle Factory residents and bookers Hamish Cole and Toby Nicholas went back-to-back, the perfect opener for the day’s festivities, followed up by Berlin based record shop owners and DJ duo The Ghost. Sonja Moonear, Nicolas Lutz, and Ricardo Villalobos played in succession — a killer line-up that made it hard to leave for any other stage. Elsewhere, Craig Richards himself played various sets, but his real shining moment was a back-to-back with Nicolas Lutz at the Terminus stage on Sunday morning. This so-called “secret stage” in a sort of valley in the forest got packed enough by Sunday midday that it garnered a queue: the only low point of the festival was waiting an hour to get back in, which meant that most of the day was spent there. Not that we’re complaining, as easily the festival’s most memorable sets went down at Terminus. The Ghost played a second time, a fun, favourite few hours to a smaller, more intimate crowd, proving their chops as two of the scene’s most accomplished diggers. Berlin’s Binh played one of his best sets ever, while Margaret Dygas got dark and deep. Sonja Moonear’s Terminus set was a weekend highlight as she pulled out tunes that seemed unheard of — the good kind of strange, banging and completely relentless from start to finish. Meanwhile, Ben UFO, and Helena Hauff were closing things down at the Pavillion Stage. True to form, Hauff was a machine behind the booth, and if the minutes long roar from the crowd at the end of her set was any indication, Hauff proved once again why 2018 seems to be her year.