Fancy winning a car today, guys?” came the opening gambit of this year’s heavily sponsored O2 Wireless Festival. One foot in the gate, we declined. A month later and we’re not offered the chance to win anything (and certainly not a carbon-stomping ride), but only to accept a free hula-hoop masterclass beside a main stage with sharks’ teeth, a gratis production of Hamlet, a poetry reading here, a welly wang there and a cream tea or two in front of a pirate galleon. Oh, and there’s also a headline set from Grace Jones – the ’80s soul diva/anti-Bond girl who’d lick sex-flavoured ice-cream from Madonna’s cone bra.
This is the fabulous Secret Garden Party; a Cambridgeshire lakeside soirée so untarnished by inky corporate mitts it makes Glastonbury look like the side of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. In such an idyllic setting, tents and stages have wonderful names, like Where The Wild Things Are and Fish Seeks Bicycle. Hippy Del Boys flog shots of rum while hippier Uncle Alberts push laughing-gas balloons and all these eccentricities, unsurprisingly, sweep up every artist on the three-day bill.
A chipper Ben Esser spends half his main stage set yelping out his now-finely tuned gushing pop and half of it sharing jokes with another electro Ben on Saturday’s bill. frYars looks on as Esser asks a sun-stoned crowd, “Are you all going to see Grace Jones tonight?” A cheer later the ex-Ladyfuzz skins man replies with a smirking, “I won’t be there.” The bemused in attendance have perhaps not realised frYars pulled the short straw and goes head to head with Jones that evening and, judging by the songstress’ crowd, Esser may well have been the sole witness to his London peer’s performance.Ticking off the clichés as she goes, the colossal figure of Grace Jones The Diva of course keeps us waiting. Preceded by a dramatic visual so ’80s it should’ve been wearing a shell-suit, she’s eventually raised atop a pointless staircase from beneath the stage. It’s ludicrous. Fifty-odd costume changes and the realisation that Jones is a potty-mouthed hater of her own band later (despite them being tighter than her black thong, she repeatedly cusses in their direction) ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ arrives – the one purring Jones song everyone present almost knows. More than once the wait seemed too arduous to endure, with each song sounding more like the previous, only longer and more self-indulgent.
Still, it’s only at Secret Garden Party that Micachu’s playing of a vacuum cleaner can be seen as the norm, Bonde do Rolê can use their set as an excuse for a ridiculously exuberant party or that Metronomy’s psychotic ‘You Could Easily Have Me’ can cause a mud-wrestling champ to kiss a Wolverine X-Man. Nowhere else will Late Of The Pier’s cosmic Bowie obsession be truly at home. No other festival has managed to retain its innocence and spirit like Secret Garden Party.