Whilst popular in mainland Europe, the kind of festival Houghton was offering to Britons was very alien indeed: a 24-hour music license, 18 age limit and a line-up almost solely consisting of DJs. To most festival goers, a DJ-only festival sounds strange, but allow me to sell this idea: I became totally immersed in Houghton and want to convince you to do the same next year.
The non-hierarchical nature of Houghton and DJs in general produced an atmosphere where the attendees can interact and focus on each other. Although some people felt compelled to revere the superstar personalities upfront such as the boyish Ben UFO or the swarthy Ricardo Villalobos, others felt much more comfortable turning round to friends and strangers, a surprising number of whom came from Oxford, and dancing together. One particularly odd experience was witnessing a ice cream trolley being joyridden through the Nicolas Jaar crowd. I encouraged the rider to go give a tub to Nicolas Jaar but, by the time he got on stage, Jaar had swiftly left. The ‘Hidden Corners’ and ‘Magic Carpet’ tents were particularly friendly. Dancers mingled to house and disco from Gideon and Ben UFO’s unexpected but delightful mix of obscure jazz, afrobeat, synthpop, reggae and funk records.
The DJ feels no compulsion to play only their own music, instead they simply play what is good. Bands will often self-indulgently force listeners to hear their lacklustre deep cuts, the DJ on the other hand will play the best they have to offer in a selection and flow tailored for the crowd: no set list can constrain them. The Houghton lineup showed the magic that this freedom can produce: Hunee did a fantastic mix of afrobeat and tech house, Caribou played classic dubstep and jungle, and Nicolas Jaar reminded people of his abilities to combine the oblique with the dancable. However, the personal highlight for me was Andy Weatherall’s show stopping mix that was both consistent and eclectic. Weatherall ranged from euphoric techno tearjerkers like ‘Loser’s Hymn’ by Talaboman to what sounded like a tongue in cheek remix of The Human League.
The 24-hour music license was also a stroke of genius. It offered a range of settings to make each experience more memorable: sunsets watching Nicolas Jaar, daytime boogies to Horse Meat Disco, Joy Orbison in the dead of night and Villalobos for the sunrise. This allowed performers to DJ for hours. Craig Richards and Ricardo Villalobos performed a jaw-dropping eight and a half hour set. These lengths allowed one to get completely immersed in one set for hours or to jump from venue to venue guilt free: the anonymised DJ couldn’t judge.
The setting, in the depths of the Norfolk countryside, was also perfect. With no phone signal there was nothing to do other than engross in the festival’s delights. The impressively well executed sauna in a yurt offered some welcome relaxation. The sculpture tour, although difficult to get on, was a nice way to unwind from the high octane events just a stone’s throw away. However, the best part was by far the venues. The Quarry was a writhing pit of joy and happiness drenched in magenta, and The Pavillion was a certified wonderland. Villalobos’ trademark minimal techno brought the woods to life in the early morning as stammering vocals and dreamy synths seemed to make the trees pulsate a neon green to the hard beat.
All in all Houghton was an incredibly fulfilling experience, one that left me not wanting anymore. I could have seen more acts, I could have stayed up later, I could have seen more sunrises, but what I had seen was so amazing that I don’t feel bad for what I missed. That to me is the true sign of a great experience: complete satisfaction. Even if you’re not that interested in electronic music, I advise you to go Houghton next year. For a festival so focused on music, Houghton as an experience seemed to completely transcend music altogether.