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Three Songs No Flash

Dustbowl Delights: Houghton 2022 Reviewed
Christian Eede , October 20th, 2022 07:50

Following a raft of cancellations in recent years due to freak weather and the COVID-19 pandemic, Craig Richards' Houghton festival finally returned for its third edition last month, and it was well worth the wait, finds Christian Eede

Such is the bad luck that has befallen Norfolk's Houghton festival, the event founded in 2017 by fabric resident Craig Richards and a team of associates, it felt only natural that its third edition at the sixth time of trying wouldn't pass completely without a hitch. In 2019, the festival fell victim to storms that forced a last-minute cancellation; in 2020, along with the rest of the summer festival circuit, it was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic; and in 2021, hangovers from the pandemic that included staffing shortages once again saw plans for the event abandoned.

Arriving at the site in late August in searing temperatures, there was a palpable sense of trepidation as to whether another cancellation was somehow looming in the distance, owing to the past three years of misfortune. Thankfully, this wasn't to be, but with a drought having been declared in a number of parts of Britain that week, the festival site was a dustbowl. Clouds of dust and dirt swamped various areas, leaving attendees to fashion masks out of whatever spare clothing items they had to hand in scenes that resembled US desert festival Burning Man. With Houghton having faced down so much adversity over the last few years, attendees and DJs alike were determined to have a good time, even as the dust swamped some of the DJ booths across the site and left outfits coated in a layer of dirt.

As the festival got fully underway on Friday, I was quickly reminded of much of what made its inaugural edition in 2017 so special, particularly amid the UK's sometimes bloated summer festival market. A 24-hour programme of music ran continuously for 63 hours from early on Friday through to the early hours of Monday morning, following a more relaxed opening night of programming on Thursday night. The sound across the site was, for the most part, tip-top, and DJs were, as at past editions, given the chance to stretch their legs and explore their music collections with three-hour sets mostly standardised across the schedule – something that is generally a rarity across the electronic music festival circuit. Put simply, this often led to better sets, where you could perhaps drift in and out as you please or stay for the entirety and enjoy the different corners of a DJ's record or digital collection.

One such DJ who has a knack for taking dancers on a weird and wonderful journey is Ricardo Villalobos, a frequent DJing partner of Craig Richards' who played solo this time round on the Friday night at the Derren Smart Stage. It's perhaps the closest that Houghton has to a quintessential 'main stage' with its raised booth and the sound and sight of Villalobos indulging his distinctive quirks on it felt somewhat incongruous at times compared, say, to his previous extended sets at the festival's Pavilion area, nestled in some woods, in 2017 and 2018.

This year's set was certainly a spectacle though, as Villalobos flitted between giving and receiving air kisses to various people accompanying him on the stage, and keeping the masses gathered for his set very much on their toes. Sprawling Villalobos classics such as 'Logohitz' and 'Hansup' got an airing, in addition to his crackers, Latin-flavoured 2006 remix of Señor Coconut And His Orchestra's 'Behind The Mask' and 1997 gurgling techno rework of Heiko Laux & Johannes Heil's 'No Pain No Gain' – the latter felt like a particular treat galloping in after a run of various understated minimal rhythms. The same can be said of DJ ESP's '90s acid roller 'Ab Fab', rolled out in the set's first half, but perhaps not so much of the bizarre inclusion of Michael Nyman's classical funeral march-like 1985 piece 'Memorial', which admittedly drew some fairly quizzical reactions.

A number of other guests playing the Derren Smart Stage across the weekend leaned into the 'big stage' nature of their surroundings in the best way possible. Shanti Celeste's Saturday afternoon-into-evening set was a triumph. The UK DJ ran through various shades of summery house music across three hours, her set including outings for the rave piano ecstasy of Overdubz's 1996 track 'I Want Bass' and a vocal mix of Nu-Birth's '90s UK garage classic 'Anytime'.

Playing the same slot the following day, Ben UFO eased into his usual genre-busting blend of club music with a first hour of alternately pumping and understated house music that paved the way for a number of the summer's unofficial festival anthems, such as Pearson Sound's remix of Nick León's 'Xtasis' and a remix of Oklou's 'God's Chariot' that has been doing the rounds among a number of DJs at festivals this summer.

Perhaps the greatest triumph at the Derren Smart Stage, though, came courtesy of Toronto-born, London-based DJ Peach, who had the unenviable task of coaxing people away from the tree-aided shade that lined the dancefloor in front of the stage on a particularly hot Sunday afternoon. With the help of some killer tech-house pumpers and forgotten '90s prog-house classics, she handled the task with ease, occasionally breaking from lining up her next record to cool down the dancers in front of her with a pair of Super Soakers. I also caught her play an early morning three-hour set on Saturday at the intimate Old Gramophone stage, beginning at 6am. Every bit as jacking as that Sunday set, it was definitely one worth rolling through for, even if my attempt to get some sleep under the scorching morning sun shortly afterwards proved ultimately futile.

Away from the Derren Smart Stage – as well as nearby areas such as Tantrum (hosting the likes of Helena Hauff, DJ Storm and DJ Stingray 313 across the weekend) and the Quarry (where Pearson Sound, Tricky and Pangaea, among others, were booked in to play) – were a number of other stages nestled around a lake. The first of those that ravers might have encountered, when swinging a right at the lake area's entrance, was the Warehouse. I must admit that the stage has felt like an afterthought of sorts at previous editions of Houghton, tucked away a little too much and neglected with regards to the staging. With the simple addition of some television monitors beaming trippy visuals across the structure that housed the stage though, it felt more like a destination spot this time round. That was also helped by some excellent sets across the weekend by the likes of Call Super (serving up a wormhole-like blend of minimal, microhouse and a cheeky little airing of the acapella of Kelis' 'Milkshake') and surely one of the UK's most underrated DJs, Alex Downey, getting the festival underway on Thursday night with a set that proved how much fun you can have playing and mixing techno. The gnarly, thunderous half-step of Blawan's 'Blika' was a highlight.

Further along the lake, tucked among a wooded area of the site where mobile reception grew more and more elusive, were the Pavilion and Earthling stages, where deep house, minimal and all kinds of tech-house warpers were the order of the weekend. On Saturday night, DMX Krew brought his impressive live set-up to the Pavilion, putting to use a workstation of synths to build a banging mix of menacing electro and broken techno as daylight turned to night. At the other end of the scale, Zip's three-hour Sunday evening set was a trip through refined '90s house and unidentifiable minimal cuts that took in, among plenty more, the swung grooves of Nail's 'I've Been There' and grin-inducing Italian house classic 'Italian Voice' by MBG. Berlin-based record diggers The Ghost's five-hour Friday afternoon set at Earthling was also a triumph of organ house and speed garage belters that marked what felt like the true start of the weekend's mayhem. Hosting some of the weekend's best sets, it's only a shame that the dust was particularly omnipresent at the Pavilion and Earthling – occasional breaks were essential to avoid coming out of the wormhole with a voice raspier than Louis Armstrong.

Elsewhere, nestled away in a far-flung corner closer to the campsites, the Terminus stage also returned this year once more, yet again featuring an entirely unannounced lineup. As ever, the area was a more than worthy home for impromptu back-to-back sets, and provided a chance to catch DJs who appeared elsewhere on the bill in a more intimate setting. It was there that early on Saturday morning, as Nicolas Lutz played, I witnessed an amusing scene play out in which two people, armed with chalk, took to playing noughts and crosses on the floor in one corner of the dancefloor. It was a scene that neatly summarised the scatty, but affable, crowd that returns to Houghton each year and makes it so special. Roll on next year!