It’s hard to know where to begin when covering the NSW boutique festival Secret Garden, an event I attended for the first time over the weekend. It takes place about an hour out of Sydney and gives precedence to its name by not revealing its announcement until the event sells out; which was about a week out this year (and did not disappoint).
It’s a strategy that gives the event – a not-for-profit two day festival that donates all its profits, including alcohol sales, to a variety of charities – the ability to bring in amazing artists who may not otherwise be able to play, and ensures its audience is there for one thing and one thing only: the experience. And it’s this experience that Secret Garden has perfected over the years, turning it into one of the country’s most talked about and anticipated events.
One of its most popular selling points is its expectation of fancy dress, that each year inspires patrons to be more daring, more creative and more… well, in the case of a few people this year… naked? Above is a shot taken at one of the many hidden gems set in the trees around the main festival site – a faux viking feast, set in front of a viking… I want to say, hut?… that was full of room to relax, make Viking jewellery and more. It’s this level of detail that keeps people coming back for more.
The more you explore the festival, the more it gives back. It has the great music across four main stages and a series of smaller, more intimate experiences. It has some fantastic food trucks and interactive experiences like the human foosball tournament (which was often hilarious to watch). But it really is the element of exploration that provides Secret Garden with so much more than its competitors. It’s the art installations hidden where you least expect them, surrounded by unique bars, with an outdoor pool table and all, that give you the constant joy of discovery – a rare feeling at events that had gotten resolute that their lineups and brand would be enough to bring in an audience. And where are those events now?
And then there’s a family vibe behind the festival. At the end of the day, you’re on a Dairy Farm, put on by the family that live there – and this year they came up with a creative way to add a little more to the event. Finding Farmer Henry a Wife in the often hilarious version of Farmer Wants a Wife. Games included “does this cow give us milk or meat?” “Throw the boot!” and, “run around with a bucket of water!” Eventually this led to the pairing of Henry – part of the family who owns the property – with a punter dressed as Cleopatra. No word yet if the marriage has already happened. Elsewhere at the festival, you could even get married yourself! Not sure if it was binding or not, but if they were, I’m sure some may have woken up to some surprising paperwork.
And, what about the music? Atlanta artist Raury brought some international flavour for the event, joining in on the fancy dress theme himself (above, while singing “Cigarette Song”), and delivering one of the best sets of the weekend. He had the crowd in great spirits, chanting “We All Need Life”, and performing tracks like the phenomenal “God’s Whisper”, with a full band behind him. Raury is destined to be one of the finest artists of our time, and it was a joy to witness him in the setting of this event…
…an event which is as much about fancy dress as it is about the music, let’s not forget… and some people certainly go all out for it…
Not to be outdone by the rest of the incredible lineup (or outfits), Gang of Youths – led by birthday boy Dave Le’aupepe – shined as one of the most popular acts of the lineup. Dave commented that it was just a year ago they played the festival, still relatively unknown, and it was here they debuted the song that broke them – “Magnolia”. Tonight it closed their set, while they brought us another debut, “Native Tongue” taken from their upcoming EP Let Me Be Clear. With a killer chant at the end “I said fuck you and I’ll tell ’em myself”, the track had a couple of moments that would make Springsteen proud. One of the country’s best bands right now might just be getting better… I can’t wait to hear the studio version.
Though the Netball team Saskwatch (above) definitely win the award for “most well co-ordinated band outfit” at the event. Ghostbuster Matt Corby didn’t do too bad himself (below). Both bands brought some great jams to the festival, with Corby’s five piece giving any Bluesfest artist a run for their money, and Saskwatch throwing in their Live a Version cover of Jagwar Ma’s “Let Her Go” alongside their slew of phenomenal material.
Other highlights of the weekend included buzz artist Sampa The Great, who delivered remixes from artists like Hiatus Kaiyote, alongside her own acclaimed material. Black Vanilla was an impressive talent, bringing on board unique hip hop vibes. Jonathan Boulet returned to the stage delivering a “I’ll play whatever the fuck I want to play” set, jumping from tracks where he sounded rockier than ever, a thirty second punk gem, and a great amount of Saxamaphone along the way. Very interested to see what’s coming next from this talented artist, who has spent the last couple of years in Berlin. And Adelaide’s Bad//Dreems nailed it as always, while the slew of drag queen DJs gave the event some extra flair (and, surprisingly, flames).
All in all, Secret Garden is one of the most magical, intoxicating and joyous events in Australia. Everyone is there for the right reasons, and the vibe is without equal. From the hidden nooks and crannies delivering moments of creative flair and enhancing our love of exploration, to the high quality of the music, Secret Garden is the event our ever-decreasing festival calendar deserves.