Feral in the forest – Gottwood Festival 2014 in review

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You know the score with summer soirees. Half the week prior is spent picking up supplies and organising what little camping equipment is available to beg, borrow and steal, then the day actually arrives and everything starts going to shit. Or at least that seems to be our average experience.

So it came to pass that Plain & Simple departed from its second home of Manchester in search of a wooded area somewhere on the Welsh isle of Anglesey, with the only problems being our tent was non-existent, the designated driver had no idea how to get where we were going, and the preceding days had been spent misbehaving in the Balearics, losing immense amounts of sleep and trying not to be sick after downing Jaegerbombs the morning before our return flight.

Nevertheless, expectations remained incredibly high.

Gottwood’s reputation is well known, and yet until this year’s increase in capacity- something of a sore point for some of the loyal attendees we would soon run into- the percentage of UK techno, d’n’b and house heads that had actually made it to previous editions was unarguably small. With a comparatively tiny capacity (our kind of bash), and very little by way of big budget marketing campaigns, the festival had managed to establish itself among the great and good of word of mouth success stories. Nevertheless, 2014 was all about building on that hard work, and bringing in a bigger crowd to (hopefully) spread the message for years to come.

After copious amounts of messing about- forgotten toothbrushes, two supermarket stops and a bizarre sat nav rebellion that saw us hurtling back towards that big city up north, where this odyssey began- our eyes finally saw the small owl-themed signposts designed to guide us in; all the confirmation we needed that this was definitely the correct route, and a party was indeed just around the corner.

Finally arriving on-site a day after proceedings kicked off properly and the first thing to strike us is the location. Wales is renowned for many things, the bizarre persistence of keeping a dead language alive being one, and stunning scenery another, with the setting for this four day bonanza of beats arguably one of the most beautiful spots in this green and pleasant land. Cue the usual unloading of everything you don’t need from the car, followed by time spent returning all those useless items to their rightful place at bottom of the boot, a short queue to collect wristbands, and then our first glimpse of the actual set up.

Unusually for pretty much any dance festival we’ve ever attended in the UK, Gottwood places the emphasis on staying outdoors, and to say organisers had gone to town on creating a magical exterior experience would be an understatement. Whichever direction you look in there’s some ‘weird shit’ to stare at, hay bails to sit on, and bizarre art installations for people on hallucinogens to freak out over.

With a relatively small covering over each of the wonderfully well-positioned DJ booths, extending out to envelop part but not all of the dancefloors, it immediately becomes clear that this one is all about dancing under the stars, or at least beneath a canopy of trees, and while this obviously poses some problems – heaven knows what would happen if it rains- on the whole the result is impressive, and unique. More in line with a rural free party than the usual marquee-filled strip of land that denotes a festival.

Having done some exploration and sightseeing it’s already time for what could well be the highlight of the weekend, and certainly the coup d’etat of bookings. Fabric’s main man, hardly a regular at festivals, Craig Richards, is just about getting going in the area known as the Walled Garden, a landscaped plot that’s quite literally drystone walled-in, and easily the best of the main stages. Kicking off with a ferocity we’ve not heard from this guy in some time, solid but not sledgehammer techno begins erupting out of the speaker stack which, in case there were any doubts, provides a clean, crisp soundtrack, confirming to us that whatever rigs are in use have been perfectly engineered and are being professionally monitored.

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A little while later and we’ve gone into Tyrant-esque breaks and back out into the kind of electro-fuelled jacking business Andrew Weatherall would be proud of, proving once again that the chap in question knows exactly what a DJ’s job is- playing to the crowd and simultaneously throwing out enough curveballs to make people think. A real success of a set, three hours really isn’t long enough and by the time we’re walking away, sweaty but chilly thanks to the plummeting nighttime temperatures, the air of being left wanting is tangible. Again, a masterclass in how to do this kind of thing properly.

For the sake of avoiding writing one of those ridiculous step-by-step reviews, and judging by the word count already clocked up, it’s probably wise that we begin moving through the best of the rest a little more efficiently. Saturday afternoon’s real selling point being the invitingly tough and up front house rhythms pouring from the lakeside stage, a real treat of a set up that affords an opportunity to sprawl out in the scorching sunshine while still being able to enjoy the track selections, and the chance to eat a few freshly made ice creams.

Later, and we move on to what’s affectionately named the Caravan Stage. By this point, of course, some of the crowd had been 48-hours without anything close to 40 winks, and while the damage sleep deprivation can impact was evident on the whole the largely youthful revellers are still on top form. Less impressive is the near-universal confusion about who was actually playing, with one wide-eyed chap explaining he’d come to see Margaret Dygas, ‘who’s doing the job’, before we politely broke the news that she’s not actually a man.

Still, the bald-headed guy who has just decided that the best idea is to launch into some much-appreciated classic mid-90s hardcore, followed by a bespectacled young fellow who makes it his business to rinse out some old school electro-edged techno, are giving us exactly what we want, and harking back to a time when raves were less about geeking out over who’s on right now, and more centred on simply enjoying That Bloke Who Dropped The Amen Break for what it is.

Thanks to yet more work commitments our weekend was always going to be cut short, and so we come to our final resting (or, more accurately, dancing) place. Hailing from close to where we came from, Manchester’s Hit & Run crew have taken over the only dedicated indoor venue on site, a small and apparently constantly sweat soaked cottage type building, hollowed out inside to provide something that resembles a small rural church hall-cum-club space hybrid. Whatever that means.

Arriving in time to catch the weirdest sight of the weekend- a bunch of punters raising their trainers in the air as a strange ritualistic mark of respect to drum ‘n’ bass don Calibre- from here we’re given impressive sets from rising junglist Nanny Banton, and a meld of grime, pop, bassline and yet more rolling breaks courtesy of Jonny Opo, both of which go down nothing short of fantastically well with all in attendance, rounding off what has to be the most fun we’ve had surrounded by trees in quite some time, and a party that could well wind up being the best of our 2014 outdoor season, with the only significant complaint being the price of tobacco- at £10 a pop it’s not the news you want as cash runs low and the fat lady can be just about heard approaching in the distance.

Still, you can’t have everything.



All images (C) Roo Lewis, Gottwood Festival 2014