Sat amid the rolling corn and sweet beet crops of rural Hertfordshire just off the A1 sits Newnham Village, a hamlet-sized limestone solace draped in bunting and friendly notices, within which a signpost points rightwards down a track wide enough for one Toyota Yaris at a push, and down this track waits an absolute banger of a weekend.
Farr festival returned for its eighth year, and every year it has grown in both popularity and musical variety. An hour’s drive north of central London, the site now boasts seven stages, yoga and relaxation areas, cuisine for all tastes, a fairground, and even a hot tub where for £25 you can take a picture with a glass of Prosecco. The festival’s drink policy seems strangely profit-driven, wherein ticket holders are allowed to bring in twelve cans, or alternatively six cans and a bag of wine, but “rest assured!” we’re told, the organisers have ensured food and drink is capped at “London prices”; as a Sam Smith's hardened northerner, this wasn’t very assuring, but in fairness it was my only weekend gripe. The Fullers beers on offer were draught, and trumped any flat and pre-poured Tuborg I’ve had at other festivals.
The 2000 campers seem a much larger force on the Thursday evening as the final tents are erected, camping chairs start to house empty cans and people adorn themselves in festival chic. Much of the music has kicked off by the time we arrive, with the new Factory mainstage housing Sweden’s Kornel Kovacs and Rinse FM’s Moxie, among others. Thursday’s main attraction is the Berlin-based Californian Avalon Emerson, bringing her shadowy and abstract musings to the forest’s Hidden Palace stage, but for us it was Donna Leake that stole the show. Hackney’s Brilliant Corners brought along a tent for their first residency at Farr, and with it a sound system built by - and for - audiophiles; a compass of four legendary Klipschorn speakers angling towards the centre of a circular dancefloor, where you’ll find the Brilliant Corners residents slipping off during their own sets for a wiggle in their sandals. A champion of the tunes-before-the-DJ policy as the only music policy, Leake visibly enjoys playing her favourite music out in a way incomparable to any other DJ I’ve seen before, where you can easily forget you’re not actually in her living room as you watch. One of the benefits that Farr’s size lends itself to is its manageability, in that if you fancy a wander around you can do in the knowledge that you can relocate mates within ten minutes, and if not there’s bound to be someone on the Brilliant Corners’ wooden dancefloor making barefoot stank faces and down for a chat.
(The new Campfire Headphase tent proved a popular stage - Photo: Farr Festival)
Friday saw the opening of two extra stages in the forest; The Shack, sat downhill in the very deep of the woods, and the Adventures in Success stage, hosted by Red Light Radio and Music from Memory. The latter’s head honcho Jamie Tiller navigates his way through a sunny afternoon with his arsenal of tunes- dancier than his label offers- chugging out balearic and sleazy beats as day two’s revelers find their feet. Assisted by Tako and Ramzi, Music from Memory hold it down until Sassy J takes the stage. Meanwhile, General Levy’s bass-heavy ragga seeps over the shipping container walls of the Factory stage, and a stone’s throw across the woods, Rhythm Section and Balamii’s Chaos in the CBD take to a raucous Hidden Palace crowd, slinging out their jazz-soaked collection of sizzlers.
Wherever you look people are grooving and smiling, smiling and grooving, and after a quick trip to London for a pint, it’s over to the Campfire Headphase stage to see Brudenell Groove do what they do best; bring a house party atmosphere to whatever venue they’re turning upside down. We heard many a conversation regarding the sound quality at the woodland stages, with some complaining it was too quiet, and others saying it was bass-heavy, and despite the Campfire Headphase boasting a more than ample system it wasn’t enough to stop Brudenell Groove. Twice the entire tent’s power kicks out, which prompts their resident Ranyue to grab her phone, shush everyone, and play the track from Youtube. Incredible.
Farr has a reputation for being very laid back, incredibly personable and ultimately progressive. The tunes on offer are enough to make even a terse cynic socially amiable, and this was symptomatic of interactions all weekend; people wiggling around, leaving their groups to chat to other groups, chinking beers and hugging; others dressed in vintage footy shirts laughing uncontrollably in a circle; groups shouting “legalize it!” at God knows what, and even more hugging. As the sun downs on the Friday it leaves in its wake a sky of beautiful pink and purple hues that serves as a picturesque backdrop for a pretty special nighttime. Strewn across the forest floor, people bob their heads to the bass drum kicks throbbing around the trees, and others hurry down towards The Shack stage where Houghton curator Craig Richards is distributing whomper after whomper. Following the Abba Hour, Leeds legends Butter Side Up light up the Campfire Headphase stage, dishing out their cultured and uncompromising selection of bouncers, while Detroit Swindle offer their own buttery take on house tunes over at the Hidden Palace. Helena Hauff’s set was arguably the most anticipated amongst our group, and she belts out home run after home run, with the crowd catching every swing she offers, idiosyncratically weaving together her post-punk electronica, industrial and dark techno at a deafening pace. Sadly for us it is too well-attended, as at the fringes of the very back we are reduced to largely the bass drum kicks and top-end gliding above the heads of the crowd, and once again we find ourselves at the centre of the Brilliant Corners compass.
(Hidden Palace - Photo: Farr Festival)
Midway through a soggy July, Saturday afternoon shines in a pocket of sun seemingly reserved for Farr, and under that sun we once again find ourselves elongated across the Brilliant Corners floor as Belle Bete trickles out a balearic masterpiece that typifies a weekend spent in that yurt. Straight Outta Brighton shell out the finest in golden era rap, Balearic Beat’s First Lady Nancy Noise weaves through her Brazilian-infused collection - including the Leo Mas remix of her track Kaia (out on Leeds-based Beyond Paradise Recordings) - and Heels and Souls treat The Shack stage to their charity-based party atmosphere. The Factory stage hosts Bonzai, an Indiana-born singer/songwriter/rapper with a penchant for all things punk and partying. Now based in London, her music spans a vast variety of genres, and with a live band is something of a spectacle. Towards the end of her set half the crowd circumvent the security to join her on stage, wanting to get closer to her tight loops and syncopated rhythms. The Adventures in Success stage, now hosted by New York’s Ransom Note, is a writhing and colourful mass of varying states of inebriation, and unvarying states of cheer. People are bobbing around, cheering, having a laugh with strangers, and all soaking in the dreamy records Jayda G and Brian Not Brian are chucking around in an electrifying, energizing B2B. It’s a perfect warm up for Berghain and Freerotation resident Tama Sumo, whose ability to slip between house, techno, disco and afrobeat provides the perfect excuse for those wishing to get even more inebriated. The irrepressibly soulful Sadar Bahar steps up next, taking Ransom Note’s curation to unprecedented levels of joy. A firm favourite of many internationally recognized selectors, he proves why he’s one of the most respected diggers around, treating the writhing mass to his 30 years-old obsession with soulful grooves.
Boasting a varied output of her own productions, Willow’s stint at The Shack proves why she’s been tipped as one to watch out for, with Artwork’s Red going OFF. Todd Terje’s live set at The Factory is far too rammed to attend as we approach the blockade of hopefuls waiting, and so true to form we return to Brilliant Corners, where Cedric Woo is playing everything from Ambient to Afrobeat. The soundsystem is simply incomparable to anything else on offer at the weekend, and it’s no wonder DJs are queueing up for the chance to play a different style than the forest stages require. Undoubtedly the weekend highlight is at the very last, as Floating Points and Sadar Bahar play an impromptu 3am B2B for the Brilliant Corners massive. A perfect finale for a pretty perfect weekend.
In the increasingly commoditized era of festivals, in which attendance nods towards status symbolism, it is immensely reassuring to know that a festival like Farr exists. Curated by music lovers for music lovers, it is everything a festival can and should be; a manageable, picturesque, liberating retreat for people - young and old - wanting to escape for a barnstormer of a weekend, and somewhere I already can’t wait to revisit.
The gang’s weekend picks:
Dreamcast- Liquid Deep (Chuggy)
LCD Soundsystem- Get Innocuous (Moscoman)
Oscar Sulley & The Uhuru Dance Band- Bukom Mashie (Honey Dijon)
Eri Ohno – Skyfire (Sadar Bahar)
Donna Summer - Spring Affair (Brudenell Groove)
Stetsasonic- Talkin’ All That Jazz (Grilled Cheese Van)
Ralph McDonald- The Path (Brilliant Corners)
Affinity- All Along the Watchtower (Brilliant Corners)
Artwork- Red (Willow)
Objekt- Theme From Q (Craig Richards)
Software- Island Sunrise (Brilliant Corners)
Rhemi ft. Hanlei- Diamond (Tama Sumo)
African Suite- Vibes (Sadar Bahar)
Jorge Ben- Charles Junior (Floating Points)
The Rah Band- Messages from the Stars (Cedric Woo)
Payfone- Quarantine (Brilliant Corners)
Waajeed- Better Late than Never (Tama Sumo)
Photo courtesy of Oscar Smith