From little things, big things grow: How The Social has become one of the most talked about UK festivals in two short years

Wow, The Social Festival was so much fun! Getting home on Sunday was also an adventure… ended up having to climb up the back balcony on the first floor because my housemate was listening to music with headphones on and didn’t hear me ringing the doorbell! Anyway, that’s a story for another time.

Friday was a travel day. I’d booked flights from Schiphol into Luton airport about 3 weeks prior and I was excited to fly again. A steady stream of travellers walked past me as I sat catching up with emails and urgent work jobs. The flight itself was non-eventful, the landing, however, was heavy… maybe the pilot had his eyes shut, I’m not sure but it shook us all up; thought we’d crashed. I arrived in Maidstone a few hours later after a really pleasant train journey through London.

I was struck by the beauty of the Kent countryside, an area I hadn’t previously seen. As we pulled into Gravesend, I could see Tilbury Fort across the expanse of the Thames, and boats marooned on sandbanks as the tide was out. A little later as my train pulled into Strood, you could see the mighty Rochester Castle in all it’s Norman glory. A permanent feature of the Kent landscape since the time of Henry the First, it’s now protected by English Heritage as a World Heritage site and I wondered how dance music might be remembered 100 or 1000 years from now or if clubs like the Ministry of Sound might attain such protection or historical significance.

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My hotel was a welcomed sight after hours of travel and after I’d recharged my phone (and myself) I thought I’d get a taxi over to the festival site in the grounds of the Kent County Showgrounds. Taxi’s were a little scarce at 4pm on a Friday afternoon in Maidstone so I settled in for the 45-minute wait. Sat outside the taxi office were two likely lads sharing a bottle of Lucozade.  I strike up a conversation; they’re also going to the festival so we decided to share their cab which arrives a lot sooner than mine! Inside the festival and I’m struck by how busy it is. I’ve spent all summer in Amsterdam attending two-day events, and I’m still surprised by the Friday turnouts.

The Social were also selling late entry tickets after 6pm, which I thought was pretty smart too; some bosses just don’t get it, right? a half day on a Friday doesn’t hurt now and again… Having DJed at a showground before (WestFest in Shepton Mallet 2009) I had a vague idea of how the layout would look, and given the penchant for British weather to be typically moist, using purpose-built warehouses was inspired, however after spending a few hours in “The Barn” some air conditioning would have been very welcome.

My first port of call after meeting the backroom staff and collecting my drinks vouchers was Andrew Weatherall who was playing the main stage interestingly called “The Meadow”. Believe it or not, I’ve never heard him DJ… And boy, have I been missing out! Disco basslines melted into fierce synths and energetic percussion as Mr Weatherall took us a marvellous sonic journey. After a good 40 minutes of dancing, I moved over to catch an old mate. I’ve known and followed Eats Everything since we were both young lads in Bristol.

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Ever joyful, he greets me with an ear to ear smile as I stepped up on stage to say hello – we haven’t spoken in a while due to our work commitments, so it was brilliant to have five minutes. As per usual, he slays the room which is now about half full. I don’t stay too long, Paul Kalkbrenner is next door and he’s another DJ I’ve never seen, I also wanted to catch Sian Bennett, Lauren Lo Sung’s business partner at e1even records. Choices!

On my way to Paul, I bump into some old friends, Lydia and Rob. We hang out for the rest of the evening catching up, chatting to DJs backstage and having a few drinks. Then Sasha and John arrive and the backstage area goes into meltdown! There aren’t many DJs who attain the level of super stardom these two pioneers have and it’s great to see them early for the gig meeting fans and catching up with their friends. I notice Nick Muir, Nick Warren and his lovely partner, and a host of London faces all gathering around. By the time 9pm rolls around and the duo head off to play, we’re all giddy with excitement.

In the main arena, a large curtain has been drawn across the stage to hide the DJs. A beam of light from behind them projects an image onto the curtain; metaphysically they become larger than life (we all expect the curtain to drop at some point to huge cheers, but that never happens – it’s about the music, not the DJs we discover). Sasha starts the first track, my neck hair instantly stands on end and I turn to Lydia with a massive grin, it’s an ambient re-working of the first track from their ground-breaking 1994 mix album Northern Exposure 1 – Satellite Serenade by Kenichi Suzuki – David Attenborough’s voice bellows into the packed room to rapturous applause, whoops and cheers. People have travelled from all over the world to see this one-off performance; the first time the pair have played together in 8 years (MoS gig notwithstanding), the energy and love in the room was tangible. We settle in for a once in a lifetime experience.

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Keeping the vibe deep, tribal and timeless, the dynamic duo marry new and old sounds with consummate ease. I notice many tracks from over years listening to their sets and I get the sense this will be, for want of a better term, a 3-hour best of progressive house mix. The air was filled with anthems: Underworld’s Dark and Long, Sasha’s new one – Trigonometry and Rabbit on the Moons epic Out of Body Experience had us in raptures! Like master puppeteers, the duo playfully teased the crowd until the final hour where they let loose with an almighty onslaught of powerful progressive gems; Delta Lady – Anything You Want (released on Hard Hands in 1993) got a massive cheer, which surprises me because at least half of the crowd weren’t born when it came out! As the set reached it’s tearful and epic conclusion, John and Sasha stepped from behind the curtain to greet the crowd and show their appreciation. They hung around for some pictures before leaving to a still packed room. Day One was over and it’s been an overwhelming success.

Morning comes way too early. Woozy from having too much of a good time the day before, I drag myself up and into the shower. I need to be on site bright and early to catch up with a new DJ friend and someone I see a big musical future for. Taxi’s are scarce again, no-ones clocked in yet but to be fair, it is only 10.30 in the morning and they probably didn’t finish until 3 or 4am. A smartly dressed couple approach the taxi office and ask for transport to the festival, “Jump in with me!” I say. The cab ride lasts about 10 minutes and by the time we arrive at the festival we are already well acquainted. He’s a property developer from Sweden and his wife is a retired consultant.

We wax lyrical about past experiences in London clubland and it’s great to meet two people still passionate about the scene now they’ve settled into middle-class married life. We arrive on site around 11.15 and there’s a queue forming in the paddock leading to the festival. For some reason, the security isn’t letting people through just yet and we carry on chatting as the queue grows ever more snake-like. 20 minutes pass effortlessly and with a cheer the security start allowing groups of 30 through to the main festival site.

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My festival liaison – Jake – meets me at the gate and I jump in his golf cart to be whisked away to the artist accreditation building for my passes. Greeting me there is the event manager, Jules. I’d met her the night before and we’d talked at length she tells me, I’m drawing a blank, I met so many people. I blame it on the cocktails and that her hair was in ponytails before… oops, I need another coffee! I head over to catch the last 40 minutes of Elliot Adamson’s set in the VIP area and sticking to water, for now, I really get into his patient deeper-edged house sound.

Having spent a number of hours with him the night before, it’s satisfying to see him doing well. For a playful 21-year-old, he has a wise head on his shoulders and a solid plan for continuing in the music business. I big things for him in the next 18 months, he’s already signed to Edible Records, has sets at Warehouse Project and In:Motion.

To my shame, I completely missed Tobias from Andhim’s set. Reports were good and a number of people came up to him afterwards with nothing but praise – next time guys, I promise. I was elsewhere with my new rave buddies Lydia and Luke hanging out with another of Lydia’s clients, Jon Rundell whom I found to be an intelligent, fiercely passionate and articulate man. Our conversation covered many topics and was one of my highlights that weekend. I look forward to speaking to him again. We parted company with him around 3pm, I wanted to check out Goldie in the drum n bass arena, another first.

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What I love the most about stepping outside of your normal musical comfort zone is how the music is taken by that crowd. In the case of DnB, it’s been my experience that the regular party goers are incredibly loyal to the DJs, accepting of everyone and really enjoy their time. The Social Festival was no different. The vibe in the DnB room was electric and as the Jungle rollers leap from the speakers they were gratefully received by the hungry audience. Then we heard Goldie do a rewind and the room went even crazier! After all this time, he is still a world-class DJ and fist bumping him on his way out was right up there with my favourite fanboy moments.

After rendezvousing back with Lydia and Luke backstage during the Patrick Topping/Richy Ahmed set who seem to be the crowds favourites that day so far. Lydia tells me how she and Patrick are school friends and how she’s so proud his career has gone so well. We wait post gig for Patricks driver (he has another gig in Vienna and is being taken straight to the airport) and the two catch up. A little emotional, we head over to catch the Pan-Pot set which turns out to be amazing and yet another first for me.

Back in the Meadow, Agoria’s set is coming to a climax and Solomun waits patiently to start his back to back with label mates Adriatque. The Diynamic team waste no time in asserting their hold over the room with a silky smooth display of melodic flavours a complete change from the tough techno rhythms of the previous guest. It’s welcome relief before the techno onslaught of a double helping of Carl Cox (ably assisted by Nic Fanciulli for the last 90 minutes). I was elsewhere again Dubfire and Laurent Garnier my choice of soundtrack now that my rave buddies had made a tactical early departure before their epic drive back to Newcastle the next day.

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Backstage, I meet up with Ashley Casselle who I joked was the ‘Morrissey of Dance Music’ much to his own amusement! Then a voice whispered in my ear “Awight mate?!” I turned to see Jim Rivers standing next to me! “What you doing here?” I ask, instantly remembering his hometown is Maidstone “I live here.” He confirms. We chat about old times when he lived in Bristol, his new music and my work with Global Underground and the magazine. In front of us, Laurent takes to the stage so we bid our goodbyes and focus on the music. I get a bit teary, to be honest, I’ve not seen Garnier DJ since 2003 and having asked him recently his plans for retirement, it’s unlikely I’ll catch him again. After Dubfire’s fairly linear minimalism, Garnier’s more worldly melodic sound made an instant impression in the sweatbox of the “The Barn” and epically concluded the second day of festival highs for this very satisfied music fan.

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Photo Credits: Luke Curtis & Ryan Dinham