Houghton Festival 2023 Returns to Unite the Ravers

Houghton Festival‘s long battle against the elements has been well documented and is now firmly part of the event’s DNA. In 2022, the festival returned after three successive years of cancellations – initially due to dangerous weather conditions, and then subsequent years due to the pandemic. What we witnessed upon its comeback was an outpour of love and relief like no other, as they finally defied the odds and put on a show that celebrated all corners of electronic music, providing an unrivalled festival experience. Such was its success, we left feeling as though such magic could never be replicated. This year’s edition however, proved us wrong in so many ways.  

Now, if you believed what you read in the news, then your opinion on Houghton might well differ from those who attended the festival. When we returned and finally had phone signal again, we saw that the Princess of Wales was across every news outlet, noting her attendance. The Daily Mail even went as far as calling Houghton an ‘upper-class festival’, a statement that would certainly be rebuked by many of those attending. In fact, given the event’s unique 24-hour licence that allows music to be played non-stop throughout the weekend, Houghton attracted genuine ravers of all ages. That’s one of the aspects that made the festival so enjoyable, everyone you met was friendly, respectful and ultimately there for one thing – to revel within the wonders of underground dance music. 

2023’s edition saw Houghton expand their sonic platform further than ever before, with over 60 artists making their debut at the festival, including the likes of Josey Rebelle, Yu Su, and Donoto Dozzy. There was also a notable difference within their measured programming approach. Some of the bigger names on the lineup who last year would have played the main stage this time around played the more intimate stages in the woods. The likes of Ben UFO and … played special closing sets at Earthling and Outburst, with crowds 360 degrees around them, the setup made for an unparalleled connection between DJ and crowd. 

The festival site played host to 13 stages – as well as a wellness area called The Orchard – each carefully curated by veteran DJ and long-term Fabric resident, Craig Richards. Set in the idyllic grounds of Houghton Hall, the opening Thursday night was spent reassessing the site and working out what had changed. The first noticeable difference was at The Warehouse, the festival’s sweaty, indoor club stage. This year they collaborated with … to create some mesmerising visuals, which offered the chance for every artist to stand out with a unique A/V display. 

The tantrum stage, which was built out of cargo containers, played host to some of the harder hitting sounds of electro, ebm, and techno. This year it almost halved in size, making for a more intimate experience. It also inherited the warehouse stages previous visual display, which consisted of synced VCR televisions, which complimented the DIY aesthetic of the space. The Derren Smart stage placed more focus on live acts, shrinking the booth to what became a large window, whilst a large space laid vacant in between performances. Despite it essentially being the mainstage, it was the one space that lacked a visual identity and similarly to the pavilion stage, the raised booth created a disconnect between with dancers, who found more immersive experiences elsewhere. 

Friday’s programming schedule made it difficult to leave the Outburst stage. With the booth built around a massive oak tree, on the outskirts of the forest, the space was the go-to area for left-field dance music. It was the perfect destination for revellers that wanted to bask in the weird and wonderful, or equally for those searching for something new. … DJ Yu Su impressed with a down-tempo, trippy set that offered the perfect soundtrack for a 4pm start. The creative pairing of Lena Willikens and Vladimir Ivkovic followed, who have amassed years of experience playing together, with their chemistry elevating their back to back set. From the offset they kept the crowd on their toes with a series of off-kilter selections and experimenting with pitching down faster records, in what proved to be an epic three hour journey. Ivan Smagghe followed with a trippy set which received a surprising encore at the Terminus secret stage where he played alongside Manfredas under their Dresden alias. Simply put, it was music to get lost in and went against the increasingly common consensus that faster equals better, instead sticking to the 120’s BPM.  

Saturday saw clashes between some of Houghton’s most in demand names which proved to be a headache. Once again the Outburst stage was a hive of activity, with veteran German DJ Roman Flugel delivering a touch of techno to the area, whilst Red Axes shone bright with a set that traversed indie-dance and psych rock, which included an array of their own hits. Elsewhere, like all weekend, the Earthling stage was packed for Call Super who’s rendition of Sharpside’s ‘Space Cruising’ led to a moment of pure euphoria. Ben UFO followed to close out the stage in style with a set that encompassed his renowned UK bass and breakbeat sound. At Tantrum, the programming was scheduled on point, with a night of pure electro. DJ Stingray313 pulled no punches and delivered a set that was synonymous with his Detroit home. Kittin & The Hacker played an unmissable live set that ventured through their 20 year back catalogue. The crowd eagerly awaited their performance of hit single ‘Frank Sinatra’ and it proved to be a highlight of the night. Helena Hauff was scheduled to close out the stage, however due to travel issues she couldn’t make it, which put on a dampener on a fantastic night. 

I entered Sunday with low expectations, with many artists I had earmarked to see having already performed. However, that offered a sense of freedom to explore, without the constraints of worrying who you might miss. Hessle Audio’s Pangea impressed at the Derren Smart stage with another heavy UK bass and breakbeat infused set, a moment that lives long in the memory is when he played Wost’s ‘Calentura Vaginal’, which brought to light just how varied the artist’s taste was. However, it was at Earthling where the festival came to an emphatic close. I had never seen Spanish DJ John Talabot before but had heard plenty of good things. The set proved to be one of the best of the weekend, with the artist showing endless finesse, never putting a foot wrong and keeping the crowd on strings throughout. Whatever energy revellers had left after a relentless few days were exhausted to the fullest across three hours where Talabot delivered pure psychedelia. He closed out his set with Versa Style’s breakbeat track ‘Keep The Peace’ – which expertly samples Tracy Chapman – which was the perfect emotional way to end a crazy few days. It led to hundreds of people searching across the internet for the track – which is unavailable digitally – in a sign of just how good Talabot’s ear is for unexplored tracks. 

The last two editions of Houghton festival have set the bar high for others to follow, but with its 24 hour licence, the event feels in a league of its own right now. It’s a unique experience that’s unlike anything else on the UK festival calendar and its exhausting nature brings the best people to the Norfolk site. Credit has to go to Craig Richards and the team who expertly curated four days worth of top quality music. It should be stated that there was more than just dance music at the event, with Pinters offering a stage for Jazz and ambient sets, whilst the sculpture garden once again proved to be a hit. 2023 saw the event unveil a new sculpture dedicated to the late Andrew Weatherall who had such an impact on the electronic scene, which was a beautiful mark of respect from Houghton. With tickets already on sale for next years edition, we can’t wait to see what they bring in 2024.

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Words: Jake Wright
Photography: Khroma Collective