It's hard to know what to expect with a festival in the South of England. I'd spoken to a handful of people on the subject before heading to The Social Festival and horror stories were aplenty; these were not directed at The Social Festival itself, but more the UK festival scene there as a whole. Hearing rumors of money-hungry tactics from some of the bigger operations in the region didn't leave me feeling overly optimistic upon arrival. However, with Nic Fanciulli and a team of obvious music lovers at The Social Festival’s helm—and now with four years in operation—any preconceived notions had to be quashed.
The decision to hold the festival in Maidstone, Kent, was an interesting one. At face value, it seemed like it was quite out of the way—it’s half-an-hour's drive from Gatwick airport, with limited outside options and amenities available. Although beautiful, the isolated location did present obvious transportation issues, mostly in and out of the festival. Being situated outside of London, however, did allow the festival to really push its most valuable asset: the sound. Much has been said of the sound restrictions placed on the city-based festivals—and this in an area where Social Festival really stood out with its towering, finely-tuned Funktion-One stacks.
Arriving at 3pm on the festival’s first day, Friday, it was immediately apparent that attendance was low, which wasn’t really surprising given it was a regular working day. With reduced options—only three of the five stages were in operation—much of the typical stage-to-stage running around was taken out of the equation. At The Meadows stage, Paranoid London slammed out live, jacking acid house to a modest crowd; while over at The Barn, Nastia was finishing up an hour-and-a-half’s worth of surprisingly hard grooves. Fuse’s Enzo Siragusa followed on from Nastia with slightly more stripped-back selections, although, he too was playing with a harder edge to his sound; a noticeable trend heard throughout the festival.
Back at the Meadows, the crowd was starting to swell as Paul Kalkbrenner laid down his brand of accessible party techno. Although the crowd was still quite young at this point, tracks from Kalkbrenner’s 2008 film and album Berlin Calling garnered the biggest response—which attests to the cult following the film and its subsequent album has afforded Kalkbrenner. Festival host Nic Fanciulli stepped up next, weaving cut after cut of groovy tech to the now heaving horde. There was an undeniable wave of anticipation moving through the crowd at this stage; and for good reason, Sasha and Digweed were prepping to play their first announced B2B in eight years.
In regards to festival highlights and general unbridled hysteria, it was hard to go past the return of Sasha and Digweed. The duo stepped up to what was probably the biggest crowd of the weekend; placing them on Friday night was a smart scheduling decision to ensure that punters would make their way to the event straight after work to catch the reunion. With a warehouse full of salivating ravers at their disposal, the pair stood behind a huge deep blue screen, their shadows hypnotically moving along with the driving tunes emanating out of the enormous Funktion-One stacks—a perfectly in-sync combination of melodic steamrollers and deep atmospheres.
It’s safe to say that by the end of the set, everyone in attendance was spent. Day one, although slow to start, ended on a huge high with the only real downfall being the excruciating wait for transport to get out of the festival.
Saturday, the second and final day of the festival, was scheduled to be the bigger day. For one, it was a weekend, so festival goers poured in as soon as the gates were open. Two more stages were also opened up: the tree-lined The Stables, featuring Gerd Janson, Mind Against, and Bicep; and the drum & bass headquarters with Goldie, High Contrast, and LTJ Bukem.
The first point of call was The Stables, arguably the standout stage during the day. Situated amongst flowing green trees, with another delicious Funktion-One stack providing the sound, the stage was the festival’s most intimate and vibe-filled. Gerd Janson, as always, was on fine form: the Running Back boss stitched together hard-edged hybrid cuts in a set that moved through techno, house, and groove-filled disco. After his scheduled solo slot, Janson kicked off a run of two B2B sessions, starting with Janson and Jasper James and moving into Jasper James and festival host Nic Fanciulli, who stepped in at the end of James’ set to cover for latecomers Monkey Safari.
Besides the transportation issues mentioned earlier—which, to be fair, is an issue at nearly every festival I’ve ever attended—the only area where Social Festival may have improved was its musical diversity. Besides the drum & bass arena, each stage was interchangeable and featured exclusively 4x4 beats. This, of course, isn’t a deal breaker—especially given the party atmosphere of the festival—but it would have been a nice touch to throw a few curveballs into the mix.
As time moved on and the festival started to draw its last breaths, it was time for the big wigs to strut their stuff. This time, on the two main stages, it would be Carl Cox, Laurent Garnier, and Nic Fanciulli closing proceedings—and as usual, all three delivered in spades. At The Meadows, Cox and Fanciulli went B2B, complementing each other's styles with rolling, party-focused beats. Both artists swung fluently between their respective laptops and the shared mixer, grinning from ear to ear as the crowd lapped up every last minute. Laurent Garnier took charge of the final stages of The Barn, laying down his eclectic techno to the zealous dancers. As the final track rang out, rapturous applause and screaming followed, the crowd begging Garnier for one more track—a symbolic tip of the hat to one of the best sets of the festival.
All in all, The Social Festival was a resounding success: it managed to maintain an intimate and welcoming vibe rarely found at a festival of that size, with unparalleled sound and an up-for-it crowd. Although there could have been a little more variety on the lineup, The Social Festival is definitely a festival to mark on your calendar.
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