Review: Varkala Festival 2016
Do you remember your first beat match? That small moment of clarity when you simultaneously celebrate this initial achievement and begin to understand its future potential with all its myriad complexities is a peculiar metaphor that came to mind and remained a constant throughout my experience with the inaugural Varkala. Long story short, get the basics down and it all will fit into place over time with practice right? No matter how large or small, inevitably it’s these simplicities that will be remembered and judged upon – for better or for worse.
In essence, Varkala’s debut promised hassle-free musical indulgence with a finely-curated lineup a mere hour outside of London. Looking at the artist selection beforehand was equal-parts intriguing and refreshing. Intriguing in its cast of characters: everyone’s favourite Italian eccentric Mr Ties; The Hague originator Intergalactic Gary; flawless funk selector Red Greg et al. Refreshing in its impressive rejection of headline acts… let me just be clear right now in saying that this was not an issue of quality. It’s just that I’d never seen a flyer without one or a few names emblazoned right there, front-centre for everyone to see and think ‘Yeah, they must be good because they’re right at the top and have their own logo’. This was a forward-thinking lineup that championed ability over status and music over pretence. We were in good hands and we weren’t even there yet.
So for the first time ever in my Festitravels™ I found myself in a state of under- rather than over-estimation on the train towards Park View Farm. This was a festival with a point to prove and groundwork to lay for sure; a blank canvas upon which we could paint well, pretty much whatever we chose to over the course of a wonderfully sunny weekend. By Sunday evening there was nothing small or momental about my own satisfaction after a thoroughly entertaining and professional excursion indeed.
Back to those small moments, which were no more pronounced than within the grasp of the DJs. Whether it was Daisy Moon shaking her head at what she thought was a bad mix into Loft classic ‘Is It All Over My Face’ during her b2b with Danielle – it was nothing, we’re all our own worst enemy! – or Andy Blake giving the platter a good ‘ol nudge in the right direction with both records fully in the mix, or Cooking With Sherry nursing a tinnie whilst warming up the crowd at 4 in the afternoon with tunes like Kiki Gyan’s ‘Disco Dancer’ – this retention of a raw-DIY aesthetic with a familial warmth was a surefire sign that Varkala was heading in the right direction. Similarly, I had as much fun getting down to a golden-era jungle mix on someone’s iPod from the comfort of an outdoor sofa next to the bar as I did at any other point across the weekend. A series of high points; this is what happens when a festival demands the bare minimum from its citizens. The freedom to be able to just set up camp and dive in at my own pace, without the usual merry-go-round, the queueing, the agro, was just bliss. Leisure has rarely felt this good.
With the schedule for each night running til only 11pm, this was a festival with party at its heart yet caution in the mind – a smart move considering that Varkala had a site transfer from Essex’s Hill Farm a mere few weeks before due to licensing issues. Above board remained a common theme throughout and rightly so, going back to the point-to-prove mentality. This made it even more enjoyable as the cracks began to appear, particularly when the Technics were whipped out at the bar after-hours for a b2b2b2b2b session that kept the ears aurally satisfied post-program and the heads well, hedonistic. This was the perfect marriage of festival excess and lawful pragmatism; logistical progression within safe parameters from the ground up partnered with healthy doses of carefree abandon.
And logistically-speaking, Varkala could not be faulted. Space to set up camp and shake a leg on the dance-floor – yep. Enough toilets per person – check. Reasonably-priced bar – double check (£3 Bloody Mary’s anyone?). A simply compiled list you say, but these are elements that have been alarmingly lacking of reason times. You only have to look towards a handful of supposedly established institutions that have fallen way below the standards you’d expect as a paying customer, particularly in 2016, to be able to appreciate those times when a festival just gets it right. We want a bar and food stall with a monopoly on satiation to, you know, not overcharge us, or not require us to queue an unreasonable amount of time at our own expense. The people’s voice is not to be underestimated and inherently speaks for itself – a cursory glance at Varkala’s sign-off on social media tells its own story, one of overwhelming positivity and a stark contrast to that of say Found or 51st State. Whilst theirs have become more apologetic (read damage control) over time, Varkala’s collective voice will continue to grow with each passing year without a doubt.
What the 200-odd revellers will take from Varkala is an emotional longevity. Its comparative sparsity to your usual was counteracted by lovingly-crafted stage design and a wonderful simplicity that is mostly lost with other larger-scale events. Its popularity will be defined by an emotional rather than physical richness; its seemingly skeletal sum of parts came together in perfect harmony for a fleeting summer’s weekend. Varkala’s debut was an excellent foundation to what is hopefully a party that lasts a generation. And yes, my legs are still a bit pink. When the vibes are this good, it’s worth it.
Photography by Aaron Joll. View the full gallery here.