Six Essentials: 51st State 2016
2016 hasn’t exactly been a vintage year for London day festivals. With numerous issues blighting established institutions such as Found and Field Day, you wouldn’t hold it against your average vibe-seeker for becoming something of a cynic. Yet 51st State sold out months before only it’s second instalment this August; its potent mixture of homegrown funk, classic house, nostalgic garage and a warm, diverse, happy-go-lucky crowd – all presided over by uncharacteristically Hollywood weather – is on paper a foolproof culmination and celebration of everything good that London summertime has to offer.
Sadly, a cursory glance at the festival’s Facebook page tells its own story, one dominated by overwhelming frustration and anger – certainly not the ‘guy gets girl’ ending both punters and organisers would have hoped for. The biggest culprit? The unending queues to buy drinks tokens which lasted upto an hour each time, and nowhere worse than in the misnamed VIP area which was in truth a pretty poor excuse for a stage with terrible sound and an altogether false economy. Lack of bar staff across the site was blatantly obvious, and many of those who were working appeared to be fresh out of school, often painfully slow and at times inept. This left an overwhelmingly bad taste in the mouth of many punters, compounded by the fact that a single token (i.e. one 440ml can of Strongbow) cost a pretty steep £6.
Nevertheless, after the dust settles.. what’s left but the music? Omnipresent and inherently non-judgemental, it is that which brought us all together on this balmy summer’s day. And in this respect, in spite of all the drama that threatens to consume it, we have some musical memories to take away that will last our lifetime. And some which were just downright f***ing vibey. From Back to Life to Days Like This, here are our 51st State 2016 sunshine essentials, compiled into a handy playlist.
Atlantic Starr – Circles (Horse Meat Disco – VIP: Studio 51)
The sun was beating down, the party was in full flow and Horse Meat Disco were on one, rolling out tune after tune with apparent ease to a rapturous VIP area (those that weren’t queueing for drinks anyway…) – this being our pick of the bunch from one of New York’s finest ensemble groups from the ’80s, Atlantic Starr. It’s a shame we were mostly out of earshot having decided to catch Bar Tokens b2b Bar Area for their hour-long set a stone’s throw away instead.
Soul II Soul – Back To Life (Soul II Soul – Main Stage)
What an absolute pleasure it was to catch arguably one of London’s finest musical exports live on the Main Stage. Jazzie B, Caron Wheeler et al moved effortlessly through a host of classics including Keep On Moving and Holdin’ On, but inevitably there could have only been one showstopper. Goosebumps were guaranteed and this was a moment in time to remember for a seminal track that is nearly a staggering three decades old.
Thelma Houston – I’m Here Again (Danny Krivit Edit) (Joe Claussell, Body & Soul – Groove Odyssey)
Walking into the half-full Groove Odyssey tent just as the illustrious trio of Francois K, Danny Krivit and Joaquin “Joe” Claussell took to the decks as Body & Soul, you might have thought the scene looked a little stilted as the three now middle-aged men stood hunched awkwardly around the stage’s centerpiece, a rotary mixer. And for the first 15 minutes, as the New York triumvirate mixed tentatively through upbeat house tracks, one for one, it did feel like they were still getting comfortable with the setup, and each other. Joe Claussell quickly emerged as the most effective of the three, dropping a clamorous conga workout that sparked some fire into the crowd. For his next track, cool as a cucumber and with a razor sharp cut of which a turntablist would be proud, he dropped this beauty from out of absolutely nowhere – simultaneously paying homage to and showing up his mixing partner. All this was compounded by the explosive reaction of a big group of beaming Italian tourists, all kitted out in Body & Soul t-shirts, who proceeded to jump around in pure ecstasy.
Alison Limerick – Where Love Lives (David Morales – Kings of House, Main Stage)
US garage house at its finest, sung by a British jewel, and written and produced by a Swedish mastermind in the shape of Lati Kronlund of Brooklyn Funk Essentials fame; quite the continental concoction. ‘Where Love Lives’ is aspirational, sexy and indicative of the good vibes that were flowing freely between the US and UK in the early ‘90s. These days a track like this, which first hit clubs back in ’91 and eventually made it all the way to #3 in the US charts, might border on cheesy for people of my generation who didn’t necessarily experience it first hand. A track like this might sooner conjure up images of a commercial for the latest Ministry of Sound “House Classics” compilation, than it would of debauchery within the glossy environs of a downtown New York club. But with its air-tight groove, that irresistible Latin piano melody, and a plodding baseline that just don’t quit, it’s timeless and still an absolute weapon on a sunny afternoon in the park.
Crystal Waters – Gypsy Woman (Crystal Waters – Back To 95)
Live PA’s seem to be a bit of a dying breed in any club that isn’t The Coronet these days, so it’s certainly notable that Crystal Waters was given the special treatment on this sunny day to perform her 1991 classic to a packed out Back to 95 tent. It’s perhaps even more notable given that she’s actually much less of a one-hit wonder than most people realise (‘100% Pure Love’ reached #11 in the Billboard charts shortly after in 1994). But there’s no doubting the reverberations the Philly singer has had on house music around the globe with her bitter-sweet social commentary on ‘Gypsy Woman’, and as Todd Edwards played his final tune and she emerged from the wings, a monumental roar arose that echoed the significance this track still holds for so many seasoned ravers. Her deep and powerful voice even seemed to ring true to the original recording of 25 years before and that, combined with one of the most memorable chorus lines in dance music history, aided a bloody good singalong for the best part of the five minutes she was on stage. But in truth, PA’s are always pretty strange things and her swift exit after the extended backing track came to an end rendered the crowd momentarily satisfied and then seemingly a little bemused. Still, no time to hang around as Norris ‘Da Boss’ Windross quickly took over proceedings. Though Soul II Soul’s delayed arrival meant we missed Spen, Karizma and Teddy Douglas’ DJ set as The Basement Boys, we were at least able to rep the Baltimore collective here in witnessing a live rendition of one of their greatest achievements (and they had a few).
Shaun Escoffery – Days Like This (Spinna & Ticklah Remix) (Norris Da Boss Windross – Back To 95)
And lastly, a Southport Weekender classic. A true embodiment of 51st State’s transatlantic core ethos – from London to Brooklyn, R&B to house, this tune fuses styles and gets feet moving without fail every single time. And what about Escoffery’s unforgettable vocal… just made for the sunshine. Trust that man again Norris Da Boss Windross to give it the play and euphoria it was inevitably going to receive, and an entertaining sight it was indeed to see MC Creed of ‘Duppy’ fame on toast duties during this and for much of Back To 95’s run-time.
Image credits: Marc Sethi