Last year something pretty special happened amongst the rolling hills and enchanting woodland of Devon. For one weekend five-hundred people gathered for the debut of Virgo Festival: an intimate party held in one Devon’s most historical estates, that sought to showcase some top quality underground sounds and redefine the festival experience as a way of escapism. Understandably there were a few minor hiccups but overall it was a roaring success and, for many, one of the big highlights of 2015.
So, it was with great excitement that Stamp The Wax headed down to Dunsford, Exeter to see what the people behind Virgo had in store for us this year.
The Bank holiday traffic made for an agonising journey down to Exeter, but driving through the stunning southwest countryside made it instantly worthwhile. The festival is so well concealed that, when cruising through the winding country roads to the site entrance, you would never have known such a thing was taking place. Once you pass through the estate gateway, a dusty track suddenly opens out into a stunning rural panorama. In the distance is an 800 year-old mansion overlooking the lake, and just a couple fields ahead the pointillist blotches of a small campsite can be seen. To Virgo’s merit, the distance from the campsite to the music stages is barely a two-minute walk (albeit considerably longer come 3am) and is a welcome change from the 40-minute expeditions of other larger festivals.
Fast-rising London outfit Desert Sound Colony performed a set of hazed-out post-rock ambience, matching the weekend heatwave perfectly. Frontman Liam Wachs stood in shorts and bare-foot just a couple meters away from the crowd, singing and strumming, as people swayed dreamily to a mix of material, from their Scissor & Thread debut to their recently released Signals EP.
Up in The Jam – an enchanting walled garden located up some winding stone cobbled steps – Ishmael and Ela 303 warmed up nicely for Mahogani big-hitter Dan Shake with sweet funk and disco, as the crowd finished off their hellos and catch-up chat. Dan Shake took things right down with Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’, Ross’ sultry intro the perfect cleanser before ramping things up with a mix into Kenny Dope’s classic ‘The Bomb’. Pull-back moments were expertly managed with tracks like The Revenge’s edit of McCrae’s ‘Keep the Fire Burning, before heading into more pumping Kerri-type stuff.
I took the opportunity to head into the mansion room, named Ground Control, where tidy cuts of DnB were rolling out of the doorway. It’s been a long time since I had a good skank and the quality of DnB music over the weekend was really excellent. It can always be a bit risky putting on such contrasting stages but at Virgo it worked well, offering frequent respite from the straight 4×4 that featured at the other stages. Smooth liquid type-stuff to Source Direct, LTJ Bukem, and newer Ivy Lab kept things rolling until close, with the crowd chanting ‘Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!’ during the last hour of Charlie Ramsay’s set.
Up in The Jam, Jacques Adda had the floor in a trance with his proggy, psychedelic selections. There’s always something so engaging about Adda’s sets, with stonkers like the Eightball cult classic ‘All The Same Family’ getting the whole crowd grooving. Adda set the vibe just right for Uruguayan native Nicholas Lutz to take over, one of the most highly anticipated sets of the weekend. Lutz’s presence at the decks is instantly noticeable, where he swiftly took the reigns to lay down grooving tech house and minimal. Lutz is a master mixer, and despite the crowd slowly filtering down into the Saratonga tent, kept things pumping until the 2am close.
The festival had piled into the Saratonga stage for good reason. The Audiofarm DJs were killing it, gliding through deep house groovers to rolling progressive house to hands-in-the-air anthems. The tent was exploding with energy and was a contender for one of the best sets of the weekend. As the music came to a close, it became clear that everyone wasn’t done yet, with the majority of the festival carrying on the fun back at the campsite far, far into the morning.
We were blessed with more stunning weather on the final day. Sound chap and all-out national treasure Bill Brewster played his second set of the festival in the afternoon. As always it was all pure feel-good vibes, with big fat smiles all-round in the garden. Hot Toddy’s remix of ‘Back Again’ went down exceedingly well.
People eased into the afternoon with a Reiki healing session from Archie Brun, while those that wanted to explore all Virgo’s non-musical delights could take part in yoga sessions overlooking the lake, or a cacao ceremony. While I’m at it, the food and drink at the festival was spot on, whether it was at the Kabila Chai Café, Limonade Maté, or falafel wraps. If you fancied a smoothie, all you had to do was hop on a bike-powered blender for a couple minutes.
Psychemagik guided The Jam into early evening with on-point selections of synthy disco house and chugging progressive. Bicep’s ‘Just’ was perfectly timed and one of the most memorable moments from the weekend. However, things got even more heated with Hunee, who turned out a pretty flawless set that meandered through more straightforward Detroit house, to Chicago, acid, salsa, techno/rave (Vamp – ‘Outlander’), disco (Tom Maia – ‘Acenda O Farol’), and euphoric electronica bliss (Haveck – ‘Computer Incantations’). It was a real musical journey and it was great to see Hunee having such a great time himself.
The Jam kept on giving, with a stormer of a set from Aidy West. The affable man behind Vinyl Underground laid down some really slick selections, taking things deeper after Hunee’s set. Tracks from the Memoria catalogue as well as some rolling tech house bits kept the fire going. Closing off The Jam for the final night were residents from the newly established KMAH radio. The guys threw a curveball, opting for smart, headsy cuts of garage and 2-step, which was really refreshing to dance to – the bouncing crowd seemed to love it too.
Leftfield sound explorers Greta Cottage Workshop united for a rare label take-over at the Saratonga stage, with Paxton Fettel and Mudkid also flying over for a mega b2b2b2b session that began at 7pm and lasted until just gone 5am. Perhaps the most eclectic set from the weekend, the GCW guys worked together seamlessly, moulding the mood to fever pitch for the last couple of hours. Problems with the sound levels (an on-going battle that ultimately Winkles I think won) meant that the volume was turned down quietly several times, however whacking the faders back up actually worked to their advantage as the crowd screamed for more. Winkles went into smouldering electro-house, a suspenseful build-up that brought things inward before ending finally on ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ – what’s even more brilliant, the vinyl was even shaped as a teddy bear.
While Virgo’s first edition felt like a (rather extravagant) private party, this year was a lot more professional. Despite the slight up-scaling and more refined organisation however, they still managed to maintain the very same magic that made Virgo’s first chapter so damn wonderful.
It’s pretty clear that following last year the organisers carefully debriefed and made improvements on pretty much every aspect of the festival, from festival amenities, to stage layouts and day-time activities. What’s remained constant is a real keen eye for music curation and an amazing vibe. Although only in its second year, I’m comfortable in saying that Virgo now sits comfortably as an annual mainstay in the festival calendar. Here’s to 2017!