A long time ago Freerotation festival was born out of a free rave that was started by Steevio and his friends in a remote location in Wales. It’s now one of the most renowned dance music events in the world, but if you ever speak to Steevio about throwing parties he always wistfully recounts the early days: less people, less rules, less fuss, and a oneness that can only be achieved when all the attendees are focussed in one room dancing to the same beat all weekend. Almost as if things have come full circle, there is a small barn in Abergavenny, a short drive from the Freerotation site at Baskerville Hall, which has seen a number of small, intimate gatherings spring up that invoke the same Welsh free party spirit.
The first to stick its neck out in more of a festival format is Headroom, a beautifully curated 250 cap party, headed up by Jess Farley of Rhythm Sister and Ell Weston of Banoffee Pies. From a no cigarette litter plea that was actually respected, to an absence of security that put trust in the character of people attending, to attentive volunteers who had the presence of mind to care for a DJ in a vulnerable mid-set moment, they got the small decisions right to serve up its inaugural edition with all the key ingredients in perfect balance. The dome they installed near one of the four picturesque lakes that occupy the site was homely and spacious, giving the perfect environment for both dancing and contemplation, whether that was shuffling about to Dr Banana’s rare UKG digs, or melting into a beanbag as you drift off to an ambient set at 9am. Inside the barn, the set up was simple but effective; a boxed in dancefloor and low ceiling naturally lent itself to great acoustics, and since it was busy from early on on both nights, it gave DJs the platform to play with freedom and enthusiasm. The musical variety on offer was as refreshing as it was invigorating; Angel D’Lite was dropping high octane bangers that peaked with Sandstorm at not even 11pm, Anina raced through energetic jungle selections early in the night, and Jake Hodgkinson laid down a seamless and groovy selection of tech house rollers, not to mention the wild live hip-hop set in the Dome from How Du. These were just a few of the musical highlights that stood out, but here are our picks of the best sets and favourite tracks (at the bottom) that we heard over the weekend.
Leeds based collective Equaliser have DJs for every occasion and on this one the brief was to play the last set of the weekend in the ambient space between 6 and 10am. Collective members Zoe Pea and TamTam tapped into the intimate surroundings by engaging with their audience rather than let everyone zone out, and it led to one of the most entertaining mornings imaginable; not least thanks to the energy oozing from the Equalisers as they laughed and joked about in between songs, offering people wine and cups of tea. Aside from playing deep drone and soothing downtempo grooves, there were singalongs for anthems such as Saada Bonaire’s ‘More Women’, and shout outs for the crowd. At one point TamTam lowered the fader and exclaimed “everyone hug someone!” prompting everyone left in the Dome to find themselves wrapped in a warm embrace. If there was any set which summed up the cosy, familial and downright silly atmosphere that made Headroom so special, it was this one.
Anyone who starts a set with ‘Bootylicious’ right after Gwenan has to have nerves of steel, but you have to be even more foolhardy to end the same one with ‘Old Town Road’. Thankfully for Headroom, Wisdom Teeth’s Facta does not give a fuck, and he provided two of the most memorable hours of the entire festival to finish proceedings on the final night. It was mostly an ode to UK sound system culture, with old breakbeat cuts mixed in with Kode9 tracks, before eventually jacking up the tempo and getting into a full on dubstep rinse out for the last hour, playing classics such as Martyn’s remix of ‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Left Leg Out’ by Digital Mystikz. The barn felt like a loose house party most of the weekend and Facta’s no nonsense selections really embodied this mentality, which all of the DJs tapped into so well.
Festival curator Jess Farley has been quietly making a name for herself as a super selector with collective Rhythm Sister and regular appearances at festivals like Love International and Kala. For someone who was running a festival, she seemed totally at ease, with a huge grin on her face as she raced through some energetic breakbeat, electro and ghetto slammers. Never looking phased she built the energy to a head by dropping Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ near the end of her set. Once her set was done, we descended back to the tiny campsite for a refuel and more drinks, there were various tents humming the hook to the pop anthem. Even the next day people were still humming it around the site, and probably still humming it now. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that we won’t be getting Jess’s little festival creation out of our heads anytime soon.
With everyone in the barn already raring to go from Jake Hodgkinson’s 90s tech house pumpers, it paved the way perfectly for K-Lone to jump on and keep the party rolling with a seamless selection of slinky broken beat grooves that eventually morphed into UK Garage bangers. Kicking off by cruising through lush selections including a prime cut from Leif, it provided the springboard for him to get into some slinky steppers from Phone Traxx and even creamier rollers from Box Clever. Once again the house party vibe was inescapable, with the crowd almost willing K-Lone to drop some even bigger anthems, which he did with Smith & Mighty’s ‘B Line Fi Blo’ prompting a raucous reception from the decidedly inebriated crowd in the barn.
Closing the barn on the last night was Siren affiliate OK Williams who showed everyone why she’s one of the most highly regarded DJs in London at the moment. With a remarkable ability to cut between wildly different genres in a matter of tracks, she swung through dubby house from DJ Sotofett via UK Garage by Templeton Peck into broken UK techno with ease. The later she went, the ravier she pushed, with hardcore and UK funky aplenty interspersed with more UKG and techno cuts from the likes of Pseudopolis. Despite having been grooving relentlessly for a good eight hours, the compact crowd responded accordingly, with each percussive hit prompting a louder shout from the willing dancers.
Soulstatejazz is a four-piece electronic hybrid jazz band made up of Tom Ellis, Mark Hand, Michiel Renger and Dave Dove. Taking to the Dome stage early on Saturday afternoon, everyone was still hazy and a little sore from a night of intense partying, but this was the perfect antithesis to ease weary heads. Slipping through jazz, downtempo and slow house beats, their groove was inescapable at all times, with group leader Tom Ellis putting his unmistakable sound on most of the tracks thanks to his killer basslines and synth work. Mark Hand and Michael Renger provided lucious jazz flair on the keys and sax respectively, whilst atmospheric sampling and FX came from Dave Dove. Festivals always seem to be missing more intimate sit down moments that cater for bands like Soulstatejazz, and this was proof that you don’t always need to be going for it when you’re having fun in a far flung field. It also emphasised the necessity of having such chill out areas that allow people to recover some mental space and steady themselves for any further partying.
Listen to a playlist of 50 tracks heard throughout the weekend. Join the Headroom 2020 group for info on next year’s edition.