LIVE: Naked City Festival 2021

There are lots of reasons why we enjoy festivals, but at its pagan core a festival is about uniting people. With a vibrant cocktail of South London sounds, that's precisely what Naked City Festival achieved this year.
Posted: 16 September 2021 Words: Dominic John

Naked City Festival, despite only being in its second year now (obviously being forced to skip last year), is very much set to be a staple on the London Festival scene. 

Compared to other London festivals, the festival is held in a fairly intimate space but transportive enough despite having just very much been in Zone 4 of the London. Unlike other festivals held in the capital, the site is surrounded by proper hills which allowed for perfect sight lines and sound separation, a hidden forest and picturesque surroundings. 

After recalibrating and adjusting to the various elevations, revellers started darting to one of the four stages that might be playing home to their favourite artist. At the core this is very much a festival for music lovers, although there was no judgement of those who were there to discover or escape. The music programming policy for this festival, according to event organisers the Krankbrother; deliberately steered away from the usual festival headliners, opting instead for acts that have cut their teeth on the South London live music scene as well as the best of the best on the DJ circuit. 

First on what seemed like everyone’s list was the legendary Mungo’s Hi-FI, represented on the decks on this occasion by founding member Doug Paine playing the Something Else stage, a stretch tent with an impressive sound system that did justice to the many dubplates he blessed us with. Top on the list was the groups 2020 collaboration with upcoming Bristol based emcee Gardna, which was followed by a specially recorded COVID-themed service announcement that instructed the crowd to sit down at tables and not dance. This was met with even more ferocious skanking as the DJ revisited some of Mungo classics, occasionally shooting fingers at us in what can only be described as a fun and playful DJ set, the perfect start. 

The sound over on the live music stage (Main Stage), just a short walk away, was equally impressive. The first live act to bless the stage was Tertia May, an emerging talent who had started to build momentum in 2019, filling the valley with her soulful voice. In between tracks she spoke with a South London twang about the weather as the clouds parted to make way for blazing sunshine on what was meant to be an overcast day. As she finished on her most well known track, 'Monsters in Your Bedroom', the crowd swelled with many moved by her powerful yet balanced vocals, perfectly matched by the skill of her live band. In short, it was a consummate performance that set the tone for the live offering at this festival. 

Everyone continued to toe and froe, hopping between different DJ sets and/or the live music. In the late afternoon, there was a mad rush to catch Yung Singh who was playing the Krankbrother stage, a booming sound system nestled in the woods. The recent Boiler Room graduate did not disappoint and there was a sense that the party had really started. At the same time, the festival promoters took control of the decks at the bunker stage, a natural outdoor dance floor on top of a raised earth platform that quickly filled with dancing bodies and smiling faces as Krankbrother did what they do best -  (k)crank the crowd up to a celestial place. For many, this set was the highlight of the day perhaps only superseded by Hunee, who followed them. Indeed, many talked about being blown away by the German born DJ, known for his eclectic sets, that took the crowd to new heights as he dropped a banging remix of 'Psycho-Killer' by Talking Heads mid-set. 

The programming on the live stage matched the elevated vibe going on elsewhere, no doubt intentionally, as Joe Armon-Jones took the stage. As soon as the South London based keys maestro started playing the crowds flocked to the front of the stage to pay homage. He kicked off the show with long time vocal collaborator, Asheber, playing the vocalised version of 'Mollison Dub', a track that pleaded with the us to not “forget our roots” whilst the the man himself played cosmic sounds from the keys, it was both visceral and otherworldly- a delightful mix. Later in the set, Asheber left the stage, and Armon-Jones treated us to a live version of his 2018 release 'Ragify'. This track with its jazz overtones and breakdown in the middle led many to become introspective, some almost placed in a trance by the sound. For those with their eyes still open the large screen behind the band showed the man at work with a close-up of his fingers on the keys showing just how much energy goes into the performance. This was necessary as when he chose to speak he spent the time bigging up his band and collaborators rather than himself in a true show of humility that matched the honesty and purity of his music. In 2018, he was tipped as the one to watch by many and he is steadily moving up the bill toward the headlining slot, and his performance was certainly worthy of that position. 

He remained on stage to play keys for Nubya Garcia who followed him and  delivered a commensurate headlining worthy show despite technical challenges, but with a slightly bigger sound which could perhaps be attributed to the introduction of a double bass to the stage and of course her saxophone playing lead. In one poignant moment, she spoke about her upcoming album release of remixes with various electronic music producers, something she hoped would make jazz music reach a wider audience. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere the party was in full swing as other DJ greats such as Detroit-based legend Moodyman and LTJ Bukem took the party to another level for those that were on that vibe. This was all as the headliner, Jeff Mills, was completing a delayed sound check ready to headline the festival, accompanied by a bassist and keys player who were clearly artists in their own right. They picked up on the cosmic sound that had filled the main stage area earlier and slowly moved from this to a louder and more tribal sound just as the DJ sets on other stages finished, the thud of Jeff Mills drum machine leading the charge. The camera that had caught the magic of Joe-Armon Jones now focused on the fingers of the headliner as he with equal skill worked the mixer, perhaps making the point that this is much of an instrument as any other that had featured on the stage that night. At the same time as Jeff Mills upped the ante the bassist switched to the double bass that had been left on stage and the keys player turned to play a piano rather than keyboard, and so the final dance began. The main stage was cleverly placed at the exit so everyone leaving other stages congregated for this, meaning that despite our individual paths on the day we ended it together; some choosing to stand at the front, others seated and a few needing to lay down from exertion. 

There are lots of reasons why we enjoy festivals but at its pagan core a festival is about uniting people, and if that is the central point of a festival then this festival is very much on point. It was not an event that was planned, made or put on but one that was curated by experienced event organisers that genuinely care. There was even a family element that was beautifully and responsibly woven into the festival with a dedicated kids area and many children taking advantage of the hills to roll down. 

Indeed, many present after such a long time away from large gatherings and on reflection may have felt like kids rolling down hills. However, it would be remiss to review this festival solely or even partly in the context of the events of the last eighteen months, because even if we had not been starved of such times it would be hard not to conclude that Naked City is simply a damn good festival, and one that should be on the lips of everyone for next year. 

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