"London, give it UP for Floating Points! Oh, shit… We're not in London, are we? Croatia, give it up for Floating Points!" MC Judah's Spinal Tap faux pas drew nothing but chuckles on the opening night of Stop Making Sense, but his was an easy enough error to make. If you'd extracted this year's lineup from its Adriatic setting and went on names alone, you'd assume it was just another weekend of the TBA-east-London-secret-warehouse variety. Hybrid Life, Dalston Superstore, Deviation, Favela Chic, secretsundaze, Warm and Need2Soul are club nights familiar to those who regularly shake a tail in and around the Shoreditch triangle, so as these London club brands banded together for the SMS Croatian weekender, it was no surprise that those from their hometown accounted for about 90 percent of the festival's attendees as well.
Photo credit: Katrina James
Because of those demographics, the most striking thing about the festival—or the second, after the jaw-slackening natural beauty of Petrcane—was the inexhaustible warmth of the local residents. Bearing in mind that SMS was the fifth British festival to touch down in "The Garden" in as many weeks, we were half expecting our welcome in the small seaside town to be outworn, but even as our shift of revelers guffawed with beers in hand on the waterfront walk between the festival site and the boat party pier, roasted themselves to alarming shades of crimson and mahogany, strutted down the main street with national flags worn as capes and bawled in the narrow streets in the wee hours, our Petrcanian hosts remained gracious and welcoming.
Friday afternoon started slow and steady at the main stage, gradually filling as Judah chatted his way through the broken beat, house and disco offerings by Floating Points and Benji B, with exquisite live vocals from Fatima. The main stage sat beside Barbarella, a kitsch circle-shaped nightclub, with the rest of peninsula filled with tiki bars, palm trees, sun beds and loungers, along with a beach stage that juts out over the water and offers the best view of some utterly unreal sunsets. At the beach bar that Friday, the Bridging The Gap crew cleverly ignored set times, piling into the booth for a set that had some of the stop/start issues of most back-to-back-athons, but was kept upbeat with party-ready favourites like FCL's "Let's Go" and Mike Dunn's "Phreaky MF," plus surprise selections of UK garage and Lil Wayne. Back at the main stage, Martyn convinced the swelling crowd of his ongoing commitment to 4/4, starting with Kerri Chandler's uplifting "Inspiration" and barreling through an energetic set of melodic house.
Photo credit: Katrina James
Saturday afternoon eased those snoozing under the trees or drying off from the sea back into festival mode, and our only pressing concern of the day was deciding whether to drag our deck chairs a few metres closer to the beach stage, for the cruisey retro house of the Hybrid Life crew, or a similar distance to the left, towards DJ Harri's main stage dub and reggae selections. After such a relaxed afternoon, we warily approached the other side of Petrcane bay for the sunset boat party, haunted by Harry Midland's wide-eyed tales of Trouble Vision's afternoon cruise: people wildly climbing the boat's rigging, DJs barfing overboard and daredevils jumping into the water and slicing up their feet on the sharp rocks.
Deviation's boat party was much less frenzied, but Judah, newcomer Moxie, Benji B and Floating Points successfully coaxed us from politely huddled groups at the prow of the boat into party mode by the time we docked four hours later, and although staple tracks by Theo Parrish and The Universal Robot Band were big favourites, it was Oliver $'s storm-in-a-teacup "Doing Ya Thing" that went down as the ultimate crowdpleaser. Back on dry land, the garden was at full capacity but with little variation between the electro-edged sound of Optimo on the main stage and Dalston Superstore on the beach stage, the groove-laden house of Warm was a welcome change of pace when Barbarella opened its doors for the night session.
Sunday was spent amongst the rotisserie style sunbathers, watching the afternoon and evening boat parties arrive and return from a distance, and the breezy quirky tunes from the beach bar (a brass band cover of "No Diggity" here, a lounge version of Red Hot Chili Peppers there) were the perfect accompaniment to a hot, lazy day. The main stage Body + Soul showcase started early and rather quietly, leaving us to wonder if everyone had done themselves in over the previous two days.
Photo credit: Katrina James
But as the post-boat, post-dinner, post-nap crowd started to stream in, it was a joy to see the three veterans take control (despite some technical issues) and settle into each of their niches of the Body + Soul sound: Danny Krivit's fetish for percussion, Joe Claussell's expert EQing of soulful vocals and Francois K's taste for "that Francois K sound." They easily transitioned into bona fide anthems like "Promised Land" towards the end, and the beach stage similarly swelled to capacity for a final night of programming with a bass-heavy twist. People began to trickle into Barbarella as James Priestley opened the secretsundaze session, and had filled the dance floor by the time Giles Smith took to the decks, and any air of tiredness was swept aside as the party that carried on into the early hours.
Although Stop Making Sense doubled its numbers this year, its programming was very obviously scaled back from 2010, where alongside an abundance of deep house it boasted Carl Craig, Friendly Fires, Nathan Fake, the Girlcore crew and Matias Aguayo. Jane Fitz' review of last year's event concluded that the mix made for "slightly uneasy bedfellows," but perhaps the grass is always greener, as there were points where I ping-ponged between the stages, wishing for something a little different. But that's something of a minor gripe, and likely something of an ongoing discussion as SMS continues to establish its identity in the wake of Garden Festival, Sunce Beat, Electric Elephant and Soundwave. SMS opted to play it safe this year, but its close-knit community feel will surely transfer into another solid, sun-drenched showing for 2012.