51st State Festival in North London is billed as a one day celebration of the best house, garage, and bashment music from New York and London. This marriage of the finest music from two of the world’s greatest cities began in 2015 as a jazz-focussed event. In truth the 51st State line-up is even more eclectic than this, ambitiously attempting to thread a musical narrative from the foundations of US house music into the future of European electronic music and Caribbean dancehall.
Today, 7 considerably sized tents populate the field in North London. In a blissful park less than 10 minutes from Cockfosters station. The capacity must allow for almost 25,000 revellers to attend the one-day event. In 2019, however, the event felt eerily vacant in some of the less well-endowed stages. Evidently the reasonable £40 ticket price and hefty ad campaign had proven lacking. Those who were making the half hour journey to the final stop on the Eastbound Piccadilly line were happy, open, and conversational.
A benefit of the 51st state’s thinner crowds was naturally a reduction in queue lengths at the bars, food stalls, and toilets. Short queues are no compensation for the high prices and low quality. £6 for a can of Red Stripe is a sure fire way to ruin anyone’s afternoon. Mushy festival noodles came in around £8. A Mexican food stall sold two vegetarian tacos to your author for £5.50 which can only be described as pancakes with mayonnaise. A comment must also be made on how professional and well run the festival felt in general.
Unexpectedly, the crowd was of an older vintage. Potentially the location in a more residential part of London was a cause of this. Billings such as Kerri Chandler, Crystal Waters, and Louie Vega also appeal to an audience with fond sentimentalities for the ‘80s and ‘90s. The strict over-18s policy turned what could in fact have been a brilliant family festival such as Sheffield’s Tramlines into a space where parents could let their hair down. Many also allowed their jaws to loosen.
Assumedly due to age and the nature of a day festival, many sets came in around the hour mark and forced performers into shorter, showcase performances. Fantastic sets from Dmitri from Paris, Wookie, and Kele Le Roc were special moments under the canopies. One couldn’t help but thinking that they’d have been more enjoyable outside in the sunshine. Peering out from the smoky darkness and into the glorious August summertime left a taste reminiscent to leaving a cinema in the daytime. Once outside and at the main stage, that summer day festival loveliness was out to play in abundance.
Above the crowd and to the right lay a VIP section, where grumpy faced and very stagnant figures stood as voyeurs above the general public. This division was very strange and out of tune with the festival’s general message of togetherness under the banner of brilliant music. In addition to this, the main stage’s decorations were effectively two large screens which enlarged the DJs playing at any given time. By forcing the crowd to watch telly, it gave the sense that people had gathered in a field to watch a pre-recorded Boiler Room.
Kerri Chandler’s festival closing set was underwhelming to the extent that it inspired a mass exodus well before the festival’s close. For an artist with an incredibly expansive knowledge of house music to draw out Ibiza-type songs for 20 minutes is disappointing. The crowd was not drawn into a dance or an emotional state.
Chandler was not the case of “never meet your heroes”. DJ EZ, usually so powerful in delivering jacked up bassline to a very lively crowd, here played a subdued garage set. Whether this was due to the southern, older audience preferring garage is unclear.
As your author did not attend the after party at the Ministry of Sound in Elephant and Castle, no critical comment can be assigned to it. One comment than can be made is upon how peculiar it is to host an after party at a destination 45 minutes and two tube lines away.
Overall, 51st State festival could benefit from more clarity of vision and execution. As a family-friendly celebration of great music, love, and cultural openness- it would excel. The quality of food should be held to a higher standard. Sets should be made longer, with fewer artist changes. Musicians should be encouraged to play the music they love and wish to share with the world. Dividing the crowd into “VIP” and “general punters” should give way to a unified audience. Prices should reflect these changes at the bar. Your author looks forwards to these ideas being headed for next year’s event, because it is a really great way to spend a Saturday with friends.