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Review: Houghton is a festival the UK is lucky to have

A focus on music and sound makes Houghton a dance music lover's paradise. Check out 11 tracks from 11 standout sets below

  • 3 September 2023

After dealing with the existential crises of three consecutive cancellations, Houghton Festival returned in a blaze of glory last year. There had been a great deal of anxiety in the lead up to that comeback event, with whispers of a curse and jibes landing from techno meme pages. First adverse weather, then a global pandemic, what could it be this time - a plague of locusts? But thankfully, plans did not go awry, and with those demons successfully banished, there was an air of just getting back to business about the 2023 edition.

Houghton knows what it is and it does it well. It’s the festival most squarely aimed at underground ravers in the UK, and delivers to this USP with curation and production that prioritises world class DJs and soundsystems — backed by a 24-hour license.

That’s not to say that’s all there is to it. The site is gorgeous with a glistening lake and charming woodland that’s beautifully lit at night, you can take a free tour around a local sculpture garden, there’s stages focused on the daytime such as Pinters, Trevinos and The Orchard, where you can hear jazz, shop for records, or take in a cacao ceremony after a life drawing class.

But the art on show isn’t going to be giving Burning Man any sleepless nights, and we’re not sure anyone’s priority is seeing a horn section unless they got lost en route to We Out Here. Fundamentally, Houghton is about the dance.

The line-up features more than 200 artists, including 100+ returning favourites and 60+ debutants in 2023, and they play on some of the best sound you’ll ever find at an outdoor festival that runs round the clock. Many of the stages fuse into the natural surroundings to create magical dancefloors. One stage is built around an oak tree, another slopes down into a quarry like a natural amphitheatre, the 24-hour Terminus is hidden within a clearing that feels like entering a different dimension. This year a more austere structure such as The Warehouse, a repurposed barn, was taken over visually by regular Aphex Twin collaborator Weirdcore, whose fractal vision transformed it into a dizzying audio-visual experience. Duly, the crowd is mostly up-for-it ravers who flock to the manor in search of underground heaters to party to, and the festival does not disappoint.

It isn’t flawless and occasionally organisational issues crept in. While the sad news of a no-show from Ricardo Villalobos due to bereavement spread like wildfire around the site, other absences such as Helena Hauff and D. Tiffany were only discovered upon turning up to a stage and finding another DJ at the helm, with set times all askew. The Pavilion being the only other stage to go beyond 5:AM meant the morning queues for Terminus were long, and the festival’s only really 24-hours if you have the patience for a long wait. And also, why was Kate Middleton there?

But quibbles aside, make no mistake: Houghton is a festival the UK is lucky to have. As a dance music festival, there aren’t many events internationally that can touch it for sound and programming.

Read our thoughts on 11 of the standout sets from the weekend below.


Yu Su is the perfect late-evening festival DJ. It’s that time when the more laidback sounds of the day are well and truly behind you, but the party flow of the night has not yet hit the gas. In this twilight zone, Yu Su came alive. Her sets are unpredictable and idiosyncratic, perfectly tapping into the atmosphere of growing delirium as festival madness takes hold. Wearing jet black shades, across three hours she casually fucking killed it, pushing the crowd up with euphoric Italo, pulling them down with deranged synth pop, yanking them sideways with head-spinning electro, and twisting them in knots with inscrutable oddball minimal. If you missed out, her recent Mixmag Cover Mix is inspired by the set.


Raresh, the Romanian minimal master, arguably the best of the bunch and the selector who’s now transcended the genre he helped catapult to the top, is a Houghton staple. This year he took charge of a Friday night masterclass at The Earthling and stole the evening’s show. Chuggy, chunky house and ethereal rollers were the Romanian’s weapon of choice as he effortlessly meandered through styles and tempos, giving his signature finger wag and air guitar a proper run out as usual. It’s hard to get many IDs from Raresh, he likes it that way, and so do we, it keeps us on our toes. And besides, if every time there’s a drop you look around and a random raver is giving you the ‘phwoooar that’s a ripper’ face, he’s doing something right. ‘Demsse It’ by Sheeq slipped through the net though, we’ll take that.


The Warehouse at Houghton is the festival’s premier destination for those who want their surroundings and music served a bit moodier and gnarlier. There’s no denying that being inside a warehouse while you could be running around the woods makes for a conflicted decision, but the artists on offer this year, including Donato Dozzy, DJ Nobu and Bjarki make the trip to the dark depths worth it. UK stalwart and bassy techno purveyor Batu was one such act who lit up the space on Friday night. His mixing has long been revered for not only carrying an expert precision, but for showing off intricate and unique transitions and his set had some great examples. Anyone who plays ‘Mouth To Mouth’ by Audion has one reaction in mind and one reaction only, that’s to melt your face off. Coupled with Weirdcore’s worryingly intense visuals in the background, we’re not sure whether we actually had any facial features left after this one.


By the time Optimo closed the Outburst stage in the early hours of Friday morning, party mania had set in — and the Scottish duo were right there in it with the crowd. Drawing for old skool HI NRG and house while bringing plenty of contemporary rave fuel into the mix (a raucous blend of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ with Anz’s certified Summer ‘23 Anthem ‘Clearly Rushing’ stands out), it was just what the party-hungry dancers needed. Ending on AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ with JG Wilkes going bare-chested with an unbuttoned shirt was an appropriately loose direction to close on. …Terminus anyone?

craig richards

The Derren Smart Stage is perhaps Houghton’s most imposing dancefloor. Sitting out in the open on the edge of the forest, it’s decidedly more industrial feeling than a warmly lit, cosey woodland spot or a cushion-filled Giant Steps tent. It’s not a main stage by any means, but the main man Craig Richards playing on it felt like a centrepiece moment. Stepping into the raised booth of the metallic facade with dark red lights bathing the trees and dancefloor in an evil glow, he worked the system with plenty of the murkier, bassier corners of his record bag.


Call Super was in fine form on Saturday night, pushing The Earthling towards the stratosphere with a set that harked back to only the most pingers-fuelled sounds of old skool rave. From dropping the bouncy hard house of Ben Keen’s ‘Let The Rhythm Move You’ to OTT speed n synth garage to an edit that blended the Latin house-inspired horns and vocals of Tim Deluxe and Sam Obernik’s ‘It Just Won’t Do’ with a greazy techno pulse, euphoria was guaranteed. Playing a track with ‘XTC Come Hard Mix’ in the title was a little on the nose but not far off.


We love Dan Beaumont and we love Wes Baggaley and we really love when Dan Beaumont and Wes Baggaley play together. Mixmag favourites and for good reason, they specialise in sleazy, low-slung house and disco, it’s a bit naughty and it’s always loaded with groove. Their set at The Old Gramophone can only be described as ‘absolute pumpers’ and after a few days running around the woods, it was nice to get inside the tent and have a proper dance to proper bangers. We saw Wes earlier that evening while he was watching Donato Dozzy and asked him what he thought his set would be like, he emphatically quipped ‘Absolutely shit’. Sorry Wes, you couldn’t be more wrong and we have this Todd Terry classic to prove it.


Terminus is like a wormhole — albeit instead of getting sucked in, you tend to inch along a hefty queue before entering. Being the only 24-hour stage, and with an unannounced line-up, it’s a spot for the stamina crew and the rave curious, the people intent on eking out every last second of fun it’s possible to have on the grounds of a Norfolk stately home and the people who will literally never forgive themselves if they miss an off-the-cuff Nicolas Lutz and Sonja Moonear b2b. Once you wind your way down into that little woodland clearing, all bets are off, and all conception of a world outside tends to dissipate. It’s fun. You barely know what time, day or year it is, you just find yourself there, dancing to Margaret Dygas sequencing warm minimal sounds.


Zip’s Sunday morning set on The Pavillion leaned into the sounds of deep, grooving house, with plenty of those minimal production quirks of hi-hats that sizzle just a little beyond the beat and beefy basslines that snake below hypnotic synths. Taking over the slot from the sadly absent Ricardo Villalobos, there were also tinges of melancholy and pensiveness through some beautiful, melodic sounds that complemented the blissful lakeside location. A direct tribute with his closing cut ‘Dexter’ felt like a moment frozen in time, with the dancefloor hypnotised by the track’s poignant atmosphere.


Manchester’s Willow has become quite the fixture on the Houghton circuit, with a live recording from last year’s edition encapsulating her bass-driven sets. A Terminus set and Sunday seshers afternoon spot in the Quarry were a perfect follow-up. Both sets were eclectic while floor-focused. Wiggly electro was cut into tracks like DJ Rush’s seminal ‘Motherfucking Bass’ just as the energy of the crowds needed nay demanded it, in those demented Norfolk woods. Long live a true deep-digging party-starter, Willow, we’ll see you next year.


Fresh off a colossal closing set b2b with bestie Shanti Celeste at Dekmantel, the anticipation to see Peach lay it down was about as palpable as things could be on a Sunday at the country’s seshiest "upper class" festival. The evening time slot could really go either way; the complete ejaculation of a crowd’s brain cells into the nether world after a few heavy days of partying, or the euphoric feeling of a final love-in before the Sunday scaries started their Slack notification symphony. Thankfully Peach’s selections masterfully ushered in the latter. A delicate blend of uplifting pianos, cutesy organ stabs and unwaveringly bumping basslines set the scene against a backdrop of shuffling energetic rhythms, keeping even the hardiest partying boys and girls alive until sunset and welcoming back the warm fuzzies everyone had been chasing since about Thursday lunchtime.

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