Festivals Tuesday, April 25th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Adam Knight, Cirque du Soul

How you get Groove Armada to play in a field outside Ledbury

Festivals Tuesday, April 25th

How you get Groove Armada to play in a field outside Ledbury

In the late-17th century, several years before iphones and crossfaders, ­Philip Astley fathered the modern circus.

The portly former-sergeant drew crowds across Europe, the great unwashed packing in to creaking wooden structures to catch a glimpse of the famed trick-rider performing handstands on the saddle of a cantering horse.

Astley’s name remained on the masthead, but soon his circus evolved in to a travelling troupe of Herculean strongmen and horses that could do card tricks, a wild bunch of ropewalkers and clowns and performers who would capture the collective imagination of a town, before disappearing once more in to the night.

Now circuses might have hit the skids the second the world saw pictures of emaciated tigers chained up backstage like slack-limbed extras in a Trainspotting film - but the spirit of the circus is alive and well.

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Luke Wolfman is one of three promoters/djs/schoolfriends who four years ago sat down and set about turning their various, variably successful, clubworld endeavours in to one swaggering, immersive circus for the 21st century.

Except their one-night–only spectaculars swapped the big tent and the moustachio’d ringmaster for the nightclub dancefloor and the moustachio’d dj. Cirque du Soul was born.

“And now we’re here doing a festival. Which was always the dream really,” Wolfman said, two months out from El Dorado’s second coming at Eastnor Castle.

“Anyone who’s ever put on any party in their garden has always gone ‘oh my lord, imagine if I could do something bigger – do this, do that, bigger stages, bigger artists – bigger, better. And that’s always been the journey.”

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It started out with one club night and 100 people. Or at least 100 people and very clear idea of how party-goers wanted to lose themselves on a Saturday night.

“We developed Cirque at a time when everything was very artist-led, DJ-led, music-led. I was putting on events like that at the time and I just found it all a bit boring.

“So we came up with this concept: we’ll travel, we’ll do different cities, it’s part of the gimmick, this touring company. It’s all circus-themed, so it’s very production-led – we put a lot of time, effort and money in décor, production and lots of circus performers – and we’re constantly trying to think of ways to develop it, and that’s what we do in the clubs. We put our heads together to create something that would be successful and we got a bit lucky. It popped off.”

That vision - and that room of 100 people - has since morphed in to nomadic brand which sells out in 13 cities across the country. Wolfman went from being a bedroom dj playing Groove Armada records, to following the duo on the ones and twos at a CDS event. And last year Cirque launched its own festival – El Dorado - to much anticipation and acclaim.

‘Immersive’ is a word that comes up a bit. ‘Vibe’ is another.

At the club shows, the idea is that no matter whose name’s on the bill, if you go to a Cirque night, you step in to bubble of hedonism and partying so good, so all-encompassing, that it makes you forget the same club was selling £1 VKs and pumping out Tinie Tempah #anthems just 24 hours before.

It makes sense therefore, that their next step would be towards the bigger, blanker canvas of a festival.

“Naturally it opens up possibilities as to what you can do. Being in a club, and it being a one-night only event, there are already limitations there. That’s why we wanted to do a festival.

“The days of a line-up heavy festivals have had their time. I think people want to be blown away. You need to do more. And I think everyone’s recognised that.”

 “We’d never done festival before, but I think there was a lot of magic there.”

So how’d you get there? Even before any talk of an immersive wonderland, there are certain basic components every self-respecting festival launching in 2016 must assemble – pulled pork sarnies and iphone charging points notwithstanding.

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First up, you need a field. A very big field.

And despite living in a country that is around 94 percent countryside, finding the right field – one that’s accessible, not angled like a downhill ski slope, or surrounded by curtain-twitching villagers likely to dial up their parish councillor the second your headliners hit the chorus on their opening number – is harder than you might think.

“There are no ‘festivalsites.co.uk,” as Wolfman put it.

Following a few uninspiring scouting missions, he experienced a moment of clarity.

“I thought back over festivals that I’d been to, and I thought, The Big Chill, that was amazing.”

That hazy weekend lost dancing to Lily Allen and Magnetic Man led to a site visit, and the deer park at Eastnor ticked just about every box.

El Dorado had always been about escaping the brick walls and sticky floors that play host to Cirque’s nights throughout the year. So it follows that the team wanted a venue which felt close to nature, they wanted trees and the wide blue yonder. “And lakes, lakes were a big one for us”.

With a not-insignificant amount of party-goers heading to the festival from the likes of London and Bristol, Eastnor and El Dorado could become a Weekend In The Country for the Tinder generation.

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Next up in the Festival 101 handbook, you need some music.

“Line-ups. There is so much work that goes in to that,” Wolfman said. “And it starts early. That line-up that we’ve put together, that took months.

“You just start out with your wishlist and you work down from there. We’ve got this big document online with all of our dream acts and we revisit a lot.

“I know a lot of festivals are going down certain musical routes – especially smaller ones. Aiming for a certain vibe, a certain kind of people. But that’s not what we do in our musical tastes, or at Cirque – we want to get a mix, a whole bunch of people who love to party.

“We love music, acts and people who like to have a good time. And that’s what happened at El Dorado last year.”

For 2017, Basement Jaxx have been replaced by Groove Armada, Kano makes way for AJ Tracey and Jax Jones steps in for Blonde. It’s another achingly-cool line-up, full of the kind of undercard acts that you’re going to be able to tell all your mates that you saw ‘before they got big’.

Last year, Loyle Carner played a daytime set at El Dorado. Three months later he opened for Nas at the O2.

So who has Wolfman got circled in his programme?

“AJ Tracey’s going to be good, Sugarhill Gang, that’ll be fun – bit of a throwback act -  and we’ve got an act called Goldfish who are really big in America and Europe – they mix up DJ’ing with live elements,  sax, keys, which really gets the crowd going at our Cirque shows.

“But, of course, Groove Armada. They were so important for all of our musical upbringing.”

Undoubtedly the big boys will find themselves on the big stage, but the tireless work done to create a series of smaller stages, each with its own living, breathing identity, bears the fingerprints of a team well-practiced in the Room One, Room Two combo perfected by the better club nights.

This year there’s a new open air stage – The Holy Bail – that will hand the keys over to Congo Natty and feature takeovers from the likes of legendary party-starters The Heatwave.

And that lake that was mentioned earlier? Well last year the guys floated a dancefloor right out on to it, and the Treasure Island stage is back with a makeover – “a bit bigger, and a bit sturdier,” Wolfman added with a smile.

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“Last year we probably didn’t appreciate what it meant to the area until we came to the site, got to know the place, spoke to the staff.

“The Big Chill was important to the area, to the locals. It is kind of a rite of passage – you always remember your first festival.

“Put it this way - we didn’t get any sound complaints.  They all know there’s a festival in town.”

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For the full line-up - and to get your a ticket for El Dorado - visit the festival's website here.

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