As part of this year’s Forest Live series, Melissa Blease reviews Hacienda Classical’s appearance at Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, Gloucestershire

Bez (yup, Happy Mondays Bez) is manically manipulating his maracas. Hooky (yup, Joy Division/New Order bass player Peter Hook) is triumphantly punching the air, his guitar slung low, low, low on his powerful thighs in that distinctive Hooky-peculiar way. Classic dance music producers/remix wizards K-Klass opened the show with a blast of exuberance. The AMC Gospel Choir are turning erstwhile aloof acid-house hit refrains into richly resonant, emotive anthems. The Manchester Camerata’s strings, brass and woodwind sections have long since leapt from their seats to wave their instruments in the air, and legendary club culture DJ Graeme Park is urging some 2,000+ ravers (who, by the way, don’t need much urging) to “make some noise!!!” …and all around us, a huge, green wall of cedars, birches, pines, oaks, redwoods, firs, sequoias and many, many more trees both ancient and modern, small and large, are softly whispering their approval in the soft, damp breeze.

This is Hacienda Classical – a sagacious collaboration between former Hacienda DJs Mike Pickering and Graeme Park, who curates the shows with Peter Hook, who also executive produces the whole affair with musical director Tim Crooks. The location? Westonbirt Arboretum. The result? Very probably one of the west country’s most uniquely uplifting, singularly euphoric summer season events of the year so far.

Westonbirt Arboretum may normally be a sedate, peaceful oasis of calm, but it acted as a very gracious host for the grown up rave brigade’s most recent pitstop – it was, if you like, the more genteel, sensible version of the ad-hoc locations and venues (abandoned car parks; disused warehouses; “somewhere in a field in Hampshire”) where the original raves were generally held.

But you don’t necessarily need to have had full-on raving experience nor cherish happy memories of the Hacienda – the iconic Manchester club, widely regarded as the birth place of rave and acid house in the UK – to get with the Hacienda Classical vibe, as the formula for the resulting fabulosity offers broad appeal to all manner of music lovers across the age divide. Take the toons and beats that filled the late 1980s/early 1990s dance floors (even those who thought that the rave generation’s greatest hits passed them by will be surprised at just how familiar some of the loops, refrains and samples are), and muddle them up with that 70-piece orchestra, that choir, a sparkle of powerhouse disco divas/soul sistahs and special guest appearances from the original 24-hour party people (hence Bez, and Hooky, et al)… and prepare to party-on. 

Highlights of the utterly exultant affair included the moment when Bez – the former Happy Mondays/Black Grape, erm, dancer who went on to win the 2005 series of Celebrity Big Brother and, last year, caused a Bargain Hunt-related scandal when he cheated in a vain attempt to beat Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Candida Doyle to the Golden Gavel (how’s that for surreal?) – came shuffling onto the stage wearing a comfy pullover and what appeared to be equally comfy slippers before comfortably raising the no-roof with his rattles to the strains of A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray.

It was thrilling too to see the legendary Hooky gruffly deadpan his way through New Order’s seminal synth-pop classic hit Blue Monday, the familiar bass line supplemented and powerfully augmented by orchestral drums as a euphoric crowd went wild. But ultimately, Manchester Camarata – led by bouncing, energetic conductor Tim Crooks – stole the show, fully living up to their overall objective to “redefine what an orchestra can do” by delivering a triumphant celebration of sound that stylishly, exuberantly lifted a contemporary classic genre to new heights by introducing traditionally classic aural sensibilities to the spectacular, non-stop 90-minute mix. 

For one night only, Westonbirt Arboretum partied like it was 1989, in full-on 2019 style. Sorted.

Main image: Hacienda Classical, credit Anthony Mooney