Set in the heart of rolling Oxfordshire countryside, the very name Wilderness is a contradiction. This is about as far removed from wilderness as one can get in the UK. With a programme boasting an eclectic array of music, attractions and activities, I was more than intrigued.
Walking through the campsite and along an idyllic lakeside as wader bound men fish with flies, it was quickly apparent that the event had attracted a more affluent and cultured breed of festival goer. There was also a real mix of ages.
The site wasn't small, it took over 20 minutes to reach the main stage arena from my tent. Once there my mind focused on food and I must admit to finding myself guilty of an awful musical cliché. On stage the sound check seemed particularly elongated. Eventually it dawned on me that this was in fact the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble in action. Gradually the avant- garde sounds merged into coherent rhythm and form with an engaging beat. I seemed to be witnessing a new musical genre as 9 classically trained musicians created not EDM but CDM, (classical dance music) and it was working.
If one attended Wilderness for music alone, extremely eclectic taste would be required. You would also be missing so much else. With this in mind I adopted an approach of careful selection combined with considerable wandering.
Bjork drew a huge crowd on the first night. Often described as a true original, I am not going to argue. Taking to the stage with a small orchestra she mesmerised with a set delivered in the style of her most recent album. Unfortunately not everyone was engaged I needed to move several time to avoid chattering voices, even toward the front of the crowd. After finishing with an impressive firework display, Bjork returned to the stage to thank the audience for their patience in listening to so many "long slow songs," before adding that she was going to finish with another "long slow song." No apology was necessary, this was a true original delivering a great uncompromising set.
There was a strong African presence on the main stage. IIbibio Sound Machine got the audience moving with their West African highlife meets disco. Led by the energetic and colourful Eno Williams their set was thoroughly enjoyable if a little one dimensional. Seun Kuti works hard to keep the spirit of his father alive. He's a great live performer but I couldn't help feeling that he had misjudged his timing. Used to playing 90 minute plus sets where music and energy levels gradually build, his 45 minutes didn't seem to spark until midway through.The final 15 minutes were excellent but he was really just getting started.
Bombino were great. Their supercharged desert blues rock really shone. Songs from their Dan Auerbach produced Nomad album came to life in a live context; a must for anyone who appreciates guitar virtuosity.
I have always liked Roisin Murphy, both in Moloko and on her solo offerings, but Saturday evening's performance seemed to offer style at the expense of substance. Taking to the stage dressed as someone's granny, complete with headscarf, beads and handbag, she gradually metamorphosised into something far more exotic. Unfortunately, on this occasion, musical content remained far more pedestrian. Pedestrian is not a word I would use for Caravan Palace. Exuberant singer Zoe Colotis led the band through an amalgam of jazz, swing and almost anything with an infectious beat, really bringing the crowd to life. The only odd moments coming when taking an excursion into hip hop, her appearance in baseball cap, vest, suspenders and stockings presented a somewhat incongruous fashion statement.
There is no denying George Clinton's status as a funk pioneer but his recorded output has never really inspired me. I was prepared to approach his headline performance with an open mind and was rewarded for doing so. Although still not convinced by songs and some of the vocals, instrumentally this was a great band. Rock solid rhythm kept the feet moving while Frank Zappa's album title, "Shut up n' play yer guitar" has never been more appropriate in summing up the stunning twin lead guitars. Added inclusion of equally dexterous brass playing extended workouts with both rock and jazz flavouring made this set a real highlight.
Food is clearly an important part of the Wilderness ethos. Paying for banquets presented by a range of cordon bleu chefs and restaurants seemed beyond this reviewer's budget but this was not the case for many. Large queues formed outside all of the large eating marques prior to banquets. Those packed inside obviously enjoyed both the food and the feasting atmosphere. I was a little piqued to discover later that some of these eateries offered a take away main course for as little as £8.
This was a festival where the more you wandered, the greater the rewards. These ranged from musical pleasure, sporting improbability, decadence, through up market elegance to the purely bizarre.
The Wilderness Stage offered a mix of theatre, dance, choirs and music. Vibrant and colourful, an all too brief appearance by the The Divine Company (dance) created a really positive impression. In the further reaches of the wilderness each journey past The Juke Joint brought pleasing sounds of blues, jazz, r n' b, gospel and more modern beats, always accompanied by the sight of dancers enjoying themselves. By comparison, acoustic output from The Travelling Folk Barn seemed far more conservative and pedestrian but was clearly popular with many.
The Forum offered a usually packed venue for political and social debate with the articulate and not so articulate discussing the world's ills. Nearby, a Well Being area proved popular with many seeking solace in yoga, massage and other forms of relaxation.
I tried to experience a little early twentieth century elegance by blagging my way into the Champagne Garden. My charm briefly worked on the two flappers in the doorway before being rebuked and ejected by a solemn Jeeves lookalike. Ultimately, I could only look on at the suave creatures beyond the white picket fence.
Late at night revellers poured into The Hidden Valley. Here was a dance area with a little extra. As DJ's laid down beats Gorilla Circus entertained overhead with acrobats and trapeze. Different characters passed overhead but I am still unsure what the artiste in the Victorian safari outfit, carrying a large net was doing; perhaps trying to catch rare species in the wilderness. The main stage offered its own spectacular on Saturday night. Spanish company La FuraDelsBaus presented music, lights, a giant puppet and "a human web" with men dangling in synchronised fashion 25 metres above our heads. It was a memorable and uplifting experience.
The Bandstand offered a variety of song, music and dance with much audience participation. Each early evening's "Spiritual" event drew large crowds. Here, a troupe including two nuns, an Indian Holy man, a Monkey God and a creature with elephantine balls embraced singing, dancing, mime and much audience participation culminating in a mass singalong to Hozier's, "Take me to Church." I have no idea what was going on!
A major focus during daylight hours was the sports field. This was a hugely popular area which really thrived on great audience participation. In this theatre of dreams one could experience fierce competition, wonderful political incorrectness, the frankly bizarre and much nakedness.
Friday saw running, volleyball, table tennis and assorted aerobic classes but by Saturday things had taken a turn toward the weird and never looked back. A visit to "The Kiwi Extreme Sports Company" saw me coping with limbo dancing with jelly, but travelling down the trampoline tram line to reach the inner sanctum was a bounce too far. Next up, a visit to the sock wrestling tent saw opponents writhe on the slippery, bouncy ring surface trying to remove each other's socks. A competitive contest between two women moved to a different level when a naked man (apart from socks) entered the ring to join proceedings. Walking across the croquette court (or is it a pitch) on Sunday morning I became entangled in a photo shoot in which Alice was bludgeoned by the Queen of Hearts while a white rabbit looked on; utterly surreal!
And so to the cricket!
If anyone had predicted that I would spend an hour each morning sat in the sun with over a thousand others, watching cricket as I quaffed coffee and crumpet, I would not have believed them. A Wilderness eleven took on the Aussies each morning in matches of high drama and variable talent. Accompanied by inspired running commentary that was knowledgeable, hilarious and unbelievably politically incorrect, this was possibly the highlight of the festival. Boasting a crowd that would be the envy of many county cricket matches, we were treated to ongoing score, wicket and streaker updates. These naked pitch invasions and subsequent wrestling to the ground numbered 16 during Saturday morning's first innings alone.
This was undoubtedly a festival for those with eclectic tastes in music and beyond. It was an event with added delights if you could afford them and where participation upped the enjoyment level considerably. There were occasional negatives such as long queues for food at peak times and shower breakdowns on the campsite on Saturday morning. Quite what aspects of Wilderness would have been like had it rained I don't know but three days of sunshine brought a great really vibe, some great entertainment and a really positive experience. Almost a week later and I'm still smiling.
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