Having thoroughly enjoyed Wilderness 2017 I eagerly awaited this, its eighth year. Spread across the beautiful but extensive grounds of Cornbury Park on the Cotswold fringes can be found a wonderfully eclectic range of music and non-music acts, debates and discussions, theatre and arts, health and wellbeing and craft workshops on offer, together with wining and dining – both upmarket and less so. It has a reputation for being a ‘posh’ festival but this variety on offer ensures an appeal across a wide cross-section of ages and interests: there’s something for all the family. However, of the 30,000 or so revellers attending the festival this year it must be said that they don’t appear to fully represent Britain’s diversity. This was particularly poignant in The Forum tent on Sunday when Afua Hirsch, author of the book “Brit(ish)”, passionately and eruditely described her own, often difficult, experiences against the context of Britain’s developing identity crisis. Her fascinating but worrying analysis rightly received a tremendously enthusiastic reception.
Arriving about midday on Friday, it was a struggle to find space in the Quiet Camping for a small tent. It’s then a long walk to the main festival site, past the Solar Sphere, Yoga Sphere and Sanctuary, where mass wellbeing was underway: chanting here; pilates there; yoga here there and everywhere. The heat and sun didn’t seem to affect their energy, stamina or enthusiasm, though for those not doing wellbeing, shade under the oak trees was at a premium.
There’s no phone App for Wilderness but I armed myself with the Programme/guide (much better and more informative than the website). Flicking through, the Feasting (seated at massed ranks of shared tables, like at school dinner) looks just yummy, but requires planning and discipline (plus willingness to pay the not-inconsiderable extra charges involved). I prefer a more improvised free-flowing approach; so Feasting and other booked events, such as horse riding, fly fishing, sacred nipple adorning or whatever, were out. And I never made it to the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Garden or Pimms Croquet Club, either.
Of the principal music stages, the Main Stage hosts, well, the main musical acts - largely rock, urban and electronic. The Atrium, a stage plus large tented-roof over a compact natural arena, hosts more middle of the road events – choirs, crossover classical, light jazz and gospel, dance and spoken word. The Travelling Barn tends towards folk, funk – “troubadour vibes” as the Programme puts it. The Hereafter stage is mainly blues-based bands, DJs and late night, burlesque. The Carousel is eclectic. There’s also music to be found at The Be All and End Hall and The Club House too (amongst others; I never did find out where The Hustle was) but, let’s face it, after the headline act finishes on the Main Stage almost every bar and many eateries become party zones reminiscent of the numerous bouncer-fronted crowded hell holes found on every city’s high street - but without the bouncers.
Much of my Wilderness 2018 experience was to be at the Main Stage, with a smattering of sets and part-sets at the Travelling Barn and Hereafter stages. It is a shame, especially for the performers, that for most of the afternoon and early evening acts, appearing under the auspices of “BBC Music”, the Main Stage audiences are very small, capacity only approached for the headliners.
Dan Owen and a keyboard player are on stage. Passionate folk tinged acoustic guitar balladry in the now well established modern acoustic tradition, Owen’s fresh-faced demeanour belies a muscular, affecting and soulful, sometimes bluesy, voice, heard to good effect on “Like Icarus” (an upcoming release) and “Stay Awake With Me” – heartfelt, dedicated to his deceased grandad. “When I Die” lightened the atmosphere – with an upbeat piano solo. The beautiful but sad “Made to Love You” brought the audience back down again, Owen’s voice perfectly suited to the song’s apparent theme of domestic violence. The set ended with Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown”; a profoundly depressing song but played with rousing, stomping gusto, leaving the somewhat sparse audience on an energetic high.
It’s half an hour between sets on the Main Stage and so I beetled off to catch the end of Voodoovendors, a blues guitar/harmonica and drums duo, at the Hereafter. Guitarist Sony West payed in a rude, rootsy, swampy style with a variety of guitars (such as Dobro-style). Plenty of Diddley beats: Willie Dixon/Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing” stood out and somewhere along proceedings there was a tub-thumping drum solo by the drummer, whose name I’ve subsequently learnt is, appropriately, Jay Tubsman. The duo has a slightly menacing stage presence, the menace heightened by the clown decorating the stage! The wonderfully named “Wang Dang Doodle”, followed by the closing “Shake Your Money Maker” got the thin but energetic crowd dancing, gradually coalescing into a communal kind of synchronised syncopated barn dance. A well spent half hour!
Which means I didn’t catch all of photogenic Joy Crookes’ set on the Main Stage. As I sauntered through the - still - sparse audience I just thought ‘Amy Whitehouse’ but on closer listening her tone is much lighter and inflection more modern, in a clipped estuary English style. Supported by guitar and drums, and I’m guessing some backing loops, her music is light, poppy and catchy soul interspersed with the occasional rap and, despite the occasional swear word, presented with a playful stage presence and infectious laugh. After one song she described her mother as being very liberal – I wish I’d listened to the lyrics to the song more closely than I had! “Bad Feeling” was about wandering eyes and the set closed with “Power”. Despite the small audience Crookes made an engagingly big impact.
Just time, then, to see a bit of Waaju at the Travelling Barn: a five-piece comprising tenor saxophone, guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Their funky instrumental jazz was led by Sam Rapley’s sax and Tal Janes’ mellifluous, honey-textured guitar work. Complex, often West African-influenced polyrhythms were interspersed with guitar looping and pedal derived textures but occasionally the music was perhaps a little mellow and generic; maybe they’d mellowed the music down a bit for a mid- afternoon Wilderness audience? This is a band I’d like to see again in a small jazz club environment, where the audience has specifically come to hear them.
I had Rainbreakers on my list of bands I’d like to hear at the festival, especially after spotting someone wearing a Rainbreakers T shirt earlier in the day. So, off to the Hereafter stage. Their music is fairly old-school hard rock with a transatlantic edge. Succinct songs, a bit of riffing, 1970s singing, a bit of distorted, occasionally Hendrixy lead guitar, very tight bass. Some of their funkier numbers sounded a bit nondescript but their set came alive about halfway through with stronger material and they finished on a high.
It’s early evening now: Confidence Man at the Main Stage. This was slick, catchy electro-pop. Fronted by Janet Planet (sic; high, girly, bubble-gum singing) and Sugar Bones (sic; deep raspy singing) on vocals and dance routines, they were funny, sassy and very, very camp. Multiple costume changes and tight, well-choreographed dance routines seemed to parody the pop genre. It’s all wonderfully silly. And very weird: at the back Reggie Goodchild plays the programmed sounds whilst Clarence McGuffie plays proper, live drums but both wear opaque black-veiled bee-hats. Meanwhile they jump up and down to the music. The songs bounce along; Janet and Sugar bounce along – the energy (in this heat) and humour radiate from the stage. Silly lyrics seem to reflect adolescent experiences – boyfriends, parties, teenagers, I think. Another costume change and Janet and Sugar come out wearing masks – of themselves! Hugely enjoyable.
It’s difficult to review Baxter Dury; it must be difficult being Baxter Dury. His father’s legacy is all pervasive. His band, with Baxter also on occasional keyboards is funky, with occasional spoken word, ska and punk elements. The support of two female backing voices adds extra texture and on “Porcelain” a Nico-esque lead. Baxter dresses better than his dad and is handsomer (though from where I was standing he disconcertingly looked a bit like Jose Mourinho at times) but often sounds like Ian (clipped estuary, again). Despite often upbeat musically, Dury’s songs are dark, often tormented. But it is his stage mannerisms that are most problematic as they are so like his father’s – which I’ve always understood arose out of his childhood polio. So, you watch and wonder whether his dancing and gestures are genuine – this is how Durys dance - or an emulation. Dury’s stage presence is occasionally angst ridden and aggressive; the swearing seemed a little excessive – especially for an early evening slot. I really enjoyed the set and would like to explore further but I didn’t laugh and smile knowingly like I used to at Ian Dury gigs. Better seen in a late-night slot, I think.
The French electronic duo Justice headline on Friday evening. Whilst enjoying a quiet beer in a bar at the top of the natural arena, waiting to head down to the stage itself, I noticed the huge number of people already making their way through. Justice, I’m ashamed to say, had previously escaped my attention and I’d wondered why they were headlining. It was clear from this influx of, mainly young, people that they must be very popular indeed. Completely electronic, Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay face each other across their consoles in the centre of a dark stage, a wall of Marshall cabinets behind them. Beautiful synth textures and bang! The stage explodes with light and deep thunderous bass literally rumbles through our heads. The duo themselves have very little stage presence - largely faceless and anonymous with little engagement with the audience bar the occasional gesturing for us to dance or clap. They let their music do the talking – it’s resonant, powerful, occasionally beautiful, largely instrumental and the crowd are in rapture.
Justice’s on-stage anonymity, whilst they fade and twiddle, is offset by a stupendous light show; this is no place for those affected by strobes or bright lights. The wall of “Marshall” cabinets is really a wall of lights; the keyboard consoles pulse white, yellow, red and blue. Two rows of four huge lighting rigs hang over the duo, each independently manoeuvrable so that during the set they are almost dancing as they lower, raise and tilt, lighting the stage. The lightshow echoes and adds to the music.
Towards the end the music suddenly stops, and the two musicians hold a frozen pose, as if mid dance. Silence. They continue to hold their pose. Perversely, this silence and stillness is an intimate engagement between the band and the audience. It’s as if an absence reinforces their presence. You can feel the love. How long will they keep it up for? It seemed like two minutes; no sound, no movement from the duo (you have to admire their poise and pose) then bang! Off we go again, the music continues. It’s all incredibly effective. No encore, but a very happy and satisfied crowd now hurry off towards the Valley to rave on through the night on the other side of the festival site.
Me? I’m hungry. Leaving aside the posh Feasting the choice of food on offer is huge. There’s quite a wide range of prices but almost all I ate over the weekend – burger and chips; grilled plaice and chips; barbecued beef and chips end up somewhere in the £11 - £14 range. It’s possible to eat more cheaply and more expensively. All of it was excellent quality, though quantity varies. A pint of beer or cider costs a universal £6 which I felt was reasonable. Meantime Brewery, Fuller’s Frontier and Orchard Pig cider appear to have all the concessions – which was fine by me. Thumbs up.
Furthermore, the food didn’t poison me. Had I needed to rush to the standard festival-issue Andyloos, they were plentiful and well sited, though as you’d expect there were generally queues (perhaps up to about five minutes). From my usage, I found them clean, smell free, stocked with plenty of loo roll (though I carry my own) and basically well maintained. I’m always surprised how their translucent white roofs manage to create so much light even at night (though I carry a torch).
So, off to bed. One criticism I would have is insufficient lighting of the pathways and area between the main festival site and General Camping area. It’s dark and uneven and involves a bit of clamber up or down at one point. A torch is handy.
Much of Saturday morning is spent at the thoroughly non-PC cricket much. I have no idea who won. I think streakers did. I did a bit of crowd watching: dinosaur tails are still in fashion and there were huge numbers of people (mainly adults) wearing fluffy tails. Utterly bizarre.
Pianist James Heather is on the Atrium stage, quietly and sensitively entertaining a large, relaxed, audience. However, there’s a lot of bleed from the cricket match commentary, plus whoops, shouts and cheers when there’s a wicket or streaker, and from the numerous bars in the vicinity, all broadcasting loud music. This bleed threatens to overwhelm Heather’s piano and made it difficult to focus on it. There’s too much bleed at Wilderness and sometimes I longed for respite from the relentless disco beats from the bars and food stalls.
A dreadlocked (sort of) Gabriela Eva is playing on the Travelling Barn stage, “Sailing Over the City” describing a love triangle. Her music is light, jazzy and her singing a delight. It seems soft, but her songs are surprisingly deep and complex; it’s all kind of magical. She wears a bright pink dress, decorated with snakes, with giant shoulder pads which I realised were not angel wings – I wish I understood her costume. Her songs “Ah Ah” and “Rise Up” (dedicated to Nicaragua) follow. Her (female) drummer seemed to have quite a following but I like how Gabriela posed for selfies with children and interacted with her small audience after her performance. Very enjoyable.
Back on the Main Stage Findlay is on. Her band is hairy (two guitars, bass/keyboards and drums) and her music is mainly a classic big rock sound – distorted guitar, occasional feedback, a bit of riffing, sometimes anthemic (“Forgotten Pleasures”) and sometimes veering towards synth pop (“Waste My Time”). I can’t really explain why - I think it was during “Greasy Love” – but Suzi Quatro came to mind; as if on cue the next song seemed to be based around David Bowie’s Jean Genie riff – glam! “Electric Bones” followed (I loved the line ‘I’m just the girl with the microphone’) and then “Wild and Unwise”, heavy and dirge-like. The final song (I think it’s “Sunday Morning in the Afternoon”) begins quietly on the piano and reaches a wall of sound climax. I’d like to hear more.
Mahalia also plays on the Main Stage, accompanied by a live bass player. Her music is in the modern urban tradition (“No Pressure”, “Proud of Me”) but she also plays guitar. She has a strong but clear and sweet voice: you can actually hear the, autobiographical, lyrics. On “17”, playing solo, she false starts but it’s kind of endearing; the thin audience is very sympathetic and supportive – though this might be because her family is amongst us. “Back Up Plan” was unaccompanied spoken word/acapella describing youthful ambition and hope (and disappointment) – presumably Mahalia’s own experiences. It was very moving but also empowering, as was “I Wish I Missed My Ex” (‘You win some, you lose some but you got to sacrifice some to get what you want’!). Mahalia begins to twerk, stops turns to the audience and smiles as if to say ‘this is not what I do’: her joy at being on stage is infectious and I loved it.
I’d been looking forward to seeing !!! (CHK CHK CHK), a longstanding dance-punk band from USA; I realise they are an important and original band but I was disappointed. The music was fine – disco played mainly live by drums, bass, guitar and keyboards, with a bit of added grunge. I found the double lead singer approach too like that parodied the previous evening by Confidence Man. Shannon Funchess is a fine vocalist but I found it difficult to enjoy Nic Offer’s singing. Perhaps that’s the punk element but in the end his stage presentation felt like a parody of a parody that had been parodied by Sugar Honey the previous night.
The Wilderness parade is especially good, though a bit directionless as they slowly make their way from the Club House to a high wire trapeze area near the Travelling Barn, to the sound of drums and marching jazz. Standout creations include an almost alive swooping owl, a giant old crone (Mrs Punch?). Awesome.
Following CHK CHK CHK Chic headline on Saturday night to a massive crowd. Chic are slick, showbizzy and tightly rehearsed; Nile Rodgers is charismatic and fronts with pizzazz, his trademark guitar to the fore. Keyboards, bass, drums, brass section and two magnificent singers gel together seamlessly. They know what the audience wants, and we get it. We get highs (“Le Freak”), lows (Rodgers’ battle with cancer) but always “Good Times” (now cancer free). We get a medley of songs either produced or written for other stars – Diana Ross, Madonna, Duran Duran. I had forgotten just quite how many collaborative hits Rodgers had had besides those with Sister Sledge. It might be a little churlish to suggest that at times it was a little bit like those “Stars on 45” disco medleys or that I miss Bernard Edwards’ bass; instead just go with the flow - bop around as if at Studio 54, joyously clap, sing and wave your mobile on cue; have fun and “Get Lucky”. The audience laps it up; at one point, I think during Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” much of the audience seems to be dancing on the very full stage! We’re all ecstatic. No encore, though Rodgers confusingly remains on stage. I’m expectant – clap, cheer, “Chic Cheer”! But the crowd shuffle off towards the Valley. We’ve had a good time!
Sunday: wake up to another hot day, cloudless blue sky but sunburnt forehead and nose, a bit jaded. Back across into the main festival area, mass wellbeing still going strong. I think I need to have a little quiet time to myself and relax and people watch in the quiet shade of the Greencrafts Village. If you fancy, you can learn to make spoons; weave your own head garland or dream catcher; make flowers; weave a wicker basket, carve chalk or build your own medieval wooden stocks, amongst a myriad of other crafts. I sit at a low table, carved wooden mushrooms five feet tall sprout from its base. Another cricket match is in full swing, Heroes vs Villains. The streakers win again.
Back at the Main Stage four-piece Stereo Honey play their intense, passionate set. Falsetto singing, rich keyboard and echoey guitar effect textures. Their music goes fast – slow; quiet – loud, building up to rocky, anthemic crescendos. “What Makes A Man” and “Through the Night” stand out, both underpinned by bass and drums slightly reminiscent of U2. Once again, the audience is sparse. I do feel a bit sorry for the bands playing early.
One of the joys of Wilderness is unexpectedly stumbling across a band and being knocked out by them. In 2017 this happened to me with both Longy and the Gospel Trash and Dutch trio My Baby. My Baby are back again this year, moving from the small Travelling Barn to the huge Main Stage, mid-afternoon. The audience is tiny; their sound is big. How would they come across? There music is a kind of prehistoric boogie. Joost van Dijck lays down a heavy back beat on drums; sister Cato, dressed as 1970s hippy-chick, sings, plays snappy boogie bass lines and occasional violin whilst Peter Hook lookalike Daniel Johnston overlays guitar ranging from distorted slide, funky swampy blues, to soaring, echoey psychedelic textures, with occasional nods to the west African desert blues style (reinforced by Cato’s violin). It’s hot and the sun is in their faces; they play “Sunflower Sutra”, its desert sound appropriate. I’m sure one song was called “Sweaty Betty” but maybe that’s just how I was feeling. Meanwhile the band shuffles and rumbles energetically, often with an emphasis on the backbeat and occasionally reaching ‘shamanic’ heights. Most enjoyable but once again probably better suited to a later time-slot.
Palace follow. Classic rock, soaring guitars, quite a lot of guitar tuning. They all wore peaked baseball caps. Good, likeable but not especially memorable. Sunday afternoon tiredness must be setting in. They might come across better in a different context. Next up is IAMDDB and she is. No live instrumentation, Diana Debrito sings whilst in the background her co-musician and manager lays down the backing. It’s a slinky, streetwise blend of urban R+B and jazzy soul. “Shade” (did the computer go wrong at the beginning, requiring a restart?) contains the lovely, up to date lyric ‘Uber, Uber everywhere’! The audience, predominantly women, is growing; it’s her first time playing in Oxfordshire - she asks those seeing her for the first time to put up their hands and almost everyone does. She connects easily with her audience. A standout song was, I think, entitled “Pussica”, an empowering, soul rap and again the audience connected instantly. Another of the several very impressive, talented young women artists presented on the Main Stage to watch how their careers develop.
I was expecting tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington to be a high point of Wilderness and he didn’t disappoint. A big man, much in demand and much-touted as a jazz giant in the spirit of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, his own work is known for triple albums, long, lush, complex evolving pieces, big bands, massed choirs and string sections. It was going to be interesting to see how it was all going to be condensed down to fit into an hour-long early evening slot. The result is an eight-piece band playing a five or six song set including an encore. The first piece was electrifying and intense, opening with bowed wah-wah string bass from Miles Mosely, looking cool in a beret and shades and featuring trombone and sax solos and wordless vocals by Patrice Quinn – capturing the textures found on the albums. “Malcolm’s Theme” featured Washington’s father Ricky on flute and again, vocals by Quinn. Two drummers let loose a flurry of beats as the music goes free, screeching vocals and sax, before transitioning into a piano-based and vocals section. The next piece, based around a sharp, staccato bebop styled theme featured piano and an exciting double drums ‘solo’. This is followed by a piece which begins in a slight reggae style (trombonist Ryan Porter wears a Bob Marley T shirt), morphing into a gritty, bluesy sax solo. “Fists of Fury” is epic, filmic (initially it had a spaghetti western tinge) and calmly political – ‘Our time as victims is over…… ‘. A kind of psychedelic wah-wah bowed string bass solo is not something you often hear! A repetitive sax theme began the encore, underscored by powerful disco style drums, ending a satisfying, intelligent, quietly angry but positive set.
Bastille wind up Wilderness 2018 on the Main Stage. Where Justice’s feature was their anonymity Bastille’s is Dan Smith; they don’t need such an elaborate light show. The four musicians each have their stations on stage – two keyboard consoles to the left, drums at the back, bassist Will Farquarson to the right. Various drums are available for the band to bang during their performance. I was surprised at how many guitars and basses were handed to Farquarson, whose strong supporting role balanced Smith’s. Other members of the band also switched from instrument to instrument at their assigned stations. But the focus is clearly on Smith who prowls and leaps across the front of the stage, using the three risers to reach out to, and connect with, all corners of the crowd. I’m not familiar with Bastille’s music but their performance was very tight, their indie-pop infectious. The audience for this final set was huge and near the front mainly comprised young girls – and sometimes their mothers. This seemed to be music that both young parents and their teenaged children could enjoy together.
I felt old, though, as I looked around and noticed many girls were not just supported on their friends’ shoulders piggy-back style but many were actually standing on their friends’ shoulders! Bastille didn’t need to win over the crowd; they were adoring, and Smith could do no wrong. Mobile phones were whipped out and waved around. Having been buffeted around by dancers for about an hour, when Smith declared he isn’t a good dancer and needed audience assistance – the assistance being that when given the cue we would crouch down on the ground and then leap up – I thought it best to withdraw to the edge of the crowd, where I watched the rest of the gig from a safe distance! The audience loved it all, but I found it difficult to fully engage.
So ends Wilderness 2018. I aim to walk 10,000 steps (about four miles or so) daily; over the weekend I averaged 26,000. There’s so much to see and do, so much to explore that trying to cover everything can be energy-sapping. Next year I’ll try and chill out a bit more. If I start saving now perhaps Feasting beckons, then some quiet meditation in the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Garden and the Pimms Croquet Club, then carve myself a walking stick in the Greencrafts Village before bopping around at the Main Stage.
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Wilderness 2019 review