The beautiful rolling hills of Cornbury Park again welcome some 30,000 celebrants to Wilderness. Now in its ninth season, it’s host to four days of a huge range of music and non-music acts, debates and discussions, theatre and arts, health and wellbeing, craft workshops. There’s something for everyone, of all ages.
Arriving at around lunch time on the Friday, the weather was hot, the sky clear but the queue through security was painfully slow. It’s always slightly frustrating to be in the one queue that moves forwards at a quarter of speed of the other queues. The security had better be good. Having struggled through the checks it was therefore disappointing to be told that Quiet Camping was “rammed” and that it would be better to find somewhere else to set up the tent in the standard camping – which was rammed, too.
Eventually, hot and sweaty, tents up, ready to enter. Last year the long walk into the main Arena area had been past mass ranks of wellbeing enthusiasts but this year axe-throwers had to be negotiated. I must admit that axe-throwing seemed slightly incongruous given both the serious security checking and general prominence given to wellbeing, though admittedly you could also make a longbow in The Greencrafts Village before visiting Haus of Victorinox. Inversion Therapy sounded comparatively innocuous.
It’s vital to get hold of a Wilderness Programme/guide and especially the stage times insert or freebie. There, laid out in black and white are all the myriad scheduled events (and almost all do actually run on schedule, too) on at least eight music oriented stages; plus dozens of performance and discussion spaces and what must be hundreds of other events spaces. The logistics of organising such an event pretty much off the beaten track is impressive; the logistics of making the most of the festival as a punter daunting, too. As previously noted I prefer a more improvised free-flowing approach combined with a basic timetable watching the bands. At times, though, I found myself wishing that there were fewer choices, fewer clashes, as I constantly felt that there might have been something even better happening just over the next hill.
Cykada collective enjoyably kicked off Friday’s Main Stage entertainment. Long-haired, jazzy funksters with links to Maisha and the Ezra Collective (possibly too many “collectives” nowadays?), they got my foot tapping and brain engaged nicely but a hot, sunny, early afternoon slot in front of a sparse audience did them few favours; nor did the PA system, which cut out during their final number. Illustrating the growing popularity of the jazz resurgence, this is a band (collective?) that I look forward to catching up with again in a more appropriate venue.
I’d also been looking forward to Kawala. The duo of Jim Higson and Dan McCarthy led their five-piece through highly enjoyable easy-going poppy harmonies, light and deft. They engaged easily and confidently with their, again still sparse but growing, audience: “Together we can spell” they yelled, referring to (I think Dan’s) dyslexia. I could have sworn that in much of their harmonies and eclectic music that I heard echoes of Paul Simon!
Blanco White, on a variety of guitars and stringed instruments makes dark, broody, intricate music which demands close listening. The six multi-instrumentalists aren’t loud. The two violins are beautifully melancholic, greatly adding to the textures and bringing out the emotion of White’s vocals. Though White was well received, it’s still difficult for the band to break through the chatter of the growing audience and shows how tricky it is for festival afternoon acts. I found the group selfie, with the audience as background, as they departed the stage oddly touching, but I’m old fashioned enough to still think that it should be the audience taking photos of the band rather than the other way around.
Olafur Arnalds’ ambient minimalism is more often heard on-screen. His slow, looping strings rising to crescendos; repetitive immersive soundscapes and arpeggios occasionally breaking into something more upbeat - also demand attention. This was the second slow, quiet set in a row, though, and I needed something more upbeat. So I’d question the scheduling: an appearance around sunset - the music echoing its environment – might have been more appropriate and also allow us to see the lightshow, too.
Tom Odell opens powerfully with ‘I Know’. The large crowd is ecstatic, arms waving in unison, singing along. Tom can do no wrong and he has them in the palm of his hand; years of experience on the festival circuit having honed his engagement with his audience. Elton Johnisms abound, leaping on to the piano, arms outstretched, antics with the microphone stand. There’s a ballad; there’s a blues; there’s a bit of rock and roll. The band is on form. There’s a drum solo (Animally); there’s a bass solo (bubbly); there’s a guitar solo (screechy). All bases covered – Odell is an entertainer. He triumphantly concludes with Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’. What could be more appropriate? A triumph.
Headlining on the Friday, Bombay Bicycle Club’s was their first major outing in four years. They played a kind of greatest hits, drawn mainly from their albums ‘I Had the Blues…..’, ‘A Different Kind of Fix’ and, the most recent, ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’. I believe they played one new song – I think it was called ‘Eat Sleep Wake’ The core quartet was augmented with a brass section and so with something like nine musicians on stage their sound was lush – a joyous sound though perhaps lacking passion – the band seems bookish and remote on stage. This didn’t worry the audience at all – they had enough passion and absolutely loved the set. A high point for me was the light show with its streamers and confetti – the latter producing a prolonged, multicoloured, shimmying fog as it slowly dropped to the ground. The band encored with Robyn’s ‘Every Heartbeat’ – a touching homage to the following night’s headliner.
The headline acts at Wilderness end fairly early; then the real partying begins. For many, not just the young, it’s a quick dash to The Valley. Crowds build up here and the valley itself is steep. I’ve previously found it claustrophobic and despite the recommended light show decide to give it a miss this year. Instead I check out the neighbouring The High Ground, which if I recall correctly was The Carousel last year. It’s now primarily given over to late-night DJ sessions aimed at the gender diverse (similarly, The House of Sublime).
The nearby Jumpyard (previously The Hereafter if I remember correctly) is now devoted mainly to soul and RnB but somehow whenever I went there is was yet another DJ set. If I have any criticism of Wilderness it’s the trend towards reliance on DJ sets. I want live music. One other criticism relating to the ubiquitous DJ sets: the bleed from the discos to the live music stages. The stage bleed was particularly noticeable on the Main and Atrium stages and the constant throbbing, pulsating “boom, boom, boom, boom” interfered with my enjoyment of Letters Live on the latter.
Back, then, to The Level stage (“Global sounds on heavy rotation”), which last year was a smaller, more intimate tented stage, the wonderful Travelling Barn, where I spent much time. I appreciate that Wilderness needs to change, update and progress but The Level didn’t work. Again, too much DJ-ing. I do understand that DJ sessions allow the live musicians to set up, but the change-overs were clumsy. I saw several wonderful acts at The Level, though. Electric Jalaba were superb – a trancy melange of groovy West African and (I think) Moroccan ‘Gnawa’ themes interlaced with psychedelic synth burbles, beats and jazz, led by a colourfully dressed singer on a guitar-like instrument which even I can’t describe. More, please.
Otim Alpha played The Level late on Friday night. Energetic Acholi rapping backed by, I think, electronic sampled African beats and rhythms morphed into something both traditional and very modern. Shunaji played The Level on Sunday lunchtime. Backing herself with samples, loops and various sequenced sounds she sang and rapped, her voice soulful. A haunting acapella described her experiences as a black woman. It was a fine set, reminding us of how much great, great music is out there and yet like others on the same stage scandalously overlooked and neglected by the Wilderness audience – the stage’s location both cramped and almost empty; even the huge nearby bar area empty. I’m not sure what the problem is here but next year it needs improvement.
I wound Friday up in The Forum’s Comedy Night watching the entertaining Thomas Green. I began Saturday in The Forum, where Matthew Taylor and The Guardian’s John Harris presented the Royal Society of Arts’ ‘Polarised’ podcast, which focused on asking what divides society and what action can be taken to heal the wounds. I much enjoyed the discussion but have to again note that like last year the audience was made up more of the beneficiaries of division, lacking the diversity that was the subject of the discussion. As an aside, it was good to see discussion by and about Extinction Rebellion and about climate emergency during the weekend. This included an interesting Idler presentation on permaculture and urban beekeeping on the Sunday.
Back at the Main Stage, Oxford’s Low Island were solid and at times anthemic. Multi-instrumentalists, their sound successfully mixes modern electronics, samples beats and so on with traditional rock guitar, drums and bass producing an immediately accessible and attractive sound. SOAK followed, led by Bridie Monds-Watson. I enjoyed her jangly, echoey ethereal guitar based sound but found it difficult to relate to her thin, occasionally monotonous voice. Once again, music to sit down to listen to.
The highlight for Saturday afternoon was Oh My God! It’s the Church, fronted by the ‘Right Reverend’ Michael Alabama Jackson, supported by the three Hail Marys, Morgan the Organ and a really tight, funky band. Ironic high camp turned us on to Sexy Jesus in the spirit of, say, The Rocky Horror Show or The Tubes. Their energy was perfect mid-afternoon festival material – though perhaps audience participation in the form of turning to your neighbour to call them a “sexy m*****f****r might not be exactly family friendly! With the audience waving their shoes in the air and mass singalongs to ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ and a version of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’, even I was worshipping down on my knees - converted and ecstatic.
I was a bit more ambivalent towards Caravan Palace’s take on electronic dance music. Again, like others, they combined digital instrumentation combined with analogue guitars, double bass, percussion and wild saxophones. It’s extremely well done and professional. Diminutive singer Zoe Colotis with close support from bouncy saxophonist Victor Raimondeau engage with the audience – “Keep being crazy”. The music veered from big band swing one moment to hard core beats the next. But for me it came across as a bit bitty, as cartoonish. Enjoyable, lively, danceable – the whole audience was dancing and having a great time but I couldn’t get thoughts of Jive Bunny out of my head.
The last rays of sun disappear. A white sheet acts as a safety curtain across the Main Stage: what is behind it? All is revealed when Robyn takes to the stage on her only UK appearance of the current European leg of her ten month ‘Honey’ world tour. She stands elegantly – her presence exudes sophistication and glamour. I hesitate to say the Swedish singer’s stage set is icy, but well, it looks like an ice palace, snow drifting up against the keyboards. There is some kind of huge white hand up at the back of the stage behind the percussionist, though – rather strange; I’m not quite sure I understand what her message is. Her performance is very theatrical. Following the third song Robyn leaves the stage for a costume change during which the performance is augmented by a dancer. Balletic duets feature during much of rest of the set, Robyn now dressed in a black suit which allows for a variety of slinky contortions.
Meanwhile, cameras videos Robyn’s moves, projecting the images onto the rear screen. The music is precise, the band splendid – I guess after some six months touring they must be pretty familiar with the music, but they remain fresh. As usual, I especially like the occasional gurgling analogue synth sounds. I’m not sure whether it’s particular to Robyn or not but the audience – singing along to every song – seems especially keen on waving things about. Not just themselves, not just the ubiquitous flags, but also sticks (often with lights), balloons, lights, jellyfish umbrellas, ordinary umbrellas and so on! During the encore there’s a quick percussion duet whilst Robyn throws roses into the audience and then, leaving a throbbing bass and synthesiser drone, she and her musicians leave the stage one by one. Another triumph.
The Spectacular returned to the Main Stage again this year and the conclusion of Robyn’s set segued almost directly into Arcadia’s performance. I’m not completely sure what was going on but it was riveting. A mechanical spider shuttled backwards and forwards along a high wire about fifty feet in the air picking up, depositing or enmeshing ‘Mirror Person’ and ‘Electric Person’. Mirror Person made sounds based on reflecting lasers from mirrors and ‘Electric Person’ made electric music and, well, electricity. I wish I knew how it was done! Fire and fireworks completed the spectacle. Utterly enjoyable.
Letters Live, at The Atrium on both late Saturday night and Sunday afternoon comprises famous thesps reading out comic or moving letters. Narrated by John Lloyd, this year included Minnie Driver, Ade Edmonson, Olivia Coleman, Rose McGowan amongst others. Highlights for me were Lemn Sissay on Saturday and on Sunday Jennifer Saunders reading a very moving, very human, letter to David Hockney from his mother, expressing her love for him but perplexed over his sexuality.
Much of Sunday was taken up by the cricket match. I’m not quite sure who was playing whom, but God and the Dalai Lama umpired and there were loads of streakers and naked people. I did note that the Pope poured some Holy Water and then Brexit attacked the NHS, but then when called “out!” Brexit was then attacked and beaten up by – well, almost everyone on the pitch! Hat Parade (the Sunday theme was ‘Great Big Hats Off’) was a bit boring – the spirit of cricket meets hats. Strictly Come Wilderness, spread over Saturday and Sunday sessions at The Atrium, was essentially the camp irony of Wilderness cricket meets the, er, camp irony of Strictly. Kids went wild dancing – though Dan the Eliminator caused tears on Sunday in declaring a winner. However, there were strictly no losers. It was different for the adults, though. In the final Linda “Mum of the Year” faced “Charlie from Stuttgart” in the final. Charlie won. Amazing dancing; tremendous fun.
I’d promised myself some posh food this year but once again had failed to book in advance. Inevitably most of the sittings had long since been fully booked up. As an observation, many of the sittings last two hours and so, realistically, once again major choices have to be made between food, other events and music.
So, with feasting out again this year, I opted for street food. Given the target audiences, Extinction Rebellion and dietary trends, I was surprised not to find more vegan or vegetarian choices. It’s there but animal - based is still the norm. I felt utterly spoilt for choice, though - to the extent that I’d wander around and around in circles trying to decide what to eat.
Up-market pre-booked feasting aside, there’s the walk in/booked food but somehow there’s a bit of a barrier when you see it at £45 per head. The street food vans are much more accessible. Prices average out at around the £10 area, a bit more for elaborately barbecued meat; perhaps half that for a portion of “dirty” chips. It struck me as reasonable value.
There’s inevitably a lot of queuing unless you aim to eat around midday before the lunch rush or during the headliners of the Main or Atrium stages. The queues did influence my choices. I (twice) had one of the best fish (and chips, more ordinary) I’ve had – which I wouldn’t really have expected – I’m a firm believer that fish and chips is always best from a proper fish and chip shop. Smokestak’s more expensive barbecued pork and beef brisket (and chips) was delicious, too. On the Sunday a portion of cheese (over chips) hit the mark nicely.
Once again I failed to make it to the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Garden and was reduced to peering in; I never made it to the Sipsmith Gin Palace, Talisker Wild Spirit Bar or Bulleit Bourbon Americana Bar either – but all looked incredibly fun. A change from last year – not especially welcomed by me – was that Spanish lager dominated the beer tents. Real or craft ale seemed to have been pushed aside – no more Meantime or Fuller’s. A pint of San Miguel was £6 – not unreasonable. The more expensive Mahou Terraza at the top of the Main Stage area was buzzing and made a vibrantly colourful, diverse after-gig rendezvous, relaxation and re-grouping point.
What goes in goes out. There were plenty of toilets, though not always clean. Loo paper was sadly lacking in several, too. In previous years I’ve always felt the loos to be really good at Wilderness but there was a slight sense that standards had slipped a bit this year.
I enjoyed Sunday’s performance by six piece (guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, female harmonies) Cosmic Strip on the Main Stage. I felt the first songs in their set were stronger and enjoyed the synth textures which brought to mind Joy Division’s fragile synth use. The later songs were punkier. Vocals were confident and charismatic. Once again the crowd was sparse, however.
I’d been looking forward to seeing Freya Ridings. Where Robyn the night before had been icily white, Freya was purple or mauve. Sitting behind her piano centre stage her deep-voiced, emotional ballads and anthemic songs are sad but manage to be uplifting and liberating. They seem a little samey but take you with them as they build to a climax. ‘You Mean the World to Me’ was dedicated to her mother (a sure-fire winner); ‘Castles’ was uplifting; ‘Unconditional’ was somehow nearly happy. On rising from her piano, however, Ridings appeared curiously fragile, as if physically reflecting the duality of her music. She deserves her success.
As does Tom Grennan. Accompanied by gospel choir, brass and backing singers and wearing an only slightly dodgy black mac. The audience loves Grennan’s cheeky-chappy stage persona and jolly, bouncy, easy-going songs. A blow-up plastic watermelon on appears on stage, which he kicks back into the crowd, where it merrily bounces around for a while. Somehow this typifies Grennan’s slightly raspy, white soul vocals and easy going, unpretentious professionalism. ‘All Goes Wrong’ begins with Grennan alone with piano before the choir comes in; ‘Secret Lover’ is jaunty, funky, almost reggae, with a ‘Ring My Bell’ section at the end – meanwhile the crowd is joyously singing along, hands aloft, mass piggy-backing (which makes me feel old). ‘Found What I’ve Been Looking For” closes the set and a great time has been had by all.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect of Groove Armada, who closed Wilderness: I had unconscious familiarity but no real knowledge of their music. I had expected a digital duo but what we got was a proper band - Andy Cato mainly played bass, plus keyboards (and later, trombone); Tom Findlay did the electronic keyboards stuff and then there were proper acoustic drums and a guitarist. Three vocalists took it in turns; I’d love to be able to tell you who they were but I’m afraid I don’t know (Saint Saviour? MC Mike Daniel?). Anyway, the band was fantastic. This was powerful, loud, bass and acoustic drum driven rock. And then it all went quiet! The PA had cut out (again). They struggled on (in time to a click track and silent sequenced backing?) and the PA came back again. And off again. That was it – the audience started to disperse; I think many started to leave the festival at this point. However, about twenty minutes later the PA was back on and GA performed the rest of their brilliant set. Standouts were, for me, inevitably ‘I See You Baby’ and ‘At the River’ during which Cato undertook trombone duties. His live trombone exemplified why GA were such a pleasant surprise: over the years I’d always assumed the trombone part was a sample (it probably was) but here, as with so many of their sounds, it was being performed live – real trombone exactly as it should be, perfect for the song. GA’s approach was kind of “anti-DJ-ing”, and an unexpected standout of the festival. The light show was pretty brilliant too – laser latticework dancing across the sky. The was confusion over the (lack of an) encore, but otherwise the perfect conclusion to this year’s Wilderness. I can’t wait for next year – but do something about The Level stage, please.
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