Review: Wilderness Festival
"Wilderness stays true to an attitude of freedom and beauty"
Wilderness Festival is not your typical festival experience. There is no sign of the post-GCSE result sixteen-year old found at Reading Festival, whose excited screams of ‘NO PARENTS’ can be heard from the other side of the site. Yet Wilderness is not in the same vein as those local family festivals such as Cornbury or Cropedy; there is a certain level of debauchery here that can be found – and relished – not too far from the surface.
One thing that strikes from the off about Wilderness is the range and variety on their programme – of course, there is an eclectic mix of musical endeavours but with menus specially curated by the likes of Raymond Blanc and Virgilo Martinez, and debating panels dealing in politics, religion, culture and philosophy – this is an event that is entrenched in committing to a rounded festival ideology. Although this is truly a commendable ethos, it seems that this year’s musical lineup was slightly more subdued than in previous years.
Nevertheless, there were some real highlights to this year’s event – Friday brought about the festival’s heaviest-hitter in Robert Plant & The Sensational Space-Shifters, whose main stage set undeniably brought in the largest crowd of the weekend. The shaggy 74-year old played a mix of newer songs such as the fantastic ‘Rainbow’ as well as the-ingrained-in-our-psyche classic of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ which go down a treat. Simultaneously, classic London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s took over the Atrium and were hosting the glorious Roy Ayers, the acclaimed vibraphonist who has worked with the likes of Chic’s Nile Rogers. His set is something to behold – a master class in musicianship, feel-good acid-jazz and pure character, as at one point Ayers jokingly berates his band – to the amusement of the crowd – telling them listen to his playing more intently.
Around the site, there seems to be a freedom that is seldom found in other British festivals – bar maybe Glastonbury. The lake that separates the campsites from the arena is perfectly situated as a late-morning congregation spot where revellers don their bikinis and rather questionably, their budgie-smugglers (or don’t) to take a soothing dip – temporary relief from the sizzling heat that the weekend brought. Elsewhere, the Banqueting, Literary and Odditorium tents make sure there is plenty of other activities to get involved in, albeit at some hefty prices – this is undeniably not the ideal festival for someone on a student budget!
The Saturday Night Spectacle – which is Wilderness’ centerpiece – a daring combination of high-rope walkers from the Cirque Bijou and Wilderness volunteers to the sound of ethereal folk music, lived up to its billing with a mightily impressive display. On the stranger end of the spectrum, Sunday brought about some highly interesting moments such as the traditional Wilderness cricket match in the midst of the festival attended by a 5,000 strong crowd while the 3pm watershed brought about some form of Olympics where all participants were naked – I’m sure this sight certainly blew away any of the cobwebs from the Saturday night partygoers in the Valley!
Musically, Sunday was perhaps the most solid day, with a wealth of main stage talent such as Mancunian popstar Shura who wheeled out her wonky blend of pop and R’n’B for an afternoon slot which may not have exhilarated most but nevertheless impressed as a decent showcase of modern pop songs. As evening descends, Lianne La Havas’ warm set is one of the highlights of the weekend. Her eclectic taste is evident as her hour on stage drifts from mellow acoustic numbers and soul-tinged ‘Forget’ and to the glitchy indie-rock of ‘Green & Gold’, creating an interesting landscape in which La Havas seems in complete control. Added to this is her lovingly sincere chats in between songs which only serve to endear her to the Wilderness crowd even further.
As the festival draws to close, the most important musical event of the weekend is just about to take place as The Flaming Lips, Oklahoma-based psychedelic rock band who make a habit of collaborating with almost everyone - from Miley Cyrus to the Super Furry Animals – are just about to begin. Tonight though, they only have one thing on their mind – they’ve been booked to play their seminal 1999 album ‘The Soft Bulletin’ in full, and that’s exactly what they do. In equal parts melancholic and life-affirming, it is the perfect album to close a weekend of heavy sun, drinking and games (and perhaps even losing all of your possessions!)
Opener ‘Race for the Prize’ kicks the set with perhaps the most beautiful song written about competing scientists that has ever been written, as frontman Wayne Coyne runs around gleefully and fires his gun of confetti into the crowd. The Flaming Lips have built a reputation in the later half of their career for their wild, trippy live shows – and tonight is no exception. For ‘The Spark That Bled’, a man dressed in a giant Chewbacca suit is led on stage and Coyne gets on his shoulders to sing the whole song from there. Later on, in ‘Buggin’’, various people dressed in animals’ suits are led out to dance around the stage accompanied by the sounds of buzzing insects. This all may sound like a distraction from the music but it is Coyne’s charm that keeps it all together and allows it to accentuate the music with a large dollop of fun. Tracks like ‘Suddenly Everything Has Changed’ and ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ are particular highlights of the latter half of the set, yet if there is one disappointment, it is their adamancy not to steer away from the album and play other hit singles. Their closing track ‘Sleeping on the Roof ’ – while a beautiful piece of music – is not exactly the rousing end that a festival set needs, yet that said, The Flaming Lips tick almost every other box with a performance that is heartfelt, pure fun and of course, euphoric.
For the shortcomings that it has, Wilderness stays true to an attitude of freedom and beauty, while still being a festival that is completely adaptable for families. This is a feat to be admired and it is this, along with the wonderful aesthetic of Cornbury Park which has turned what could easily be seen as a middle-class fad into something in which people return to year upon year – let’s see what happens on their seventh edition.