wed 29/11/2023

Wilderness Festival 2019 review - marvellous misbehaviour | reviews, news & interviews

Wilderness Festival 2019 review - marvellous misbehaviour

Wilderness Festival 2019 review - marvellous misbehaviour

A luxury lifestyle festival full of jolly good shows

'Gig-wise, you can come for the music or you can avoid the mainstream'Andrew Whitton @ Fanatic

The thing about Wilderness is that it’s just so jolly decent. Acres of decadence, sprawled safely over the yawning magnificence of Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, combine to create a scintillating country fair reverie – a heady mix of good music, high end food, luxury outdoorsyness and companionable folk.

Yes, their fashion choices might be bold, but there is no one here who isn’t game for a laugh, or on hand to help out a neighbour. Plus you’re far more likely to be worried about their judgement of how fine your wine is than whether or not they’ve nicked your camping cooker.

Revellers have cottoned on to the festival mini-holiday, with camping areas almost full by Thursday and remaining so right up until the end of Monday. Once the bell tents are suitably decorated it’s off to the (perfectly manicured and positively gleaming) faux-wilds of Wilderness to firstly, hit up the hilariously high end booze tents (there’s a Talisker "Wild Spirit" bar, a Sipsmith "Gin Palace" and a Veuve Clicquot champagne garden); secondly, get kitted up in the tightest, sparkliest sequins you can squeeze yourself into and then thirdly try your hand at one of the titillating pastimes on offer.

You can choose from axe throwing, wild swimming, nature runs, horse riding, wild medicine walks, outdoor life drawing; there’s yoga for days (hotpod, aerial, paddleboard, colour flow, teen, beats, yin, rise and shine) or sit yourself down for a five minute philosophy puppet show, long table banquet or fancy dress cricket match. Such frivolity comes before anyone even mentions there might be music playing somewhere around here.

The wild swimming lakes of Wilderness Festival 2019I had so many conversations with people that began, “I’ve no idea who any of these bands are…” and while I (secretly) enjoyed mocking their musical bewilderment (in jolly good faith, you understand) it is of course fine that people are here for the lifestyle indulgence elements as much as the tunes – which is why the line up is made up of talks, classical and jazz music, contemporary dance, poetry, debates, crafting, mindfulness practices and art – all washed down with a re-fuel at Petersham Nurseries or a late-night pit stop at Patty and Bun.

Gig-wise, you can come for the music or you can avoid the mainstream – on a few occasions we tripped past the main stage, wound up in the Jump Yard, and ended up staying there – the first time for Thrill Collins, an acoustic three-piece of self-proclaimed “no good street punks” from Milton Keynes re-arranging covers of well known pop songs with some serious skill and infectious energy. I mean, we couldn’t leave before the end of their skiffle mashup up traversing the “History of Gangster Rap”, which began with the theme tune of the Fresh Prince of Belair – it was one of my accidental highlights of the whole weekend.

Friday morning saw us parked up at the Atrium in front of the Royal Albert Hall Jazz for Kids: New Orleans session. Actually, I left the Manchild to get amongst it with the #Smogs (translation: smug mothers) and went off for a massage, but it would have been a good one for life through an Instagram filter, non? My already partially feral children then refused my suggestion of a gypsy music workshop at the Troubador tent, insisting instead on the kids' area where my favourite children's theatre company The Flying Seagull Project were back for a comedy club special, teaching the tiddlypeeps how to tell jokes in a New York accent, with conviction and attitude, then inviting them up on stage to have a go. After a quick stint in the Splat Art Den and the Dressing Up Box we emerged from the family field to the main stage.

Kawala were the first act up to really kick off the festival spirit, their breezy indie-pop beats just perfect for limbering up the old dance moves. Frontman Jim Higson has a few shapes to steal, bouncing around and wiggling his knees. The infectious chorus of “Runaway”, chilled rhythms of “Kept In The Dark” and summery strumming in “Funky” make for the perfect upbeat and sunny set.

Next up was a total treat for fellow music nerds, considering this guy rarely plays live and when he does, it’s at such tiny venues they quickly sell out. So it was picnic blankets out and inflatable sofas up for the sonic soundscapes of Olafur Arnalds, whose melodies build and flow through tinkling piano keys and strong cello strings with a building ambient electronica. His immersive style of mixing up classical loops and pop beats as he sits with his back to the audience come alive in “Unfold” as a particular highlight, and although he claims he and his fellow musicians are “going to make you sad today” the sweeping harmonies of strings are beautifully chimeric as opposed to melancholic.

Tom Odell upped the showmanship ante, smashing away at a grand piano, flicking his blonde hair, flirting with the crowds and telling them “I’ve never been so close to anything so beautiful”. His singing is enchanting and he has a radiance that comes alive with the well known piano pop ballads “I Know” and “Sparrow”. While his songs all swirl around the theme of fairly cheesy with samey melodic riffs, this is music to chat along to, sip a plastic pint to and generally forget about life for a while. He swayed casually into a cover of Billy Joel’s "Piano Man" with everyone “la la la, di da da”-ing along, and waving their arms in the air. It was deeply endearing, and his last song “Another Love” was unashamedly rapturous.

Bombay Bicycle Club has honestly never been my thing so I’m not entirely sorry that we were accidentally sucked back into the Jump Yard and veritably unable to leave Daytoner, a super fun global funk soul singer and ska band playing Snoop Dogg sample originals. We wafted back in the direction of the mainstage via yet more jazz, this time from Ronnie Scotts at The Atrium, but from a distance they sounded as jangly and splendid-to-others as they usually do.

We did have a moment to listen to Elf Lyons in The Forum, but had to duck out once the talk about endometriosis feeling like being fingered by Edward Scissorhands became too difficult to explain to a nine-year-old. Overall, I wish I’d had more time to hang around the intellectual idea-sharing space, where lots of leisurely sophisticated types lounged about being interested in talks on things like climate change, the state of the nation, activism, hope and the moon.

Revellers at Wilderness Festival 2019By Saturday morning conversation had advanced to “why did they never have festivals like this before we had kids?” and other levels of brutal honesty – perhaps compelled by the freedom encouraged by a program of events at the Togetherness Tent – such as Lingham Massage, Secret Underwear UV Silent Rave, Yoni Massage For Her, Soma Awakening and Sacred Nipple Adorning.

But the simple answer is because when we were young and would have been inclined to do this kind of thing, we were all in Thailand at a full moon party. Now that we’re responsible grown ups, we have simply swapped our fisherman pants and tea cloth headwear for mermaid leggings, flower-embellished headdresses and Rosa Bloom catsuits; upgraded our Samsung buckets to craft beer and swapped magic mushrooms for avocado hot chocolate.

There actually weren’t festivals like this when we were young. Certainly not ones that offered Mindful Music and Body Percussion workshops in Troubador tents, or Mime artists holding aerobics in front of big red buses. The choir practice in the same space was tear-inducingly wholesome – although slightly at odds with the vibe of the venue behind it. We gave House of Sublime a wide berth for its rather adult content although I hear Smoke Weed Eat Pussy Everyday was a highlight, and the Naked Balloon Party sounded like a lot of fun. Had I not already filled up the swear jar I would definitely have gone to Anti-Diet Riot Club’s F*ck Size Modelling.

Giving into the wild demands of our by now partially dredlocked children with mud-smeared faces, we stopped in at the Woodland Tribe in the family area, paying a few quid to hire hammers and saws for them to join with other kids to build their own adventure playground (yes – 100% as gloriously at odds with health and safety rules as it sounds); watch an enchanting Moomins puppet theatre show from Tootles + Nibs and make a batch of tea tree bath bombs.

In the spirit of openness there was a workshop on how to talk to your kids about sex, which here, is easily done as lots of people are quite naked, much of the time. There is some segregation, for example in the wild swimming area where there’s an adults only pool to contain the squishy bits – but streaking is encouraged and celebrated, and I can’t say I minded that my Littles climbed a flag pole to watch from a distance, the headline streaker (rather old, very shaven) perform a slow motion nudey run across the fancy dress cricket game, past players clothed as the pope and Marilyn Monroe.

Rose McGowan reads from Brave at Wilderness Festival 2019Leaving such invigorating freedom aside, my whole hour of me time for the whole festival weekend came in the form of Rose McGowan in conversation with June Sarpong at the (new this year) Audible tent. She talked about her book Brave, about how she was homeless at 13, divorced her parents at 15 and was at the mercy of the Hollywood machine thereafter; the women complicit in perpetuating the abuse by men in power – those who told her that if the casting director didn’t want to fuck her she wouldn’t get the part, and her subsequent Barbification that led her to be an alternative version of herself. She spoke of the #MeToo movement, the Piers Morgan fuelled bullshit narrative around the differences between flirting and the abuse of power and how we are all conspirators in the collective narrative around toxic gender stereotypes. The conversations she opens up are necessary and important and we should all be continuing them – something that Rose did for Letters Live, a spoken word event about the power of correspondence, as read by Minnie Driver, Olivia Coleman, Jennifer Saunders and Adrian Edmonson.

We spent a confusing few minutes trying to decipher a new sound direction from SOAK from internalised teenage lo-fi, before realising there had been an epic programming fail, and we were actually watching Oh My God! It’s The Church – a leftfield service by way of absinthe and sexy Jesus chat from a bonkers preacher. Gutted doesn’t even begin to cut it. My hurumphs were only partially soothed by hearing George Fitzgerald’s clubland dance sound from a distance – but then – my yays came all at once with my abso-favourites, Caravan Palace. Smashing out upbeat euro pop from their latest album Chronologic, they also blissed my soul with a journey back to <|°_°|>, playing the electro swing bests "Lone Digger", "Jolie Coquine" and "Rock It For Me" with a bit of "Black Betty" crowd interaction and a smattering of Lindy Hop dancing.

Robyn headlining Wilderness Festival 2019A post-Caravan Palace chat and chill later, and we realised we were sandwiched in close to the main stage for Robyn which, although a prime position for most may have been questionable with three small children and a festival wagon in tow. But like I said, this place is decent as farq, and it turned out we were encased in a protective shell of the sweetest Oxford graduates. We danced and sang along together to the diminutive Swedish singer’s back catalogue, swapped wigs, had lovely chats and they shared the child-on-shoulder burden. Robyn got on with the job in hand blasting synth-pop and ballads without any preamble in between, sailing from one song straight into the next, pleasing the masses with the nostalgic greats “Call Your Girlfriend” and “With Every Heartbeat”. This unexpected generation-spanning moment of togetherness as we all wailed along in discordant a cappella to “Dancing On My Own” was a favourite life moment, not just a festival one, and was but one of the things about Wilderness that just generally bumped up the reserves of my faith in humanity.

The Saturday Night Spectacle by Cirque Bijou that came next was perhaps one to come and go to rather than watch in its entirety as it consisted largely of a huge metal steampunk spider slowly crawling along a wire, with disco-ball adorned aerialists being wrapped in silk or reflecting the light with hand held mirrors, finishing with a final firework bang.

Come Sunday we had successfully managed a triptych of completely missing the daily morning Rise and Shine Yoga at the Mindful Space (there’s always next year, right?) although the kids did manage a crack at the climbing wall before we packed away and headed in for our final day in the wilderness.

We settled in at the Atrium for Triptych, A Wilderness cross-arts Commission of grime and classical music featuring Lady Lykez and Lioness alongside the grime violinist Tanya Cracknell who plays in front of a live orchestra in sweatpants, with a towny swag. House of Absolut saw contemporary dancers emerging from the crowd to perform movements of body popping and tai chi, with combative wooden sticks with Butoh-esque tranquillity.

Voice of the moment Freya Ridings bought her haunting, resonant heartbreak sound to the early evening mainstage set, dedicating “You Mean The World To Me” to her mum, and telling the crowd she’s proud of us for making it all the way through to Sunday, which we all agree is no mean feat. The singer-songwriter serenaded us, in that Florench Welch-like way with “Unconditional”, “Ultra Violet” and of course “Castles” which lightened the heart and lifted the mood.

Sunday strolls at Wilderness Festival 2019The light spatter of rain, sleep deprivation and lack of candy floss to keep their sugar high rolling left my children, and thusly us parents too, on the verge of a psychobilly freakout – and so we make the agonising decision to quit while we’re this far behind Groove Armada.

As is customary for these decent festival folk, we were helped back to the car by an array of smiling lovelies who give the wagon a push or a cheery high five to buoy small spirits. I stare wistfully at the macramé and poetry workshops on the go as we trudge past, and daydream about the missed Women’s Dream Weaving Altar and Cacao Journey, but leave safe in the knowledge it will all be here next year for the festival’s tenth birthday.


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