Festival Review: Wilderness

Wilderness Festival Sunday 14th August 2011

Popped went along to the final day of the inaugural Wilderness Festival.  With a wealth of boutique festivals having cropped up in recent years, the smaller ones are going to need to offer something a bit different to survive in times of both a tough economic climate and a market which feels like it is almost at saturation point.  Wilderness Festival seemed to promise just that, being less a music festival and more a festival of the arts.  The festival was a great success, being at its full licensed capacity of 9,999. Set in the beautiful surroundings of Cornbury Estate in Oxfordshire, the arena was flanked with flags, as if proclaiming the festival’s arrival, almost medieval style.  The daily sit-down banquets, run by leading chefs, were a huge success, places having sold out before the festival even started.  This was not your average burgers-and-noodles-festival.  Add debates, spa treatments, swimming in the lake, a Sunday morning cricket match, a folk tent, a children’s area and a range of traditional craft workshops, and you really did have something a bit different.  Indeed, Fyfe Dangerfield, lead singer of Guillemots, pronounced he’d heard you could “drink champagne naked here while being serenaded by a string quartet”.  Maybe.  Wilderness was a long time in the making, but the small touches, such as the stage framed with branches and all the greenery in the tents, showed that the organisers had really thought about their concept.
In terms of the music, Wilderness also came up trumps in being able to offer something a bit different.  It was quite a coup to get Mercury Rev for their only UK festival performance this summer, along with Sunday night headliners Antony and the Johnsons, who were making their live return to the UK after a two year hiatus.

The first band we saw on Sunday afternoon were Guillemots, who played to a chilled-out crowd.  They drew on a mix of hits from their three albums, with Fyfe Dangerfield’s voice soaring above the often haunting melodies of tunes such as Trains To Brazil.  Fyfe performed a solo track before the rest of the band returned to the stage for the finale, São Paulo. This one was a crowd pleaser – we at Popped generally like sets that finish with some cowbell action!

Darling of the folk scene, Laura Marling, was next up and drew a large and very appreciative audience.  Even a relatively small stage seemed to dwarf her and her guitar, but then she started singing.  Her voice is far bigger than either her slight frame or her 21 years would suggest and the crowd was almost silent as she played songs including Rambling Man.  Laura joked that she’s not your typical festival band, but maybe that was the whole point here.  Indeed, Fionnuala, from Oxfordshire, came because she was “intrigued by the line-up” and cited Laura Marling as a real highlight.

Bands playing classic albums in fill seems to have become a phenomenon of late, and Mercury Rev were here to play their seminal 1998 album, Deserter’s Songs.  Despite having seen them twice already this year, this was the band I’d come to see and they didn’t disappoint.  From the opener Holes, I found the performance spellbinding.  The unusual pitch of Jonathan Donahue’s voice captured the depth of songs such as Goddess On A Hiway and an extended Opus 40 and as he moved across the stage, he gave the impression that the music was flowing through him.  Of course, there were no surprises in the set-list, although they finished with a cover of Peter Gabriel’s Solesbury Hill and the epic The Dark Is Rising, but I still found it exciting to hear the album played live, in its entirety, as it was originally intended to be heard.  One of the main reasons local man ‘The Wine Tipster’ had come to the festival was to see Mercury Rev and he was full of praise for their performance, saying they’d left Antony and the Johnsons with a big job to do as headliners.

Closing the festival, Antony and the Johnsons performed with the Heritage Orchestra against a backdrop of a full moon.  I’ll profess to not being a big fan of Antony and the Johnsons, but watching  the performance of songs such as Salt, Silver, Oxygen, and For Today, I Am A Boy, I was struck by the vocal strength and dramatic range, which really held your attention, almost as if it had come from another era.  I personally was less keen on some of the philosophising, but for many people, it seemed to make the performance all the more moving.

So, the inaugural Wilderness seems to have been a big success.  Roy, from Rutland, who was working as a steward, enjoyed the feel of the festival and said he’d chosen to come to Wilderness because of its image and vibe.  Although he really enjoyed Laura Marling’s set, for him, it wasn’t all about the music, and his highlights included The Tax Deductible Theatre Company’s Shitfaced Shakespeare, Friday night’s Where The Wild Things Are party and Saturday’s Midnight Masked Ball, for which he’d spent two hours making a mask at the workshop.

Furthermore, this was a festival with a conscience, with Guillemots busking to raise money for War Child.  From the international to the parochial: local schools’ associations did a roaring trade selling cream teas.  In some ways, Wilderness had a quintessentially English feel to it, almost like a village fête, albeit on a much grander and more eccentric scale – and this is meant as a compliment.  In a week that has seen so much negative press in England, it was great to be a part of something so pleasant.   Lucy, from Manchester, said she thought it would go straight to the number one spot in the festival rankings as the weekend had been a “fun, family-friendly festival”.  Yes, there are things the organisers will want to work on for next year (more food outlets seemed to be a popular request), but it was a pretty good first effort.  One final thing: just before I left, I saw a shooting star – for a perfect ending, you couldn’t make it up!  I wonder if the organisers can arrange that for next year too?

By Rosie Pearson

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