At their very best, music festivals provide the paying punter with an opportunity for unrivaled escapism. Living in the city, even one as small as Oxford, you can become blinkered by the traffic, the grey and red brick buildings, the high street shopping experience. All these elements sometimes make you feel as if you’re living inside a small commercial tube where no grass grows and the only wildlife you’re likely to see are pigeons. Some music festivals further reinforce these tired feelings of consumerism where you find yourself paying £4 for the same lukewarm lager you could get in the local Scream pub for half the price. These festivals offer little fresh experiences other than sleeping rough, stinking foul and quickly becoming very poor. So, for a medium sized festival like Wilderness, it was refreshing not to see a Carlsberg tent or any eateries part of a well-known chain, instead they offered a thoroughly unbleached (even if it was all desperately middle-class) rural setting and atmosphere in which your inner hippy could wallow in the mud (and free-range farm produce).
Arriving fairly late on the Friday night, I was able to take a quick wander around the site’s snaking corridors of greenery and trees, leading down to a wonderful lake where families and drunken twenty-somethings horsed around on boats and even more drunk thirty-somethings got arse-bollock naked and swam around in the warm waters. Wilderness Festival is very much like the more bohemian quarters of Glastonbury; all organic food stalls, freak-out marching bands dressed as nightmarish cotton creatures and acid dads dancing to silent psychedelic symphonies. Unfortunately, this excursion caused me to lose track of time (as well as my very slight hold on reality) and I missed all the music except for Friday’s headliner Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings who entertained the crowd no-end with her soulful 60s R&B and madder-than-a-hatter dance routines. Whether moving through soul, jazz or swing, the Dap Kings remained the most incredible backing troupe, never missing a beat, never letting the tempo drop for even a second. Admittedly, there was something a little curious about Ms. Jones singing a song about the history of the slave trade while a load of white middle-class horsey-folk danced and clapped along, whilst little Otto was rocked back and forth in his Bugaboo Chameleon, but everybody loved it and it provided a perfect feel-good climax to what had been a magical first day on site.
But that wasn’t the end of the nighttime festivities, over in the Secret Cinema section of the site Bugsy Malone had turned the late evening into a 1920s Prohibition inspired landscape of speakeasies, swing bands, flappers and a huge splurge fight right at the end, and, despite being covered head to toe in shaving foam, it was impossible to feel anything but elation at the sheer ridiculousness of the whole affair.
It seems somewhat jammy that, in a summer which has pretty much been nonstop grey clouds, wind and rain, the good folk at Wilderness experience a flippin’ heat-wave! However, if any place in the UK deserved the luxuriant vibes of luxurious weather that weekend, it was at Cornbury. I imagine everybody was sunning themselves at high noon, or queuing the required five hours to get on a boat, as the Main Stage remained a fairly sparse affair for the early acts on Saturday. Alphabet Backwards took to the stage and treated the few seated members of the audience to their usual energetic stage malarkey and sugar-high pop, playing songs from their upcoming debut album Little Victories. After sauntering around the Sanctuary for a bit (Gong Baths? Seriously?) I stumbled across a real gem; an Australian man by the name of Mal Webb. In a tiny tent, towards the back of the festival and in front of a load of sleepy festival goers, as well as a weird family activity including a creepy Vicar style ringleader, Mal Webb wowed his small yet appreciative audience with a lesson in beatboxing. He mixed his vocals, looped them and created amazing sounds, songs and mini pieces of comedic theatre in a charming and engaging manner. A real gem.
Back to the Main Stage and The Staves, who recently supported Bon Iver on an American tour, provided blissful country-folk with beautiful harmonies and exquisitely written music; the final song ‘Winter Trees’ was one of the days sun-soaked musical highlights. What a shame that Jake Bugg displayed little of the authenticity of his Main Stage predecessors…an 18-year-old from Nottingham singing Alabama blues in Bob Dylan’s voice…no thanks.
With the advent of Fixers as the Oxford music darlings, I had almost forgotten about the wonderful Stornoway. Luckily they stormed the Main Stage with an impeccable set of old favourites and new ones in the making. Every track they played from their debut – Beachcomber’s Windowsill – was enthusiastically sang back by their receptive audience, and every new song was full of so many pop-hooks and melodies you could instantly tell that crowds up and down the country will be singing them too soon enough, especially ‘The Great Procrastinator’ and ‘The Bigger Picture’. I cannot wait to hear more.
I then went back down the river and saw a load of naked people. A seriously high amount of naked people. Pretty much more naked people than I have ever seen in the whole of my life (which, rather depressingly, isn’t that many I guess). Turns out it was a World Record attempt or something. Either way, no one needs to see that many old wrinkled scrotums and granny beaver.
The main event was a mouth-watering prospect indeed; Rodrigo Y Gabriela & the Cuba Orchestra. Now, whether you think RYG are modern guitar geniuses or ever so slightly gimmicky, there is no denying that they know how to incite a party! Metal riffs disguised as Spanish flamenco sounds like an odd concept, but the energy of the two protagonists and the brilliance of their backing band (that bass player what fucking immense wasn’t he?) delighted a huge crowd of doting fans who adorned the two maestros with wild applause and endless dancing. Over to the Secret Cinema section again and I missed all of Who Framed Roger Rabbit as I was laughing hysterically for almost two hours whilst zipping round a roller-disco, totally inebriated.
Sunday morning at a three day music festival can often be a queasy affair, and Wilderness proved consistent with that theory. However, after some much needed vitamins (the banana I consumed that morning was the first bit of fruit I’d seen in 72 hours) I was invigorated to attack the final day as I had done so for the previous two…with lots of alcohol. So, cider in hand, I moseyed on over to the Main Stage just in time to catch Anna from We Aeronauts chatting about her diarrhea; an odd start to the day, but amusing all the same. Squits aside, the band play the difficult first-band-of-the-day-slot in agreeable fashion, full of chirpy interaction with a dazed audience and, above all, songs which are sounding better and better every time I see them live. Field Music have been on my radar for a while, and I have been itching to see the band ever since their terrific double album Measure, which was released back in 2010, and the Mackem art-rockers didn’t disappoint. With the Brewis brothers switching between front-man and drumming duties throughout, the band were compellingly brilliant; ‘Them That Do Nothing’ and ‘Effortlessly’ showing the bands admirable knack for writing great pop melodies twinned with complex rhythms, timings and song-structures.
Just one final walk about the campsite as the sun sat low in the sky and it was easy to reflect on what had been a fine festival. Maybe you could accuse Wilderness of being too hippy middle-class with all its holistic healing tents charging ludicrous amounts of money for what is essentially a load of wank, neither did I even venture into the Michelin star rated banquet area. However, it offered a great alternative to the scummy aggression of places like Reading and Leeds Festival whilst giving its punters not only great music, but a whole load of other experiences that most music festivals just cannot or do not offer.
And the best was yet to come, the band that I’ve personally been waiting ten years to see (I once had tickets to see them, but they cancelled the tour a few weeks before), one of America’s finest bands of the past 15 years; Wilco. Beginning with a song which, on album, is 15 minutes long and a rather un-punchy affair is, I guess, expected from a band who have never really had a “hit” or pandered to any particular audience in their time together, but after what appeared to be a slow start, it quickly became a set which could arguably be dubbed “the best of Wilco”. ‘Handshake Drugs’ and ‘Impossible Germany’ allowing the improbably gifted Nels Cline to do his best avant-guitar work and fixed on favourites ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, ‘A Shot In The Arm’ and ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ all inspired sing-alongs from fans in the know. Jeff Tweedy, as well as being a captivating song-writer, is a charming and charismatic frontman, stating that Wilderness is the most at ease the band have all felt at a music festival, and with this being Wilco’s only UK festival appearance in 2012, we all couldn’t have been happier that they were evidently relaxed and playing to their usual high standards. An amazing set to cap off what had been a very memorable weekend.
All photography by Benjamin Eagle