Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wilderness Festival, Cornbury, 12th – 14th August 2011

Day One – Friday 12th August

Within minutes of arriving onsite at the very first Wilderness festival I found myself blindfolded, smothered in theatrical slap and about to bid goodbye to my old self...for the weekend at least. Yep,Wilderness is a little different. Putting the “oooooh” into Boutique it sticks art, theatre, fine dining, debate, music and ginger beer into a great big blender and whips it up into a surreal mix of luxury and the ‘back to nature’ spirit that a lot of festivals try to achieve but few really manage. Six years in the planning and bought to you by the good folk at Secret Garden Party it’s a brave and much needed reboot of the festival experience...Festival 2.0 if you like...retaining the insanity of most festivals whilst adding some glam, culture and theatricality to proceedings. Hence the facepaint and blindfolding, dished out by the Old Vic Tunnels (part of the Old Vic Theatre lot) who encouraged us all to embrace our alter egos.

Clearly mine is a slightly camp middle aged bloke with a cardboard hat on crossed with a reject from a Kiss tribute band. It was great fun though, especially if you got into the spirit of the thing and, after a few glasses of vin rouge and a pint of Aspall’s cider, my spirit was worryingly willing. The rest of the first evening was spent in a merry haze of rave folk (courtesy of We Were Evergreen in the London Folk Guild tent), gymnastics and fire (the gymnasts may even have been on's a bit of a blur) in the Secret Garden Party’s woodland ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ mash up. Made the mistake of going to bed still wearing my make up...ended up looking like a drag queen who’d fallen on particularly hard times. No change there then I guess...

Day Two – Saturday 13th August

Determined to expand the old grey matter popped along to The Forum tent for An Optimists Guide to the Future by Mark Stevenson (roughly based on his book of the same title). Given the carnage that unfolded, seemingly unchallenged by the authorities for several days, across large parts of the country I can’t help feeling that the future is pretty ruddy grim right now. Stevenson, perhaps wisely, ignored the social meltdown of society and focused more on the scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs that are going on right now, often behind the scenes. It was fascinating stuff and, if only ‘they’ could find a way to stop worryingly large numbers of people from going feral...and equally large numbers of liberal excuse-niks from blaming the rest of us for the troubles then we might actually have something to be optimistic about.

Optimism is something that Hayseed Dixie have by the pintful. As long as they have their beers, birds and distinctive brand of goodtime country they’re happy enough.

They’re the perfect festival band too, chucking in some Dixie-fied covers of Love In An Elevator and Ace Of Spades alongside their own classics like the by now legendary Poop In A Jar. Now that’s a song title eh? Coldplay eat your heart out.

In retrospect getting involved in the ‘how many people can you get in a one person tent’ competition in the Bearded Lawn area wasn’t the best of ideas.

Certainly deciding to be the first person in the tent, swiftly followed by 10 enthusiastic teenage boys, was a recipe for a serious spinal injury. But we won and were rewarded with a generous swig of Sambuca that took my mind off the 4 crushed vertebrae. Happy days. All Sambuca’d up it was time for CW Stoneking, 30’s throwback and singer of ‘hokum blues’. He’s an odd looking (and sounding) character, truly a man out of time, but it’s all done with such conviction that you really could be listening to some dude in the 20’s or 30’s banging out tunes at some state fair in the deep south.

Backing up this high-fallutin’ claim, his loving cover of an old Trinidadian Calypso tune, Brave Son Of America (originally by Wilmouth Houdini?) nestled neatly next to Stoneking’s own stuff like Jungle Lullaby and Handyman Blues.

Next up Bugs, a play that’s performed ‘blind’ by the actors involved (from The Factory Theatre), by that they mean that each person knows their own lines and cues but not anyone least I think that’s what it means. It certainly added a frisson of excitement to the piece, a tale set in the future in which we’re all able to communicate with each other via the power of thought, thanks to some hi-tech implant. Scarily it’s the kind of thing you can imagine happening. I’m sure Apple’s busily working on something like this right now. If it can happen, it will happen. Back to the old school with reggae and ska legends ‘Toots’ & the Maytals, responsible for such smashes as Pressure Drop, Funky Kingston and Monkey Man of course, which prompted much skanking amongst the crowd.

There must be something in the water over in Jamaica as ‘Toots’ himself is still in remarkably fine form having reached pension age last year.

Despite a desire to explore some of the many other gorgeous treats across the Wilderness site (including the spa area...with its saunas and hot tubs...that would’ve sorted out the tent related spinal collapse) the pull of Gogol Bordello was impossible to resist. Eugene Hutz (one of the few men to give me moustache envy) and co have been gypsy punking it up for over 10 years now and the energy’s every bit as infectious as the first time I caught them (way way back in 2005). After leaping from the stage mid-set he leered over the crowd urging them to get a “muthafokin’ serklepeet” going, not an easy thing to do in rammed festival crowd. Still, it’s a measure of Hutz’s charisma that the crowd duly obliged and some kind of “serklepeet” did indeed seem to break out.

With The Masked Ball Big Top fit to burst the rest of the night was spent wandering the site catching the odd gig culminating in a dude called Stompin’ Dave who plays the banjo whilst tap dancing on a wooden plinth plugged in to an amp, providing some basic percussion. Awesome fun. He should team up with Stoneking...

Day Three – Sunday 14th August

Day three and idled over to the Idler Academy (suitably late so we missed the start of it all) to catch some kind of camping related talk with Mathew De Abaitua (promoting his new book The Art Of Camping) and The Idler’s Editor Tom Hodgkinson. I’ve not read The Idler much but the whole ethos of it...enjoying life’s journey rather than stressing about keeping up with the Jones...really appeals. As you’d expect from a pair of chaps who’ve worked out the secret of turning slacking into a career it was particularly well informed and witty stuff, clearly those years spent lounging around reading and pontificating were well spent. I could quite happily have idled the rest of the day there but Robyn Hitchcock was calling. Not literally, he don’t have my number, he can have it if he wants...reckon he’d be fascinating to chat to for an hour or seven though.

Can’t for the life of me work out why Robyn’s not HUGE, given his Lennon meets Barrett at a Mighty Boosh convention brand of surrealist pop. Half of the joy of a Hitchcock gig is the between song banter and he was on fine form today, wittering on about being from the future and how his song Tarantula would give you a baby if you listened to it. Happily it didn’t but you wouldn’t rule it out. From a national treasure of our own to one from the States, Daniel Johnston. This guy’s story is pretty extraordinary. Despite, or maybe because of, suffering from mental illness for most of his life he’s become something of a cult with a string of naive but touching tunes about what’s going on in that head of his.

“It’s great to be here” he commented after playing a couple of songs “What country am I in?” The audience laughs but I’m not totally convinced he was joking. After playing most of the gig solo, his slightly shaky guitar playing matching the trembling hesitant vocals, he was joined by his band, fleshing out his sound into something approaching a more commercial vibe. After receiving some wild applause he came back on stage to do an encore only to find his mic tuned off. Disconnected again eh? The story of his life I guess.

Guillemots were here in all their usual high pomp pop glory, effortlessly knocking out some of the classiest tracks of the last decade. Fyfe is, quite frankly, a genius when it comes to this stuff and despite one or two slightly sniffy reviews their new album (Walk The River) is the kind of grown up pop that few bands bother making these days. This afternoon, on top of the older hits (including a rowdy run through Trains To Brazil) the band showcased some of the spiffing newer tracks courtesy of the album’s standout Vermilion and a Fyfe only stripped back I’m Not Amazing. Yeah you are dude.

Next up Laura Marling who’s maturing nicely both as a songwriter and performer with her new songs having a real 60’s female folkie feel (Joni Mitchell in particular) especially on pick of the set (and new single too I think), Sophia. She attracted an impressive crowd too, some of which inexplicably wandered off at the end missing the biggest musical treat of the whole weekend, Mercury Rev’s run through their seminal Deserter’s Songs. With the sheer volume of free music that we’ve all got access to these days it’s increasingly hard to remember (well it is for me anyway) how magical album releases used to be. Now tracks seem to dribble out months in advance, whether on You Tube via shaky gig footage or record company teasers or on Spotify, MySpace, any one of a trillion music’s great but it sucks at the same time, like catching a peek at your Christmas pressies early. Anyway, Deserter’s Songs dates all the way back to 1998 and I can still (vaguely) remember hearing it for the first time, as nature intended. It was a strange and beautiful thing and, thankfully, tonight’s gig only enhanced that memory. Like the bottle of red wine that Jonathon manfully glugged from throughout the set the band simply seems to have got a lot better with age. His vocals are still a little fragile in places but it’s a fragility that he’s more in control of. He’s grown a beard too which, combined with an infectious grin and wilfully camp stage moves makes him look like a mischievous little pixie.

Bless. Goddess On A Hiway and Delta Bottleneck Stomp (two of the singles from the original album release) were as close to musical perfection as you’re likely to get here on earth and, judging by the Cheshire cat smile on his face at the end of the gig JD was pretty chuffed with how it all went too.

The final set on the main stage was down to Antony Hegarty, tonight backed by The Heritage Orchestra. Now I love Antony. He has one of the most beautiful voices of his...well...any generation and several of his songs can get the old eyes watering in seconds. He does like to chat though and this evening was no exception. His big theme is that the world should be run by women. Women are, according to Antony, the future. Us men have generally messed things up rather a lot (what with inventing electricity, computers, the combustion engine, a whole world of medical breakthroughs...not to mention high heels and handbags) and it’s high time we stepped aside and let the sisters do their thang. Interesting. Totally sexist (the idea that the world should be run by either gender has to be) but there we go, judging by the number of times he returned to his theme it’s something he’s pretty passionate about. Anyway, masculine emasculation aside, that voice of his was in fine form this evening, benefitting no doubt from being freed from behind the piano, yes, tonight Antony was out front which he didn’t always seem that comfortable about.

The backing of the Heritage Orchestra gave him the chance to really let rip though and tonight was as good as he gets in a live setting. I Am A Boy, Cripple and the Starfish, Hope There’s Someone, Fell In Love With a Dead Boy, You Are My emotional knuckle duster after another. The one criticism I might have, and it’s a minor one, is that perhaps festival sets like this one would benefit from one or two more upbeat numbers? Just a thought. Even the Beyonce cover, Crazy In Love is delivered as a kind of funereal lament and beautiful as this set was (and it really was) I was crying out for a bit of a foot stomper by the end of it all, a lively orchestral run though the Hercules & Love Affair collaboration Blind would’ve well and truly scratched that itch.

Happily spent the rest of the evening wandering about chatting to well lubricated (alcohol wise I mean...there was no KY jelly involved...not that I can recall anyway) random strangers in the kind of way that only happens at festivals and was genuinely sad when my time in the Wilderness came to an end.

Despite my best intentions I failed to indulge myself in the spa area, stuff my face in one of the three banquets (mainly because they had all sold out before the event had opened) or join in the naked conga through the woods (watch those nettles). Still, it gives me a jolly good excuse to go back again next year eh?

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