The great outdoors. Dontcha just love it? The trees, the birds, the...er wild flowers...yes, that’s all very well but you can only enjoy nature’s wonders for so long right? That’s where the Wilderness Festival comes in. Set in some of the most beautiful countryside England’s got to offer it’s a three day orgy (not literally...although I did see one young couple getting jiggy behind a tree) of food, music, theatre, cinema, debate, cricket, foraging, skinny dipping...all of which is still wonderfully free of the big name BRANDING that sucks the heart and soul out of so many other festivals. Last year saw its glorious debut and for the follow up the organisers ramped up the magic even further, inviting Mr Wayne Hemmingway’s vintage festival to the party too.
I’m not generally one for getting up on stage but somehow thanks to the Wilderness spirit within five minutes of arriving on site I ended up on stage with Aussie oddball Mal Webb. For some inexplicable reason I decided to start quoting William Wordsworth in a throaty rasp which Mal recorded, mixed and rapped over, getting me to add a series of other ‘sounds’ that he looped as a backing track. I’m always in awe of anyone who can do this kind of thing live and how the hell he got a tune out of my deranged touretting I’ll never know.
King Charles (who does a pretty good job of looking like his namesake) got the Friday afternoon crowd in the mood with his own brand of classy sing-along pop. It was his imaginative reboot of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire that provided one of the first great moments of the weekend though, with several thousand festival goers belting out the chorus in the sunshine. Yes...sunshine. Somehow beating the odds this year the whole weekend was pretty much wall to wall sunshine. Miraculous.
One of the joys of great festivals is the mix of people you get to meet and day one bought random encounters with a guy doing a Ph.D in medieval Italian literature at a beer tasting in the Real Ale tent (hmmmm...free beer), his girlfriend who writes a fashion column for the Aussie equivalent of Cosmo, artist Emma Tooth and her film director hubbie Owen etc etc etc. Wilderness is an overwhelmingly friendly place in fact and for three days there wasn’t even a hint of trouble. Not one bit. Which, given the fact that festival goers are generally a well ‘refreshed’ bunch, is pretty incredible really.
Back to the music and Lianne La Havas impressed with Forget, her stabbing 21st Century soul pop classic and ode to an ex-boyfriend. Ouch. Hell hath no fury like a pop star scorned. Feeling in need of more free booze I wandered over to the Ardbeg van for a refreshing whisky or two and a seemingly impromptu tune from rising folk star and custodian of traditional folk gypsy songs Sam Lee. That’s another sign of a great festival, all the other stuff that goes on away from the big stages, and you could honestly spend the whole weekend just checking these out without feeling in the slightest bit short changed.
Next up and Crystal Fighters well and truly cemented their reputation as one of THE great festival bands du jour before the hardest working woman in showbiz, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings led the crowd through a sweat drenched lesson in dance crazes of the 60s and 70s from the boogaloo to the funky chicken. Boy that lady can shake a tail feather...
Once the main stage shuts down for the night the action moves over to a magical wooded area that’s pretty much a festival of its own. This year Future Cinema – a company dedicated to making cinema going more of a ‘live event’ – had erected a giant movie screen and stage. Friday was Bugsy Malone night and all day a cast of actors had been running all over the site talking all wise guy like ...badda be badda bing...as an appetiser to the full on live show, a hour or so of skits, stand up and dance numbers.
It’s a great idea, breaking down the celluloid wall and adding that little extra that gives you more of a reason to prise your arse off the sofa, away from your flatscreen/surround sound womb and out into the real world again. Away from the cinema there was a roller disco, soul casino and Fat Sam’s Speakeasy...an unfeasibly glamorous venue with a bar, wooden dance floor, chandeliers and full swing dance band. It was the kind of vision you normally need Class A’s for at a festival...but nope...it was really there...like someone had plonked a piece of 1920’s New York slap bang in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside.
The Wilder-best (see what I did there?) – Top 5 Moments From Day One
(1) Mal Webb’s improv rap
(2) Discovering the real ale tent also sold 7.5% scrumpy...oh dear
(3) Random chats with lovely strangers
(4) Crystal Fighters’ set in the sun
(5) The whole Bugsy Malone / speakeasy thang
Quite how you could do the ‘downward dog’ after a night in a speakeasy beats me (I was busy attempting to prevent the ‘upward hurl’) but there were a surprisingly large group of yoga students pulling some spine cracking moves at 9am. Having slept on a roll mat that was slightly thinner than tissue paper it was enough for me to walk by this stage. Still this gave me an excuse to sit and watch a cricket match for a while replete with Pimms and free cucumber sarnies for the spectators. This being Wilderness the match was presided over by a cross dressing umpire of course but still, it was recognisably cricket. Sort of.
Often the first acts of the day at any festival reveal some hidden gems and Oxford’s Alphabeat Backwards – a joyful boy/girl fronted pop band were one such discovery trading in the kind of dance that make you dance like no one’s watching.
There’s so much more to Wilderness than the music though, which is how I found myself munching some wild mint on a foraging walk with Robin Harford. Pretty much all of us think our food comes from some giant factory somewhere...and we’re pretty much right. It does. We eat a minute percentage of the plants that are edible and in just an hour’s wandering Robin pointed out a good half dozen things to masticate (steady now). Perhaps more than anything else this weekend this was the moment when the festival literally lived up to its name. A truly eye opening glimpse of the natural world that most of us never notice.
At just 18 Jake Bugg’s already shaping up to be something special. He’s still young and seems a little nervy at times but there are pleasing touches of Phil Ochs, Paul Simon and underrated Mersey combo The Coral in his music and in the last 12 months or so his tracks have pretty much become a staple on 6 Music’s playlist. A hairs on the back of the neck raising solo run through Country Song and the rockabilly-tinged Trouble Time and new single Taste It all hit the spot proving that this is one festival Bugg that’s well worth catching.
Hopped over to the bandstand for Mahalia’s set, one of those rare singers that make it all seem so effortless with Let The World See the Light’s acoustic soul matching the sun drenched setting. Festival bliss.
Indie folkers Stornoway provided one of the weekend’s anthems with Free The Battery Human before dedicating I Saw You Blink to the brave souls about to attempt the world’s biggest skinny dip. Yes. We’re back to that infectious festival spirit again...how else would you explain the sight of dozens of people of various shapes and sizes happily ripping off their kit and plunging into the muddy water eh?
I was tempted for a moment but I was standing behind the dippers and feared that all the blokes could all be hung like racehorses. Imagine brushing past something in the water, grabbing hold of it and yanking it out thinking you’ve just caught a giant eel? Nasty. Foraging for wild food is one thing but chomping on another man’s meat...I’ll draw the line there thank you very much.
Back over at the ‘wooded’ area and Wayne Hemmingway’s Vintage posse had taken over from Fat Sam and the gang. The Speakeasy was now transformed into The Torch Club, hosting Natty Congaroo and His Flames of Rhythm. Aye carumba. Cue muchos swinging and jiving, all presided over by Viv The Spiv a guy who plays an authentic blackmarketeer from the 1940’s...think George Cole from the original St Trinian’s movies.
Back over at the main stage instrumental boy / girl guitar duo Rodriguez and Gabriela were doing their thing. There’s no denying their talent but headliners for Saturday night? Hmmmm...not so sure. I like a bit of the old instrumentals as much as the next man but somehow Saturday night says ‘party’ to me and Rod n’Gabs aren’t that kind of band so it was swiftly back over to the Torch Club again for some vintage party music courtesy of Ondrey Havelka and the Melody Makers. Classy. After a mug of tea on the tea bus...literally a vintage London bus serving tea and cake...I just managed to heave myself over to the London Folk Guild tent for the City Shanty Band. Possibly the only London based pop punk shanty band in existence. Granted it’s a niche market but any group that can keep me up at that time of night...well...morning by this point...can’t be bad.
The Wilder-best – Top 5 Moments From Day Two
(1) Robin Harford’s foraging walk...truly inspirational
(2) Jake Bugg
(3) Mahalia on the bandstand
(4) The naked skinny dipping thing
(5) Night time at the Torch Club...impossibly glam for a festival
Ouch. My head. That’s what a diet of real ale / scrumpy / red wine and sausage rolls does to you. COFFEE! NEED COFFEE!!!! Happily there’s a coffee tasting session on over at the Thyme tent held by an enthusiastic chap (and champion Barista) called Jose. Delicious...and now I know how to use a cafetiere properly...it’s more involved than you think.
Add hot water first, then the coffee. Stir gently. Pop in the plunger. Let it rest for a minute, then slowly, ever so slowly depress it. Voila. What next? How about some medieval music and a ‘class in merriment’ with Circulus’ main man Michael Tyack over at The Idler Academy? I was particularly taken by a 17th century folk tune called Mr Black’s Maggot...who says pop’s a 20th century invention eh? Back to the future with super cute Aussie pop band Sheppard, three siblings (one boy, two girls) and three non siblings. 90’s nostalgia-fest Cheese On Toast and the Beatle-ish summertime singalong Shine My Way were both so instantly addictive that I ended up going to see ‘em again at the bandstand later that day. Never heard of them before but the world needs more quality pop like this right now. When pretty much every track sounds like a hit you know you’re on to a good thing.
I’ll freely admit that most of Sunday’s ‘big acts’ Grant Lee Buffalo, Giant Giant Sand and Wilco had pretty much passed me by over the years (and all of them have been around for a while). I’d neatly filed them all away in a big bag marked ‘pleasant Americana’ and was quite happy to leave them there. Happily each one of them proved to be a real surprise in one way or another. Grant Lee Buffalo’s blue collar Americana recalled Springsteen and Neil Young (maybe with a dash of REM thrown in for good measure) in fine form. They’ve seemingly got two kinds of track, the heads down belting down the highway ones and the curled up in the corner of a scuzzy bar staring at the bottom of a beer glass ones. If that sounds a little dismissive it’s not meant to be. Belting down the highway to a scuzzy bar sounds like my perfect day.
Perhaps living up to their name Giant Giant Sand seem to have a squillion members (well at least 11) which unsurprisingly took quite a while to set up and soundcheck. It was worth the wait though. Fronted by Howe Gelb they come across like a pretty decent alt-country band at first with Gelb’s lo-key half mumbled vocals lulling you gently in before huge great bursts of anthemic noise blew your brains out. Last track of their all too short set stole the best song of the weekend award by an alt-country mile. Carinito’s a sprawling epic that embraces Mexican, classical, hi-life, folk...hell, why not shove everything into the mix eh? Truly awesome. If this is anything to go by the band’s new album (a double called Tucson) must be a cracker.
Over at the Folk Guild Tent and The Miserable Rich were doing what they do so well, getting audiences all swoony and misty eyed over their magnificent chamber pop. Lead Miserablist James de Malplaquet sounds like a world weary angel making break up anthem and set highlight Let Me Fade simultaneously one of the most heart rending and strangely uplifting songs of the weekend.
Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized divide opinion between those who find it all a little dull, kind of Primal Screm-ish without a pulse...and those who lose themselves in space rock heaven. The bits of the set that I saw didn’t change the camp I belong to...you can draw your own conclusions from that. Ahem.
The last band on the big stage did change my opinions though. I knew of Wilco’s work with Billy Bragg and was kinda expecting a nice chilled out country-ish set so the electronic knob twiddling and rocking out came as a bit of a surprise. Wilco’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, is clearly a bit of a musical magpie with the set echoing everyone from The Byrds to Bowie, Costello to the Carpets (Inspiral that is). “This is one of the few festivals we feel comfortable playing” he drawled mid set. It showed to. Admittedly the crowd thinned a little as the set went on, again they’re not the most obvious headline band in the world, but the faithful and newly converted lapped it up.
Back over in Vintage la la land Asian Dub Foundation were soundtracking French film La Haine in another one of Future Cinema’s presentations, followed up with a suitably gritty live slot (rap/spoken word/ a little political polemic), whilst down in a hidden hollow to the side of the Torch Club the hardy were still partying the night away. I’d neglected to head down there on Friday or Saturday night, distracted as I was by all the other stuff going on, but it’s another festival within a festival world down there, hosting late night parties for the beautiful people. Oh so much to see and so little time. That’s my big quibble about Wilderness. It’s just too darn short. You’d need a month there to do it justice. Other festivals may promise a truly unique experience but Wilderness really delivers.
The Wilder-best – Top 5 Moments From Day Three
(1) Easy Jose’s coffee tasting sesh
(2) Sheppard’s sets...both of ‘em. Aussie pop perfection
(3) Giant Giant Sand’s Carinito – tune of the weekend
(4) The Miserable Rich in the Folk Guild Stage...always an emotional experience
(5) The two huge pork baguettes from the Charlbury School stand – a much need pork injection...oh dear...that didn’t sound right...