Wilderness 2013 review

'An all class, middle class affair'

Photographer:Virtual Festivals

dan frost - 13 August 2013

The concept of a civilised festival used to be an absurd idea – an oxymoron, in fact. But times change, and few events offer greater evidence of this than Wilderness. The little sister festival to Secret Garden Party (it’s a collaborative effort between Secret Productions and huge live music group Mama & Company), this Oxfordshire three-dayer is pretty much the apex of middle class festival-going. There’s a Swedish spa – which, tellingly, sold out before the festival even started, in spite of its £30-a-head entrance fee. There’s horse riding, ballet and theatre. There’s a book shop, complete with requisite cafe. There are public school accents galore, there’s also some of the most decadent dining you’re ever likely to find at an event where most people are sleeping under canvas.

If you’d told somebody at a festival 10 years ago that by 2013 we’d have gourmet food at these events, they’d have probably choked on their soggy burger or gelatinous noodles. But here it is, a festival where food is one of the principle highlights. As well as giant banquets catered by celebrity chefs such as Mark Hix, Yotam Ottolenghi and Russell Norman, there’s a cookery school, various culinary demonstrations and, of course, a raft of trendy new food outlets, including Bleecker St Burger and Brixton’s French and Grace. In fact, gastronomy has near equal billing as music on the Wilderness line-up, which gives you a pretty good idea where the event is coming from.

This certainly isn’t a ‘music festival’ in the traditional sense. Beyond the main stage, there really isn’t much live music happening at all. Besides a few notable exceptions, the line-up isn’t exactly inspiring. Empire Of The Sun unleash an impressive all-bells-and-whistles Friday headline slot, featuring dancers, elaborate costumes, visuals and other crowd-pleasing shenanigans (8). But prior to that is a distinctly underwhelming afternoon of music. Likeable new pop star John Newman (7) has his moments, but the languorous delivery of Ghostpoet (6) is entirely unsuited to a fickle main stage crowd, and Tribes (3) prove to be little more than the latest posterboys for pedestrian indie rock.

There are decent Saturday sets from Nick Mulvey (7), Sam Lee (7) and Tom Odell (8), but nothing you’re likely to go away raving about. The same might be said for Saturday headliner Rodriguez (7), known here primarily through Searching For Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary about his extraordinary life, the American septuagenarian is a warm and charming performer but there are notable slumps in his set, not helped by several interminable guitar solos. That said, his renditions of ‘Sugar Man’, ‘I Wonder’ and ‘Crucify Your Mind’ are sublime and as close to genuinely memorable as the main stage gets.

Sunday sees a pleasant afternoon performance from singer-songwriter Lucy Rose (8) and possibly the set of the weekend from Michael Kiwanuka (9), whose rich and uplifting marriage of folk and soul struggles to connect with the wearied audience but eventually wins through. The Wilderness Orchestra are a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, serving up classic movie themes from the back catalogues of John Williams, Disney and so on (8). Noah And The Whale close the festival with a fun and spirited headline slot, albeit one performed to a dwindling crowd (8). 

But, as explained, this isn’t really a music festival, and the crowds are never especially big because there are innumerable other distractions. As well as all the food events, there’s also a wide range of craft activities – wood carving, pot glazing, jewellery making and so forth. Some of them are geared more towards Wilderness’s sizeable child population, but that’s not to say adults can’t get involved – who wouldn’t want to carve their own sword? There are also a variety of interesting talks – Max Hastings’ dissection of the origins of the First World War isn’t quite what we’re looking for, but Ruby Wax’s musings on her mental health is thought-provoking and engaging, and author Jon Ronson is great fun as always. There is, of course, a field devoted to massages, yoga and the like, and more generally a variety of happenings and spectacles that easily compensate for any musical shortcomings. Theatre group Transe Express perform a mesmerising aerial art piece on Friday night in which musicians are lifted 50ft into the air to create a kind of living musical chandelier. And trapeze troupe Les Pepones impress during the same slot on the Saturday. A very honourable mention also goes to the peerless Bearded Kitten, who stage two madcap cricket matches on the Saturday and Sunday that are hilarious highlights of the festival.

At the other end of the spectrum, the festival’s biggest weakness is how early it finishes each evening. Regardless of what the licensing arrangements might be, shutting everything down at 2am is ridiculous and causes endless grumbling at every turn. It’s fair enough that you might not want it to become an all-night dance event, but that’s as much to do with the programming as it is the curfew. If it’s a noise issue, why not have a silent disco? Or some smaller chill-out tents where people can just hang out until a little later on? The early finish is short-sighted and feels like we’re having civility forced upon us. Not all of us need to be up at 9am for cookery class or to take little Jemima and Tarquin horse riding.

But back to the positive and probably Wilderness’s number one highlight: the site itself. Its rolling hills make for one of the UK’s most picturesque festival locations, and the wild swimming afforded by its large central lake is an extraordinary asset. Floating around under ancient British oaks is about as invigorating a way to start any day, let alone a morning after. If you follow that with some artisanal cheese or award-winning tapas, then a pint of craft beer or some organic gin while watching the cricket, then maybe – just maybe – a bit of live music, well, that would be a fairly typical Wilderness experience: fun, relaxing, indulgent and very, very civilised. 

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