Wilderness Festival

August 16, 2011

Upon arrival at Wilderness Festival we believed that the most extrovert offerings this idyllic countryside had to offer us would be Saturday night’s headline performance by New York’s gypsy punk rockers Gogol Bordello – how very wrong we were!

Guillemot’s Fyfe Dangerfield pointed out during his main stage performance on the Sunday: “I hear you can drink champagne naked here while being serenaded by a string quartet,” and that was only the half of it.

The adjoining lakes were a haven for skinny-dipping, while the naked champagne drinking had also taken over the festivals wood-fire heated hot tubs. The nakedness was in full swing – a pun ever more disturbing if you witnessed the naked conga.

Then, at the stroke of midnight deep in the Oxfordshire wilderness – a masked ball under a glowing full moon rocked the Cornbury Park estate like some crazy remake of From Dusk Till Dawn. Mingling with the roaming deer, the fancy dress brigade were entertained by hip-hop induced brass band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble as the champagne continued to flow.

Unfortunately for us music lovers, the main stage appeared to take a second billing to the Masked Ball. With a one-in-one-out rule being implemented it was the only attraction of this festival that succeeded in surpassing half capacity.

It was such a shame because the masses of empty space in the field lost so much of its potential atmosphere. But on the positive side the loos and queues were acceptable, we could stroll right the way to the front barrier for almost every performance across the weekend, and the small size of the festival meant that no matter where we camped we would always be less than five minutes away from the action – small victories.

The Saturday was the livelier of the two days with a ‘world music’ theme being the basis of the line-up. American hillbilly rockers Hayseed Dixie entertained the crowd with bluegrass cover versions of classic songs including ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, while we also had Australian blues music from CW Stoneking.

Jamaican reggae legends Toots and The Maytals got the crowd singing and skanking with a set that has scarcely changed in almost forty years – but then I suppose if it works it works and this crowd seemed to think so.

However, no band fits the ‘worldly’ theme quite like headliners Gogol Bordello. The gypsy rockers consist of an Iranian singer, Jewish guitarist, Russian fiddler, Slavic accordion player, an Ethiopian bassist, a percussionist and MC from Ecuador and China – so it is perhaps fitting that their colourful and energetic performance topped the bill with the crowd reaching its most ecstatic point over the weekend for festival hit ‘Start Wearing Purple’.

The following day rarely lived up to the same atmosphere as the Sunday afternoon feeling made the chilled out and folksy day difficult to instill the same enthusiasm. Daniel Johnston and The Low Anthem plodded along through their sets before the crowd had managed to materialise – and even indie heavyweights Guillemots struggled to get the crowd on their feet despite putting in a sterling effort with a hit-packed set.

It was the acoustic sound of Laura Marling that finally grasped the full attention of the growing audience with the best performance of the day. The crowd stood and watched in awe, applauding each song the beautiful and elegant singer songwriter had to offer us.

The folk singer said: “It feels weird to be playing outdoors – but it’s very, very nice,” before apologetically thanking the audience for listening to her singing ‘sad and depressing songs’ which she wrongly believed may have struggled to sit well in a festival environment.

Mercury Revthen excelled to roll back the clock to 1998 with the performance of seminal masterpiece ‘Deserter’s Songs’ from start to finish. The show had a special feel to it – especially given that it was the bands only UK festival date of the year following a sell-out tour, and their powerful encore ‘The Dark is Rising’ had both singer and crowd throwing their hands up into the air. It truly felt like a perfect way to round off the festival rather than hang around for the anti climatic orchestral headline slot for Anthony and the Johnsons.

The start-up festival – run by the people that brought us The Secret Garden Party and Lovebox Festival – certainly had plenty going on and thankfully the majority of it was in fact fully clothed. The kids were kept busy with workshops ranging from circus skills through to pizza making, while the family friendly crowd was treated to a range of activities including Sunday afternoon game of cricket played in full cricket whites.

The festival would perhaps have been better marketed as a ‘local festival’ as it was difficult to see people travelling from far and wide for this offering in an already saturated market – but it was a pleasant change from the hoardes of teenagers and the commercialized festivals which have dominated the festival scene for many years now.

The event still has so much potential. With a bigger crowd, a little more music, a couplemore stages, and better transport links – this festivals future could be a success. Overall, not a bad first effort.

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