Live Review

Wilderness Festival, Cornbury Park, Charlbury

The best small festival to come out of England for years.

In an era when festivals are massively common, and commonly massive, the wary music fan must approach any new additions to the UK outdoor circuit with a little caution, but also an open mind – since in a handful of cases, Wilderness being one, a new festival might just take the crown of the summer.

Set a short stroll away from Charlbury railway station in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside, the grounds of the Cornbury Park estate play host to a festival that instantly outweighs Latitude’s quaint charm and stunning surroundings. There are a couple of lakes, one each for swimming and boating; lots of woodland; an outdoor spa; and a tonne of other ways to kill time while waiting for Robyn Hitchcock to piss off the stage.

Saturday’s line up is by no means spectacular, and bar for a decent set from Dry The River, the daytime could be pleasantly spent exploring the grounds and sitting by the lake with a coffee and a copy of The Guardian. The atmosphere picks up incredibly by the time the evening’s penultimate headliners Toots and the Maytals take to the stage. The terms ‘iconic’ and ‘legendary’ are thrown around too easily these days, but nobody could deny this group’s unmatched influence on the reggae scene for well over four decades – inspiring, amongst others, The Specials.

Rarely has a festival crowd been so responsive and, seemingly, so happy to be in an English field. From aging stoners to young families, the smiles and dancing are unanimous, and this is a thoroughly enjoyable affair - though one might question its place, juxtaposed haphazardly before the night’s gypsy-punk bill-toppers Gogol Bordello.

Few, it seems, if any of the crowd pressed up to the barrier are Gogol Bordello virgins. They know exactly what to expect, and that’s very valuable knowledge to possess if you’re to make it out alive. What the band play is of little importance (yes, of course they do ‘Start Wearing Purple’, and yes, of course it’s awesome), the sheer energy and insanity with which they play is what matters. And boy, do they do a good job. Frontman Eugene Hutz’s raw manliness is expressed when he rips off his shirt to reveal steam hissing from his back in the heat of the stage lights (a prestigious display usually limited to Bruce Springsteen), and none of the band are still for more than a few moments worth of recovery time. A hyperactive audience make for an ecstatic but exhausting experience, and plenty of revelers presumably retire to their tents to pass out in pools of their own sweat (I know I do…).

Sunday’s line up is a solid, if slow-building selection of loosely folk-inspired bands to wash away hangovers to. Other than a peculiar and, as time goes by, rage-inducing decision to allow Robyn Hitchcock anywhere near a microphone (his awful lyrics matched only by his cringe-worthy ‘banter’), the day marks a series of beautiful and unique performances. The Low Anthem’s often gravelly vocals are twinned with instruments you rarely see in indie music these days (the saw, for instance), and their set includes an almost tear-jerking rendition of ‘This God Damn House’, before closing with the gorgeous three-part harmonies of ‘Charlie Darwin’, crowded around a single condenser mic.

Guillemots throw a particularly festival-friendly set into the mix, with ‘Trains To Brazil’ and ‘São Paolo’ sounding better than they ever have before; while Laura Marling gives a reasonable solo show – though she’s undoubtedly better with a band behind her.

In his only British gig of the summer, Daniel Johnston has a lot of expectations to live up to – this is the musician Kurt Cobain and plenty more endorsed. Perhaps he isn’t on form, but it’s a pretty disappointing performance. With his backing band, the quality significantly improves, but much of the set is just Johnston and an awful guitarist.

Mercury Rev playing the whole of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is a brilliant spectacle to witness, and their set leaves time for a cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ (one of the finest songs ever created, and anyone who denies it is a moron), and their own ‘The Dark Is Rising’.

Antony & The Johnsons headline the Sunday; Hegarty’s distinctive vocals set to the instrumentation of the Heritage Orchestra is wonderful, but grows a little repetitive after the first 45 minutes or so. However, his talks on feminism and his own experiences being transgender are actually quite enlightening – the man talks a great deal of sense – and the cover of ‘Crazy In Love’ thrown in was superb.

The truly remarkable thing about Wilderness is its size: there is just one dedicated music stage, so you run no risks of clashing bands, and you can get there from the campsite in little more than five minutes. The potential of the festival can grow, but only if the capacity does not. Wilderness relies on its small, family-friendly crowds; for it to grow in size like Latitude did would be nothing but tragic. Here’s hoping to a long, prosperous existence for what’s probably the best small festival to come out of England for years.

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