Wilderness – the festival that mixes music and Momentum

The genteel Oxfordshire festival threw together the Flaming Lips, Robert Plant, pianist James Rhodes, cricket without clothes and insightful political debates

Naked cricket. A Chicago house legend. The uplifting sound of a 30-piece orchestra. Wilderness certainly has a varied palate, yet caters to a rather one-note clientele. Now in its sixth year and hosted on the 5,000-acre Cornbury Park estate in the heart of Oxfordshire, the festival is the kind of place David Cameron might leave his kid behind at. Or, to put it another way: I spent Saturday at a Raymond Blanc lunch sat between an accountant and a former Whitehall staffer. One half of the Brexit divide writ Magnum-size.

With a weaker lineup than in previous years, Wilderness still delivers some strong musical moments on what is a gloriously sunny weekend. Robert Plant, the Corbyn-aged (67) former Led Zeppelin frontman, electrifies the Friday night headline slot with Whole Lotta Love during his only UK 2016 gig. Lianne La Havas, returning after her memorable 2012 appearance here, exudes genuine joy on the main stage, switching deftly between numerous Gibson Les Pauls and telling us her mum just called to say her music’s being used on the BBC Olympics coverage. A cover of Aretha Franklin’s Say a Little Prayer is a treat, and the singer’s dress is so much admired that someone in the front row has the good sense to ask where it’s from (Temperley).

Lianne La Havas at Wilderness festival 2016
Dressed for success … Lianne La Havas. Photograph: Max Miechowski / Fanatic 2016

Elsewhere, stumbling upon Diana Yukawa’s haunting violin while scoffing an £8 falafel scotch egg is a revelation as the sun sets on the Atrium stage. James Rhodes proves, via Rachmaninov, why he has 50,000 Twitter followers. And local boys Glass Animals impress with their intelligent fusion of R&B, zig-zag bass-lines and Tetris beats. Shura’s set is assured and Touch gets the twentysomethings up from east London throwing angular shapes.

the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne at Wilderness festival 2016
Curtain of lights … the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne. Photograph: Danny North

Over in the Valley, a deep cleavage of greenery and ancient trees, Derrick Carter’s perfectly judged 2am house is elegantly lit by Tracey Emin-inspired neons. But Sunday headliners the Flaming Lips disappoint with a weak vocal and the bizarre choice to have frontman Wayne Coyne barely visible behind a curtain of lights

Away from the music, there is spoon carving, wild swimming and a cabaret show featuring a PVC-clad Kitty Bang Bang. Oh, and a man riding a bicycle along a tightrope through flames, because why the hell not? The star of one of numerous insightful debates is Larry Sanders, forever to be introduced as brother of Bernie, but delivering salient points as Green Party health spokesperson in his own right. In the same debate, George Galloway “will not apologise” for being a straight white man and rails against “rightwing Ed Miliband”. He’s dressed all in black despite the 26 degree heat and is wearing a fedora indoors. Momentum’s James Schneider speaks of a burgeoning Labour membership and there’s a ripple of applause like a second round Wimbledon win on court 2 from an audience who have just paid £20 for glitter accessories.

Wilderness’s general vibe appears to be a mashup of Latitude and Hay, with the dress-up chops of Secret Garden. And Sunday night’s Bowie tribute – featuring the Wilderness orchestra and choir; London Contemporary Voices; Kate Nash and Charlotte Church – is a properly stirring experience. Ending with Memory of a Free Festival might be somewhat awkward for obvious reasons, but it does allow for a rousing finale singalong. The audience filters away to a Bowie voiceover: “see you all once again, another day, in another place”. Wilderness might not be where the wild things are, but it’s jolly good fun nonetheless, old sport.


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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