Wilderness review: Bigger and more ambitious than ever before

Jamie XX, Rudimental and Self Esteem all gave impressive sets, but the Oxfordshire event prides itself on being more than just music – and rewards those who are up for venturing away from the main stage

Alexandra Jones
Monday 09 August 2021 17:15
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<p>Jamie XX, who headlined this year’s Wilderness Festival</p>

Jamie XX, who headlined this year’s Wilderness Festival

“Is Wilderness posh?” is the most Googled thing about Wilderness Festival. The short answer is yes, it is a bit. David Cameron was pictured there in 2017 (which The Guardian called “a good reason to give up festivals”), as was Princess Beatrice in 2019, raving in the VIP area alongside men in chinos, clutching bottles of Whispering Angel rosé.

Come to think of it, “Things overheard at Wilderness Festival” would make for a delightfully snippy Twitter thread: “He’s only two but he’s very specific about how he likes his babyccino”; “That bit that says ‘general camping’ is where the proletariat go when the music stops”; “Apparently there’s a secret orgy at the Togetherness tent at 2am”. But it is also one of the most beautifully appointed and thoughtful festivals on the British roster. In fact, despite biblical downpours and a few last-minute changes to the line-up, the energy and ambition of the programming has drawn a particularly buzzy and up-for-it post-lockdown crowd. Wilderness – now in its 10th year – is finally stepping out of the long shadow of the former prime minister.

The first draw for the buzzy and up-for-it is Self Esteem – aka Rebecca Taylor, the Sheffield-born singer-songwriter whose second album is due for release in October. She lands the 5pm Friday slot, warming the crowd with her catchy, clever pop. Between tracks she addresses the audience with the same level of candour we’ve come to expect from her lyrics. “Men, there is a huge amount of pressure on you just to be men,” she says. “Please, f***ing cry more.” By the end – she finishes her set with her recent hypnotic spoken-word hit “I Do This All The Time” – groups of twentysomething girls are on their knees, crying out the lyrics: “Don’t send those long paragraph texts, stop it, don’t.”

Later on, headliner Loyle Carner, Mercury-nominated and warmly regarded as “the nicest man in rap”, delivers a lyrically dextrous and at times stunning set. The south London native is known for his soulful, flowing sound, over which he ruminates on death, ADHD and growing up in Croydon. “Florence” is particularly good; his samples of Pastor TL Barrett’s pivotal gospel album The Ship is also a highlight. But sometimes it all feels a little lethargic, especially as it’s the first night of the festival. Still, it seems Friday is for feelings. The message “It’s OK to cry sometimes” is delivered mid-set, with the crowd whooping and cheering in support.

By the time Saturday’s headliner Jamie XX comes to the stage, the crowd (battered by rain showers but still glittered and grinning) is ready to go wild. Someone once told me that the Grammy-winning DJ and producer – formerly one-third of the Mercury-winning band The XX – made “house music for bankers”, but his set switches between pop-house and more bass-heavy tracks. It lacks some of the melancholy and complexity of his smaller shows but is well received by the revellers, who, as far as I can tell, aren’t all bankers.

Rudimental draw an equally excitable crowd for the closing set of the main stage. The British four-piece are known for their big-room drum’n’bass and clever collaborations. Tonight, they play with a full band and gospel choir – an arresting arrangement. After slipping for a while into “third gear” (they admit it themselves after playing a few slower numbers), they deliver fireworks (literal and musical) as they close the festival with their biggest hits “Feel The Love” and “These Days”.

The thing is, Wilderness prides itself on being more than just music – and rewards those who are up for venturing away from the main stage. Sunday afternoon’s Letters Live session (letters by the likes of Dorothy Parker are read out by actors such as Tony Robinson) leaves many onlookers – pulpy from lack of sleep – sobbing into the laps of loved ones. House of Sublime, a smallish tent with a a big personality, centres queer DJs by night and attracts a decent, diverse crowd. On Sunday, we go and see drag kings perform, followed by the highly anticipated Gayzpacho: a slippery, slidey, sort-of sexy wrestling match between two or three men drenched in passata. Tasty.

Self Esteem, centre, warmed up the crowd with her catchy, clever pop

It’s also worth mentioning that this year, Wilderness’s calmer, more meditative space, The Sanctuary, has stepped up a gear. Equipped with their own stage for talks, this grassy area, tucked away down in a dip in the hills, also now has a space for those in AA and NA to find solace or support when necessary. The therapy tent (offering free one-to-one sessions for the entirety of the weekend) is also never without a few curious passersby.

But Wilderness has not totally shed its posh persona. The chef’s table, an in-the-round dining experience which overlooks the lake, is a particularly bougie highlight (props to chef Elizabeth Haigh). The glamping is truly “glam” (my tent has a carpet and a double bed). And the “Wilderness Proms” – this is the only festival with its own orchestra – satisfies the more esoteric sensibilities of the crowd. Still, it feels somehow bigger and more ambitious than it ever was before – perhaps a function of the fact that it is now put on by Festival Republic, the behemoth producers behind Reading and Leeds, Wireless, Latitude and many more. It’ll be exciting to see what they do next year – although if 2021 is anything to go by, it might be hard to get a ticket.

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