With over half a dozen stages and a kitchen sink lineup, it’s the smaller font artists that make Wilderness such a brilliant getaway.
Against the stunning backdrop of Cornbury Park, Wilderness is something of a cult classic: overheard conversations reveal that many of the tents pitched along the hillside are regular visitors, with owners who first came as kids now bringing along their own. The festival is also pretty remarkable for its array of contraband on entry: the ‘no glass’ rule hadn’t turned up cheap bottles of own brand vodka, but of farmshop-grade chilli jam.
On Thursday, The Stargazer Stage provided an early indulgence for indie fans. Moreish Idols were first up on the three-part bill, attracting a modest crowd with their eclectic fusion of punk, funk and jazz. Following in their footsteps, Opus Kink lived up to their reputation for raucous live shows: dipping into the same genre melting pot as Moreish, their snarling guitar licks wrestled with furious vocals and two-man brass section to produce a carefully controlled sound that still seemed perilously close to boiling over. You didn’t need to know any of the songs to enjoy them live; if anything, that’s what makes their effect so great.
By the time the sun was sinking over Opus’ set, Dalston’s Fèmmme Fraîche were well into their marathon five hour performance in the House of Sublime. With a blend of nostalgic anthems and infectious house beats, the collective had already attracted a convincing crowd by the time Michelle Manetti joined the stage, proving there was no need to wait until the weekend proper to get the party going. Meanwhile, back beneath the Stargazer canvas, it made sense that PVA – with their post-punk tunes overlayed with techno – were the stage’s final instalment. Though potentially an unexpected sound, they were well received by the sizeable audience, and provided a perfect transition from the indie festival of the day to the dance party of the night.
Friday brought a musical and meteorological scorcher – making the wild swimming and boating lakes almost as popular as the stages. Sophie Ellis-Bextor was the first big name of the day, opening Main Stage with a selection of hits and covers. As soon as she was on stage her selection was more than justified for this intergenerational festival: for her newest single, ‘Hypnotized’ (“you can file it under ‘songs that sound like ABBA on crack”), she was able to coax the whole audience into following the choreography with her, and the iconic ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ ended the set on a feel-good high.
It was then a quick march over to the Stargazer for the already-in-session Porij performance. The four-piece were totally at ease before their well-oiled crowd, delivering dancefloor-fillers that carried influence from funk and pop to drum and bass. As they clattered to a finish, another trip back to Main Stage found Áine Deane professing a charming manifesto on love and heartache, armed only with an acoustic guitar and soaring backing production.
Later, Peggy Gou and Jungle put on an enormous Main Stage dance party, while Opus Kink returned to Stargazer for an encore set as impassioned as the first. In the House of Sublime, festival staple Cabaret Fatale also drew a predictably giant crowd. Curated by Missy Fatale, the show brought singing, dancing, burlesque, aerial artistry and profound life lessons under the same tent flap, reclaiming its status as a Wilderness hidden gem.
The day’s crown jewel, though (at least as far as the under thirty crowd were concerned), was the reopening of The Valley. Kicking off with a set from Storm Mollison, Joshua James and the legendary Jodie Harsh followed with a taste of their resident FEEL IT party from London’s Omeara, scattering pulsating house beats over queer club classics. With Krystal Klear and Eats Everything rounding off the bill, it was a pretty incredible launch for the weekend’s ‘it’ party.
Coffee, grilled cheese, and gentle indie folk was the order of Saturday morning, the latter courtesy of Ella Hohnen-Ford. Sufficiently woken up, it was then time for Hackney Wick’s Platypus Complex to take over the Stargazer. The multi-instrumentalists – maracas, chime bar and bongos inclusive – were rewarded with a bigger crowd than they seem to have expected, and for relative newcomers they showcased an impressive arsenal. They were followed by headboy, another band fresh off the Hackney Wick production belt. Although many of the people watching were by then camped around the peripheries of the tent in the hopes of catching a breeze (a rare commodity across the weekend), the trio seemed unphased as they delivered forthright, observational indie tracks littered with earworm riffs.
From guitars to the piano, it was Luca Manning who gave the afternoon’s standout performance beneath the Sublime roof. Opening with a spoken word accompaniment to SOPHIE’s ‘Immaterial’, railing against the pinkwashing of corporate pride, Manning then settled into their dreamy songbook of jazz covers – with tributes to Janelle Monae, The Human League, and Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville among the pack. Ever a champion of collaboration, their set also included duets with Ellie M and Abena Essah, all in a touching celebration of Manning’s formative years.
Back on Stargazer, it was time for The Dinner Party. Dress code: favourite decade. Their vocalist Abigaille twirled around the stage in a dress straight from a vintage romance novel, corded mic in hand, as she led the sextet through their sometimes ethereal, other times supercharged set. Incredibly, not one of their songs has yet made it to release. The first, ‘Portrait of a Dead Girl’, is scheduled for the end of the year – though will be exclusively available on vinyl. It’s a bold strategy, perhaps, but the utterly enraptured crowd suggests this drip-feeding rollout is paying off.
Saturday’s sunset headliner was Years & Years, now the solo project of Olly Alexander. His latest album – a love letter to partying – translated to the stage with kaleidoscopic visuals, half a dozen backup dancers, and a full-sized prop double bed. It was unclear whether there were any active Years & Years fans in the arena that night but, so long as there was a beat to bop to, no one really seemed to mind who was up there. Alexander had saved the oldies, ‘If You’re Over Me’ and ‘King’, until the end; they received the biggest reactions of the night, with ‘King’ prompting the en masse singalong that festivals are made for.
As the late night party kicked back into gear, and the likes of Louise Chen and David Morales lit up The Valley, Queer House Party were bringing the party with political consciousness to the House of Sublime, living up to the hype that’s surrounded them since supporting Years & Years on tour. Closing the Stargazer, meanwhile, an expectant audience had already gathered for Pip Blom, and it was clear why: with irresistible, upbeat indie-rock, the tent was soon filled to the edges and spilling out the sides.
By the time Sunday morning rolled around, the mood across Cornbury Park had mellowed to a contented, if pretty exhausted, calm. The voices of the House Gospel Choir could be heard floating over the hill from Main Stage as London-based Gretel Hänlyn took to the Stargazer. Her distinctly deep-set, brooding vocals melded with melancholic guitar for the live rendition of her Slugeye EP – a performance endearing enough to lure the sun-baked audience off the yellowed grass and up to barricade.
Later, the balladry of Gabe Coulter replaced the harmonies of the House Gospel Choir, beckoning punters over to Main Stage where he delivered a masterclass in songwriting talent. Back on Stargazer, Prima Queen revealed a catalogue of considered, confessional indie-rock, sonically reminiscent of Dublin four-piece Pillow Queens and deserving of a far bigger crowd than the Sunday afternoon was able to muster.
Before the final two bands could close out the weekend’s indie offerings, there was time to make a last trip into the House of Sublime. Inside, Häus of Dons’ Steve Porters and Duncan Disorderly were throwing a ridiculous fictional freshers’ event that was easily a weekend highlight, and that made it nearly impossible to turn away for the traipse back across the field. It was worth it in the end, though: Home Counties justified the hype around their music, which muddles post-punk and indie-pop sensibilities with lyrics condemning the socio-economics of British life; for the home run, Big Joanie combined influences from Riot Grrrl punk to Stevie Nicks tambourine on a setlist well informed by a canon of black feminist literature. “We are a black feminist punk band,” drummer Chardine reiterated before their finale. “Get ready for the black girl revolution.”
Afterwards, as The Valley and Main Stage concluded the party from opposite ends of the park, Charlbury’s sonic smorgasbord of a festival drew to a triumphant close.