Playback: Wilderness 2018
Nestled in the depths of the Cotswolds – an area in England famous for its rolling green hills and idyllic stone houses – Wilderness is staged in one of the best locations to hold a festival. It’s not just back-to-back music either. It’s yoga classes, forest runs, wild foraging, communal dinners, basket-weaving classes, podcast recordings and business workshops. Wilderness is a festival for the creative soul.
That said, I’ll do my best at recreating the experience of Wilderness in this report but I urge you to go if you have the chance. Sure, it’s a bit posh, but it’s also one of the cleanest, friendliest, well-rounded festivals I’ve ever been to.
Day 1: Friday, August 3rd
I arrived at Wilderness on Friday. England was enjoying one of the most consistently sunny summers on record, and this weekend looked like it was going to continue the trend.
After setting up the tent, I set out to explore the landscape. The layout of Wilderness is unique in that there is a massive lake separating the main camping area from the festival site. This helps make the journey into the festival feel like a mini adventure in itself. First you walk down a steep valley to the lakes edge where you follow the water around to a small bridge. Off one side of the bridge is a waterfall that feeds into another lake where you will find bathers washing off last night’s revelry. Once you cross over the bridge to the other side you will have reached the entrance to Wilderness. Here you can turn left and climb up the other side of the valley, or turn right and meander along the ridge towards the main stage.
It was too early for the main stage, so I turned left and made my way up the hill.
It doesn’t take long to recognize that Wilderness is a very unique take on a festival. The music is important, but it is by no means the only feature. And there are hidden adventures all over the festival if you are lucky enough to find them. My first experience of this was walking up the hill. At the top of the hill I stumbled upon a hidden barbeque! It was just a small tent with a u-shaped tasting table and a beautiful view of the valley below. Wicked!
As I continued to explore the layout, I entered a series of ornate cloth tents selling a variety of things from sequin suits to vintage artwork. It was like a little village. A village of steampunk traveling hippies.
The village opened up onto the Atrium. Imagine a shallow grassy bowl with a stage at one end and a circular white canvas above where the crowd sits. This is where I spent most of my mornings for the remainder of the weekend. It was the heart of the festival for me. Partly because it was so centrally located, but also because of the eclectic mix of entertainment that took place on the stage. From guided yoga to live orchestra performances, I soon learned that The Atrium always had something interesting going on.
At this moment, The Sadler’s Wells Theatre from London had taken over the stage and there was some sort of dance being preformed. It was the sort of dance performance that I would normally glance at as I was walking past and continue on. My glance turned into a pause. All the players were dressed in a sort of 18th century-inspired Russian gypsy costumes. Baggy white shirts, vests, and cloth belts. They looked like a badass traveling troop of circus pirates playing out some sort of life and death battle in the form of dance.
It was time to get into the music so I stole myself away from the Atrium in order to catch Joy Crookes – the nineteen year old singer songwriter from South London. Joy Crookes lead into Billy Locket and then into the very energetic Australian band called Confidence Man. They were like a portable party up on stage. Being confident has never looked sexier, or sounded sharper.
Joy Crookes – New Manhattan
Confidence Man – Better Sit Down Boy
I leave Confidence Man early to see if I could locate the organizers to say thank you for inviting me. The Press tent is a cute little brightly colored cloth number that is open on three sides near the middle of the festival. Unlike most Press tents that are located behind the main stage and closed to the public, this one is opened to all. It gives the area a more comfortable feel. Photographers, writers and fans are trading stories about their favorite shows so far or the latest up-and-coming band that no one has heard of yet. The vibe in the tent is much like the vibe of the festival: welcoming and chilled.
I introduce myself to the Press directors whom I’ve been talking to over email for the last few months and thank them for the invitation. I start blathering on about how amazing Wilderness is, and how it’s my first time, and there are so many secrets to discover, blah blah blah. They are nodding with a knowing smile. They’ve seen Wilderness “first timers” before. Then they hand me an envelope with my name on it and a wax seel on the back. “Go to the Sipsmith’s Gin Palace and hand the bar manager this letter. Quickly though – you don’t have much time.” Amazing! As I turned to rush out of the tent, one of them stopped me to add that there are still plenty of secrets to discover in Wilderness. You only need to be curious and polite to find them.
Envelope in hand a and head filled with curiosity, I speed walked to the Gin Palace.
The Sipsmith Gin Palace was one of the fancier tents at the festival. Something out of a Victorian circus, with decorated canvas and little turrets on the outside. Inside on the ceiling there are crafted wood rafters to hold the tent’s shape.
A crowd has already established itself at the bar. Patiently I push into the group of customers. Some drunk and merry, others stern faced and sober. I find a space near the end and put my envelop on the bar. Now, which one is the manager? I feel a hand tap on my shoulder. Turning to the side I see a women standing in an opening in the curtain next to the bar. “This way sir… while no one is paying attention.”
I slip through the opening to a small room behind the bar. There’s a small tasting table set up and a bottle of Sipsmith Gin. I feel like the James Bond of Gin drinking. The Wilderness festival gods have rewarded: it’s a private Gin tasting at a secret bar. #winning
I can’t tell you all the details (because it’s secret) but I can tell you that I had four delicious Gin cocktails including one that contained the very hard to get Sipsmith lime syrup and a pineapple leaf. I also learned a load of interesting Gin facts like the fact that Sipsmith was one of the first distillers to change the laws about how big your still needed to be if you are making Gin. As a result they were the pioneers in craft Gin making.
Before I leave, the women hands me a really nicely made little business card. It has cheap looking key attached to it with a ribbon and some info about Sipsmith on it. “It’s a key to one of Wilderness’ secrets. Look for the sign with a squiggly arrow on it” she smiles. I laugh back without knowing what she is talking about. The four gins start to take hold and I’m just kind of giggly now. I put the business card in my pocked and thank her.
Armed with loads of new knowledge about gin and feeling slightly tipsy with four cocktails inside me, I set back out into the festival ground.
I’m now being led to the Peacock bar by a few friends I’ve run into. “The Peacock is where everyone lost goes to be found,” he says. I wasn’t sure how deeply I was supposed to read into that but I followed. The Peacock bar is like a normal festival bar except it has a very large sound system at one end of the bar playing feel-good music ’round the clock.
We filled up on drinks and headed over to see Baxter Dury. I didn’t know who this was, but my friends assured me he was good. “He’s Ian Dury’s son!” they said. “He’s reviving real British rock!” I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but he was pretty good. After a bit of Dury, I headed back to the Atrium to catch some of the “Ronnie Scott’s Presents: Scott McKeon’s Superjam.” Ronnie Scott is famous for opening up a small basement club in the West End of London in the 60s that invited jazz and soul musicians from all over to come and jam. His curated festival parties capture the soul of those basement nights in the 60s but with a twist of outdoor stage and sunshine.
Next up was the highlight the Friday headliners: Justice. The last time I saw Justice live was in Lollapalooza in Chicago. Their set in the US was one of the first times I have experienced an electronic set that didn’t just include a man standing behind decks spinning records. It was a performance. There was a massive lit cross that hung over the stage and giant neon organ that towered 30 or 40 feet above the two french DJs. It was so big that the two men could actually climb up in it at times to play different pieces. They weren’t just pressing play and shaking their heads like most of the DJs I had seen before… they were putting on a stage musical where they were the stars and their music was the soundtrack.
JUSTICE – “ON’N’ON” (Rick Rubin rework)
Six years on from the last time I saw them live, and in a time when most DJs put on an extravagant stage show like I witnessed, I was looking forward to what Justice had in store this time around. One thing that they absolutely nail is symbolism. They still had the massive lit up cross hanging above as you would imagine, but this time they also had two huge stacks of Marshall amps on either side of the stage. It was a minimal set up but I love the mixture of rock and roll, Christian and electronic symbols. The two stars themselves embraced the symbolism as well; Gaspard Augé was dressed in all white while Xavier de Rosnay was dressed in all black on stage.
Oh, and also…. the music was banging as well.
Day 2: Saturday, August 4th
Full disclosure: I woke up with a bit of hangover this morning. With the help of some party favors in the form of small pills during Justice — my reporting hat put quietly aside for the night — I fully embraced what Wilderness had to offer after dark. This morning I’m paying for it.
My plan to wake up early to the sunrise… to go have a morning swim… to enjoy the quietness of the surrounding wilderness from my tent before anyone else woke up…. all abandoned.
I am now on a mission to put something greasy and meaty in my mouth as soon as possible. I march through the campsite in the early afternoon sun. Past the lakes teaming with sober people splashing around and having sober fun. Up the hill and towards the first available food truck. Then I’m stopped. Between me and food is a group of enthusiastic healthy people. All of them doing some kind of morning workout to Britney Spears (and other workout soundtrack pop music). And if that wasn’t enough to make me sick in my mouth, there was a loud Australian shouting orders over a microphone at them (see video above). I shaded my eyes with the side of my jacket and made a hissing sound as if I was a vampire seeing the light for the first time, and carried on to the food trucks ahead.
After mission food was accomplished I made my way back to my sanctuary: The Atrium. It didn’t matter what was on, The Atrium had sun protection and chilled out vibes. What I found was The Little Orchestra. Just what I needed.
Well I don’t know exactly what the little orchestra — I had never heard of it before — but the idea of a group of musicians playing tiny instruments did amuse me. So I’ll admit, I was a tiny bit disappointed to see normal sized humans carrying normal sized instruments appear on stage. However, that disappointment quickly disappeared when they started playing. The began with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. ::Duhn dun dun duhhhhhhhnn… Duhn dun dun DUUUUUHHHNNNNN:: It was exactly what I needed to invigorate me out of my hangover.
The best part was that it wasn’t just any orchestra. The Little Orchestra and its conductor, Nicolas, took the audience on a journey of discovery to reveal the secrets and inspirations behind this classical music masterpiece. The orchestra would play a piece of the symphony and then pause to let the conductor explain what was going on in the music. The instrumentation and the context behind it. A song that you’ve heard a million times suddenly became something completely new. It brought a whole new meaning to the song for me. Also, it was really interesting learning how and why Beethoven came up with the 5th symphony. Did you know that the symphony represents Beethoven’s struggle with going deaf? The signature ::Duhn dun dun duhhnnnn:: sounds represents a knock at his door the day that he fell…the beginning of his spiral into deafness.
It was live classical music like you’ve never experienced before. I highly recommend you go check out The Little Orchestra if get the chance.
Now, feeling a bit more human after the classical music session at the Arena, I headed over to the main stage to catch Jon Hopkins. I caught the end of his set earlier this year at Field Day in South London but this time I wanted the full experience. Unfortunately there was a bit of a drawback this time around. The sun was still up. It was still light out.
As much as I like Jon Hopkins’ music, it doesn’t feel right in a festival when it’s still light out. His music is for the dark. It was still banging music all the same, but I reckon a lot more people would have been dancing if it was dark out.
As the sun set I went for a bit of a wander around the festival. A group of women in full sequin rompers walk just ahead of me. The festival postman crosses my path calling out the name of his recipient (yes, Wilderness has its own little postal service). A lantern parade snakes past the Club House and meanders out into the festival. “Only in Wilderness,” I thought.
I’m in search of the famous Wilderness valley. Everyone has been talking about going down to the valley. I’ve been up and down a few valleys while I’ve been here, but there was no music or excitement there. I’ve gathered that this is a specific valley. The Valley.
As I walk in search of the elusive valley towards a part of the festival that I haven’t been before I pass a curious looking sign. It’s a squiggly arrow pointing to a slight opening in the fence. Then it hits me. The woman at the gin palace! I think I’ve found another one of the secrets of Wilderness!
I riffle through my pockets to find the business card with the little key attached to it. Key in hand, I walk through the small opening in the fence to find a man in a brightly colored orange vest. Security. “Can I help you?”
I timidly show him the key. To my surprise he gives me a little smile and takes a step to the side so that I can pass. “Thank you. This is amazing,” I think out loud.
I follow the unlit windy path. I can hear the bass in the distance from various stages around the festival. I’m walking to somewhere quieter. Somewhere hidden. The path narrows as I walk. I have a hand on the wall to my right now because it’s so dark. I turn a sharp corner now to reveal an opening into a small walled garden.
It’s significantly quieter here. There’s a bar on one end and some intimate lighting in the surrounding trees and brick walls. This is just the kind of bar I’m in to. The Wilderness festival gods have delivered yet again.
I see a text message flash up onto my phone screen. “David Cameron is here at Wilderness. We are at a private party with Chic performing and he is dancing with us.”
I’m not sure what is more unbelievable. The fact that the former prime minister of England is at this festival, or that he can dance.
“Oh shit! Chic is going to be on soon!” I leap up to find the exit and make my way to the main stage.
When I arrive to the main stage it is already filling up past the sound booth. In a way, it’s funny that I’m so excited to see Nile Rogers perform considering this will be the third time that I will have seen him THIS YEAR. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you? Nile Rogers has been behind some of most popular songs of the last few decades. It’s the perfect mixture of sing-a-long nostalgia and dance fuel. They played classics like ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Everybody Dance,’ as well as more recent hits like their collaboration with Daft Punk: ‘Get Lucky.’
As the show comes to an end, the crowd is invited onto the stage for their finale performing ‘Good Times.’
I think my hangover is finally gone after Nile Rogers and Chic. Time to restart my search for the Valley. The migration of people away from the main stage carries me down towards the clothing stalls and food trucks on the other side of the festival. Some of the stages that we pass are quiet for the night now. And it seems that my search for this valley is going to be resolved because it’s the only game in town at this time of night.
Here’s a little vid of the walk down to the valley. I’ll admit that I was a bit drunk at this point and officially an “off duty reporter” at this point. Apologies for the shit camera work.
At this point things became a bit of a blur. I saw a set by either George Fitzgerald, and / or Waze & Odyssey. What I can tell you is that it was fantastic. Not sure how I got home.
Post Script: Turns out David Cameron was at Wilderness after all. Still not sure about the dancing though
Day 3: Sunday, August 5th
I woke up to find this bag for a “party animal.” Who knows what was in it the night before… and how it might have found its way into my tent.
On my way to the Atrium I passed the cricket pitch where a cricket match was in full swing. I love that there is a cricket pitch right in the middle of the festival. This wasn’t any old cricket match either. Among other slight changes to the rules, streaking buck-naked onto the field of play was accepted. Encouraged even. There was a part of the scoreboard that kept track of how many streakers made it successfully out onto the pitch. I was later told that this year broke the record of streakers during a game totalling up to 70.
Assembling at the Atrium was the Wilderness Choir; a collection of voices from around the festival that were separated into different groups based on their voice type. I just love the Atrium. Next up was the orchestra again. This time they were showing Disney films on the screen behind the stage while they played the soundtrack live. It sounds mega cheesy, but I can’t tell you how enjoyable that is on a hangover on a sunny Sunday afternoon. They played the theme to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King – I lay down to look up at the canvas sunshade covering the Atrium and closed my eyes to each new piece of music.
Disney animals danced around in my head. The little mermaid swam up alongside me to help me with my stretching technique. Then there Nemo was swimming up next to me to whisper some yoga instructions in my ear. “Take a deep breath,” the fish said. I wanted to cooperate but I knew that if I opened my mouth underwater I would drown. My face started turning red. My eyes closed as the burning sensation rose inside of my lungs. “I’m gonna fucking die down here. What is wrong with these Disney cartoons. Help me!! ”
I open my eyes and sit up under the Atrium. “Wow, that was intense.” I rub the sleep away from my eyes and try to figure out how long I’ve been out. The orchestra is gone. The Disney films are gone. There is a man on stage talking. I am surrounded by people in lycra….doing yoga. The man on stage is proceeding over some sort of guided yoga class while the woman in front of me is doing downward dog. Like DIRECTLY in front of me.
How bizarre. I mean great, but bizarre. Should I lie back down and pretend I’m asleep? Should I try get up and stumble my way through the (what looks like) hundreds of people in stretchy clothing doing yoga moves around me? I don’t think I could manage the scornful looks I would get from all these healthy people when I try to exit. I lie back down.
The yoga army have finished being healthy, and I’ve found my opportunity to escape. I’m walking past all of the food tents now. Not the kind of food tents you would find at most festivals — Ottolenghi, Petersham Nurseries — those kind of food tents. There’s a tent with a Radio 4 presenter doing a live podcast. On my right there is a book store tent. A book tent at a festival. I friggin love this festival.
Palace – Live Well
Kamasi Washington – ‘Miss Understanding’
BANGZY X IAMDDB – C O C A (Bangzy rework)
The next five hours of the festival include being in front of the main stage to enjoy performances from Palace, Kamasi Washington, IAMDDB, and Bastille. It’s like a celebration to Wilderness. Kamasi Washington took to the stage and performed his unique version of hip hop inspired, cosmic jazz. IAMDDB delivered a truly memorable performance with stark electronics and charismatic vocal delivery. The crowd got to their feet as she performed her hypnotic anthem, ‘Shade.’
To finish off the day, British sensation Bastille brought the festival to a crescendo.
BASTILLE – Pompeii (Remix)
Until next year Wilderness….