Wilderness Festival 2019: ‘If you want to strip down to your goolies… go ahead’

The Lakeside Spa

Words by Angus Burnett

The Wilderness Festival returned to Cornbury Park for what’s become its annual celebration of…well, everything.

It was once seen as a gathering for music, food and, unofficially, ‘poshness’ but it has now become known for literature, dance, debate, health and nudity.

Yep, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing cricket, dancing the Macarena or taking part in a best bonnet competition, if you want to strip down and show your goolies whilst bowling a googly, go ahead.  Just don’t forget the sun-cream.

The festival has been able to subtly refine and revise itself over the years. Some of the early and genuinely eccentric elements, whether acts or attendees, have either become disinterested or weeded out but, perhaps paradoxically, the festival seems more diverse than ever. Sure, there’s a very 21st Century Paltrow-esque hippydom to be bought into if you want to but there are a broad range of people here out to enjoy themselves and who seem to want to see others have a great time. The people are not all posh, not all straight, not all white, not stereotypically Oxfordshire.  There’s a really tolerant vibe.  Maybe it was just because the sun was out but the whole weekend felt like a celebration of coming together to be human.  The official t-shirts, sold to support refugees, had a bold logo ‘Choose Love’ and I saw an unofficial t-shirt that had ‘Make Empathy Great Again’.

Letters Live, in which well-known people read out a variety of letters by both famous and ordinary folk, continued this celebration and exploration of being human.  Only in its third year at Wilderness,  Letters Live has established itself as one of the major draws. It attracts a huge crowd and major names such as Rose McGowan, Minnie Driver and Olivia Colman. The latter getting a huge roar before she’d even uttered a word.

Another feature that has fast become a huge crowd-puller is Hip-Hop Karaoke. It’s lively, good-natured and an opportunity to poke fun at ‘poshness’ as some upper middle class people sling gangsta rhymes in front of a South London DJ and MC.

As for professional musicians, again there was greater choice with new stages such as The Level bringing global music like Shingai who went down a storm on Saturday night.

The main stage had Oh My God, It’s The Church whose Rev Michael Alabama Jackson persuaded people to save their souls in sleazy style. The camp, burlesque showmanship a great front for tight musical and vocal talent.

Tom Odell rocked out and enjoyed himself.

Tom Grennan brought his gravelly soul and easy charm as well as a promise for long overdue new material.

Robyn was slick, stylized, powerful and dynamic, lifting the crowd as the headliner on the Saturday night with a well choreographed stage show and beautiful white set.

Groove Armada capped things off on the Sunday night. Some bands seem blessed with an ability to turn out tune after tune that have an inescapable catchiness and GA are one of those gangs. This helped when the sound went down after four songs. Groove Armada came straight back out and got the crowd shakin’ their asses again immediately.

The Saturday Spectacle, which is an annual giant arty installation come performance was one of the best with a giant mechanical spider, bright lights bouncing off someone dangling acrobatically in a mirror costume and somebody else shooting electricity out of their hands into the sky.

The Lakeside Spa

However, the most astonishing, mesmerizing and moving thing I saw all weekend was born out of simplicity and hard, hard work. Rambert2’s performance of Killer Pig was simply astounding.  Apparently they’re coming back to Oxford next spring. Even if you think you’re not into contemporary dance (like I did), go see this.  I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Right, after all that good living, I need a holiday.