Wilderness festival 2014 review: ‘Like a theme park, but nice’

At a festival that’s about more than the music, ultimately it was London Grammar’s epic minimalist anthems and Jessie Ware’s powerful vocals that stole the show

Taking a relaxing wild swim in a tranquil sunlit lake, among aquatic plants and dragonflies, it was easy to forget where I was on Saturday morning. It was only the occasional rumble of bass and faint murmur of a cheering crowd that reminded me that this was a music festival. But that’s exactly how the Wilderness organisers wanted the 30,000 people on site to feel.

“It’s meant to be a holiday rather than a festival,” Jo Vidler, creative director and co-founder of Wilderness, told Positive News. “A holiday experience with amazing entertainment around it. Like a theme park, but nice.”

They certainly succeeded. Now in its fourth year and selling out for the second year in a row, multiple music stages vied for attention alongside intellectual talks, and an endless list of activities: from wild medicine workshops, to swing dancing on hay bales, a roller disco, archery, moonlit strolls through woodland and an on-site spa. And instead of the standard festival grub of reheated stir-fry or soggy chips, the food ranged from banoffee pie crumpets to huge banquets cooked by top chefs.

For my swim I joined Secret Adventures, a company that takes people on mini-expeditions to unexpected places, including kayaking under Tower Bridge and night time cycle rides. At Wilderness they were hosting fire-bowl picnics and skinny dipping in a secret lake.

“It’s a good line-up, good food, chilled out and the people are just great”

“I think everyone has a sense of adventure, and in some people it’s more dormant,” founder Madoc Threipland told me. “It just requires getting out there, doing something a bit different for them to realise… Wilderness really seems to embrace that.”

But there was of course also plenty of music on offer. I overheard someone describe We Were Evergreen as “indie at its finest,” and their joyous tunes magnetised people to the tiny Bandstand, with lead singer Michael Liot leading audience members by the hand up to join the band for their final song. Soon the whole stage was packed.

“I just didn’t think that many people would come up,” Liot told me after their set. “It was great, I loved it.”

We Were Evergreen, who have played each of Wilderness’ four years, were among a number of artists to tell us how much they loved playing at the festival. “I think it’s my favourite festival. It’s not too big and it’s small enough that you can bump into your friends. It’s a good line-up, good food, chilled out and the people are just great,” said Liot.

A highlight in the Travelling Folk Barn was the frantic fiddle playing of the The John Langan Band, while on the Wilderness stage, the exquisite melodies of solo pianist Alexander Chapman Campbell had people dancing gracefully in the rain. Unfortunately, being accompanied by Hurricane Bertha did mean many missed out as they sheltered in the bars, but with song titles such as Light in the Storm, it made for a fitting backdrop to the wildly swaying trees.

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On the main stage, Sheffield duo Slow Club and their band gave a notable performance that ranged from the whole band playfully running around to switch instruments, to slower, more tender moments with male-female vocal harmonies that were at times spine tingling.

Late at night the Styx stage came to life, with Swiss electro-jazz group Klischee describing Wilderness as “wilder than the wild west,” while down in the valley the Pandemonium area was one of the spectacles of the festival, offering nightly raves among the trees.

However it was the two closing performances on Sunday night that really stood out.

Jessie Ware gave it her all in her only UK festival performance of the year. On an emotional high throughout the set, saying how happy she was to be back in the UK and celebrating her first top 40 hit with Tough Love on the same day, her powerful vocals were accompanied by the Wilderness Orchestra. “In our wildest moments, we could be the greatest,” she sang, aptly.

Composed and relaxed, but nevertheless humbled by their first main stage headline slot at a UK festival, for a band with just one album under their belts, London Grammar delivered an impressive performance. The trip-hop sounds and euphoric vocals of their minimalist electro-pop brought a new intensity to the event as 2014’s largest full moon rose above them.

A few songs in, the djembe-infused crescendo of Flickers brought one of their less obvious album tracks to life and put the Charlbury Park audience in the palm of their hand. And it just got better as their cover of Kavinsky’s Nightcall set the crowd dancing with its heavy beat and crashing cymbals. Despite feeling the chill in the air and having to leave the stage to blow her nose, when their singer Hannah Reid sat at the piano to perform the emotive If You Wait, her vocals were stunning.

Although Wilderness was promoted as a wider experience, and it succeeded in proving that music isn’t everything, in the end London Grammar reminded us exactly where we were: a music festival.

Editor’s pick: Flyte

The buzz around Flyte first caught my ears when folk duo Lily and Meg, after finishing their luscious set at the Bandstand, said they were off to see a band they’d heard about. Flyte were also recommended by singer-songwriter Rhodes (who gave a captivating, intimate performance in the bar marquee when the main stage was temporarily shut down due to lightning), and they were name-checked by their friends London Grammar during a phenomenal headline set. And rightly so. The indie-pop beamed out by this tightly-knit four-piece during one of the sunnier hours of the festival was uplifting.

Keyboard player Sam Berridge’s input was prominent; the bright melodies gave a super-catchy hook to many of the songs. In among their danceable clap-alongs, the song Faithless was a convincing ballad where the group’s strong vocal harmonies came to the fore. It would no doubt win-over Eagles fans, and on the Fleetwood Mac-esque The Great Escape they really showed their 70s colours. The synth sounds and funky rhythms also hinted at a fair few 80s records in their collections, while the indie influence was also clear – sounding at times like a more understated Ocean Colour Scene. This was proper pop music.

Musically proficient but with all the zest of a young band at the start of their career; it was clear they were having fun. “We’ve done lots of festivals this summer and this is the best so far,” lead singer and guitarist Will Taylor told me. Having released a live EP and their debut single, We Are the Rain, next up is an EP due in September, which the band produced themselves. “We’re really proud of it,” said Taylor. “It was great learning how to use the studio.” Their new song Light Me Up – which they aired for the first time – proved to be the highlight of their set. Promising stuff. Seán Dagan Wood


Views from the crowd

Lizzy, West Sussex & Jo from, Kempton


Are you enjoying Wilderness so far?
Lizzy: Yeh, we’re having a lovely time.

Have you been before?
Lizzy: My first time.
Jo: I’ve been before.

What made you want to come?
Lizzy: She bullied me into it.
Jo: I love the space and I like swimming in the lake and I like listening to a bit of music but not too much, it’s a nice mix.

What’s been the highlight so far?
Jo: Chilling with my mates at the gin bar
Lizzy: Yeh the gin bar’s quite a highlight.
Jo: And my husband won the cricket.
Lizzy: And one of the kids won the boat race.

What makes it stand out from other festivals?
Jo: It’s very friendly. My husband left his flip flops out hours ago and they’re still there. Last year we lost an i-phone and the year before we lost a driving licence and they were all handed in.

Have you tried any of the outdoor activities?
Lizzy: Swimming and cycling
Jo: And the spa, that was good.

Are there any bands or activities you’re particularly excited about?
Jo: London Grammar
Lizzy: Burt Bacharach


Tim, Suffolk & Ayo, London


Are you enjoying Wilderness so far?
Tim: So far yeh. We’re still rising though I feel.
Ayo: It’s reaching heaven-like status.

Have you been before?
Ayo: It’s our first time here.

What made you want to come to Wilderness?
Ayo: I was persuaded by my friend Tim to come just one week before.
Tim: It was an easy sell though. I went to Secret Garden Party a couple of weeks ago and a friend there who’s done a lot of festivals recommended this one to me as a quieter, toned-down version.

What’s been the highlight so far?
Tim: Difficult to say. Still waiting, the jury’s still out.
Ayo: Mine’s swimming.

Have you tried any of the outdoor activities?
Tim: Absolutely not, nothing strenuous.

Are there any bands or activities you’re particularly excited about?
Tim: London Grammar.