Wilderness festival review: A surprisingly rich music experience within a middle class haven

·3 min read
Crowds gather for Roisin Murphy at Wilderness (Fanatic)
Crowds gather for Roisin Murphy at Wilderness (Fanatic)

Any review of Wilderness Festival has to begin by acknowledging the elephant in the room. This is a posh festival. Or rather, this is an eminently middle-class festival, a bougie, family-friendly event that seems to place as much emphasis on the upmarket “experiences” it offers – a panoply of health and spa activities, horseback riding, archery and fine dining – as the music itself. Squint a little, though, and these four days in the resplendent Oxfordshire sunshine don’t like feel all that different to being at any of the UK’s other major festivals – there’s just a bit more room to breathe.

Festivities start on Thursday at a slow crescendo. There’s comedy from Suzi Ruffell, Michelle de Swarte (who wryly summarises Wilderness as being “pretty white… there’s just a garnish of Black people”) and Russell Kane, who begins his set lamenting that Covid had cancelled last year’s festival (it hadn’t), before launching into a solid 40 minutes of high-energy, low-imagination patter. Far more enjoyable is the Dutty Moonshine Big Band, whose charismatic blend of hip-hop, dance, bounce, and jazz (complete with a seven-man brass section) packs out the Atrium stage.

Sophie Ellis-Bexter opens the main stage on Friday with a buoyant selection of throwback pop bangers (the highlight being a feelgood cover of “Disco Inferno”). Later in the day crowds gather for a well-received DJ set from Peggy Gou, before the weekend’s first headliners, Jungle. Pulling mostly from their 2021 album Loving in Stereo, the British dance-pop group deliver a slick and amiable live performance; songs such as the breezy, infectious “Keep Moving” and the disco-inflected “Talk About It” really shine in the live arrangements. It’s all a little samey, though, and they don’t really make for natural headliners: their stage presentation all but anonymises the band’s seven members. (The absence of stage-side video screens doesn’t help.)

In this regard, Saturday’s personality-first headliner couldn’t be more different. Years & Years, the longstanding musical project of It’s a Sin’s Olly Alexander, deliver a satisfying set complete with lavish stage design, video flourishes and elaborate dance choreography. Years & Years’ brand of upbeat dance pop has never really been my thing, but there’s an undeniable energy to the gig. The setlist draws heavily from this year’s Night Call (the catchy title track; the ecstatic “Starstruck”), peppering in material from the two other albums the band released before Years & Years was converted into Alexander’s solo project.

Jungle headlining on Friday (Fanatic)
Jungle headlining on Friday (Fanatic)

Closing out the festival on Sunday are Underworld, the electronic music duo best known for their 1998 track “Born Slippy .NUXX”, which featured memorably on the soundtrack to Trainspotting. Mixer Rick Smith and vocalist/dancer/all-round showperson Karl Hyde are both in their sixties now; there’s something quite enlivening about watching two old geezers bounce around like men half their age. My biggest gripe is the inclusion of the 2019 track “S T A R”, a silly, cryptic dance track which namechecks celebrities from Robin Hood to Ayrton Senna to Nye Bevan, while the names flash in large font on the screen behind them. It feels aimlessly crass to have names such as “Rosa Parks” appear immediately before “Johnny Depp”. When they launched into “Born Slippy” at the climax, this was quickly forgotten.

Of the people I chat to around the campsite, no one claims to have been lured here by the lineup: they’d been drawn in by the experiences, or the (quite breathtakingly picturesque) countryside. But ultimately – inevitably – it was the music that provided the richest experiences here. Many of the standout sets are found away from the beaten track: Balkan folk music from shunTA; sparkling indie tunes from Dutch rocker Pip Blom. Best of all was a mischievously brilliant set from Irish band The Mary Wallopers, whose open and gleeful contempt for the audience seems to go by almost entirely unnoticed. If the music’s this good, the rest of it all becomes peaceful white noise.