There came a time earlier this year when the thought of us leaving our houses again seemed far-fetched, let alone going to an actual festival. But, at the arse-end of the worst summer in recent history, Wild Fields festival has descended on the Norfolk Showground to try and help us salvage one weekend, at least.
Featuring the likes of dream-poppers Genghar and indie scamps Indoor Pets as well as a handful of local acts, the event is hosted by the team behind Wild Paths, Norwich’s answer to Brighton’s The Great Escape, a new music shindig that usually takes place in venues across the city. This time, of course, it’s a little different, with a grid of socially distanced pods into which punters are shepherded. Everything’s in place for one of 2020’s only festivals.
“With this new breed of event, you do have to have a little bit, and be innovative and try and work out your iteration,” Wild Paths founder Ben Street tells NME of the weekender (which is not quite the first-ever socially distanced UK festival; that was Gisburne Park pop-up in Lancashire back in June). “For the region it’s going to be a pretty new thing, and I think for anyone that attends there’ll be a novelty element to it as well.”
It is, naturally, a modest arrangement: there are three stages, two bars and a merch stand. With all local sponsors and food vendors – no big banks or corporations – and a crew of students from nearby music education Access To Music, Wild Fields is a full-on homegrown affair.
Due to the nature of our new world, there’s no freewheeling carnage here, nor the chance to indulge in the classic fest camping ritual. Instead, this is a communal celebration of excitement at actually being outside and watching music. There’s still a fairly hefty section of empty pods at the rear of the site, however, suggesting not everyone’s ready to brave a festival in 2020.
After beaming punters enter the site, pods are swiftly decorated with everything from blow-up palm trees and Hawaiian ephemera to a fake ram skull with lights and a succulent, and even a gothic mannequin. It all creates an atmosphere that digs into the heart of what festivals have always been about: escapism.
The Saturday properly kicks off with the Isle of Wight’s Lauran Hibberd and tongue-in-cheek slacker-pop jams. “It’s a bit weird, innit?” she smiles, providing the understatement of the weekend. Security guards are out and about doing their bit for the distancing greater-good: the inhabitants of a pair of pods in front of NME begin to get a bit too close, which is swiftly nipped in the bud, as is a brief attempt at the classic mate-on-your-shoulders move. But it’s hard to argue the fest spirit isn’t alive and kicking.
I chat to punters Bill and Katie, who are my neighbours in the next pod over. “We go to a lot of gigs, and this is the first for a long time”, says Bill. Katie adds, “I think it’s brilliant, [but] it’s a shame there’s not more people,” to which Bill responds, “The current news about lockdown has probably put people off…”
The guitar pop continues with Kent’s Indoor Pets, whose frontman Jamie Glass jumps about the stage as if finally exerting all that pent-up lockdown energy. It’s a very different story from Londoners Another Sky, who impress with a set of rich, ethereal set and singer Catrin Vincent’s inimitable falsetto.
Tonight’s headliners, fellow Londoners Gengahr, get into a spot of technical trouble, taking the stage 20 minutes later than planned. The atmosphere wanes, but a well-timed airing of Underworld’s rave-anywhere anthem ‘Born Slippy’ relights the evening. After this, it’s impossible to ignore not to get lost in their dance-ready anthems. It turns out they wear the headliner status rather well.
Sunday is a more reserved affair packed with soul and jazz. Only slowly does it dawn on you that it’s weird not to see a haggard line of revellers ambling onto the site in a fragile manner, paying the price for the night before. Still, as I overhear one punter comment: “I’m wandering around in no shoes, it’s 25 degrees… What more could you want?”
We’re treated to a special performance from east London singer-songwriter Olivia Dean, who’s playing later but pops up impromptu to perform by the food truck section of the site. There’s something warming about an unannounced daytime performance from a main stage act: the sense of unpredictability that permeates any festival is evident – albeit in fits and starts – this weekend. She rounds off a staggeringly beautiful cover of Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ to resounding applause; it’s a proper festival moment.
As the sun begins to set, the party really gets started, first with a special supergroup pieced together by jazz wunderkind Joe Armon-Jones, a founding member of south London’s Ezra Collective. The recharging effects of his reggae-fuelled jazz get every single pod-based punter dancing like the world never stopped. And then it’s up to London’s eight-piece afrobeat collective Kokoroko to close us out with their communal jazz spirit floating between every sultry sax and hurried percussion. You’d be forgiven for getting so wrapped in the joyfulness of it all that you momentarily forget 2020 has been a total bin fire.
“A lot of people have said they prefer it like this” – co-organiser Charlie Miller
Co-organiser Charlie Miller reckons – and, well, he would say this, wouldn’t he? – that “a lot of people have said they prefer it like this… The attendees love it; the vibe has been great”.
Is this the future of music festivals? Obviously nothing matches the unshowered feeling of escapism that a proper weekender offers, and on a large scale, it’s hard to see the distancing aspect working without creating a Glastonbury-size infrastructure with the metro system of a small Scandinavian town. But it’s undeniable that Wild Fields is a true feat.
After Wild Paths was canceled, Miller and co. had a month to get everything together for this weekend’s festivities – along with a chunk of the lineup, with some names including Gengahr and Kokoroko carrying over from the cancelled event. At least half of the responses they received, says Ben Street, were along the lines of: “’They’re absolutely gagging for it – please get them on the line-up’.” He adds: “One of the booking agents got back to me and literally just put: ‘Ben, I love you’. That’s not the sort of message you normally get.”
By providing a legitimate festival experience – or at least the closest we’ll get to it this year – the team have forged a celebration of everything we’re missing in 2020: the dissonant echo from a stage plopped in the middle of a field as we escape the real world, and all its woes, for the spiritual relief of music in the company of like-minded souls.