“Why aren’t you playing the Pyramid Stage,” shouted a heckler at Billy Bragg’s headline set at The Leftfield tent on Friday. Bragg’s response, to remind him of the event’s varied 100 plus stages, was obvious but too often forgotten by those at home watching on TV.
In the spirit of Bragg’s comments this article will take you away from the 50,000 strong crowds of the Pyramid and Other stages to focus on those smaller venues, which this year offered a world of prog rock, punk legends, French eccentricity, young stars of the future and even Ron Mael from Sparks having a laugh and a dance.
As with last year the tented William’s Green stage continues to impress with the most eclectic and interesting line up. Opening on Friday was Declan McKenna, the winner of this year’s Glastonbury Festival Emerging Talent Competition. As a judge in the competition I was keen to see how this teenager, who has already garnered Radio 1 airplay, would tackle the festival crowd.
Turns out McKenna performed like an old pro, with his guitar and vocal looping allowing the tracks to build up before turning into perfect pop, in particular his best song Brazil. He even threw a beach ball into the crowd to gee up the weary Friday morning crowd as he proved he was certainly not intimidated.
Canada’s The Burning Hell sound like a cross between Camper Van Beethoven and King Missile, were full of laughs, have been going for a decade and have seven albums already. I’d never heard of them until Friday afternoon at William’s Green, where they completely won me over with tracks such as Nostalgia. How have they passed me by?
Over at The Park stage and once again away from any TV cameras King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, the seven strong psychedelic Australian act, were putting on one of the best sets of the day. They are surely destined for larger stages on this evidence for future festivals, especially thanks to singer Stu Mackenzie tongue wagging and guitar noodling.
Heavenly Records are 25 years old this year and William’s Green snapped up their latest crop of acts for the rest of the afternoon. Hooton Tennis Club are for those that adore the likes of Teenage Fanclub, but it was Stealing Sheep who stole the show. Although their second album, which dominated their set, doesn’t have the same quality of songs as their debut this Liverpool trio’s great stage presence and sense of fun makes the tracks far better live. Roping in Dutch Uncles singer Duncan Wallis to sing with them for a track was also great to see.
Rain can really scupper plans at Glastonbury. It can also reveal some surprises. As I ducked for cover at the Acoustic Tent during a late afternoon shower I made a new discovery – rock ‘n’ roller JD McPherson, who was one of Rolling Stone’s artist to watch in 2012 for good reason. His was a blistering proper rock ‘n’ roll set. Speaking of which the TV cameras missed a trick in not popping by the Acoustic Stage after JD McPherson to catch the legend that is Wilko Johnson.
Like a crazed bird Johnson made a mockery of the cancer that last year threatened to take his life, as he weaved around stage, machine gun chording the audience with his trademark Fender telecaster. He and his band’s bassist Norman Watt-Roy are a sheer joy to watch.
Back at the Leftfield for the end of my night Billy Bragg was doing more than putting hecklers in their place. On the day the US Supreme Coast legalised gay marriage his version of Sexuality took on an extra special meaning. He never fails to deliver as a live performer and the hits came tumbling out on his now regular Friday night Leftfield set.
At the foot of The Park area lies the tiny Bimble Inn, which proved a great venue for emerging singer songwriters and folk artists over the weekend. Kezia, from Falmouth was among the best I saw here. It took me a while to pinpoint who she reminded me of, as I searched for female singer songwriters to compare her to. Turns out it wasn’t a woman at all, but Sufjan Stevens. She must surely be a fan, with her whispering vocals and introspective lyrics showing another hidden talent at the festival this weekend.
A few years back I saw Giant Sand in the giant foyer venue at one of ATP’s festivals at Mineheads Butlins. It was a poor choice of venue for Howe Gelb and co’s sultry brand of American indie rock. The blazing, and I mean proper blazing sunshine, of the dusty Park was far better. Here joined by JB Meijers and Ilse DeLange from The Common Linnets Gelb took in a perfect festival set, mixing old and new as well as slow and fast paced reminders of their trailblazing 1980s indie rock roots, including a great version of their 1985 track Tumble ‘n’ Tear to end. The TV cameras turned up for this one and rightly so.
On my way back over to William’s Green I passed a couple of more smaller venues with interesting acts. Just a Couple of Mums, the Sussex based, energetic feather-duster waving DJ pair were putting in a stonking set at Spike’s Bar, while at the Fluffy Rock Café youngster (and I mean youngster as in primary school age) Tom Smith, was dazzling the crowd. Often little kids can’t sing, but we smile and nod in appreciation anyway. That’s not the case with Tom, he can actually sing and play really well. One of the festival’s youngest stars.
Performance of the day, perhaps the weekend, was La Femme, from Paris. I already knew their eccentric surf dance pop tracks from their excellent debut album Psycho Tropical Brazil and live they are nothing short of incredible. At their William’s Green set there was crowd surfing, crazy dancing and wonderful banter. This is a fun party band and I urge you to see them if they play near year.
To round off my day Father John Misty was putting in a rock star performance, running into the crowd and rolling all over the stage. Passionate performance barely touches on describing how good he was.
Ron Sexsmith is celebrating two decades of music this year. How he has evaded me all this time remains a mystery. Those that saw his Acoustic Tent afternoon were treated to a career spanning set from early tracks like Strawberry Blonde and There’s a Rhythm to the more recent Getaway Car. Crowd pleasers for fans and newbies like me alike.
Success has consistently evaded The Bevis Frond, as its mainstay and frontman Nick Saloman tells his audience. He’s at the stage now in his career where he’s just happy that people want to hear him, however small the crowd. Saloman though has every right to expect more, not only are his songs great but his guitar playing is superb. Billed as prog rock, he’s more than that after pretty much laying down the blue print for Dinosaur Jr and grunge in the 1980s. Highpoints included Saloman bringing out his electric-sitar guitar for some complex noodling mid way through.
Saloman and co loved every second of playing, even in front of a half full William’s Green due in part to the blazing sunshine outside. Meanwhile, The Phantom Band, who followed, looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. During a subdued performance dominated by their excellent latest album Strange Friend they looked like band going through the motions, yearning to be out in the sun with everyone else.
The Fall are both brilliant and terrible all at once. Mark E Smith shouting and mumbling over a pounding rhythm section thanks to the addition of an extra drummer in recent years. Its hypnotic and wonderful, but as ever Smith seeks to create tension, twiddling the knobs and instruments of his drone musicians, as he wanders around stage picking up random mics to shout into.
Nowadays Smith’s drones, including wife Eleni on keyboards, are used to this part of the act and smile through it. They say play the hits, nothing but the hits at festivals. The Fall ignore this though with their recent album dominating the set and nothing older than 2003’s Sparta FC for those craving something recognisable.
Another Manchester punk legendary act Buzzcocks are surprisingly playing at Glastonbury for the first time in their 39-year history. They have plenty of hits, and in stark contrast to The Fall play pretty much all of them as they rattle through Noise Annoys, Promises, Ever Fallen In Love and many more. Singer Pete Shelley still sounds great and although larger of build and greyer of hair still has that boyish glint in his eye.
Buzzcocks’ Guitarist Steve Diggle was in full rock star mode, and even walked on clutching a bottle of Moet. He clearly loves every minute of playing live and spent the set going through the full list of rock guitarist clichés with his foot on monitor and arm aloft after each chord. It was great though, the guy’s happy and his constant winks and smiles at the audience made you realise that underneath that rock pomposity is a lovely bloke.
For my final act of Glastonbury I ventured over to the half full John Peel Stage to see FFS, aka Franz Ferdinand with Sparks. They were competing with the Chemical Brothers and The Who after all, but this didn’t stop them putting on a great set as they ripped through each other’s hits and showcased their remarkable and fun debut album from this year.
Highlights included Alex Kapranos and Russell Mael’s endearing acting during the splendidly ironic Collaborations Don’t Work. Top moment though was the surprise sight of Ron Mael emerging from behind his keyboard to laugh and dance for a quick 30 second mesmerising burst of pop history. Not bad dancing skills for a man for whom John Lennon once said “bloody hell, its Hitler on TV.”
Words and pictures by Joe Lepper