The Glastonbury Festival is something to be enjoyed and endured, especially the latter when the weather decides to play some evil tricks.
With rain lashing down from Wednesday, when the 200,000 festival goers began arriving, through to Saturday morning the vast Somerset dairy farm site was soon covered in foot deep sticky mud.
Simple journeys to the third world slum toilets, or to one of the dozens of stages soon became a tough old slog. By Sunday the sun came out, the mud dried but we were faced with further cruelty, blistering heat on vast open fields with little shade.
It’s a true endurance test. But thankfully as a local (I live six miles away) and as a volunteer steward (with my earnings going direct to my local school charity) I was spared much of the horrors the paying public endure, such as the traffic jams and the desperate search for a camping space.
For me I could cycle to and from site and stay in the nicer crew camping area with showers. This made all the difference.
Another important aspect to remember is that it is a festival of contemporary performing arts offering something for pretty much any taste, not just those attracted to the chart acts and bland indie rock of the Pyramid stage line up.
For those like me who are not keen on Beyonce or Coldplay there is plenty more to see. I managed to see some of my favourite gigs without seeing a single Pyramid stage act.
Here’s my Friday to Sunday run down of some of the acts we saw proving that there’s far more to this famous festival than just Beyonce.
With rain forecast and the mud building up I decided to stick to one area for early afternoon, taking in the BBC introducing, John Peel and Oxlyers in West stages. All in tents, creating a better atmosphere and crucially shelter from the rain.
Things started badly with French pop folk act Cocoon whose dull Coldplay-light set in the large John Peel Stage was pleasant enough but uninspiring. Danny and the Champions of the World‘s tired pub rock in the Oxlyers in West also left me deflated.
I sought refuge in the small BBC Introducing tent and thankfully Brighton’s Twin Brother was on hand to provide one of a raft of festival highlights. Just 100 or so turned up to watch their short 25 minute set in this small tent but those that did were treated to one of the UK brightest unsigned talents. The key to their engaging live show was the band’s hub, multi-instrumentalist Alex Wells and his deep Lloyd Cole-esque voice. He provided a truly captivating performance on tracks such as ‘Lungs’. His first release is due out in October we are told.
Over to Oxlyers in West again for Dry the River who impressed my colleague when they played the Great Escape festival in Brighton in May. I can see why, they commanded the stage with their fast paced folk rock set. This band is destined for larger stages and the few thousand or so in this medium sized tent were impressed.
As the rain got heavier Oxlyers in West became a bit of a squeeze. Emmy the Great, aka Emma-Lee Moss and her band, made light of their sudden popularity. “You don’t even know who we are, you’re all welcome though,” she said. The Darren Hayman collaborator delivered one of the best natured sets of the weekend. Her songs such as ‘We Almost Had a Baby’ are bittersweet tracks of love and modern life that have a wide appeal and I expect the rain and the search for shelter will have helped shift a few more CDs for them.
Next up for me was the first of the day’s legends; the 1980s band Big Audio Dynamite, formed by The Clash’s Mick Jones.
Despite the rain and the foot deep mud I was more than willing to trudge across site and up a hill to the Park’s main stage, which is set in a slight dip giving it a crater like intimacy.
I stopped off to see The Vaccines on the way, a band I’ve criticised before for being bland without ever seeing live. My feelings were justified as they ushered out their radio friendly electric Mumford and Son’s style hits like ‘Post Break Up Sex’. Their cover of The Standells ‘Good Guys Don’t Where White’ was pretty good though.
Safely at The Park I plonked myself within spitting distance of BAD (I didn’t spit by the way). As they took the stage, I was struck by how old they looked. Jones like a hundred-year-old Larry Grayson in suit jacket and jeans and Don Letts with grey hairs under his hat and wearing what I can only describe as a school caretaker’s brown coat
It was great to hear the old BAD songs though with ‘Medicine Show’ and ‘E=MC2’ outstanding, but there was a sadness in seeing these old men play what seems now like quite dated music. Letts looked like he could do with a nice cup of tea to go with his toasting.
Time for another quick word about the Park. It’s a kind of festival within a festival. Surrounding the crater like main stage is the giant ribbon look out tower, Glastonbury sign, and the wonderfully surreal Rabbit Hole venue, in which characters send you on missions to find vegetables and can even cut your hair.
The Park also plays host to a special guest for two nights. They are usually big and this year the rumours where that Pulp and Radiohead would take to the stage.
Tonight the rumours were confirmed and it was Radiohead’s turn. Even though I haven’t really liked any of their albums since Kid A I was swept up briefly by the sense of occasion of this giant of festival rock act playing a relatively small stage. But with the rain lashing down and seemingly half the festival site cramming into the Park it became apparent that not only could I barely see anything, but the sound did not travel well beyond a hundred metres from the stage. As chants of ‘turn it up’ rained down around me I decided to miss this precious rock experience and sought a saviour.
Step forward Billy Bragg. This year Bragg was curating the tented Leftfield stage and his hour and a quarter headline set tonight in the dry was just the tonic.
“If you want subtle political critique you are in the wrong place. I’m just going to belt them out,” said Bragg as he delivered a fine set of classics like ‘Greetings from the New Brunette’, on his telecaster and acoustic guitar, punctuated with some excellent rants and briefly joined by Badly Drawn Boy for some intricate guitar work.
The BNP, public sector cuts, tax evaders and U2, who were taking to the Pyramid stage at around the same time, all came under fire. As Bragg finished a sing along encore of ‘New England’ I decided this was a good way to end the day. I choose to ignore the opportunity to watch the pompous Bono in the rain, even though he was getting barracked by UK Uncut protesters.
Another perk of being local is being close enough to take my six-year-old son for a day. Under 12s go free and we braved the mud to spend most of the day in the Kidz Area. I have mixed feelings about kids at Glastonbury. Watching some of the parents push buggies around foot thick mud or seeing kids my son’s age surrounded by drunks watching the Chemical Brothers at 11pm makes me question why many bring them.
But after a few hours at the Kidz area I can see why. It was a little oasis of less mud (extra effort had been made laying saw dust) and my son was enthralled by the endless rides and entertainment featuring children’s TV stars.
After my son was safely packed off home in the late afternoon it was time for music again on this rainless day. With an hour to kill before California act Fool’s Gold were at the large outdoor West Holts stage I popped into the cabaret tent just in time to see Jeremy Hardy, who expertly handled some drunk hecklers and delivered a set that I would expect from an experienced comedian.
After an entertaining set from Fool’s Gold, who expertly combine sunny California pop with African music, it was time for some more legends.
Reformed for this special gig at the Acoustic stage Pentangle were something of a folk super group back in the1960s and 1970s. Featuring the original line up of guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, singer Jacqui McShee, drummer Terry Cox and bassist Danny Thompson, for a folk fan like me this was a very special occasion.
Even though they’d barely rehearsed together the old magic was still there. Watching Renbourn weave his intricate guitar playing around Jansch’s riffs and Thompson and Cox’s jazz folk rhythms was one of my favourite musical moments at the festival. They seemed delighted to be there as they swept though tracks such as ‘Hunting Song’, ‘Bruton Town’, ‘House Carpenter’ and ‘Cruel Sister’. This was an experience to cherish.
Glastonbury is all about simple decisions, such as do I give myself a coronory getting to see a band far away or sit tight. The vast size and distances make travelling around difficult and you have to except you will miss some acts. After Pentangle I was faced with a half hour trek through mud to see Battles at the John Peel stage or the easier option of seeing Janelle Monae at the nearby West Holts. I went for the tougher choice after missing Battles before at an ATP Festival.
It was worth the hard slog especially to see Battles’ drummer John Stanier, who took centre stage in a set dominated by the excellent recent album Gloss Drop. Among the highlights was the album’s guest singer Matias Aguayo joining the band for ‘Ice Cream’.
To say the sun came out is an understatement. Suddenly the rain soaked site became bathed in sunshine with temperatures reaching the late 20s. Gigs in tents was once again my priority with the site offering little other respite from the baking sun.
The BBC Introducing stage was my first port of call with the 80s indie pop of the Yes Cadets and Margate surf punks Two Wounded Birds providing two more to add to our ones to watch list. The latter were especially good.
Ok Go in the nearby John Peel tent was my next destination. I arrived early to see the last half of The Joy Formidable, one of the most hyped up acts at the festival. Even though their epic indie rock was not to my taste their performance was highly impressive. When the festival returns in a couple of years I expect to see them on a main stage line up. Those fans there felt they had seen one of this long running festival’s classic performances.
I love a band that makes a bit of an effort and Ok Go certainly do that. Known for their inventive videos this US pop rock are equally impressive live. With each member dressed in a bright coloured suit. I was left impressed with both their showmanship and song writing.
Squeeze are the nearest comparison as OK Go put in for me the performance of the festival, featuring great versions of ‘Here it Goes Again’ (the one with the treadmill video) as well as ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and ‘Sky Scrapers’ from their most recent album Of The Blue Colour of the Sky. It was a masterclass in audience engagement as they invited a member of the crowd up to play guitar on one track and indulged in some crowd surfing.
Back at the BBC Introducing stage I found myself in the audience of a live BBC 6Music acoustic session from Super Furry Animal frontman Gruff Rhys. Just three tracks, but all wonderful, especially ‘Sensations in the Dark’ from his latest album Hotel Shampoo.
As I bid farewell to the indie tent area it was over to the main Other Stage for my final two acts of the day, TV on the Radio and Eels. The sun was still beaming down during TV on the Radio’s set and while they delivered a polished performance, even with regular lashings of sun cream and water the heat was unbearable.
By the time Eels came on the sun was starting to set and the band fronted by Mark Everett provided a fitting end to my Glastonbury. All with giant beards the band delivered a mixture of classic singles and recent album tracks in a quirky Blues Brothers revue show style. It was a mix that worked well for the stadium sized crowd.
Highlights included ‘Novocain for my Soul’ and ‘Souljacker Part 1’ as well as tracks from 2009’s Hombre Lobo such as ‘The Look You Give That Guy’ and ‘Tremendous Dynamite’.
As I cycled home in the dark later that night I thought to myself would I go again when it returns in 2013. Despite being caked in mud, weary and deprived of sleep the answer is still yes. The festival will still have its critics, some of whom have actually been and experienced the mud rather than just watched it on the tele. But ultimately Glastonbury is so big your experience is what you want to make it. For me as a music fan it is still an exemplary festival.
8/10 (would have been 10 if the weather wasn’t so cruel)
by Joe Lepper
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