Friday, July 08, 2011

glastonbury 2011

Many people leave Glastonbury having not slept the night before after five days of excessive drink and drugs. Whilst that was true of me too, I was also among the much smaller number who arrived at the festival that way. That, as you can imagine, is a whole other story.

It was a muddy Glastonbury. But so what? It's not actually cold and as long as you've got wellies there's no problem. Walking is a bit tougher but there's just as much fun to be had. Anyone who says otherwise is a pathological grump.


Despite the lack of a Climate Camp this year, their field has been retained as the Tripod Stage with the same frontline political attitude, and amongst the politics there were performances from Get Cape Wear Cap Fly, Chumbawamba and a host of others. I loved the beardy folky band doing Minnie Riperton's Loving You.

It was there that Rabble Rousers - performance poetry triumverate of me, Danny Chivers and Claire Fauset - started off our input to the festival in the Thursday lunchtime sunshine. We began with about six people in front of us but it soon swelled. Everyone's on a bimble on the Thursday and keen to engage. The enthusiasm is matched by the paucity of stuff on the big stages, so stuff like the Tripod Stage and the Bandstand down in Babylon do really well.

And sure enough, cider in hand, we passed the bandstand as the Beau Bow Belles were in full swing. And I do mean swing. Hilarious, theatrical, quirky but underpinned by serious musicianly prowess - god their harmonies! - they're a proper festival band. Why the fuck aren't Madam Laycock and Her Dabeno Pleasures on the bandstand? They would go down a tropical storm.

A huge sweep around the site to the twisted Blade Runner dystopian weirdness of Shangri La, with daylight baring its scaffolding supports made it a bit like seeing the Wizard of Oz as a bloke pulling levers behind a curtain.

During the festival proper it was understandably empty in the day - one daytime band in the Snake Pit had three people watching, blatantly a mum, dad and girlfriend of band members - but on Thursday afternoon the goodtime seekers had congregated and Womp were belting out a manic ska party that made the anticipatory party energy just erupt into the humid sky.

The official schedule is stretching properly into Thursday now. With the increase in punters, Glastonbury keeps adding more acts over a longer period and new stages too. In that way, the festival gets better and better. All those whining turds on the Guardian comments talking about how mainstream it is and why would anyone want to go and watch Beyonce and Coldplay, they just betray their ignorance and can fuck right off. The Pyramid Stage may be the largest, but it has never been what the festival is about.

At, say, Cropredy Festival there's only the one stage so if you don't like what's on then you're stuffed. They guard against that by having Richard Thompson headline the Friday and Fairport Convention healdine the Sunday every year, but still. Being in a place where you can't escape Nik Kershaw is not my idea of fun.

There is seemingly a rite of passage at Glastonbury, loads of people camp within earshot of the Pyramid Stage their first time and then learn to get as far away as possible in future. Indeed, the Pyramid's proportion of the festival is diminishing with all these new stages coming in.


And really, that underground acoustic candlelit piano bar in the Dragon Field is proper, classic, weird, poor health and safety, rollicking festival lunacy.

You go in through a metre-wide concrete pipe into a room mostly underground about the length and height of a double decker bus, and about twice the width. Steeply banked benches run up either side and at the end bands play. They have no amplification so must get the audience to sing along if they're to be heard. When I went in a trad jazz outfit were doing Staying Alive. There is a candle chandelier and bootleg liquor for sale. As Pete The Temp said, it is a carnival of abandoned logic.

It's off the side of the Stone Circle field, at the furthest reaches of the site, and there must be many a pharmacologically altered munter-punter who wakes the next morning with no idea where they found it and starts to wonder if they imagined the whole thing.

I'd planned to see Jimmy Cliff on Friday. Saw him at Glastonbury a few years back and he was superb, piling through his immense repertoire - Many Rivers To Cross, Wonderful World Beautiful People, You Can Get It If You Really Want, The Harder They Come - with all the gravitas of an original reggae pioneer but also the luminous exuberant delivery of a soul singer. However there was a rumour - I always believe the rumours, they've led me to secret sets from Madness and Thom Yorke, and never been wrong - that the special guests on The Park were


The Park is a poorly laid out site. The stage faces a slope side on, so if you come in the bottom of the field you just can't see. We went round the top for Radiohead, mingled well down but still, it was too small a soundsystem for so large a crowd.

When you're listening to music in a fairly noisy car, you need to play things you know well so that your brain can fill in the gaps made by the engine noise. By the same token, Radiohead doing mostly very new stuff with a few In Rainbows tracks to a crowd who mostly couldn't hear it was a bit meh. Given how utterly transcendent they can be, how they make music into something others can't even allude to, it was odd to walk away none the richer.

Jimmy Cliff, meanwhile, had played a blinder including updating Vietnam to be Afghanistan over at West Holts. Incidentally, honourable mention should be made of


It's a more or less tasteless pear cider base into which they mix flavoured syrups. It tastes about as sickly and artificial as it sounds when drunk in an urban environment. But out there in the spliffing fields it is the best drink imaginable. Silly, fizzy pop that is somehow stronger than beer. Perfect for keeping you on an uneven keel, and in its way it contributes as much to the weekend as any Arcadia pyrotechnics, bump into a dear old mate, K-hole psychonautry, or blinding set from a band.

Nicely positioned at the side of West Holts field it's easy to get to the Brothers bar no matter who's on stage. West Holts, come to think of it, is sort of an anti-Park. The sound is loud and full no matter where you are, clear view of the stage for far more people than want it.

Anyway, from Radioheady underwhelm down to


They've headlined the Other Stage a couple of times and mates have always come back saying they were mindblowing. Unexpectedly, properly mindblowing.

They are not my favourite band by a long, long way. I respect their excellent taste but find them really derivative. You can so tell what records they're thinking of when you hear them. Not that that's so terrible. As Julian Cope said, rock n roll is a strange artform in that a facsimile is the real thing. Oasis are obvious, unoriginal and meaningless, but nobody can deny that they're a real rock n roll band. So, you know, total originality isn't a prerequisite for being great, but nonetheless it does separate the great from the godlike.

Primal Scream have been doing one of those classic album tours, playing the entirety of Screamadelica. And they came out and did it. And truly, minds were blown. It scooped everyone up and swirled them into the music. It opens with the pop euphoria of Movin On Up and is by turns trippy, euphoric, edgy, sweeping, and has such deep groove running through it, touching on everything I need from music, melded into one huge rich symphony.

They've never split up so, like the Rolling Stones, they've stayed committed to their band and got to a stage where they deliver everything with such push, such penetrating confident swagger. Every moment, individually, was utterly perfect. I'd forgotten gigs could do that. Total strangers were arms round each other, bouncing and singing to the sky. It was quite simply the best gig I've ever seen.

I remember after Bowie at Glastonbury in 2000 - also a glorious and perfect gig that frankly I thought I'd never see the likes of again - I was one of many people checking with strangers at the end that it was indeed the best thing anyone had ever seen. With Primal Scream it happened again.

At the end of Primal Scream someone came up and said they'd lost their mates and come on their own 'and it was the best decision of my life'. I was there with Joe, the random stranger I'd been gurgling and singing and swooning with, and said, 'and your mates won't believe you cos it's only Primal Scream. But you, me and Joe here, we *know*', and we left the field feeling like we were walking on acres of fluffy pillow about two feet above the ground, like an invisible bouncy castle.

I was, it barely needs saying, ripped to the tits for the whole thing.

After I ran out of friends and strangers at the festival to gush at I had to spend the rest of the evening calling and texting everyone to enthuse. I knew that in the cold light of day I'd try to revise it cos, you know, what are Primal Scream next to Bowie or REM or whoever? But really, it was the best gig I've ever seen, anyone, anywhere, ever.


Meanwhile, over at the Pyramid Stage, the U2 protest went off pretty well. U2 complain about low levels of poverty relief from Western governments yet they are registered in the Netherlands to avoid the taxes they would pay if they were an Irish company, rather like the way Boots is run from their vast estates that take up half of Nottingham but are technically based in a PO Box in Switzerland. So Art Uncut inflated a 20 foot high balloon saying 'U PAY TAX 2?', and got their fingers broken by security for doing so.

Holding up banners at stadium rock bands on the Pyramid Stage? Did a bit of that myself back in the day, but that's another story.

U2's set included a mere four songs from the latter two-thirds of their career, a ton of Achtung Baby stuff, and no pontificating from Bono, which is as good as I would've dare hope for if I were there. Wouldn't have swapped that, nor most things I can think of, for being down the front at Primal Scream though. And I still feel weird about saying that.

On Saturday down at the Cabaret marquee


did an epic set, well over an hour long, talking about his recent walk along the length of the Israeli apartheid wall. The energetic passionate delivery is infectious, the way he can find comedy in anything holds you there, yet he can talk of the most harrowing experiences in unflinching detail and it doesn't lose you but pulls you in further. It's a hell of a talent, and what you get for only working on things you really deeply care about.

In some excellent billing he was followed by


who also does something peculiar with comedy. Like Bill Hicks, he says funny stuff but then wanders off into just saying what he thinks politically and philosophically. The openness he's created with the humour is used to make us amenable to his perspective.

More than that, he's optimistic. It is far easier to write slagging things off than being positive (as a visit to the Comments sections that form the bottom half of the internet can attest). Comedy tends to generalise and ridicule, and whilst Hardy's stuff certainly does this, his underlying position is one of hope, his hatred (where it exists) is for the way we've been made to feel dull and powerless.

He knows he's largely talking to older folks ('good to see so many people here; I have a Radio 4 demographic and it was a harsh winter'), and he uses that to stir people to break through their crust of jadedness. 'Young people aren't being daft when they protest, they just haven't thrown in the towel. They're thinking about globalisation instead of what's on offer at Topps Tiles'

The rumour - yet again, true - was that Saturday's special guests at the Park would be


I know that they really mean a lot to people who were 14-24 in 1995. And I like the big choruses, the knowingness. Jarvis' subsequent solo stuff is intelligent and continues the same line, bold and inventive and catchy and with a real edge. Cunts are Still Running The World is just marvellous.

But still, I never got on with Pulp. There's a sneeringness in the lyrics, something arrogant and somehow hollow. The heavy irony is laid on so thick that you can't tell what point is actually being made, and I suspect Jarvis himself can't tell either.

When he sings 'is this the way they say the future's meant to feel? Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?', what does he mean? Blatantly he's having a great time and genuinely loving it, as are the 20,000 people singing along. Yet the line is clearly there to say that they don't like it, that it is rubbish. It's the kind of relentlessly dismissive smug aloofness common to people who want to dress up their fear of intimacy and enthusiasm as some form of cool superiority.

Of course, now the whole thing is nostalgia and so it doesn't matter. We can sing along all manner of songs of heartbreak or gibberish and they really mean something to us if we've cherished them in our bones for years and years.


Headlining the Saturday night on the Other Stage, Chemical Brothers were massive. With them, as with folks like Orbital and Fourtet, seeing them live is kind of like watching someone check their email whilst listening to Chemical Brothers CD. But at full-on festival volume the dark nebulous elements come out in full, the depth and complexity of the music splatters you in a way that no headphones or home speakers can ever allow.


The Speakers Forum where we Rabble Rousers do our thing was its usual great self all weekend. Climate politics analysis from the person who conceived Contraction and Convergence, Aubrey Mayer who - hell, you're on stage at Glastonbury so milk it - ended with a viola piece.

Sunday brought a truly weird moment for me though.

In Bob Geldof's autobiography there's a picture of him on stage at the end of the Live Aid concert. He is being carried on the shoulders of Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend while David Bowie looks on, applauding. Geldof captioned it 'spot the non rock god'.

Two years ago we were on before Nick fucking Clegg (and I did a seven minute poem about what duplicitious freemarket fundamentalists the LibDems are). But this year the bill on Sunday ran; Mark Thomas, Michael Eavis, Rabble Rousers, Tony Benn. Kinnell. Spot the non folk heroes.


We had to leg it down to my only visit to the Pyramid Stage this year. It's that Sunday late afternoon slot, everyone's a bit minging and a bit musiced-out. You need a legend who touches your soul. In previous years I've seen Al Green, Brian Wilson and Van Morrison in this slot. Paul Simon is a total box ticker for it. It amazes me he wasn't higher up the bill. With such a phenomenal back catalogue and songs that absolutely everyone adores, he'd close the festival so well. What sort of event has given Roger sodding Waters the headline slot yet relegates Paul Simon to 4th?

You've gotta feel for any drummer Paul Simon hires. You're going to dread him saying he wants you to play 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, a song with a drum pattern so languidly loose and grooving that the original drummer, Steve Gadd, gets a royalty from the track.

As is often the case with going in with high hopes, Paul Simon was disappointing. What was good was wonderful - four or five from Graceland, an album that half the world seems to regard as a dear friend - and some gorgeous sunshine stuff like Slip Sliding Away and (the one time that I cried this year) Hearts and Bones. But there were four from the new album, and no Simon and Garfunkel tunes whatsoever. I know he must be sick of Bridge Over Troubled Water, but how about America, Hazy Shade of Winter? As opposed to coming to Glastonbury and encoring with Kodachrome? Erk?

From there to the BBC Introducing stage, oddly situated in the Dance Village, to see a well deserved headline slot from the mighty


BBC Introducing have put video of pretty much their whole weekend online. You can watch the whole Vessels set here and you'll be a smaller sadder creature if you don't. Try it at the loudest that you dare.

Vessels were magnificent, but then again they always are. Like Radiohead they can take the peculiar time signatures, grandeur and segmentation normally associated with wanky prog and make something epic and rocking that makes you think that the band are telepathic and all other pop music, even the stuff you love, is essentially nursery rhymes.

From there a shlurp back through the mud for the closer on West Holts,


Not many places'll give you Kool and the Gang supported by Vessels and Paul Simon.

Coming from the American soul revue tradition with its roots in playing for dancing before the advent of DJs, the music never stopped, it was one long bouncing party.

Tight as a gnat's chuff and yet all ten of them on stage arsing around and having a hell of a time, they bundled through all the hits - unfortunately that included two I Just Called To Say I Love Youalikes, Cherish and Joanna - they hit with with more funk than I'd dared to hope for. In my mind's ear stuff like Get Down On It is a bit slick and shiny, but that night the sheen became sparkle and there was a real proper dirty funk chassis that it rode upon.

And as I'm obeying the instructions to get down get down, as if the gods of festivalaciousness wanted to make sure everything felt unified and joyous, bouncing in by my side is Joe from down the front at Primal Scream. And, as anticipated, when they closed the set with Celebration, being in the field at the end of the boistrous festival with ten thousand people singing that first 'wahoo' was a real Moment.

As ever, people who don't go to festivals always ask about the bands, and as always it's easiest to cite the bands rather than the thousand little interactions, joys, positive exchanges with strangers and weirdnesses that make the real vibe. Glastonbury would be worth it without any of the bands listed above.

1 comment:

Dan said...

what a great review :)

I so agree on your views and memories of primal scream,kool & the gang,brothers cider and the underground piano bar !

HA i had so much cider and loved the gangs set so much,so I let them autograph my passport! worth it.

also its so true, It really is the barely describable little moments that add up to make glasto so amazing.

I wana be back on the farm again,like right now :( haha.

my 5th one this coming year,thank lord! x