Kierkegaard once very famously said that life could only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. The same is, broadly speaking, true of Glastonbury festival, with one important difference: it is impossible to actually understand it. It is similarly impossible to review the damn thing, since every single person on site will have had an utterly different experience. The only way to tackle this then is to go a bit Hunter S Thompson on y’all and tell you how it was for me.
This has been my seventh Glastonbury, and an initial look at the line-up did not instantly fill me with joy. It is of course well recognised that the line-up is significantly less than half the story with Glasto, and I should really have known better because the weekend is one of the best times I have ever had with my pants on. The loss of U2 was, for me, a bonus, as it gave me the chance to see a headliner this year, as I have little desire to see Muse or Stevie. But I get ahead of myself.
Myself and My Companion, a tall, languid man of no fixed abode and no fixed connection to reality, arrive just as Jermaine Defoe nods England in front against Slovenia. We waste no time in dropping all our gear and sitting down to watch England labour to a glorious 1-0 victory over a country ranked a titanic 17 places below them in the world rankings. Fortunately, picking a campsite is significantly less stressful than the preceding two hours: a friend is camped up in the caravan park, and so we high-tail it that way to find a whole new world. It may involve the sort of walk that normally needs sherpas, but camping up there is excellent: quiet, calm and handy for grabbing those too-few hours of sleep.
The rest of the evening is spent wandering and wondering around the site, looking at the weird and wonderful display of humanity that has assembled for the world’s greatest festival. A man on stilts dressed as a giraffe struts past, and the odd early festival casualty lies prostrate in the bushes. We find a place called The Front Room, where two men with a trumpet and a piano play covers of popular swing and early rock ‘n’ roll numbers to a small crowd sat on sofas. Part way through their set, a passing brass ensemble arrives and joins in the fun. This is the sort of thing that could only happen at Glastonbury.
We retreat to the comparative calm of the hill and overlook the site, surely one of the greatest views on earth. Then we down an unhealthy amount of cider, dance like morons and head to bed.
A brief detraction about cider: for the past few years at Glastonbury, the Brothers Bar has been setup next to the Jazzworld Stage (now re-christened the West Holts Stage). It acts like an idiot magnet, sometimes drawing a bigger crowd than some of the stages, and for the life of me I cannot understand why. Brothers cider tastes like piss, and there is a ridiculous array of novelty ciders on sale, including Toffee Apple Cider. It’s cider for children, people who want a cheap, high-alcohol content novelty. It’s the drinking equivalent of the Creme Egg: too sweet and essentially a once-a-year novelty. This year I frequent the Cider Bus by the main stage, which serves real cider. Yes, it costs a bit more, but you get what you pay for. On the last night, I also try the brilliantly named Soapdodger cider from Glastonbury Ales. This is real cider. To all of you at theBrothers Bar: fuck off back to nursery. Rant over.
Today begins with the predictable hangover, the predictable bacon sandwich and the less predictable blazing sunshine. I am not used to this. Not since 2003 can I remember it being this sunny. I glance at my wellies and mentally reassure myself that it was worth lugging them here, as it is bound to hammer down sooner or later. After lying around at our tent for a while (who knew you could make a decent cup of coffee in a caravan kitchen?!) we shift back onto the site and trawl blearily through the circus fields, watching people juggle, bend, balance and generally distort reality. We also watch some music played by people with instruments made of rubbish. It sounds rubbish.
Walking in the Greenfields is the usual experience: a heady mix of people making stuff out of wood and fabric, and a field full of people making insanely unsupported claims about the healing properties of crystals, divining and glasses of water. We stop to play draughts on a board made of wood and tiles, and My Companion beats me to win the coveted trophy (a stick with the words “I am the winner!” emblazoned on it in permanent marker by the girl at the stand) before we buy a plate of Moroccan food and stroll off.
The evening is an equally wonderful experience. We watch My Luminaries, who play to an increasingly large crowd at The Queen’s Head stage. They are good, solid indie rock: nothing that completely changes my world view, but a brilliant way to pass the time. The crowd swells throughout the set in anticipation of the upcoming performance from Two Door Cinema Club. By the time the band take to the stage, the tent could easily be filled twice over. The jangly indie pop described in my review of a few weeks ago is present here and this is a perfect setting, as festival-goers pogo with the wild abandon of the truly euphorically pissed. This band are arriving big time.
The evening is spent bouncing from party to party before getting what passes for an early night at Glastonbury (about 1am) in preparation for the following day of music, about which I am nearly too excited to sleep. The cider soon sorts that out.
Waking in a hot tent is up there in my top ten least favourite experiences. It is sweaty, it is smelly, it is disgusting. It makes you uncomfortably aware of the fact that you are at the mercy of the weather at Glastonbury, whether it is hot or wet. I already feel more disheveled than I have at the end of entire festivals in the past: the heat is debilitating and, although wet wipes are good, they’re not that good.
We make the executive decision to avoid Rolf Harris, as I am of the firm opinion that there is a finite amount of irony in the world, and it would be a shame to waste it. Instead we pop up to the Croissant Neuf, a stage entirely powered by the sun, and watch the brilliantly entertaining Biggles Wartime Band, who perform a set of West Country and Western music, interspersed with jokes that Carry On writers would be proud of. At one point they bring a giant papier maché sturgeon onto the stage for a guest slot. They then break the world record for most consecutive fish puns. This is a much better use of irony. Next up we drop into The Front Room again and find one of those magical moments that could only happen here: a semi-impromptu performance from Katie Maddocks and Raevennan Husbandes: two young ladies who play a set under their adopted moniker for the weekend: The Lovely Girls. without wishing this to sound patronising, it’s a well chosen name, as they do sound lovely. Sharing a guitar, the set comprises their own material and a few well chosen covers, including a magical acoustic rendering of the Sugababes About You Now. I had never realised what a great tune this was until this weekend. Check these two out, I promise it will be worth it.
A hasty breakfast of fruit later, we find ourselves at the Avalon stage to see Gabby Young and Other Animals. I first saw Gabby a few years back, supporting Al Stewart and she was excellent, so I’m full of anticipation. Unfortunately, it does not quite live up to this. Gabby has decided that a suitable use of her time is to paint herself up like a kabuki performer and the music seems to have lost a lot of the charm that initially attracted me to her. It’s still good, but I feel that comparisons to Bat for Lashes are going to come thick and fast if this is your chosen onstage persona. We leave and head for Willie Nelson. This is a man who needs no introduction. The word legend is used far too casually these days, and should be reclaimed for moments like this. As none of Willie’s songs are more than three minutes long, he seems to play about a million of them, and at one point I worry that the organisers will have no option but to cut him off mid-set; as he seems to move from one tune to another without hardly taking a breath. It is incredible stuff though, and Willie treats us to all his classics, including magical versions of Funny How Time Slips Away and Always on My Mind. This is a perfect afternoon set, pitched accurately at diehard fans and Radio 2 listeners clustered around at the Pyramid Stage awaiting the headliners.
Next up, French indie poppers Phoenix serve up a set on The Other Stage, which reminds me why indie is my first and truest love. Early evening sets in the sun at festivals ought to make you dance, even if your knowledge of the band’s material is patchy. Phoenix fulfill this brief perfectly. As does the evening’s next star: Snoop Dogg. Mr Dogg has had his troubles entering our fine nation in the past, but all this is clearly behind him now. He is masterful, the crowd are like crumbly hash in his hands. The set features enough of his classic hits to please the crowd, as well as some guests and some sage advice. We are left in no doubt about three things. Firstly, we know exactly what his name is. Secondly, we are more than aware that he enjoys the odd jazz cigarette. Thirdly, Noel Gallagher was wrong and arrogant to say that hip hop had no place at Glastonbury.
Next, our weary limbs carry us to the John Peel Stage for a performance by Mumford and Sons. These guys are a classic Peel Stage band: not that big when they were booked, they’ve since gone interstellar and the tent is packed. Who knew that Irish folk music could take over the world this way? Their set is immense, with the tunes so ingrained in the mind of every music fan in this land that half the time you can’t hear the band over the shouting of the audience. They bring out a couple of new tunes which suggest that their next album will be more of the same, and who could blame them? It’s a stupendous performance, brimming with confidence and tunes.
What follows Mumford is possibly one of the greatest moments of the weekend. We head to The Park for a Special Guest slot. Unless you have been living under a rock this weekend, you will remember that this guest was in fact Thom Yorke, from the little-known band Radiohead. Thom plays a few of his own tracks, including a fabulous rendering of Black Swan, to wild applause. Then he casually announces the arrival of Johnny Greenwood from that aforementioned little band. The place goes mental. At the 40th anniversary festival, it would be wrong if Radiohead weren’t represented, and they make their presence felt with pared down versions of Weird Fishes / Arpeggi, Pyramid Song, Idioteque and a closing combination of Karma Police and, after the crowd nearly riots for one more, Street Spirit. These moments go down in history, and it is easy to see why. The crowd screams itself hoarse, retaining just enough vocal capacity to leave the stage singing the refrain from Karma Police.
If you had read only the reviews of Gorillaz from a popular broadsheet newspaper that I shall not name, you would be convinced we’d all left unsatisfied and depressed. You would be wrong. Their set is immense from start to finish. It’s groundbreaking to see that much talent assembled in one place, and each new guest star is greeted with rapturous cheering. The initial disappointment of thinking Snoop has replaced himself with a video (oh how we looked back on that moment two hours later...) is soon overwhelmed as Bobby Womack,Kano, Lou Reed, Shaun Rider, Little Dragon, De La Soul and more join Damon onstage to perform material from all three albums. Although the tracks from Demon Days are still by far and away the most accomplished, this set crams in classics from start to finish. The more mellow moments provide relief from the more frantic ones, and the visit from a Syrian instrumental troupe feels a tad cheesy, but is nevertheless just a short moment of inconsistency in a set that, although it perhaps lacks continuity, has a quality running though it that cannot be questioned. The main gripe about it from some seems to be that it wasn’t a “proper” Friday night headline slot. It was. It may have been slightly more for music geeks than casual fans of listening to a few tunes but, speaking as a music geek, this is no bad thing. Snoop Dogg returning in person at the end is the icing on a truly scrumptious cake. Congratulations Damon, you deserve your record as the first man to perform consecutive headline slots.
Part 2 and Part 3 are here...