It’s Thursday afternoon, and I’ve just alighted at Castle Cary station in the pissing rain. A chirpy station master is trying to make light of this grim scene, but his cheery apologies for the weather don’t distract from the fact that by the time we’ve completed the short walk to the shuttle buses, the sleeping bag attached to the poor sap in front of me is already soaked through. We cram ourselves onto a double decker bus and I manage to find a seat. Reaching into my bag to find the contents only slightly damp, I pull out a book and bury myself in its pages. A bloke from Belfast lets out a laugh and asks: “Who brings a book to Glastonbury?” This from a man in flip-flops who has already admitted he didn’t bring wellies, or waterproof clothing of any sort. I refrain from pointing out which one of us will have a broken ankle and pneumonia by Sunday, partly because I don’t want to admit to him, nor myself, that the real reason I’m reading is this: I’m trying to pretend I’m not here.
See, I only bought my ticket a week before the event. I’d been saying for months how much I was regretting not buying a ticket, so when the opportunity arose to purchase one at face value (still a wallet-busting £210) I could hardly turn it down. It was only after handing over the money that I bothered to check the weather forecast. Turned out the weekend was predicted to witness more showers than a pervy gym instructor.
I’ve been to wet Glastonburys before. While the stoic determination of the crowd to have fun despite being knee-deep in long-drop overspill is something to behold, the boot-sucking mud, outbreaks of trench foot and inability to sit down anywhere without painting your arse an unfortunate shade of brown do start to take their toll. The sodden climax of 2007’s event (summed up in the first paragraph here) was so bad I resolved never to go again. I bury my head back between the pages of my book.
It’s actually a pretty appropriate one: John Higgs’ fantastic account of The KLF. Like Glastonbury it’s ostensibly about music, and also like Glastonbury it turns out to be equally indebted to ideas of chaos, synchronicity, paganism, imagination, discord, rave culture, magic, and the gleeful shedding of lots and lots of money. It’s the perfect reading matter before heading into the disorientating and overwhelming world that we’re approaching, and despite the flip-flopper’s mocking comments, by the time I’ve reached my campsite and the rain has stopped I feel significantly more prepared for whatever the weekend has to throw at me (by the way, HUGE props to the incredible Wreck Collective crew, both for their amazing work and for putting up with me drunkenly stumbling through their stand at dawn every morning).
One of those things is a lightning storm that takes out half the festival on Friday, but before that comes a more welcome form of tempest; Kate Tempest to be precise. Indeed, her performance at The Rum Shack is so oversubscribed that it’s actually impossible to get into the tent. Initially I put this down to the relative lack of concurrent performances on Thursday, but the huge response to the first bars of ‘Marshall Law’, the opening track on her amazing narrative rap album Everybody Down, suggests that has little to do with it; the crowd outside the tent remains at least ten deep throughout the entire set.
Sadly, tech problems mean that Kate has to make do without backing music for about ten minutes, but there are few artists better equipped to deal with this predicament than her. She immediately launches into a righteously-delivered poem that sends the crowd wild (including me, someone who normally hates performance poetry), before attempting a Glastonbury-related freestyle that only falters a couple of times. She has the grace to laugh at her own fuck-ups, and the humour to follow her question as to how our festival is going with the apology, “that’s such a fucking lame question, it’s that thing you ask when you haven’t got anything to say”. She’s rarely without anything significant to say though, and in fact the only downside to the sound issues being fixed is that it makes her lyrics harder to hear.
After a rave-tastic version of ‘Circles’ (“It’s the nineties!”), ‘Happy Ending’ provides us all with just that. The crowd’s enthusiasm is only matched by the obvious joy on Kate’s face, as she admits she’s never had so many people know her lyrics before. She’d better get used to it.
The rest of that evening is spent aimlessly wandering in traditional Glastonbury fashion, encompassing much fun but few memories (beyond an excellent rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ by a brass band called Perhaps Contraption). Suitably marinaded in the festival spirit (sweat, drizzle and cheap rum) and then lightly grilled by some unexpected sunshine, Friday begins with a trip to see William ‘East India Youth‘ Doyle at the fittingly named William’s Green. Opening with a particularly swoonsome rendition of ‘Glitter Recession’, Doyle seems to almost be swooning himself as he whirls through the track’s odd time signatures and swirling piano phrases.
He follows the instrumental with a glut of vocal numbers, some of which make him seem like a less deadpan and (much) more harmonically interesting Pet Shop Boys. However, while Doyle looks prim, his earnest emotionality and occasional bouts of head-banging (honestly) during the likes of ‘Heaven, How Long’ show that while PSB represent the robotic beeps of a hospital ECG monitor, Doyle’s lovelorn exultations are like the electronic pulses of the human heart itself. His tendency to prick the tear ducts is complemented by an ability to make you dance too; closing techno thumper ‘Hinterland’, which has always sounded a bit flat on record to me, totally comes alive here. Perhaps I just needed to hear it through a massive rig while being blinded by a bunch of strobes.
Annoyingly, I peg it down to West Holts only to miss all but the last few bars of the William Sheller-sampling ‘3030’ by hip-hop dystopianists Deltron 3030, aka Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala. They’re joined by a small orchestra conducted by Dan himself, giving him the excuse to whip out his baton (oo-er) and don a tailcoat and impressively immaculate white shirt. While the classical musicians are occasionally drowned out a little by the rest of the band (which includes Mars Volta bassist Juan Alderete on fine – and incredibly loud – form), Del’s rapping and Kid Koala’s scratching come through loud and clear, and both are impeccable throughout.
I could’ve done without the guest appearance by Jamie Cullum for ‘Do You Remember?’, as he adds little bar a natty leather jacket, although the drop at the beginning is perfect. The set finishes with a crowd-pleasing run through ‘Clint Eastwood’ by Gorillaz, that Del famously contributed vocals to. The live strings play the keyboard part perfectly, and there are some satisfying horn flourishes at the end, helping counteract the suspicion that the orchestra had been hired while high, a la Cypress Hill in The Simpsons. Pleasingly, the guy in front of me in the ‘I Love Hip-Hop’ hat (see below) nods appreciatively throughout.
There then follows an unintentional stroll through the Pyramid Stage crowd as De La Soul play a set that (a fine rendition of ‘Ooh’ aside) seems to mainly consist of them asking people to put their hands in the air. On the plus side they seem to have brought the sun out, much like they did when I saw them here all the way back in 2003. They should book them every year solely for their ray-raising ability.
By that measure, they should probably never let Rudimental play here again. Shortly after the Hackney-ites take the stage, a threatening storm cloud raises its head and slowly approaches, the occasional silver flash of forked lightning streaking across it. It’s almost as if Zeus himself has been offended by the rumbling bass of Rudimental’s set, and wants to show them how it’s really done. To their credit, the band don’t let this impending doom dampen their spirits (although this may be because the angriest clouds are behind the stage), with DJ Locksmith in a particularly bouncy mood, at one point letting us all in on a personal secret: “I love… to SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!”. Good for you! He also manages to convince a lot of people, including the chap below, to dance on their mates’ shoulders.
They proceed to rattle through hits like ‘Not Giving In’ and ‘Waiting All Night’, before Ed Sheeran shuffles onstage, acoustic guitar in hand. Normally these words would strike fear into the very pit of my heart, but in all honesty his finger-picked guitar and understated vocals on a yet-to-be-released track provides one of the highlights of the set. I’m as surprised as you are. Sadly the rest of the performance is let down by some wafty sound (although the bass remains booming), before the storm cloud gets so close that a message appears on the big screens warning us that they may power down at any moment. Sure enough, the first of many raindrops, so big I initially think a bird has shat on me, cascades down, soon to be joined by a legion of wet brethren. As the band leave the stage, the crowd flee for shelter, and I suddenly find my jacket isn’t as waterproof as I thought it was.
Having thoroughly soaked the site for an hour, the rain finally lets up and stages start reopening. A soggy Park Stage is thus eventually blessed by the appearance of Parquet Courts, whose slightly muddy sound seems pretty appropriate considering the circumstances. “Its great to be here, and it’s great to be headlining,” drawls Austin Brown sarcastically, “although, you know, I get it”. A rousing ‘Master of My Craft’ gives the drained crowd a much-needed boost of energy, not least the Rhys Ifans lookalike who grooves away in a pink pac-a-mac at the front, while the band’s stop/starts are super-tight throughout. ‘Instant Disassembly’, from new album Sunbathing Animal, adds a sunny vibe while sounding surprisingly like early Kings of Leon, although it has to be said their set takes a slight turn for the dull at this point.
Fortunately they ramp things up for a crowdsurfer-friendly finish, albeit one that doesn’t feature their biggest hit, ‘Stoned and Starving’. What gives? The crowd, who chant for the song for a good couple of minutes after the band have departed, is nonplussed. Quite frankly, Parquet Courts are not at the level yet where they can get away without playing their biggest song, and it just leaves you feeling like they weren’t particularly pleased to be at Glastonbury and didn’t particularly care if anyone else was either. A bit of a dick move to be honest.
Better vibes are in evidence back at West Holts, where I stumble into a Jurassic 5 set just in time for a flawless run through ‘Concrete Schoolyard’. I have to admit, J5 are one of those acts that I never really kept up with, perhaps unconsciously feeling that there was no way they could improve on their debut album. I may need to re-evaluate that assumption after this, as every track they play is ace. The lyrical interplay is faultless, and there’s even some synchronised bloody dancing. That’s a bit more like it.
Things move up another notch when M.I.A. takes the stage, against a backdrop that makes it feel like you’ve just been fed acid then shoved onto a colourful Sri Lankan ferris wheel. I’ve only ever been a casual fan of Mathangi Arulpragasam’s music and initially plan to duck out halfway through, but from the moment she opens with a riotous ‘Bucky Done Gun’ it’s clear that isn’t going to be an option. The whole set is a blast from start to finish: huge bass, persistently brilliant rhythms, and dancers so energetic that just watching them is exhausting (probably because we’re all dancing too).
M.I.A. herself is draped in gold, and delivers a customarily impassioned rant about how the BBC are refusing to show the set because they’ve deemed her ‘Stop Tamil Deportation’ t-shirts too political. The fact that the BBC are actually streaming it live, and broadcast televised highlights later on, is by the by – there’s nothing like a little bit of righteous fury to get the crowd going, whether there’s any actual justification for it or not. The atmosphere is also helped by hundreds of foam batons being thrown into the crowd, which turn out to light up when a button is pressed on the bottom. Soon the crowd is a sea of giant flashing neon worms, and the sensory overload is complete. As set-closer ‘Paper Planes’ blasts out, you can imagine late Glastonbury veteran Joe Strummer observing this chaotic, Clash-sampling scene with total satisfaction.
We then leg it up to the Park Stage in order to catch a final few tunes from the stylishly-suited Metronomy. Quirky tracks like ‘Boy Racer’ sound like they’re booming out of the world’s largest Casiotone keyboard, although the fuller feel of ‘Month of Sundays’ unexpectedly proves the most satisfying track we see. They finish with a ferociously fun take on their “ancient” single ‘You Could Easily Have Me’, which sends everyone bouncing off into the darkness.
I spend the rest of the night trying to convince friends and strangers alike of how vital it is they catch Fat White Family at the John Peel Stage the next day, and while most of them end up sleeping in so late they miss the 3pm kick-off, the one companion I do convince is suitably impressed by their sleazy, shirtless rock and roll horror-show. As ‘Auto Neutron’ booms out, we find out the middle-aged woman beside us at the front is actually a friend of guitarist Saul Adamczewski’s family. By the end of the set, another punter (who apparently goes by the wonderful name Mark Hole) has hoisted her onto his shoulders so she can take some snaps (see below). What a gent.
Judging by the amount of times I see their set posted on Facebook in the following days, it seems everyone both here and at home loves their set. Everyone, oddly, except me. Maybe it’s the fact that up till now I’ve been mainly watching bands whose sound is more suited, or at least accustomed, to bigger stages. Maybe I’ve just become that wanker who stops liking bands when everyone else starts liking them. Either way, they just seem a band better suited to hot, cramped back rooms where you’re only ever a foot away from a flying Fat White elbow, whereas here the sound and intensity seem to get lost somewhere in the big top. It’s perhaps telling that whenever you ask someone about their favourite Fat Whites gig, it’s almost always the first one they witnessed. Still, it’s good to hear ‘Touch the Leather’ live for the first time, and the fact remains that if we still need guitar bands, then we need guitar bands like this.
Incidentally, it’s pleasing to know that at least the band are out there enjoying the festival while not playing, rather than hiding in the VIP area backstage. Adamczewski is one of two performers I see at dawn having clearly been up all night, the other being Kate Tempest. Kate gives me a genuine ‘you’re wasted too aren’t you’ smile, while Saul merely scowls. Which seems about right.
A sudden downpour while I’m observing Guerilla Science’s Great Wall of Vagina in Shangri-La means I sadly miss the Daptone Super Soul Revue, but the sun comes out just in time for ESG at the Park Stage. To be honest, there’s nothing much I can write about their set that I didn’t cover when they played KOKO back in January, save to repeat that the only thing stopping it from being truly brilliant is the drummer consistently playing songs at the wrong tempo. Still a damn fine way to spend an hour though.
A little stroll around the Park gives us the opportunity to check out FURS at the Rabbit Hole and Cate Le Bon at the Crow’s Nest, both of whom are solid enough (I personally find the former more diverting), and then listen to Anna Calvi from the top of the hill. Her booming voice and peerless guitar-playing carry right up to the top, losing surprisingly little volume to the wind.
It’s time to tumble back down towards the Other Stage though, where Pixies are waiting to take the stage. A few people who’ve seen them recently have complained of boredom, but I just cannot get with that. Their Glastonbury set is fairly identical to the two others I’ve seen them play over the last few years, and I was still hopelessly bowled over. This is one of the greatest bands of all time playing some of the greatest songs of all time, and if I ever begin to find that boring then please cleave off my ears as I clearly have no use for them any longer.
David Lovering provides a winning vocal take on ‘La La Love You’ and Kim Deal 3.0, aka Paz Lenchantin, plays her parts with aplomb. The big surprise though is how well the new songs sound. ‘Magdalena’ is great, ‘Bagboy’ genuinely stands up against some of their all-time classics and I’m still whistling ‘Greens and Blues’ days later. However, it’s festival favourite ‘Where Is My Mind?’ that has everyone singing along arm-in-arm at the end.
While we may not find our minds that night, we do stumble across a gigantic metal spider that shoots fire out of its head, which I think we can all agree is the next best thing. This flaming behemoth lives in the Arcadia field and houses DJs in its stomach, including Disclosure, whose set we catch without actually realising it’s them. It does explain how good the music is, although to be honest they could have been blasting Vengaboys out of that explosive arachnid and I’d still have been awestruck.
To Sunday, and Melt Yourself Down serve up the perfect breakfast at West Holts. Frontman Kushal Gaya has certainly had his cornflakes, covering every inch of the stage during their set, including the top of the speaker stacks. During set closer ‘Fix My Life’ he abandons the stage altogether and leaps into the crowd, grabbing a stray sod of mud and smearing it all over himself. And all over everyone else within arms reach. And then resorts to just tossing handfuls of mud all over the place. It’s a testament to the quality of their music, not least from explosive saxophonists Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings, that people cheer rather than hit him. If you haven’t seen this band before, do so at the next opportunity.
It isn’t Glastonbury until you’ve seen a tent full of grubby hippies waltzing to a folk band on the Avalon Stage, and 3 Daft Monkeys perform that duty this year. At one point the band’s fiddler reels of a list of the festival’s smaller stages and declares, “THAT’S the real Glastonbury, not where the cameras are!” She’s not entirely right though – that would just be Shambala or Buddhafield. Glastonbury may attract criticism for having become too homogenous (not particularly fair) or corporate/safe/posh (slightly more fair), but the amazing thing is how it basically manages to combine Latitude, Boomtown, Womad, Secret Garden Party, Creamfields, Green Man and the aforementioned hippy fests into one giant party, where there is truly something for everyone. As long as you like mud.
However, it still needs one performer each year that can unify the disparate bands of punters, and this year Dolly Parton is that performer. Someone tells me she draws the biggest crowd of the whole festival for her 4.20pm slot, and considering how difficult it is to even get into the field, I can believe it. She takes to the stage exuding a beguiling mixture of stardust and sincerity, and an adoring crowd is instantly under her spell. Basically she’s charm personified, to the point that her apparent delight at playing to such a huge crowd makes you feel like you’ve actually done her a favour by showing up.
Having heard a hundred drunken renditions of ‘Jolene’ over the weekend, it’s a pleasure to finally hear an authentic one (and for the record, I don’t meet a single person who thinks she was miming. For a start, it would’ve been a pretty hasty vox track she’d have needed to record for the song she plays that she’d written that morning about Glastonbury’s mud). Most impressive though is the series of instruments she plays, from banjo and fiddle to autoharp and, yes, rhinestone-studded saxophone. On which she proceeds to play the Benny Hill theme. At this point, a high percentage of the crowd start to wonder whether someone’s spiked their cider. The self-deprecating stories in between songs, generally focusing on her hillbilly Tennessee upbringing, are particularly entertaining, while a song from her latest album, the bluegrass-tinted ‘Blue Smoke’, turns out to be one of the best of the set. It’s a wonder she doesn’t have to stop to untie us from her little finger before she leaves the stage. Viva Dolly.
Not much can top that, although listening to The Wailers in the Sunday sunshine at West Holts comes a pretty close second. It can’t be easy slipping on Bob Marley’s gigantic shoes (figuratively, apparently he was only a size 7 in real life) but Dwayne “Danglin” Anglin gives it a good go, and the band are fluid as fuck.
Departing to the sound of ‘Buffalo Soldier’, I make it to the Park Stage to find Annie ‘St Vincent‘ Clark sprawled prone across a podium, down which she slowly flops like a dead lizard being tossed down some stairs. It’s one of the more ordinary moves she pulls over the next 40 minutes. From synchronised scuttles alongside her fellow guitarist Toko Yasuda, to forcefully shoving a camera out of the way to cavort in the crowd, she’s probably second only to Bowie when it comes to combining elegant grace with oddball antics, and somehow making it all seem incredibly sexy.
Even more impressive, however, is the music itself. I’ve never been a particularly big fan of St Vincent’s albums, but seeing her live makes you really appreciate the genuine weirdness oozing out of her writing. The moves she pulls off on the fretboard are incredible enough, but the bizarre poses she adopts while playing makes them even more so. One of my unexpected highlights of the festival.
A quick hike back to the Crow’s Nest reveals a secret set by Glass Animals. “This is where Prince is playing,” smirks one wag outside the tent, “except he’s taken on the form of four pubescent students”. It’s hard not to agree with him, although in Glass Animals’ favour is the fact that their white boy soul, while underwhelming at first, slowly wins you over. While they’re not the finished article quite yet, a second performance of ‘Gooey’ during an impromptu encore has the entire tent dancing – in fact, the audience seems to have doubled by the time it’s finished.
The bassy strains of James Blake’s ‘Cmyk’ filter up outside the tent, but there’s little time to enjoy it as Massive Attack are about to close the Other Stage. Initially it seems like they’re going to avoid playing many of the classics, and you wouldn’t put it past the notoriously moody pair, but soon the Blue Lines, Protection and Mezzanine hits start rolling out and the crowd responds with something approaching ecstasy. Martina Topley-Bird’s vocals are as great as always, although it’s Deborah Miller’s performance of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ that ends the night on a real high.
Except the night hasn’t ended, of course. There’s still time for one last trip around the naughty corner of Block 9, Shangri-La and The Un-fairground, and nowhere is more debauched than The Diner’s dancefloor, where a couple walk around with a giant mirror covered in their remaining MDMA, offering free lines to anyone who wants them as a devastating disco DJ set fills the place to bursting. From there it’s just a short walk up to the stone circle to huddle together and watch the sun come up…
… which would be the perfect place to end things, but then something odd happens. I suddenly sober up to find myself in the foulest mood anybody could possibly be in after three hours of dancing to disco. The belching fires and constant hissing of laughing gas dispensers make the hill look and sound like a particularly druggy circle of hell, except soundtracked by someone’s mini-rig blasting out, bizarrely, Mose Allison. In fact the music is the only thing that doesn’t inspire loathing in me at this point, as I feel the immediate urge to get the fuck out of here. Which I do.
Maybe I’d just reached the point John Doran describes in his VICE piece, ‘A LIFELONG MUSIC FESTIVAL WOULD BE A LIVING HELL’, which I read shortly after getting home. Or maybe my super-ego suddenly kicked in to neutralise all the id-ridden fun I’d had over the previous four days. Either way, it’s but a badly-timed blip, albeit one that requires hiding away in my book again. Ah well, at least it’s not raining.
Words: Kier Wiater Carnihan
Good photos(including headline photo): Emma Stoner
Crap photos: Kier Wiater Carnihan