DiS' Rory Gibb pilgrimaged to Pilton, and here's his diary....
WEDNESDAY 22nd JUNE, 10:30
The summer solstice weekend that plays host to Glastonbury seems hardwired to attract variable extremes of weather. So despite every hope to the contrary, in keeping with past trends (2005 and 2007’s complete mudbaths; 2010’s sheer heat scorching cracks into the soil surface), as DiS pulls out of Bristol onto country backroads the heavens open, right on cue. The rolling countryside around Pilton is almost completely obscured by sheets of rain, and by the time we reach the car park much of it has already started to churn out the usual semi-solid festival ooze.
Glastonbury’s sheer size always proves both its strength and its weakness. After tramping for a good hour from one side to the other, searching for a suitable place to set up camp, the arrival at a (fairly) dry patch of ground and the opportunity to set down bags is met with something approaching mild hysteria. But despite its potential for exhaustion – something intensified by several days of changing weather and excess - conversations across the course of the weekend all arrive at a similar conclusion: a festival like Glastonbury succeeds precisely because it’s so massive. There are so many stages, bars, themed areas and tiny oddities to discover across the course of five days that it’s no longer necessary to worry about being at a certain place for a certain band at a certain time. That’s something the BBC’s TV coverage only ever touches upon, and even commentary from news outlets like the Guardian often downplays its importance, beyond spouting vague pronouncements about the ‘Glasto spirit’. Admittedly, bands are an awful lot easier to write reams about than an evening spent around a giant candle at the Stone Circle, but both remain equally crucial to the festival’s appeal – otherwise it runs the risk of appearing as something like a massive equivalent to Reading/Leeds or another corporate love-ins.
One thing that’s not a whole lot different from those stagnant rock monoliths, though, is that Glastonbury is just as much a consumer gathering, bringing 175,000-odd paying eaters/drinkers/smokers/druggers/shoppers to a comparatively small space for five days of unhindered spending. The essential ethos behind the festival might be different, with careful focus on charity fundraising and environmentalism. But when second on the programme’s list of 41 Things To Do At Glastonbury is ‘Buy Something’, it’s hard not to feel that, for all the implicit anti-capitalist sentiment, it’s still a weekend rooted in a culture of excess. That’s a point emphasised by the decision to block a protest by Art Uncut against U2’s alleged tax dodging. And the earthier, hippie-friendly crowd is vastly outnumbered each year by a far more cosmopolitan, moneyed sort of attendee, perhaps largely due to the fact its ticket price takes an annual leap into the realms you’d normally associate with a short holiday abroad.
Still, digressions aside, it remains unlike any other festival, in entirely a good way – a fact only emphasised at dusk on the slope above the Park Stage, while attempting to congregate with other DiS attendees. The meeting proves unsuccessful; a running theme for the weekend, as it’s striking how easy it can be to lose friends in an area so densely populated. But the view from the illuminated ‘GLASTONBURY’ above the site is stunning and surprisingly city-like, the glow of torches weaving between long strings of campsite lights like cars along a nighttime dual carriageway. Descending the slope via unnervingly dense mud around the base of the Park Stage (something that returns to haunt DiS a couple of days later), we begin the long wander to early bed.
THURSDAY 23rd JUNE, 11:30
After several hours of hiding in a sleeping bag from ongoing torrential rain, the skies finally close and we scarper to the nearest breakfast outlet. Continental-style coffee-and-muffin later, we settle in the faux-tropical surrounds of the Beat Hotel for cider and a read of Glastonbury’s daily paper, The Firelighter [41 Things To Do At Glastonbury #9]
In the last few years the volume of music on Thursday at Glastonbury has increased dramatically, this year around the Dance Village, where Wow! takes up the mantle of the recently retired Queen’s Head stage. This evening the music starts proper with a special guest, followed by Bristolians Julio Bashmore and 808-worshipper Addison Groove, the recently resurgent Ms. Dynamite (pictured) and house from Maya Jane Coles.
The interim period provides the chance for the first proper wander, via an inadvertent silent circus performance from a practicing troupe, some half-hearted celeb-spotting and a lot of expensive food stalls. Already a sizeable crowd has gathered around the Hare Krishna tent, where amid droning chants a small table serves free, very tasty vegan food. And as the warm afternoon sun dries the mud’s surface into a thin crust, a number of people are beginning to look a little unsteady on their feet.
That situation intensifies later where the decision to host the only stage of the evening in a comparatively tiny tent causes havoc. After special guest Ke$ha does her brattish pop thing, the crush for Addison Groove is exhausting and frustrating in equal measure, despite his sending minds back to the late 90s with Stardust's ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. As the mud thickens, thanks to the day’s warmth and the churn of several thousand feet, people start to get stuck and fall, culminating in an unnerving few minutes at a bottleneck between the Dance Village and Other Stage. With no stewards to guide a wrecked crowd unable to get anywhere near Ms. Dynamite’s performance, more and more pile through a small and swampy gate, swiftly grinding to a crushed, impatient halt. DiS retires, shattered, to bed.
FRIDAY 24th JUNE, 09:30
Another coffee/muffin breakfast sends DiS sailing to the opening hour of the Pyramid Stage with legendary Moroccan ensemble Master Musicians Of Joujouka [41 Things To Do At Glastonbury #26 - pictured above]. While its sparse attendance makes their presence as the opening act feel slightly like an attempt to shoehorn diverse sounds into a stage largely dominated by predictable guitar music, they prove excellent nonetheless, all dissonant polyrhythmic drones and strange dances. Metronomy follow, a band transformed since this reviewer last saw them some five years ago from quirky electro into tight pop machine, packing shades of early-to-mid-noughties dance-punk.
The rain starts again in earnest to accompany a firey appearance from Wu Tang Clan, peppered by tracks from their classic debut 36 Chambers. DiS’ waterproof jacket proves anything but waterproof, so gin proves increasingly useful as an anesthetic against the creeping cold, as does a swift dance to Alexander Nut, Fatima and Floating Points.
More gin and an hour’s wait at the Park later and the first of the weekend’s really-not-secret special guests appear: Radiohead, performing a set culled largely from The King Of Limbs. Sadly, it arrives with something of a whimper, which is surprising as a long-term fan and live devotee. The sound at the Park Stage is fine for the smaller acts, when it’s possible to stand far closer to the stage, but when about half the festival try to cram around it the sound’s impact is seriously diminished. Radiohead’s live performances remain best at their most challenging, something a righteous version of ‘I Might Be Wrong’ offers proof of, but in this setting The King Of Limbs’ songs lose a great deal of their drama and intensity.
Which certainly can’t be said of Saturday’s special guests, Pulp, who despite suffering from the same sound problems turn in one of the weekend’s finest performances. [Note: at this point our diary leaps forward in time by 24 hours for purposes of continuity; normal Friday service will resume following this paragraph]. Jarvis Cocker remains a superb frontman, bolstered by an anthemic setlist: ‘Something Changed’; a glorious ‘Razzmatazz’; ‘Sorted For E’s & Whizz’. And the daytime suits them perfectly, adding intensity where it was sapped from Radiohead. Though the poor sound ensures there are fewer outright sing-along moments than there perhaps ought to be (note to organizers: for such huge guests on such a small stage, it’s worth considering a far weightier soundsystem), the view of a bellowing audience during closer ‘Common People’ is little short of magical.
[Note: we return to the Park Stage, Friday, post-Radiohead] Caribou’s set is stunning, the weekend’s best so far. Dan Snaith’s ethereal techno-pop is enhanced by heavy rain, which occasionally catches in strobe-lit relief in shades of electric blue and purple. Afterwards, the base of The Park – already the most treacherous region of the site – ends up a boggy pit. After DiS snapper Gary’s tale of a girl trapped knee-deep on Wednesday night it seems foolish to take any chances, so a slightly longer route past the glowing Ribbon Tower ends with a tryst in the Rabbit Hole [41 Things To Do At Glastonbury #28]. Even without a day’s worth of excess it’s an appropriately Carroll-esque prospect: answer a riddle, climb in through a knee-high door and crawl through a (pretty muddy) tunnel to find yourself in a secret dancefloor venue. After an entire Glastonbury Friday it’s an intense experience, fifteen minutes spent climbing through different tunnels attempting to discover the real exit resulting in muddy jeans and a wallet about a tenner lighter (and head a couple of tequilas heavier).
The Rabbit Hole experience works as an excuse for the following events, which result in an ill-judged attempt to cross the bog at the base of The Park. A wellie trapped in mud proves to be the final straw, as DiS ends up falling face first, throwing a micro-tantrum and heading for bed at the unreasonably early hour of 1am.
SATURDAY 25th JUNE, 10:30
Gradually coming round to discover a tent caked with mud, jeans ruined and a sore head is a crucial component of the Glastonbury experience.
That said, if you’re still shaking so badly you’re struggling to write some four hours later that ‘experience’ starts to wear thin. Two cups of coffee, two cake bars, a veggie burger, a sit down and some stiff gin & tonic finally shake the sense of impending doom.
Saturday on all three stages covered in real depth by the Beeb - Pyramid, Other and John Peel – is startlingly light on substance, beyond Battles’ evening show on the Peel stage. It’s a reminder of how easy it would be to spend the entire weekend busy and still avoid seeing anything shown on TV.
With that in mind, we head for Nicholas Jaar (pictured, above), only to be disappointed after last night’s Caribou showdown. The two share a certain amount in common – both are four-piece live dance bands who right house music with much of its music stripped away. But where Caribou turn that lightness of touch into an artform, retaining the crucial tension that drives good dance music, Jaar’s take simply floats aimlessly. It’s also delivered by a band purposely facing away from their audience, and ends up feeling pretentious and overly noodly.
Hare Krishna food later, Omar Souleyman’s manic performance – tinny-as-fuck, driven by labyrinthine modal melodies and syncopated drum machine beats – is as brilliant as it is straightforward. Proof that less is often more.
After Pulp on the Park Stage [see Friday], DiS heads further down the road marked ‘The Glastonbury Experience’, and through a combination of messy-headedness, good company and the thread of mud manages to fail monumentally, lose track of time and miss two of the weekend’s most exciting acts: Janelle Monae and Big Boi. Instead we chat through James Blake, and end up catching Wild Beasts. Well, sort of catching – memories of their set are blurred in a pleasant way, suiting the smooth, undulating grooves of their last two records perfectly.
A few hours of drinking and wandering later, the festival’s late night zone beckons. One of the more tucked away regions of the festival, it’s also an area almost entirely ignored by the TV coverage. There’s a sense of chaos to the site by the early hours, perfectly suiting the Arcadia stage, a huge, lumbering, spider-like metal contraption that sends the odd fork of lightning flying into the skies above. Attempting to access Shangri-La [41 Things To Do At Glastonbury #35] proves more problematic thanks to a queue and some bolshy security, but the place is quite beautifully decked out, a sort of post-apocalypic urban space that just happens to have crash landed in the middle of the West Country landscape. Shy FX is playing jump-up d’n’b in the centre of a huge gladiator-style pit called The Hub, and as usual it’s impressive how drum ‘n’ bass manages to draw aggressive people out of the woodwork, even somewhere as apparently placid as Glastonbury. Outside of the arena the atmosphere is warmer and more inviting, but the sun’s coming up.
SUNDAY 26th JUNE, 08:30
And what sun it is. Having only made it back to the tent at about half past five, the blistering heat that faces Glastonbury on its final day is still enough to knock DiS (and seemingly everyone else) out of bed by half eight, sprinting away from tents gradually turning into canvas ovens.
The transformation overnight is stunning. Despite the chilly afternoons and evenings of the last few days, almost the entire festival is roaming around in a bare minimum of clothing, sticking heads under taps and asking for suncream. The change in atmosphere, too, is dramatic, people soaking up the warmth like plants stretching towards the light for energy.
DiS buys something [Things To Do At Glastonbury #2] – in this case a very cold pint – and hides in Oxlyers for the perfect antithesis to the sun. Esben & The Witch have transformed over the last couple of years into a formidable live band, and closer ‘Eumenides’ is beautiful, gradually escalating to deafening climax.
The fact that it’s possible to repeatedly bump into the same people in a temporary city the size of Sunderland suggests that tracking the movements of Glastonbury-goers on a large scale would prove very interesting. It’d probably find that there were certain established patterns, with different sets of people moving within a fairly limited number of locations. That’s certainly the case for DiS, whose arrival at Appleblim and Al Tourettes’ back-to-back session outside the Wow! Stage is met with at least ten familiar faces. And true to form the duo’s set is perfect sun fodder, seamlessly shifting from electro through techno (dancing to Objekt’s ‘CLK Recovery’ in bare feet is one of the weekend’s highlights), house, dubstep and more.
By the time of TV On The Radio’s (pictured, below) 17:30 set on the Other Stage a cursory glance down at the ground – which was thick and sloppy only 36 hours ago – reveals that it’s starting to crack in places. The same thing is happening to the faces of an unnerving number of people (DiS included, through about seven layers of Factor 30). The site is being dehydrated on a massive scale.
Afterward, we’re killing time until the double header of Robyn and Beyonce, spending time roaming around the John Peel end of the site and observing the growing excitement about Ms. Knowles’ Pyramid Stage headline slot. Already there’s a sense from certain directions that the entire weekend has been simply a preamble.
Robyn’s set is curiously disappointing, despite high expectations. It’s largely down to technical difficulties – she storms offstage soon after arriving, a result of sound technicians repeatedly replacing her headset mid-song, before returning and apologising. But her music, normally so vital, feels a little forced, with the exception of an effervescent ‘Dancing On My Own’. It’s also perhaps due to her proximity to Beyonce, whose slick professionalism and stunning vocal performance stand in stark contrast to Robyn’s partially mimed set. As expected, the crowd is buzzing with anticipation in the run-up her Pyramid headline slot, and opening with ‘Crazy In Love’ sends the entire field wild. Despite being half asleep beforehand, it’s a serious wake-up call and the highlight of the weekend; even her mid-set ballads, while less interesting musically, work perfectly in the context of the last night of a festival.
Afterwards, the obligatory trip to the Stone Circle, surrounded by the light from hundreds of massive candles and the smell of weed smoke, is an appropriate way to round off the weekend. Joined by the combined rumble of the thousands of people using up the last of their supplies for one last push, the strains of DJ Hype’s infamous Fugees ‘Ready Or Not’ remix drift across the site from the final party at Shangri-La.
All photos by Gary Wolstenholme, more Glasto coverage, including our staff members highlights and plenty more photos can be found here