Thursday, 7 August 2014

Glastonbury festival, 2014

So, folks, I've been to Glastonbury! It's often presented in the media as the festival-to-end-all-festivals, and it always gets loads of coverage on TV. You have to buy tickets before the line-up is announced, so investing in Glasto is always a leap of faith - yet, every year, thousands of musicians from across a whole load of genres perform, so it's unlikely that you'll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I had some reservations - not least its nine-mile-square dimensions and the sheer number of people, many of whom (according to the press coverage) like to do this kind of thing:

Glastonbury was as huge as I imagined - but its hugeness didn't matter all that much. In fact, its hugeness was one of the attractions. I stayed from Wednesday 25th June to the following Monday, and every day, I discovered a new area on the site. Writing up the whole experience would be impossible and a little too self-indulgent even for me, so here are my highlights from Glastonbury 2014.

10. Head-ing to the Healing Field

Whilst music is still the main entertainment at Glastonbury, there really isn't any shortage of things to do for those who want to take a break from watching bands. In fact, you could spend your whole festival just chilling in the Healing Fields, where you can book in for massages at 20 or 30 different tents. You could go on a massage crawl - but only if you have a small fortune in your pocket. I was told that these tents ran on donations, but as soon as I got into one, the masseuse made it pretty clear how welcome I'd be if I couldn't pay. I managed to fork out a fiver, a quarter of what she'd asked - but she sighed and went a-head with it anyway.

9. The dramatic Mr Scruff thunderstorm

Image courtesy of AudioCore

On Friday, a few of my troupe wandered up to Arcadia, which was on the other side of the festival to our tent, so it was quite a commitment, all in honour of Mr Scruff. If you think you don't know Mr Scruff, try this video and you might realise you do.

The feature piece of the Arcadia section at Glastonbury is the massive metal spider (pictured above) which spews fire at night, a spectacle which everyone on high ground can see - and it is wildly impressive, even from afar. But at a festival renowned for its thunderstorms, a giant metal structure on a hill isn't the best choice for a main attraction. As the dark clouds gathered, crowds umm'ed and aah'ed at the distant lightning, but the show was put off for around an hour while the storm passed over. In the meantime, the warm-up DJ stayed on a smaller stage and played music, while it began to rain. Torrentially.

I managed to dart into a backstage area in all the confusion, sheltering in a booth with a load of stray PR teams, but joined my friends reluctantly in the half-shelter of the bar tent when I realised we'd been separated. The rain went on and on, so we decided to brave the open air again, dancing ecstatically in the sodden field like pagans worshipping Mother Nature. Eventually, Mr Scruff started on the small stage, and the sun returned, giving rise to an impressive rainbow. We regretted our carefree attitudes later when we couldn't get our clothes dry.

8. The Radiohead/Rodrigo y Gabriela moment

I'm the first to admit that my iPod can look a little strange from a beginner's point of view. On the alphabetised artist list, Rodrigo y Gabriela, the talented percussive guitarists, are followed by Radiohead, the world-conquering experimental prog-rockers. Despite having normalised this juxtaposition in my listening life, it was still surreal when Rodrigo stopped playing his wordless Latin tracks and asked the crowd, "Don't you know anything?!", before launching into a cover of Radiohead's 'Creep'. The crowd joined him enthusiastically, but he didn't really need their help - Rodrigo was a pretty great singer. A sound recording should be available from the BBC's website, and I've posted below a video of the crowd-pleaser 'Tamacun' above.

If you love Rodrigo y Gabriela's virtuoso style, I went to see another great percussive guitarist on the Sunday up at the Toal Hall tent, a small stage which showcased a lot of alternative folk and acoustic music. Chris Woods Groove played a relaxed, entertaining set there, beginning with very few people to play to, but attracting people as he played. He's definitely worth a listen.

7. Mark Steel asking us why we weren't at Dolly Parton

On the Saturday of the Glasto weekend, Mark Steel was scheduled to perform a comedy stand-up set at the same time Dolly Parton was making headlines on the Pyramid stage. He tweeted:

Such torture. I'll have to leave Dolly Parton, to do my own show, which will be to the sort of people who didn't want to see Dolly Parton.
Being offensive about your audience seems to go down well on the left (see: Stewart Lee) but I in fact watched both Mark Steel and a bit of Dolly Parton - I spent a few minutes at the back of a 70,000 strong crowd by the main stage before thinking "Sod it, it'll start raining soon and then everyone will wish they were in a tent too". While I was there, I caught 'Jolene', though most of the sound was blocked out by people at the back chanting "TURN IT UP! TURN IT UP!". The iconic songs were so far in the distance that you could barely hear them. Amazingly, the sound desk did turn it up, but I'd had enough of feeling like I was at an American Butlin's, so I made my way to the Left Field tent and watched Mark Steel. He proceeded to chastise us all for not being at Dolly Parton - I genuinely think he would have tolerated an empty tent in homage to the great lady he was truly traumatised to miss.

Mark Steel is, it turns out, quite a funny comedian. However, the real success story of this year's Left Field was Francesca Martinez, a disabled comedian who managed to get us all reflecting on our privileges in life without feeling too shit, while being (arguably) funnier than any of the other comedians I saw there. The audience were friendly too - no ableist heckling, and a generally supportive atmosphere.

6. tUnE-yArDs giving us the Powa

I used to listen to tUnE-yArDs all the time, and I still pause to appreciate the high note in 'Powa' every time it comes up on shuffle. By the time the tUnE-yArDs were on stage, my boots were hugged by a crust - no, a platform - of mud, so thick that I had to dance stock-still like someone trying to wriggle free of quicksand. Needless to say, I totalled those boots (R.I.P. their blessed soles). Nevertheless, the high note in 'Powa' (4:40 on the album version) was remarkable and I don't regret in the slightest how ridiculous I must have looked. If it's all still online, you should be able to relive my near-religious experience here. I don't enjoy the kindergarten-theme Merrill Garbus stages, but it's certainly very different from most female artists' highly sexualised performances. Maybe that's what she's going for.

5. Fine alfresco dining

Oh my God the food. Glastonbury has a reputation for having better food than most festivals, but that really isn't a hard title to win. At Sonisphere, I felt ill most of the time from the £6 noodles, and at YNot, I ate two lunches because the first just wasn't nice enough to finish (well, that's how I've reconciled it to myself, so we'll stick with that explanation). At Glastonbury, I was in a perpetual battle with my self-control and my wallet, and I spent as much time looking forward to the next meal as looking forward to bands. My personal highlight was Square Pie, but there were food outlets lining every major walkway in the festival, in a scene which could have been sickeningly consumerist, but which actually looked like a funfair for the tastebuds. We had pizzas, pies, thai green curries, burritos, roasted nuts, churros and chocolate, curry, soup, fish and chips... and that was just the Friday! No, I'm kidding, but it was tempting. The worst meal was a bacon bap served by a tetchy Welshman on the morning we were leaving, but he was probably cross because he knew his bacon bap was crap compared to literally everything else you could eat there. I would have killed for that bap at Sonisphere though. The Glasto food was in a league of its own - the one-team Premiership of Festival Food.

4. Showering with a lot of ladies, some Ecover* and no clothes at all

This one has no picture. Sorry guys (which covers boys, men, lesbians, bisexuals, queer people - none of whom were covered in the Greenpeace showers). If you find going a week without washing disturbing, you may well have deep psychological scars after Glastonbury; furious zipped-tent sessions with wetwipes just aren't enough to deal with the sheer volume of mud, sweat, beer spills, rain and puddle water that you encounter at Glasto. Whilst most of my friends thought wetwipes did a good enough job, I trekked out on the Sunday morning to the communal shower. I'd not showered naked with other people, even of the same sex, since pre-puberty; though I know nakedness is the most natural state of humanity, I was... well, shy. But I'd had enough, and it's amazing how normal abnormal things can seem when everyone's doing them. So, I stripped off and spent a lot of time staring at the ground so as not to embarrass anyone, but afterwards I felt surprisingly liberated.

The beauty industry makes us paranoid by providing the only source of information about other people's bodies, showing us slim, hairless, shapely nakedness, even if it means photoshopping their pictures to all Hell. So, being amongst other women's bodies, candidly but without objectification, felt like a really radical yet simple resistance to advertising propaganda. I think the alternative-lifestyle feeling this gave me is representative of the wider atmosphere at Glastonbury - you could buy everything from eco-friendly deodorant and reusable tampon sponges to craft items made from recycled materials. Though the cynics dismiss this stuff as quaint hippy lifestyle politics, I think it's really inspiring that people are choosing to do their best to halt our global climate crisis in the face of seeming impossibility, whilst fostering healthier relationships between human beings. I left Glasto feeling oddly hopeful, where I usually leave festivals feeling a bit misanthropic.

*If you're wondering what Ecover is, it's an eco-friendly body and hair-washing gel which people were reluctantly using, on the orders of the woman who cleaned and managed the shower block. She was a dictator, but a benign one.

3. Nights out at Block 9

At one end of Glastonbury's remarkable site, there is a section dedicated to late-night clubbing sessions - Shangri-La (which is split into areas called 'Heaven' and 'Hell'), the Unfairground and Block 9 make up a ferocious trio of nighttime resorts. Each of them is themed to the hilt - the Unfairground has a slightly disturbing Trainspotting-chic going on, with scary broken dolls and enormous skinless horses hanging from the tops of rides. Parents pushing buggies soon turned back when they saw the Unfairground - this was not a place for small children. Shangri-La Hell is plastered with red paint and plays only the most hardcore club music late into the night. At one venue, you had to have a tattoo to get in - either real or fake - and if it was real, you got in for free. I'll elide Heaven because I'm an atheist and so I'll never get there anyway.

Block 9 (pictured above) was my favourite of the three zones. Designed to feel like a urban inner city after the apocalypse, its towering buildings, including the 'London Underground' and the 'Hotel', look like buildings caught in the act of being demolished, coughing up smoke and giving off eerie green and red light. During the evening, stand-up acts and bizarre artists gave cabaret-like performances on the stage placed in the Hotel's gaping second-floor, but at night, the whole place became a queue for the clubs tucked up behind these elaborate façades. In the damp, dark interior of the London Underground building, the DJ played endless house music to thousands of high people. I danced, not high but loving it anyway. The air was nearly solid with heat, damp and glitter. A couple of my friends chose to repeat this every night, but I wanted to focus on the music (and, frankly, get to sleep before the guys in the tents behind us started chatting shit through the early hours).

2. Shedding a Teardrop to Massive Attack

Image courtesy of d3 Technologies

Massive Attack were the one band I swore this Glasto that I wouldn't miss - everything else was negotiable, but Massive Attack were my baseline demand. I turned up just as it was getting dark, and pretty much all of my friends were there, gathered at the back of the crowd. Unlike at Dolly Parton, being at the back for this was more therapeutic than disappointing, since it meant you had space around you, a sense of the overall atmosphere, and couldn't be distracted by the words and images flashing up across Massive Attack's backdrop. The messages were political and charged with meaning, but that's something for me to explore in the BBC recordings of the set. While I was there, I just basked in the gorgeousness of 'Paradise Circus', possibly my favourite track ever, and the perfectly-delivered melodies of 'Teardrop'. I'd say it was my second favourite performance of the weekend.

1. Enjoying The Beat

The award for my favourite performance goes to The Beat. The Beat are a Birmingham-based band, some of whom my parents knew when they were young adults living in Handsworth. Their sunny ska sums up their scene perfectly - the racial politics were tense in the 80s but there was a lot of solidarity and unity between black people and the white community, especially the younger generations and the left-wingers. In opposition to societal racism and fascist groups like the National Front, bands like The Beat and The Specials made fiercely political music in racially-mixed groups of performers, fusing the musical styles of reggae and punk rock. The Beat's music is relentlessly upbeat, angry but also joyous, and their happiness onstage is infectious - every single person in the crowd at Glasto was dancing and the crowd was huge.

I went to see them thinking they'd pass the time, but within three songs they were the highlight of the festival - lead singer Ranking Roger bounced about the stage, performing the staged but seemingly spontaneous act alongside his son, Ranking Junior, who you may remember from the Ordinary Boys track 'Boys Will Be Boys'. Their performance was absolutely flawless, and their messages of unity and love made me realise how little love there is in my own politics. If only we could combine anger at the state of things now with this overwhelming enthusiasm and pleasure, perhaps we could attract more people to an otherwise very intimidating movement. I grinned right through tracks like 'Stand Down Margaret' (which united people in the 80s around the hope that maybe, if a ska band asked nicely, Margaret Thatcher might step down from her role as Prime Minister). They also did a great cover of 'Rock the Casbah' in honour of Joe Strummer, and ended the set with an extended version of 'Mirror in the Bathroom', a truly brilliant track about the hedonistic narcissism of wealthy city-dwellers.

I wish I'd taken a photo of the photographer who was bouncing about in front of the stage - I've never seen a paid professional having such a damn good time at work. If you don't know much about The Beat, I've put a few of my favourites below for your delectation (under the name 'The English Beat', which is what they're known as in the US).

So, that's it. As my friends and I cleared our little campsite, folding away our tents and dumping our rubbish at the nearest bins, it was amazing to think what the festival had been just hours before. Tents had left dirty yellow patches across the fields of Michael Eavis' land; people trudged through the drizzle along muddy walkways in the annual exodus. We didn't get caught in traffic for long, and soon me and two of my much-loved schoolfriends were in Derby getting tattoos, a symbol of our friendship, of the year of our 21st birthdays, and of our first Glastonbury. The same cynics who will dismiss Glasto as hippy rubbish will dismiss my tattoo as sentimental and foolish, but for me it's a little reminder of being young and idealistic and still in love with music.

Image courtesy of David Hodges