Tuesday, June 30, 2009

postcard from glastonbury festival

Arriving on the Wednesday is clearly the big thing to do at this year's Glastonbury. It's a torturous 14 hour journey from Nottingham to the festival site, arriving at midnight, then taking until 3am to cross the site, locate our friend's tent, and pitch ours in the dark.

Thursday is better, as the weekend gets off to a flying start at the BBC Introducing stage, where Zane Lowe is playing a mammoth DJ set that's going out live on his Radio 1 show. It's riotous fun, the just-elated-to-be-here crowd celebrating every well-selected track. He's still the finest party DJ out there, and appearances from Mike Skinner, Mr Hudson and Jamie T are all similarly well received. It's a shame then that 10 minutes after going off air they pull the plug on the last hour of his set - unbeknown to us there's been a thunderstorm going on outside the tent, and the show has become something of a health and safety risk. More next year please.

After doing a quick radio interview with Jo Whiley I catch the last 10 minutes of N.E.R.D's set, which is being rapturously received. Even way at the back of the field the crowd is dancing and shouting along - quite an achievement. The incendiary atmosphere goes as far as the set being cut off mid-song when it over-runs by ten minutes, the band remain on stage for another five, visibly fuming.

Out and About with Radio 1 at Glastonbury 2009

No such anarchy from Fleet Foxes, who freely admit to being terrified. It effects their performance sadly, they keep their fans content as harmonies drift over their heads, but they won't be making any new ones here. It's a case study example of how to botch a festival set.

The Horrors are the opposite - playing ferociously to a crowd that is bizarrely slow to match their enthusiasm. They sound unstoppable in the usually tranquil (and busier) Park area.

Nearby, Skream and Benga are twisting a small crowd around their little finger, in one of their less publicised performances of the weekend. The energy in the room is extraordinary. 12 months on from a pleasant, convivial 2am set in Shangra-La, they now have the tracks and the momentum to tear a room to shreds. Thrilling.

In their 2007 Pyramid Stage set Bloc Party were happy to arrogantly leave two of their most famous songs - I Still Remember and (the now appropriately titled) Two More Years - out of their set. The fiercely Reading/Leeds loyal band have since learnt to avoid such antagonism, and deliver a crowd pleasing set heavy on fan favourites from the Silent Alarm era. It's an unquestionable success, only marred by the volume not quite matching the energy level on display from the band.

15 minutes of Spinal Tap's winning set are the perfect accompaniment to a late breakfast, before heading over to see The Japanese Popstars fruitlessly try to win over their tent of 150 afternoon ravers. When a track such as Face Melter (brutal 3am club destroyer that it is) fails to get a room moving you know somethings gone wrong.

Perhaps they could take some stage craft tips from Dizzee Rascal, who is playing to a rammed Pyramid arena. It's impossible not to be charmed by how much Dizzee is clearly loving his job, and the crowd are onside from the first note, greeting harsher hits like Sirens (still his best song) with as equal glee as they do. That is of course, until the whole field goes Bonkers. Other Stage headliner next year?

The second best set all weekend, The Gaslight Anthem are on unstoppable form in the John Peel tent. Playing like they want the idle Pyramid Stage crowd to hear them from across the site, they tear through a set that leaves nobody questioning how ready they are to breakthrough. The highlight of course, is when they are joined on stage by their hometown icon Bruce Springsteen to duet on The 59 Sound. The tent erupts. An impossibly cool moment.

The Klaxons are never ones to hide their affection for Glastonbury, so fears that their semi-secret Park show will be heavy on the new songs are perhaps naive. Band and crew alike are impeccable in full fancy dress, and the new songs they do play suggest the record company might have overreacted somewhat when they rejected their second album. It's resolutely crowd-pleasing stuff.

I have fond memories from 2005 of Pendulum tearing up the dance tent in one of their first performances as a full band. It was a landmark performance, but I still haven't forgiven them for delivering a rotten second album, and instead remember that I have important plans to return to my tent and eat a Malteser.

"Tonight, Glastonbury, we need to build a house on this field", begins Bruce Spingsteen, four songs in to his headline set. "Build a house", he continues, "out of love, and happiness, and togetherness". And presumably, shite metaphors.

The theory put in place for watching Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band is that he is perfect music for getting a few friends round, plenty of beers, and finding a nice spot high up in the field to dance around a campfire to.

As theories go, it's deeply flawed. The sound is terrible up there, akin to having the radio on in the background. It's not Bruce's fault, of course, but after 30 minutes the logic is reached that it will be more entertaining to watch the show on TV once we get home, and instead we hotfoot it across the site to watch Bon Iver, passing along the way a respectably sized crowd enjoying an eager Franz Ferdinand set.

Of course, the gorgeous intimate surroundings of The Park stage are completely ideal for a Bon Iver show, and much of the (considerable) crowd remains seated, quietly and reverentially singing Justin Vernon's heartbreak ballads back at him. Only the best songs from the album are aired, alongside every track from the Blood Bank EP. File just after The Gaslight Anthem as the third best set of Glastonbury 09.

The next morning Brand New provide the soundtrack to an afternoon's read of the free Q Daily newspaper. Whilst it's important to remember that there's a recession on, the quality of journalism on the paper this year reaches a new all time low. Any real story (the madness of Wednesday's traffic, how diverse and harmonious the crowds are this year, how much every single person loves Dizzee Rascal) are ignored in favour of the blandest stories possibly imaginable. Information-free lead article about how the after hours activities in Trash City and Shangra-la are the real heart and soul of the festival, anyone? The paper seems determined to even buck the British obsession for discussing the weather. It's almost as if the paper had been written without a single journalist ever setting foot on site.

(whilst I'm ranting, the Q Glastonbury Review was also a more lightweight and badly written offering than ever before this year. Cover more stages, you tightwads. Employ journalists that actually have an opinion on performances, rather than simply an ability to describe them)

"This next song is from my new album, which you can get if you want. Or illegally download, whatever". Considering how little time they've spent together as a proper band outfit, Kissy Sell Out put on an utterly remarkable set. It's roaring fun, the three piece playing as tightly together as any band with a few years experience on the gig circuit would do. One wonders what they could achieve over a similar time frame.

With heavier rock bands finally beginning to appear across the board again at Glastonbury 09, it seems fitting to celebrate by watching Enter Shikari.

It's difficult to decide who deserves more credit, the camera crew for grin-and-bear-it determination to document the performance, or the sixth former the band got to write their anti-war lyrics for them. Finding success when they stick to p[laying outright metal, any attempts to genre-meld simply creates music that at best doesn't work in this setting. A final sucker punch? Guitar problems mean they don't even play Sorry You're Not A Winner.

Remind me again why the album It's Blitz hasn't made Yeah Yeah Yeahs huge? Hit after hit gets the Other Stage crowd dancing whilst Karen O spends an hour making love to her own music. It's hard to think of a more undervalued band on the lineup. A bit like Elbow at last year's festival, really.

With no other pre-Blur entertainment looking particularly interesting, Bon Iver's Other Stage set is enjoyed, following closely after Bat For Lashes. Neither suits the setting - Bat For Lashes struggles to command attention right up until final song Daniel, whilst Bon Iver plays a near identical set to the previous night to an appreciative if not captivated crowd.

And then to Blur, who surpass every single expectation. Damon Albarn is an entirely compelling front man, their back-catalogue is wringed into a dream festival set, and an adoring crowd lap it up. Clearly cherishing each moment, setlist and performance are clearly the work of a band who genuinely want to give the performance of their lives. Objective achieved, then. Band of the festival by a country mile.

Wish you were here,

Song of Glastonbury 2009
: White Lies - Death (Chase & Status remix)
Glastonbury Festival rating: 8.5/10
Friendliest people met: The staff at the National Express festival terminal, which was better organised than ever this year. Credit deserved.
Scariest moment: Erm, nearly falling over in the mud?
Most beautiful sight: Bon Iver's Park Stage set.
Dream 2009 headliner: Muse, please.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

postcard from thailand

As I arrive in Bangkok my foot is still in agony and I am having to balance what I want to see and do with the amount of pain it will cause me.

It doesn't help matters that two days earlier in Kuala Lumpur I have a haircut, it's too short, and I now somewhat resemble a sex tourist.

Two days in Bangkok therefore fly by uneventfully, before I get another sleeper train towards the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. The 24 hour journey actually takes this structure: Walk > River Taxi > Walk > Tuk Tuk > Sleeper Train > Local Bus > Sawngthaew > Scooter > Ferry > Sawngthaew.

The most eventful section was the scooter ride. I had never been on a scooter before, but the only way to make the 6km trip from Don Sak town to Don Sak pier was to pay a guy £1:30 to take me there on the back of his. It was a surreal experience as I had my massive backpack on my back as well, but we made it to the pier safely. Nobody had ever told me, however, that when you dismount a scooter you should be very careful of that big metal tube on the side. Apparently it's an exhaust pipe and it gets very very hot.

Having staged a moderate post-Bangkok recovery then, the first two days on Ko Pha Ngan island are spent with a deep, inch wide burn on my leg, and an inability to walk more than 100 meters at a time.

I recover just in time for the Full Moon Party pre-celebrations, which are enjoyable events in their own right, if ruined somewhat by the overwhelming popularity of Drop-in Bar and it's playlist of Euro anthems (YMCA, and 'Blow Your Whistle' being two such examples).

I'm walking back to my room at 3am the night before the full moon party, only to discover commotion on the street outside. It transpires that a local Thai woman was drumming up taxi business to all who passed. Some English idiot (not exactly well built) walked past and replied to her "no thanks, but I'll have you instead".

Which is just an insanely disrespectful, naive, downright stupid thing to say. Pretty quickly the women's husband gets to hear about this, and he proceeds to start chasing the tourist with a Bamboo stick.

As I get there, they are in a stand off, separated by some stone island thing, and the terrified tourist has blood dripping all over his arm.

I try to calm the situation somewhat, but it is difficult. The language barrier means that I am in danger of appearing to be taking his side, and I don't want to look like the sort of person who would automatically side with the Westerner in this sort of situation. Nor do I want to add to any underlying ill feeling between locals and tourists.

Plus, this tourist probably deserves to be shaken up a bit after such a moronic comment.

Still, there's a very real possibility that it'll go too far. A couple of minutes later, he's being chased again. A couple more hits with the bamboo. They jostle on the ground. Me and a local are attempting to break them up. The tourist breaks free, but only makes it back to the relative safety of his stone island divider.

Another five minutes pass. Diplomacy isn't working. Another chase breaks out, other locals are either trying to calm or further aggravate the situation.

Again they jostle on the ground. I am trying to wrestle the bamboo stick from the husband's grasp. The tourist breaks free, and this time decides running down the street would be the wiser direction. As he scarpers somebody throws a bottle at his feet, which shatters everywhere. The husband gives chase not far behind, and I am left to take myself off to bed with another man's blood running down my leg. I don't know if he sustained further injury from the shattered glass, or being caught by his pursuers. I don't see any of them again, though I am tenterhooks for the rest of my stay in-case anybody spots me and reasons that I am the next best target.

The event is an unwelcome echo of life back in Nottingham, and is something I have been very happy to not experience since I started traveling. The English influence has permeated this island, and in the following 24 hours, I bizarrely bump into two different people that I know from back home in Nottingham, neither of which I had any idea were over here.

The Full Moon Party then, is the nicely timed final blowoff of the whole three month backpacking trip. It is two days before my flight home. It is an anglophile beach party of (this time) roughly 10,000 people on a beach, dotting between 12ish bars all playing very loud, generally good, club music. It's a bit like a festival - all very hedonistic.

The challenge was to stay awake until 6am and see the sunrise. We filmed it, and I recommend you watch the resulting video here.

After the full moon party, I was awoke at 10:50am by loud knocking on my door. The minibus outside was waiting to take me to the ferry, so I could then get back to Bangkok and catch my flight home. I had no memory of most of the previous night. I surveyed the room - my backpack was still unpacked. I was in trouble.

No time to waste, I set about throwing everything together and getting out the room. It takes a while, but luckily all week I have been making an effort with the wonderful bungalow owners, have been getting on well with them, and at my time of need they are on my side. The driver is persuaded to hold-on until I stumble out the room 15 minutes later, and I am whisked off to catch the connecting ferry, then sleeper train, and eventually - flight.

Wish you were here,

Photos: click here.
Thailand rating: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: The owners of Haardrin Hill Bungalows
Scariest moment: Bamboo stick fight
Most beautiful sight: Wat Pho, Buddhist temple in Bangkok
The Soundtrack: Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run (album)
Still to come: Glastonbury festival.

Monday, June 01, 2009

postcard from malaysia

Malaysia heralds the opportunity to shift down a gear. Cultural exploration is out, lazy days on beaches is in. And what of those beaches? They just happen to be perfect, white, 32°c creations. The accompanying sea is also cliqued: crystal clear, invitingly warm, and filled with psychedelic tropical fish to meet whenever one gets bored of static sunbathing.

After day one of such debauched activities, myself and Simon go our separate ways. He has traveled Malaysia and Thailand before - I haven't - so our planned itineraries differ wildly. Plus after two months on the road together, cabin fever has, somewhat inevitably, set in.

Due in part to me underestimating the size of Malaysian Borneo - and the complexities of crossing it - 24 hours after our arrival in Kota Kinnabalu I set out attempting to make the +600km journey from east to west in three days, in order to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpar, the story of which you can watch in videoblog format here.

The climate plays a major part in my traveling in Malaysia. The humidity is remarkable, the typical minimum nightly temperature is 25°c, and every few days a monsoon-esque storm arrives to batter the landscape for a couple of hours.

I've also become something of a sunset addict, they get some real classic sky-displays out here.

Kuala Lumpur then, is a curious city. Multicultural, but harmonious, it also has more crime than the middle eastern countries I visited, yet I suffer less from Walking Cash Machine syndrome (everybody wishes to make a withdrawal), and it's much less common that I suspect I am being overcharged for something.

Religion runs strong throughout the city, yet so does a remarkable consumer culture. The blasé Berjaya Times Square shopping centre in the heart of the city includes amongst it's eight floors and countless other attractions a fully blown rollercoaster. Each monorail station - and tram - is blanket sponsored by some brand or other, and this is typical of how deeply advertising has permeated the city. By-and-large, young people have gleefully bought into this culture.

So do I, mind. Drunk on elation at being in a shopping city where prices are 25-50% cheaper than they are in the UK, I dive straight in. Soon after I am bored though, and soon after that irritated.

Still, the culture of the city is wonderfully welcoming, ambitious (one need only look to the city's unique skline for evidence of that) and it deserves it's place in the top half of my major-cities-I've visited league table. Probably nestled between Tblisi and Tel Aviv.

One particular beach island deserves special mention. The idyllic backpacker island of Pulau Perhentian Kecil combines all the aforementioned beach features (sand, sun, fish) with a laidback, young culture. It would have been the ideal place to spend a week or two if it wasn't for Malaysia's crippling problem (in the eyes of this 25 year old at least) - the price of alcohol. Compared to the general cost of living (₤2 a night accommodation? Yes please!) alcohol is taxed to the hilt by the Islamic government. Craving more of a nightlife, it is time to head north towards Thailand.

A school holidays-clogged public transport network means it isn't easy however, and I spend a day in the conservative muslim town of Alor Setar awaiting a connecting train. This is a problem, as I have long since discarded the long trousers/sleeves that are appropriate clothing in such surroundings. It's certainly impolite to visit such a town in t-shirt and kneelengths.

Also, a combination of cheap sandals and heavy walking sessions mean that my foot is now in agony, and I am using taxis to make journeys for which I would never usually consider them. For the 6am journey from Alor Setar bus station to train station, the resident foot masseuse negotiates a bizarre multibuy deal with the taxi driver so that I can get my foot massaged then a taxi ride for ₤2.

Conversation continues, and the driver is dismayed to hear that my train is not until 4pm. To that end, he instead takes me back to his home, lets me sleep for 3 hours, shower, provides a light breakfast, introduces me to the family, before then dropping me off at the train station.

Imagine that happening upon entering a taxi in Nottingham. I board the overnight train to Bangkok with 10 days of the trip remaining, and a desire to fritter them away hedonistically...

Wish you were here,

Photos: click here.
Malaysia rating: 7.6/10
Friendliest person met: Taxi driver man
Scariest moment: Wondering if Malaysian Borneo can be crossed in 72 hours
Most beautiful sight: The sunset in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo
The Soundtrack: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
Still to come: Thailand, Glastonbury festival.