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,
Mark.

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.