Intro – Revolution and Religion at Glastonbury
I’ve now returned from the cultural fantasy land and endurance test that is Glastonbury. Back in the real world, and two days after the majority of festival goers have left worthy farm, I’m now tasked with summarising the last days of experience at this most iconic of music festivals.
The first few days I had managed to cover from the scene but due to the packed timetables of Saturday and Sunday I decided to take a break writing and completely immerse myself in the proceedings. Over the course of those days I witnessed some of the most unique performances I’d ever seen. I saw both Kanye West and Dalai Lama with a 12 hour timespan and as you can imagine, both were hugely memorable and yet had widely juxtaposed messages. The ego-fuelled spectacle of Kanye, which I and many other fans absolutely loved, was contrasted by the humility and compassion of Dalai Lama. The Buddhist leader, celebrating his 80th birthday, spoke to a crowd of twenty thousand or so about the need for better education, the importance of compassion and even of the inability of music to provide true contentment. The Dalai Lama instead told us he felt music was no different a sensorial experience to touch or taste, no different than the fleeting pleasure we get from eating a cake or having sex. He also encouraged people to believe that the next generation could create change. I thought delivering this kind of grounded message to a field full of pleasure seeking festival goers was sobering and appropriate.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama appeared again during Patti Smith’s awe inspiring set on Sunday, possibly the best set of the weekend, and bestowed upon Smith a white scarf that must have had some significance. We all sang Happy Birthday to His Holiness and a cake was brought out to him which he cut. He looked as if he was disappointed to have not eaten a piece as the cake was wheeled away from him. The rest of Smith’s set was a full blown punk riot, with Patti ripping through an extended version of Horses and Gloria, tripping over on stage in her fury, and recovering by telling the crowd “I am a fucking animal!” Smith’s dialogue between songs was in line with sentiment shared by Pussy Riot and the Dalai Lama – one of freedom, from government and corporations and that change IS possible. In spite of what others tell us. This rebellious sentiment didn’t feel contrived, it felt inspiring. Maybe we were only at a hedonistic music festival, but I can only dream that some of this revolutionary talk will help open the perspectives of some on the audience and watching at home.
From Pussy Riot holding a militant hostage on top of a war vehicle in front of The Park stage, to Pharrell leading a packed Pyramid audience in a chant championing Freedom, there was a definite liberal and confrontational edge to the festival. Greenpeace and other charities were everywhere. Up in Green Fields, where the original hippy inhabitants of the festival set up camp – you could talk to charities, meet alternative folk, get vegan cooking lessons, do power-ballad yoga and get behind many causes aligned with the festivals green mentality. Everywhere there were signs about not peeing on the land to avoid pollution, taking your tents and rubbish with you and leaving the farm without a trace. It’s sometimes hard to believe that a regular Somerset farmer would let all this happen on this backyard, but it’s probably justified by all the good work the festival has achieved, both raising money and awareness for causes. It’s great that this extends to the artists’ performances, that traditionally rebellious acts like Pussy Riot or Patti Smith champion their own causes, but also mainstream, seemingly corporate acts like Pharrell. Of course, some of this is done for the TV, and when Pharrell looked humbled by the mass singalong of his song Freedom, that was probably just as much due to the intoxication of the audience, and the British lad culture that encourages sing-along chanting, as it was to the crowds reception to the idea of freedom for our brothers of all colours and creeds.
Saturday and Kanye West
At odds with the liberal politics elsewhere, my Saturday was largely taken up with anticipation for Kanye’s set that night. I first took in some of the opportunities Glastonbury holds for the slightly-skilled like myself and headed to Stonebridge Bar in the The Park for Hip Hop Karaoke. Having learnt the whole of Through The Wire by Kanye West, I felt this was the opportunity to give it a go, and to appear in front of an audience at Glastobury. I managed to tick this one off the bucket list, and although I may have gone a bit too hard on the swearing and shouting, the experience seemed a success. Video proof to come.
It was then off to the main stage to camp up for Kanye’s headlining set. Before Kanye, in my attempts to get front row and centre, I enjoyed a set from Burt Bacharach, who turns out has written a lot more classic songs than I realised. Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head seemed perfect for the weekends weather (although it had cleared up at that stage). Paloma Faith followed and was sexy, had a lot of sass and some well-rehearsed dance moves. Then it was time for West. You may ask what all the fuss is about and why someone would be excited to see the man live. I’ve been a fan of his music for a few years now, notably since the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He’s now a Marmite kind of brand, you either love him or hate him, and event though his ego does overshadow the music, he’s got a heck of a lot of good songs and I felt it was going to be a memorable show.
In the eyes of this fan, he delivered. In the eyes of many other, he probably didn’t. I had expected the pancake lighting rig, having seen it hanging at the top of the pyramid stage earlier. I had also expected him not to bring a typical Glastonbury people-pleasing set, as this is not in his tool-set. I was correct, but he did bring his hits, and from where I was right at the front – surrounded by fellow Kanye super-fans – we had no complaints. Things did get a little unfocused in the middle, mistakes were made during Hold My Liquor by Kanye and guest Justin Vernon, and the guest appearances from Macca and Rihanna for Four Five Seconds never emerged. Kanye attempted that one by himself, which no-doubt was slightly disappointing. But for this fan – no complaints. He dropped rarities like I Wonder, attempted a hilarious karaoke version of Bohemian Rhapsody, and emerged from a crane for Touch The Sky – mimicking his triumphant Coachella set of 2011. It may have been self-indulgent, it probably wasn’t in the spirit of Glastonbury, and it wasn’t the highlight of the weekend. But it was good enough for this fan.
Beginning with the relatively secret Dalai Lama’s appearance in the early hours up by the Stone Circle, Sunday had a decidedly more sober vibe compared to Saturday. In terms of substances as well as sounds. The Dalai Lama’s appearance and speech was most probably the highlight of the weekend for me, and well worth getting out of the tent early for. Sunday lunch-time I walked past the dance area on the way back to my tent and caught Minneapolis rap crew and record label Doomtree, who through down a huge hip hop party, leaving the stage altogether and performing in a circle in between their fans. I attempted to learn some lyrics to not look like the most clueless guy in the audience.
Patti Smith then owned the afternoon, and following that, exhaustion set in. My feet now dying from wearing gumboots and trudging miles across Worthy Farm for days on end, I was forced to leave Alt J’s mainstage set (which I wasn’t a huge fan of regardless) to head back to the campsite to return my so much more comfortable Chuck Taylor’s to my feet. On the way, I got distracted by Belle and Sebastian playing a much better set than the one they delivered at Auckland’s Laneway earlier in the year. I came right in time for I’m A Cuckoo and Another Sunny Day, but left early to complete the shoe mission. Comfortable footwear now acquired, I headed back to the Other Stage to watch a joyous performance of The Boy With The Arab Strap, complete with a pile of stage invading kids.
Sunday was the biggest test of endurance of the weekend. I had managed to sleep throughout the festival, but at this stage fatigue really had set in. I wandered up to The Park and watched a few songs of The Fall, Mark E. Smith delivering the punk grooves to a devoted audience. Unwilling to drink any more cider or consume the last of my Jagermeister, I carried a bottle around and wandered some more, finding a place to nap at the back of FKA Twigs. She sounded good, but I felt it was time to take my place for the headliners. I needed no more entertainment by the time The Who got on stage, so my excitement levels were not high. To my suprise, it was a very entertaining set, peaking with a Tommy medley towards the end. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend appear more youthful than expected and still had some anger left in them, destroying the glass wall that encased drummer Zakk Starsky, due to it causing sound problems. Albums tracks such as Bargain were well received, as were the massive hits of course. Patti Smith’s version of My Generation from earlier possibly topped The Who’s latter version however.
My enthusiasm and energy now returned, I sprinted to The Chemical Brothers, to make it in time for their last song, Block Rocking Beats with some of Do It Again thrown in. The light show seemed incredible and I immediately felt at home. I couldn’t help but think that was headlining set I should have been at. Never-the-less, this is the challenge you are faced with at a festival the scale of Glastonbury, and if your problems are whether or not to see The Who or The Chemical Brothers – they don’t really seem like problems at all.
Glastonbury is a festival of opposites, partly a great fundraiser for charities and causes and partly a hedonistic, waste producing machine, where millions of pounds are exchanged throughout and millions of pints and bacon buns are consumed. A place for families to watch their favourite bands and have a break in the British country side and a place for teens and lads to drop pills and party in the rave areas until the early hours and beyond. My experience encompassed several of these opposites, with my time divided between relaxing, taking in the ideas and messages being transmitted and at the same time partying hard in my wellies until trench foot set in and I was forced to head back to camp.
I will probably go again, but to be honest once was probably enough. It’s quite an adventure and there is almost too much culture to consume. Within all the hedonism, excess and massive crowds, there’s a good message, one in opposition to the corporate conformity of everyday life to be consumed as well.