The first thing we discover this year is that anyone who calls Glastonbury ‘Glasto’ has to be avoided at all costs. It’s the abbreviation that puts the ‘ass’ into Glastonbury and is the rock ‘n’ roll tourist shorthand for the festival. There are also plenty of examples of the festival accent- the newest twist on the mother tongue that mixes a home counties polish with that rising twang at the end of each sentence and uses words like ‘man’ and ‘surreal’ all over the place.
With endless conversations about the weather and mud you can sort of guess the precipitation situation and a Thursday deluge has made going difficult.
There is something quite special about the Glastonbury mud- the stickiest in the land it turns your shoes into cosmic moonboots, huge slabs of muck encrusted paws that make walking tricky as the local soil, stained with generations of hippie DNA and the sweat and toil of weekend revelry mixed with the manky residue of a herd of cows that mysteriously disappear for this June weekend mingle to make it the muddiest mud in the land.
This year Louder Than War is at Glastonbury compering Billy Bragg’s Left Field stage, a place where political idealism is mixing with the music. It’s one of those corners of the huge sprawling festival that retain that so called ‘Glastonbury vibe’, that mythical idealism that one mad eyed young man that we bump into talks about on the main drag near the stage. We are not sure what this ethos is any more either but there is certainly a whiff of it as we chair a panel on what music culture can do to combat the EDL with Billy Bragg and friends talking a lot of sense about this followed up by a debate on the cuts and austerity with Murdoch busting hero Tom Watson MP unusually cast as the pantomime villain by Owen Jones the firebrand young political commentator and Caroline Lucas from the Green Party who both make valid points but are in the position of never having to carry out of them. Watson deals with the criticism from them and the floor politely, trapped in the certainties of the political system whilst retaining his maverick status.
Musically there is so much going on here that only a lunatic could attempt to cover it all but we do manage to see a great selection of stuff. Dinosaur Jnr are cranking up the liquid octane on the Park Stage. You can hear J Mascis’s guitar solos from the other end of the site, in fact you can probably hear them at the other end of the planet, he is so damn loud but somehow he manages to combine them with that highly effective whiney sensitivity that is such a hallmark of the band along with Lou Barlow’s highly effective hardcore rushes and you swiftly sense that Dino are a band still at the top of their game.
Goat are something else, the Swedish band are a delicious sensory overload of cosmic late sixties, early seventies freak show with a whirling dervish blur of silver painted faces and cosmic costumes. It’s like the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown but crazier. The music is like Jimi Hendrix but further out with two female singers doing the freak dance, fracking the stage with their voices in perfect union. It should not work at all but it is totally wonderful and the band are a stunning live spectacle.
Emmanuel Jal is on the Left Field stage doing his African rap thing, beaten up by the fops in his former home county of Sudan for his songs of human rights, Jal is out in the west now and his addictive music and word flow tinged by his African roots make him a fascinating proposition.
Back on the Left Field stage Billy Bragg is doing his heart warming and very human combination of Very British folk with a new added Americana that has been so effective for him this year. He oozes a confidence and directness that works so perfectly with his song wrinting nous and is greeted like a hero.
The Vaccines are running through a rush of punk rock tinged pop songs on the main stage armed with their portfolio of tunes that are stained with the eternal good time rush of classic rock n roll. From the heartbreak of the girl groups to the teenage charge of the Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop they have the innocence and fire of all great classic pop music in their two minute missives.
Tame Impala are wonderful- a combination of late period Beatles psych pop and neo Led Zep rock ‘n; roll, there is also time to cram in the hypnotic pulse of krautrock and all manner of tripped out melodic inventiveness into their set which is perfect for the hippie glow of the late afternoon Glastonbury sun as the mud dries up.
We go for a wander and get accosted by a man in a suit who gives us a special guided tour of toilets that recycle their waste and explains water aid to us- this could only happen at this festival really. The site is crammed full of young people with painted faces dancing to the ancient chong of the long lost hippie culture, ‘you better paint your face and dance’ as the great John Lennon once sang. Some may sneer middleclasstonbury but it is a good place to be- this mini city of revelry and good times that springs up like some sort of musical Mela every year or so.
There is something brilliantly incongruous about the Arctic Monkeys headlining the main stage at Glastonbury. Of course they have the songs for occasion, this is a set of classic tunes that have peppered a generation of indie discos and run a great monochromtic commentary of contemporary culture. This is the band for a generation who are constantly being told they don’t make bands like they used to by old people who should know better. The Arctic Monkeys deep intelligence and quirkiness and deft hand at never doing the obvious combined by the adrenaline rush of playing guitars would have marked down as some kind of tricky John Peel band in bygone eras but in 2013 it sees them on the big stage and that’s a victory in itself.
Try imagining the Fire Engines on this huge platform and it gives you some idea of just how odd this all is or how maybe odd it is that bands like the Fire Engines never got this opportunity. The Monkeys have now vamped up their act and tried to move beyond indiedom, Alex Turner sports a fine quiffed barnet now and looks as fifties pompadour sexy as any kind of major player. His between song banter has an American stadium twang and the band have a slickness and deftness of touch that would suit any arena band but there is still something inescapably homegrown about them that they just can’t escape from and that is part of the attraction…as well as those songs which are stuffed full of clever hooks, and expected endings and superb lyrics.
Before they come on stage the DJ plays George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and John Lennon’s Imagine causing a mass singalong and it’s an interesting pop culture moment- sort of putting the band into the context of the Beatles by playing two of their post Fabs hits but also underlining the fact that the new generation is in town and rock n roll is still alive. As the crowd sings along you feel misty eyed wandering what it would have been like if the Fabs had done some kind of comeback gig here, i guess we have the Stones covering that corner for us tomorrow.
Meanwhile the Arctic Monkeys are sounding great on the stage, their songs stained with a slapback on the vocal making them sound like Roy Orbison jamming with a clattering sharp and angular guitar band and combining the rush of youthful lust for life and the sheer inventiveness available to guitars played in the right hands with a stunning command of dynamics.
Portishead are dark and brooding and on the Other Stage. They have not come to party and have brilliantly moved way beyond being the template for all manner of trip hop tomfoolery by lesser acts into a dark cloud of neo industrial angst that is really effective.
Their light show is broodingly political with anti trident missives and pro NHS clips in stark black and white and a quite brilliant giant David Cameron staring out at the audience with red beams of light pouring out of his eyes. Whoever thought this up is a light show genius and it matches the music’s black danger in a stunning show of audio and visual dynamics. God knows where the band have been for the past few years (maybe they were around but in the festival murk I can’t remember) but if it was thinking up this stage show then the break was totally worth it.
The Horrors are headlining the far flung Park Stage and their driving kraut rock tinged modern psychedelia is sounding as effective as ever. Their licorice stick thin legs propel them along to the driving beat of the songs and the melancholic comedown of their music is given a deft pop touch that saw them break through a couple of years ago. The perfect moody underground band, there is little communication, just long pulsating songs that propel through the night.
We then run around the site trying to see a late show from Goat but are thwarted by the sheer number of people trying to get to the Shangri La stage- the party stage where all kinds of madness happens and was one of the best kept secrets of the festival for years. Shangri La is now where everyone heads to when the bands finish in search of goblin dance madness and with a 45 minute queue just to get into that corner of the festival let alone into Shangri La itself we give up and return to the endless throng of the night time of the festival as the painted faces carry on dancing and the dawn sneaks up on the horizon.