I have been coming to Glastonbury one and off (more on) since 1994. This was my 20th Glastonbury and the second time as an Oxfam volunteer. Glad to have found a way that I can continue going. There is nothing like Glastonbury anywhere on earth. The televised bits are excellent but there is so much more.
Although the temperature did not go over 27 degrees it felt incredibly hot this year. The festival site was busy at all times, yet did not feel as overcrowded as last year. It seems quite a bit of effort had gone into crowd control. The William’s Green stage, which was the only bigger stage with acts on the Thursday, has been removed, but Thursday remains problematic. Everybody is onsite, rearing to go, but the main stages do not start until Friday. At one point a message went out that Silver Hayes (dance area) was full. This is an incredibly large open space. The heat meant that everybody was out all the time seeking entertainment, as it was too hot to be your tent.
My one must-see was Måneskin. Oxfam volunteers do not get their shifts until they arrive onsite. Of all the shifts I could get I got one which meant I would miss them. I went straight to the swap board and met an Elton John fan, who did not care about anything as long as he could see Elton. We made our swap formal and all was well. I met him again on the bus going back. He had been in the Pyramid pit from noon on Sunday, without going to the toilet and only drinking tiny sips of water, and had watched Elton from the front row. He was well happy and so was I.
There were taps everywhere onsite and I never had to queue for water. General consensus was that the toilets were cleaner this year. Perhaps all these glampers are better behaved when it comes to keeping things clean.
I worked on pedestrian gate A this year. We had one runner during the night shift, who managed to get past several gate staff and disappeared in between tents in the dark. We thought he had made it in, however security chased and got him. One of the Oxfam volunteers started a rumour as an experiment, to see how quickly it would spread. They posted on Twitter that Chris Martin was helping out on Gate A. It spread like wildfire and Sky News came to enquire.
My last shift finished just as Elton John was starting. I saw the opening fireworks from afar and made my way towards the Pyramid area, which was more packed than I have ever seen it. I tried several vantage points, but no luck. People were even standing in between tents and sitting on the metal frames of the longdrops. I tried going to see Rickie Lee Jones instead, but poor Rickie Lee had the tiniest audience and was completely drowned out by the sound coming from the Pyramid. Eventually I stood somewhere on the hill but even the screens were very far away, so I don’t feel I have “seen” Elton. He sounded very good, and fair play to him for having interesting guests rather than major celebrities.
NB: The John Peel stage has been renamed Woodsies, but I will continue to call it John Peel in honour of the man who was my hero and who has done so much for music in the UK and around the world. I used to listen to him all the time on the BBC World Service. His taste in music was as varied as the Glastonbury lineup.
This was the best I saw:
1. MÅNESKIN - John Peel
I am a fan and I knew how good they are live, but it was fantastic to get to experience this at Glastonbury in the company of people who were new to the band. The UK still tends to focus on Eurovision when talking about Måneskin, but they have been a band since 2016 and had two full albums and an EP to their name when they won. Their John Peel billing was curious and we were like sardines. It made for a great atmosphere though. Måneskin’s strength is the simplicity of their show. Just four musicians; no gimmicks or costume changes, no distracting guests etc. A rock band aged 22 to 24 is a rare thing nowadays and I hope that they will manage to stay themselves amongst pressure from the industry. They started the show with quite a few poppy album tracks from ‘Rush!’ and if I had my way I would have thrown in a heavier Italian song from ’Teatro D’Ira Vol.1’, but with ’Beggin’’ they moved up a gear and the end of the show was banger after banger. ‘Gasoline’ was particularly impressive and ‘Kool Kids’ made for a hard hitting closer. Damiano went into the crowd, Thomas crowdsurfed without stopping to play guitar and the crowd loved it. A bigger stage next year please.
2. STEVE EARLE - Acoustic
The first time I saw Steve Earle live was in the Harlesden Mean Fiddler in 1987. I have followed him on and off since, but it had been a while. Steve played the Acoustic stage on Friday. I was pleased that he was solo, as with really good songwriters a band can be a distraction. His set covered his entire career, from ‘Guitar Town’ to his recent albums. He started with the Pogues’ ‘If i Should Fall From Grace With God’, paying tribute to the songwriting of Shane MacGowan, echoing Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I am a huge Justin Townes Earle fan and the last time I saw Justin was at that very same stage at Glastonbury 2017. Steve talked about Justin - that every day a parent somewhere has to bury their child - and gave a drugs warning. He then sang Justin’s ‘Harlem River Blues’, which was an emotional moment. He finished his perfect set with ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘Copperhead Road’.
3. GUNS N’ ROSES - Pyramid
Surprise of the festival was how good Guns n’ Roses were. I had worked the night shift, but re-energized by the Måneskin show I decided to try and get into the pit. I managed and watched from the back of the pit, where the sound is always at its best. I had seen Guns n’ Roses back in their ‘Use Your Illusion’ days and four members from that era are still in the band.
Duff McKagan was wearing an ‘L.A.M.F.’ shirt (Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers’ album) and drummer Frank Ferrer a Joe Strummer one. Their UK Subs cover ‘Down On The Farm’ from ‘The Spaghetti Incident’ was spot on. Best part of the gig were Slash’s glorious guitar parts, but Axl also impressed with his whistling, piano playing and energetic backwards running. It is hard to pick highlights. ‘November Rain’, ‘Civil War’, ‘Live And Let Die’, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’… it was all great. I was surprised how may young people around me knew the words to all the songs, not just the obvious ones.
There has been a lot of talk about Axl Rose’s vocals, which apparently didn’t sound good on TV. Paul McCartney last year, and Roger Daltrey in 2015, were in a similar position. With age their voices have changed. This happens to most singers, with rare exceptions. The Glastonbury team know what they are doing though and would not book a headliner that could not deliver. There were no complaints from people who were there. Read Alexis Petridis’ review in the Guardian. The Evening Standard mentioned Guns n’ Roses “cranking out a procession of timeless anthems and extended shredathons”.
For the final encore Dave Grohl (the new Chris Martin) joined the band. Suddenly everybody was smiling; even Slash who had not conveyed any emotion all night. ‘Paradise City’ was the perfect closer and I had it in my head for a long time afterwards. As I was walking out of the pit I overheard people saying, “That was way better than I was expecting”. Two girls behind me were sighing, “What a great day”. Indeed.
4. ALLISON RUSSELL - Acoustic
Allison Russell, formerly of Birds Of Chicago and now a solo artist, played a criminally short slot on the Acoustic stage on Friday afternoon. Despite the early hour she had a sizeable crowd. Allison was accompanied by a four women band. She did not grumble about the shortness of the time she had been allotted, but instead mentioned how grateful she was to be playing Glastonbury. Allison herself played banjo and clarinet, and included a French language song in her soul and americana-tinged set. She dedicated a song to “my sister Brandi Carlisle”, who was instrumental in her getting a record deal. Allison Russell is my main takeaway from the festival. I will go and see her at her own show when the opportunity comes.
5. STEVE KNIGHTLEY - Avalon Café
During lockdown I watched so many of the livestreams that Steve Knightley recorded in his shed that it feels like I know him. He strolled onto the Avalon Café stage as relaxed as if he was in his shed, but Steve is a pure professional, effortlessly entertaining the audience with songs, singalongs and banter. His set included a cover of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and he had Chris Jagger (brother of) guesting as well as vocal quartet Track Dogs. The show finished with Show Of Hands songs ‘Cousin Jack’ and ‘The Galway Farmer’.
6. JOHN FRANCIS FLYNN - The Park
I crossed the entire festival site on Sunday morning to get from my tent to the Park stage, where Dubliner John Francis Flynn was playing at 11:30. It was totally worth it. I had seen John before, but most of the set was new material. I do not like recommendation algorithms, but it is fair to say that if you like Lankum and Lisa O’Neill, you need to listen to John Francis Flynn. Lots of drone, sound effects, some trad and John’s humorous chat: “Do you need to tune up? I’ll talk shite for a while then”. The sun was burning, which made for a surreal setting for this music, but all in all a wonderful gig to be at.
7. THE ENTITLED SONS - Avalon Café
Bands do not come younger than this. The Entitled Sons are four brothers, aged 13 to 18, on vocals, guitar, drums and keyboard, with their father on bass. They play glamrock; think The Darkness. They played in between Chris Jagger and Steve Knightley, and it was curious to see the Avalon Café tent suddenly filling up to the rafters with a younger crowd. I knew nothing about the Entitled Sons and it was the kind of surprise that puts a smile on your face. I particularly liked the Doors-y keyboard. Guitarist Rafferty did a crowdsurf, which surely must have been a first for the usually folky Avalon Café. The Entitled Sons - remember this name.
8. GABRIELS - West Holts
One thing that was not cool about this year’s Glastonbury was sets starting late. At the John Peel stage on Saturday everything ran late, which presumably wasn’t the fault of the bands, as they were allowed to finish later. Lana Del Ray’s lateness was her own doing and she must not have realised that Glastonbury will ruthlessly cut off the power if you overrun, as famously experienced by Bruce Springsteen in 2009. Gabriels started fifteen minutes late and were given no make-up time. It was a short show therefore, but good nonetheless. The core band, Ryan Hope, Ari Balouzian and the extraordinary singer Jacob Lusk, brought additional musicians and three backing singers, and they impressed with their unique soul, funk and gospel sounds. There was a Tina Turner tribute, a guest appearance from Celeste on Soul II Soul cover ‘Back To Reality’ and best of all their standout song, ‘Love And Hate In A Different Time’, which is modern but somehow manages to sound like something from a long time ago.
9. MIK ARTISTIK’S EGO TRIP - Croissant Neuf Bandstand
Always a welcome fixture on opening day, I caught Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip at the Croissant Neuf Bandstand. Mik is a Glastonbury staple and you’ll invariably hear him at some point when walking from one stage to another. The Guardian describes him as “a surreal punk, funk, electric comedy phenomenon”, and Iggy Pop and Jarvis Cocker have played him on the radio. The Ego Trip are a trio with a guitarist and bass player. Mik himself occasionally plays accordion, percussion instruments and wacky appliances, but is mainly a fantastically engaging singer and comedian. This set included his classic songs ‘David Bowie Was A Funny Man’, ‘Car That Makes A Bus Sound’ and ‘Sweet Leaf Of The North’, as well as some songs that were new to me. There was a huge turnout, with people climbing on whatever they could climb on to see the show.
10. BILLY BRAGG’S RADICAL ROUNDUP FEATURING TARA LILY, SAM LEE AND DAVID ROVICS - Leftfield
Billy Bragg’s Radical Roundup is a daily ’song swap’ event that takes place at 15:00 on the Billy Bragg curated Leftfield Stage. It is a reassuring thing to see Billy at Glastonbury and I always try to catch one of the roundups.
Tara Lily is a singer from London of Bengali descent, who accompanies herself on keyboards. As the three men were all quite folky, her soulful singing contrasted nicely. Sam Lee is a folk singer, song collector, writer, activist and all-round hippie who is well at home on the Leftfield stage. All the songs he chose were excellent but ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ was best of all. Sam mentioned that he is working on a new album with Bernard Butler.
I had long wanted to see David Rovics so I was glad of this opportunity. David is a protest singer currently living in Portland, Oregon. He sang his best known song ‘I’m A Better Anarchist Than You’ and finished with a song for Julian Assange, ‘Behind These Prison Walls’. Powerful stuff.