“The greatest show on Earth”, the Glastonbury Free Press said over the weekend. This was my 18th Glastonbury (been going since 1994 but missed some) and I would have to agree with that headline. What makes Glastonbury special is the beautiful location, the fact that it is essentially on a farm and the sheer size of it. There are all these different areas, small stages, installations.
Caitlin Moran wrote in the Times that sometimes a cheer goes up among the tents and everyone joins in.
.This is people cheering the festival, giving voice to how happy they are to be there. Again this is true. I enjoy my morning walk to wherever I am going to see the first band of the day as much as the music. One of my favourite moments is standing next to my tent at night, brushing my teeth and looking down on the valley: All the lights, the sounds coming from below (I camp high up), Arcadia spouting flames, all those people still out partying. It is truly something special and you come away feeling more positive about the world. Emily Eavis tweeted that this year 99% of tents were taken home this year. See? Change IS possible.
The weather: It was extraordinarily hot on Friday and Saturday. Usually with dry weather the stages seem closer and you can catch more bands than in a muddy year, but this year I found myself staying in one place because it was just too much to make the trek to a far away tent, sweating, navigating the crowds (though I would have done that for a must-see). On Saturday morning a steward went around the campsite, announcing that he was “the bearer of bad news” (in the thickest of West country accents!). There was a water shortage, the showers were going to be switched off and people were asked to use water mindfully. In the end it appeared to be just a precaution, which made sense on a day when temperatures went up to 32 degrees. The ban on single-use plastic was a success and people were filling up their water bottles at refill places, taps or from jugs available at the bars.
The music was fantastic and varied as ever. Sound at the Pyramid was astonishingly good. The Other Stage and the Park were really good too. Acoustic and Avalon were poor sound-wise, and West Holts was strange. It has a massive system and if you hear someone from the back when you are just passing by the sound is really good (I caught a bit of Lizzo; she sounded great), but if you go further to the front for bands you want to see the sound is messy and bass-y. I never made it to John Peel nor Leftfield this year. It was my first time seeing music at Strummerville and what a lovely spot that is.
These were my highlights for this year:
1. THE CURE
Nowadays it is a treat if the Pyramid stage has a headliner I want to see. The Cure's set was absolutely perfect. No dancers, fireworks, special guests – just the band and their amazing catalogue of songs. Robert Smith managed to say little and yet come across immensely likeable. Like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, the Cure have gone from being alternative to filling arenas without ever compromising. For the big show they have screens and lights, but other than that the music does all the talking. They managed to silence the ever chatting selfie-taking flag-waving Pyramid audience, which is quite a feat. Two wonderful hours of music, finishing with Robert putting on his “pop head” for a brilliant finale: 'The Caterpillar', 'Friday I'm In Love', 'Close To Me', 'Why Can't I Be You' and 'Boys Don't Cry'. Fabulous.
2. FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS
Frank headlined the Avalon on Friday, starting at 11 p.m. To get a front row spot I got there four acts early. I got talking with others and there were a few for whom it was their first Frank gig (my 57th, and for Frank it was show #2358). It was a truly victorious gig; fast-paced, participative, mad and sweaty. I did my bit in holding Frank up as he crowd surfed over my head not once but twice. The sound was not good where I was. I could hear the drums well, and I heard guitar lines I had never noticed before (nice), but I could not hear Frank very well. I did not matter because the tent sang along en masse, and Frank and the band were beaming from start to finish. You could see how much they were enjoying it. It was a show you did not want to end. The crowd called for more but an encore was not allowed. The audience then sang 'The Ballad Of Me And My Friends' themselves, the entire tent joining in. Afterwards one man spontaneously told me he was so happy, why wasn't life always like that? Another woman said about Frank, “He always gives it his all. We love him to bits”. Yep.
I also caught Frank's solo show at Strummerville on the Thursday. This supposedly secret show attracted a far bigger crowd than the Strummerville wooded area could accommodate, so security had to close off the entrance. Frank said during the gig that apparently people tried to climb over the fence, “like the Glastonbury of old”. This solo set had some nice rarities: Million Dead song 'Smiling at strangers on trains', a song from Frank's upcoming concept album and oldie 'Back in the day', one of my favourites.
Frank also played the Greenpeace stage, BBC Introducing and a Frightened Rabbit tribute during the festival, but I missed those.
My current favourite Irish band opened the Park stage on Friday. 45 minutes is far too short for this wonderful band, especially when many of their songs are so long, but they made the most of it. A friend who did not know them came along and was duly impressed. The set included one instrumental piece I had not heard before, which was amazing, and their version of 'The Rocky Road To Dublin'. Ian Lynch dedicated a song to the band Killdren, who had been dropped from the Glastonbury line up because of their 'Kill Tory Scum'-song. Ian offered that there are plenty of lads in Ireland who could offer a hand with that sort of thing. They alternated instrumentals with powerful singing and ended with the ever wonderful 'The Old Man From Over The Sea'. Really looking forward to their new album, which apparently is recorded and ready.
4. DAVID KEENAN
I first saw David Keenan when he played a support slot in a pub near my house, and I knew then this was someone special. David, who is from Dundalk, was completely misplaced on the Bread & Roses stage, but I guess one must start somewhere. He was on at 6 p.m. on Sunday, amidst heavy competition but I decided to go along. So did about twenty other people, including a man who was so drunk he did not know what he was doing. He kept shouting stuff about Morrissey, presumably prompted by a flower on the microphone stand. Security reprimanded him but he kept coming back. There was also sound overspill from the Pyramid from Miley Cyrus, who sounded much heavier than I would have expected. David admirably went on with the show as if none of this was happening, thanking us for being present. It was a truly remarkable gig. No crowd-pleasing covers, just his own, amazing songs. David's voice reminds you of Liam Ó Maonlaí; his songs are like 70s Van Morrison. David's debut album, 'A Beginners Guide To Bravery', will be out in August and he will support Hozier on his upcoming tour. The cat will be out of the bag then.
I know that every casual Glasto watcher is going to ask me if I saw Kylie Minogue but I opted to go and see Dervish. I love my trad and Dervish are top of the range. They have recently released 'The Great Irish Songbook' and I was a little worried that the set would focus on this, but I guess that album was recorded with the American market in mind. At Glastonbury Dervish concentrated on what they do best – jigs, reels and lovely singing and always entertaining banter from Cathy Jordan. She sang 'The Galway Shawl' from that Songbook album and it was beautiful. The fast tunes had the tent clapping, whooping and jumping like nothing else. Mighty stuff, even without the Guinness that is no longer on tap in the bar next to the Acoustic stage (major disappointment).
6. BEANS ON TOAST
If someone can make me cry when I am sober they score major bonus points, and this happened when Beans On Toast sang 'Jamie and Lilly', a love song about a teacher and a nurse. Lilly was at the gig and invited onto the stage to say a few words. I decided she must be the nurse who benefits from shift work, as her teacher wife presumably could not be there. Jay (Beans) played Thursday afternoon at the Greenpeace stage. I arrived twenty minutes early and barely could get into the area. Jay said that he has been coming to Glastonbury since 1997 and he still loves it dearly. He is a master at engaging the crowd, not by asking you to do anything, but just by chatting casually and playing songs about appreciating the ordinary things in life. He is a true poet. His festival song 'Take Your Shit Home With You' went down a storm and we now know that people took heed.
7. ALBERT HAMMOND
Albert came recommended by a friend who had seen him in the Netherlands some time back. I have his 'Best Of', which is great, but the jaw dropping part came when Albert played songs he wrote for others: “I wrote this song for Diana Ross”, “I wrote this song for Whitney Houston”, Tina Turner, Starship, Leo Sayer.... On it goes. “Some people think I do covers”, he said. If there were any songwriters in the audience they probably felt they might as well give up there and then. Albert has a charming stage presence and clearly loves performing. The entire gig was one big singalong. He sang his song 'I'm A Train' which I love, and finished with the fantastic 'Free Electric Band'. One more singalong for the encore, 'The Air That I Breathe', and then he was gone. 75 years of age - now THAT is what I call a true legend.
8. LIAM GALLAGHER
If you are ever in a public place and an Oasis song comes on, look around you. You will see that everyone is singing along. If there was an award for most singalong-able music, it would go to Oasis. And here was the voice that sang those songs. Moreover, in an age where rock stars are beige and afraid to say the wrong thing, Liam is a proper rock 'n roll star – witty and not overly serious. I managed to get to my favourite spot for this Pyramid show, on the second barrier right in the centre. This guarantees an unobstructed view and great sound. While making my way there I caught the end of Janet Jackson's show, which was bizarre. It is true that Liam's voice has changed, which makes him almost sound better on his solo stuff. 'Wall Of Glass' and 'Shockwave' are cracking tunes and I don't subscribe to the theory that you can only like what you already know, because isn't every song new to you once? That said, the entire field singing along to 'Wonderwall' and 'Champagne Supernova', the latter dedicated to Keith Flint, were goosebump Glastonbury moments.
9. MAVIS STAPLES
Mavis played the Pyramid early on Sunday. The temperature had dropped a bit and the vibe was great. Mavis and band were dressed in Glastonbury T-shirts and she explained why (imagine American accent): “The airline lost all our luggage. We had no luggage y'all!! Thankfully the kind people of, of....” - here Mavis looks in front of her trying to read something, then turns to one of her band members - “...of Glastonberrey gave us some clothes to wear!” With everyone from first time performers to big names going on about how humbled they were to play Glastonbury, this put it all into perspective. This veteran performer did not know the name of the place! The gig was superb. Mavis was backed by a great band, and she is a real character. Very refreshing to see her amidst all the botoxed babes and instagram stars on the bill. The song 'Take Us Back' was a highlight and the set included a cover of Buffalo Springfield's 'For What It's Worth'. Mavis is 79. Alongside Michael Eavis and David Attenborough (also at the festival, I didn't see him) another example of positive ageing – keep doing what you love.
10. THE CAT EMPIRE
I hummed and hawed before deciding where to start my Saturday. The Proclaimers on at the Pyramid, but my impatience with inattentive Pyramid crowds made me think I might have a better experience with the Cat Empire on the Other Stage. They are one of many acts that I first came across at the Cambridge Folk Festival. They are an 8-man party band par excellence from Melbourne. Their music is hard to define; fusion, I guess. They have a three piece brass section, an excellent keyboard player and a great frontman in Felix Riebl, who just has the friendliest face and whose mellow rapping was perfect for the hottest day of the festival. Security guards at the barriers were kept busy filling people's water bottles.
11. FERRIS & SYLVESTER
Ferris & Sylvester are a blues/folk/rock duo from London. I saw them at Strummerville and they positively rocked the campfire. With just two people on stage and no trickery they made a glorious noise. It is no surprise to discover that they cite Jack White as a major influence. Issy Ferris is a fantastic singer who wails like Robert Plant and Archie Sylvester is an impressive guitarist. They seemed to love it as much as all of us did. Discovery of the festival.
A band whose name I knew but whose music I thought I was not familiar with. I would not have seen them if they weren't one of the acts that were on while I was stuck to the barrier at the Avalon, waiting for Frank Turner. What a lovely surprise this gig was. Skye Edwards is both a beautiful and beautifully-voiced singer. She asked what we thought of her outfit and said she had made it herself, especially for Glastonbury. She also proudly announced that her son was playing the drums. I knew more of their songs than I realized and the band was also really solid, with great instrumental jams.
13. FATOUMATA DIAWARA
I am skipping Womad this year, so I was keen to catch this Malian superstar, whose music I know through Songlines magazine and who I really liked in the 'Mali Blues' documentary (particularly a scene where she showed how to care for an electric guitar in the desert). You wonder what it is about Mali that it produces so many great musicians. Fatou was confident, smiling and very pregnant. She promised that next time she will jump for us, though in fairness she still moved around more than most of us. Her set included a tribute to Fela Kuti.
14. FANTASTIC NEGRITO
Another “first seen at Cambridge” performer – Fantastic Negrito from Oakland, California. I liked him even better this time. This was a heavier set than in Cambridge, made all the better by the fantastic sound at the Other Stage. His main influence is Prince. I was only going to watch the start of this gig, but he was so good I found it hard to leave.
15. THE DRYSTONES
11 a.m. on Thursday on the Avalon Café stage. It was a bit of an effort to get across the site this early (I camp at the opposite end), but I am glad I went. The Drystones were nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards and they are musicians with a capital M. Between them, Alex and Ford play fiddle, guitar, whistle and they both sing. Their set was a mix of folk and trad, which I would imagine will whip people up into a rave late at night, but which was equally enjoyable at that early hour.
16. STEELEYE SPAN
'All Around My Hat' was a hit in the Netherlands in the 70s and it was as early as then that I discovered I liked folk music. The band have been rejuvenated with the addition of Jessie May Smart on fiddle and ex-Bellowhead Benji Kirkpatrick on a multitude of things, and they are of course still fronted by the great Maddy Prior. This show had the best singalong of the entire festival; that part of 'All Around My Hat' where the band stop playing and the audience sing the chorus – wonderful.
Yola Carter has reinvented herself and I like her more and more. I first saw her with Phantomb Limb at Beautiful Days in 2012. The Bristol singer has since been one of Rhiannon Giddens' curatees at Cambridge, dropped her surname, and released a great album, 'Walk Through Fire', produced by Dan Auerbach. I saw Yola immediately after Mavis Staples, continuing my soul Sunday. She did not disappoint.
18. MIK ARTISTIK'S EGO TRIP
On Wednesdays there is not that much on at the festival and this gives me time to wander the Green Fields, an area that still retains the vibe of the original Glastonbury Festival. A friend recommended Mik Artistik and I saw him play to a large crowd at the Croissant Neuf Bandstand. Mik reminded me of John Otway – part cabaret, part comedy, but with excellent musicianship. Mik (from Leeds) is a funky singer to boot and he has catchy tunes: 'Plastic Fox', 'Car That Makes A Bus Sound' and, best of all, 'David Bowie Was A Funny Man'. Mik had many shows at festival, and I heard him several more times in passing.
19. SONS OF KEMETS
An unusual band, consisting of saxophone, tuba and two drums, whom I came across while doing my research beforehand. I went up to the Park stage to see them. It was the most different thing I saw during the festival – all instrumental, jazzy. This was my End Of The Road-experience at Glastonbury (Uncut-approved, Mercury nominated).
20. JOHNNY LLOYD
Another act I knew nothing about, seen while 'waiting for Frank'. Johnny seems an old-fashioned rock 'n roller with good songs. I have since learned that he used to be in a band from Camden called Tribes. Many folks around me knew all the words to his songs.
I have Sheryl's 'Best Of' so I was aware of her catalogue of hits and I had high expectations of this Pyramid stage gig. It was oddly flat. She tried hard: Came out on the walkway, played many different instruments, had her young sons on stage as guitar roadies and she sang all those hits, but it was very showbizzy and American, and I couldn't warm to her. I remembered that she started out as a member of Michael Jackson's band and I wonder if she is really a session musician at heart.
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
Again high expectations for this Other Stage headliner. I have four of the Chemical's albums and love the music. With rock bands I love it when they keep it simple and just perform great songs with no whistles and bells. With a dance act there isn't much to watch though: Two guys standing behind keyboards. Tom and Ed never spoke. So I was hoping for a show – lights, visuals etc. - but there wasn't much. Sure, there was stuff shown on the screens, but U2 have far more impressive and more integrated visuals. I have tried many times but dance music live never quite does it for me.
So there you have it. General consensus was that this was a Glastonbury with a poor line up. Let's hope that everybody who thought that will not be trying for tickets later in the year!