Wednesday 6 July 2011

Glastonbury 2011: The Dream City

                                                        A transient city. Pic by Louise Butler 

Thursday, June 23 

Say what you like, Glastonbury is a phenomenon! A medium-sized city - larger than the entire populace of South Yorkshire - springs up in the fields of Somerset for one week a year. It rises out of mud and returns to mud, and just a few short weeks after, it’s as if it were never there. Abandoned tents, latrines and the accumulated detritus of 180,000 thrill-seekers are cleared up. Only the sight of cows grazing in the shade of a pyramid hints that this is no ordinary English pastorale.  

It’s a city of eternal youth, and a testament to the resilience, stamina and optimism of youth. On the Thursday before Glastonbury is properly underway, the ambience is more fairground than music festival. The background music is predominantly techno and the decor is distinctly Mad Max. Amiable anarchy prevails. Authority is largely confined to patrolling the perimeter fences. Indeed, like any other fair-sized city, there are genteel suburbs (the Healing Field, Kidz Field, Cinema and The Acoustic Stage) and shady no-go areas (the ironically named Shangri-La). Block 9, situated between Arcadia and Shangri-La, relocates an urban post-apocalyptic scene in the English countryside. It was here that I witnessed the single-most distressing spectacle of the Festival: a heavily pregnant girl, stoned out of her mind with headphones on, wading helplessly in the mud, clutching her stomach, dazed and beyond help. 

Marijuana is flouted openly (there aren’t enough cells in Somerset to implement zero tolerance), but within my circle at least, the drug of choice is pear cider. The hit of this first, pre-concert evening is Ken Fox’s Wall of Death on The Common, with bikes and go-karts racing vertically around an eighteen-foot high cylindrical wall, pumping out noxious fumes to thrilled spectators. Brother Ant was so impressed he bought a t-shirt. 

                                                        The Wall of Death. Pic by Louise Butler 

The ultimate Glastonbury act, I muse, on this preliminary evening, before the music has even begun, must be Roy Harper, that madcap prophet and scourge of straight society. Glastonbury, indeed, might be Roy Harper’s dream made flesh. He treated of the subject on Glasto, from his 2000 album, The Green Man. It makes a great anthem: “Let’s go to Glasto and have us a blasto…” I don’t know why Michael Eavis doesn’t make Roy Harper an honorary patron and let him close the Festival every year. He is the exemplar of the rebellious crazed subversive, and the living embodiment of the adage that the path of excess leads to wisdom. In addition, Stackridge should open every Festival. 

Friday, June 24 

                                                                                       The God of Hellfire

And the other ultimate Glastonbury act is Arthur Brown, making only his second appearance in his own right, forty years after he stole the second Glastonbury Festival in 1971 (as documented in the Nicolas Roeg and Peter Neal film, Glastonbury Fayre). He wryly tells the crowd that, at this rate, he’ll be 109 at his next Glastonbury appearance. Brother Ant, however, maintains that Brown appeared at Glastonbury 2010 as the guest of Spatial AKA Orchestra, Jerry Dammers ‘ Sun Ra tribute band. 

Brown actually put me mind of the great Sun Ra even before Ant vouchsafed this information. Rather, a cross between Sun Ra and William Blake. It’s the way arcane cosmology is placed at the service of a message of humanity. Imagination becomes a means of liberating the human spirit. So Sun Ra claimed to come from outer space, and William Blake saw the ghost of a flea and angels sitting in top branches of trees. That very morning, so Arthur told us, he saw an angel in a tree of the garden of his B&B in Pilton. 

He possesses superhuman energy and is very sprightly for his age, dancing and capering and going through more costume changes than Beyonce (see below). The collective age of this edition of The Crazy World probably equals that of Brown alone, and they play with brio and virtuosity, and a full working knowledge of the tropes of psychedelia. Brother Ant recognised Time Captives from his old Kingdom Come album. And Fire Poem, the build-up to the inevitable Fire, was manically, deliriously  freaky. Arthur endured a slight hitch - a roadie faltered during the lighting of his flaming helmet - with a gentle shrug that made him seem vulnerable. Then, within moments, the greatest showman of the psychedelic age had been transformed into THE GOD OF HELLFIRE. We were all going to burn, and we loved it! 

The preceding act on the Spirit of ’71 Stage had been Edgar Broughton and his son, Luke, who demonstrated that the freak rock of those old Edgar Broughton Band albums concealed many good songs. Not a hint of Beefheart mannerisms (was that Steve Broughton?) and, to brother Ant’s disappointment, Apache Drop Out was nowhere in the programme. Indeed, the songs were overwhelmingly sombre and politically concerned, and disproved the notion that age inevitably brings a swing to the right. The full band belatedly joined Edgar and Luke for Out Demons Out, an exorcism targeted specifically at politicians and other creatures of the night.   

Earlier, BB King looked very frail as he delivered his greatest hits (3 O’Clock Blues, The Thrill is Gone, etc.) from a sitting position. It was an act of reverence on the part of the Pyramid Stage audience, made poignant by the awareness that this was, in all likelihood, the very last chance to see a true blues legend. The same thought occurred to King, who revived Blind Lemon Jefferson’s One Kind Favour (“…please see that my grave is kept clean”) for the occasion. 

The low-point of the day was young Sam Duckworth, whose radicalism seemed callow and self-satisfied compared to the old school anarchism of Edgar Broughton). One suspected that, like his comrades in the sessions in the Left Field tent organised by Billy Bragg, he was there principally to make the compere look good. 

My Glastonbury actually started with verbals. That morning, as part of the self-styled Free University of Glastonbury (at HMS Sweet Charity, in The Park) ) Jon Ronson, was holding forth about psychopaths in that self-deprecating, ingratiatingly geeky way he has. Following Ronson, Mark Thomas explained why he didn’t want to be remembered as the man who sent Nelson Mandela back to jail. Thomas could give Bragg a lesson in mixing polemic with wit. Between Ronson and Thomas, I stepped out and saw Dylan Le Blanc’s band perform a credible Shape I’m In.      

And that was my first full day at Glastonbury. I might add that a piss, a falafel and a pear cider can work wonders in restoring life to flagging flesh. I missed U2 but managed to see two or three songs from Cee-Lo Green. Horrible R&B cliches pumped up with horrible Black Sabbath riffs. I suppose every generation gets the ‘soul voice’ it deserves. 

Saturday, June 25 

                                      Unka and niece. That is, Mike and fraulein Katherine with Lisa. Pic by Louise Butler  

Today was a day of discovery. I discovered what Marcus Brigstock looks like in person, allowing for a Victorian handlebar moustache (grown to play Mr Perks in a production of The Railway Children); I discovered that today was Phil Juputus’ birthday (both insights gleaned from a casual visit to the Cabaret tent); I discovered that, whereas pear cider was freely available, apple cider was virtually unknown at Glastonbury; I discovered that Lau, who gave a stunning performance in the Avalon tent, are the best folk group in the world (Modern Division). Inflections from modern systems music were better  assimilated and more rousingly delivered than, say, The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, who we had just left on the West Holts Stage. I discovered, or rather, had my suspicion confirmed, that Pentangle are the best folk group in the world (Sixties to Present Division). Honestly, they conjured magic in the Acoustic Tent. Their distinct weave of MJQ-style chamber jazz and English traditional folk has never been surpassed for grace, melody and delicate swing- what a tasteful drummer Terry Cox is! - with Danny Thompson as the wild card, and McShee and Renbourn as envoys for a much older and mysterious tradition. What a blessing they’re all still with us, in a week that saw the death of Mike Waterson (Billy Bragg had earlier dedicated Hard Times of Old England to him). True, they didn’t break new ground, confining themselves to old favourites like A Maid That’s Deep in Love, Cruel Sister, Light Flight, Wedding Dress etc, but the music they produce is perfection: entire, fully achieved and sui generis. 

I discovered what it felt like to lose oneself in a crowd of thousands, and share collective waves of euphoria, squishiness and abandonment (this was entirely novel to me, as a non-football supporter). This, when the mighty Elbow essayed the finest  stadium rock yet devised by Man(cunuan), managing the trick of being simultaneously rousing and sensitive. 

Further, I discovered that a set by Murray L. Young doesn’t bear repetition and that Spliff Richard is a poet I can rely on to express unarticulated thoughts about social cohesion, the war and tribute bands. I discovered that souk music goes down very well with souk food: I visited the Moorish food stall for the second consecutive day (‘Moorism’, was it?) as the strains of Omar Souleyman came drifting over from the West Holts Stage (“aaaaaaaAAAAAAAA!”).

It was a day that constantly flirted with disaster, with the ever-present possibility that exhaustion and befuddlement might finally override intelligibility. I’m happy to report that the forces of good prevailed and that Terry Reid got through his set without falling offstage or being attacked by the sound crew. Reid is a garrulous drunk subject to mercurial mood swings - the worry that he might never start a song was followed by the worry that he might never finish one - but the superlungs are just about intact, and no-one else can immerse himself in a performance like Terry Reid. It was a spellbinding, raw, edgy performance. 

I discovered that the adage (quoted above) - about the path of excess leading to wisdom - should always be accompanied by a health warning. Mick Farren mixed beat-inspired poetry with impossible proto-punk with The Deviants back in the sixties, and is still ardently champions free love, chemical recreation and political insurrection. As brother Ant said, “Christ, this guy is in worse shape than B.B. King.” Where else could it be but the Spirit of ’71 Stage? 

Sunday, June 26 
                                                         Pic by Louise Butler

For me, the heart of Glastonbury still resides in hairy-arsed hippy music, and I make no apology for preferring the Spirit of ’71 to the stadium-style Pyramid or supersized Other Stage. I missed seeing Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons, but if I had my time over, I would still go to see Edgar Broughton and Arthur Brown instead. But here are alternative impressions of Glastonbury, from my beloved niece Katherine, to do honour to the multiplicity of Glastonbury. There is a different Glastonbury for every person who attends. 

The Queens of the Stone Age: “A proper rock band. The laser show was amazing. They haven’t had a record for six or seven years… They really ramped up the build-up by playing part of the Songs For The Deaf album. The place went bananas. The lead singer had a brilliant swagger. Pulp were amazing…” (Pulp were unannounced special guests) “Jarvis Cocker is a proper showman. I was transported back to 1995.” 

U2: “Bono, why do you have to be a twat all the time? He had a conversation with a voice in the sky. I thought that was quite twat-like behaviour. Chemical Brothers worked everyone up into a frenzy. They had a trippy backdrop, and every now and then a scary clown face would come up. I mean, people are already going to be out of their boxes. The last thing you want to do is mess with them.” 

“It would have been great to do Beyonce with my friends, because that’s how I enjoy her - her music is the soundtrack to my life. But Queens of the Stone Age are a bit more personal.” 

Ah yes, Beyonce… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The first indispensable musical offering of the final Sunday of Glastonbury, not counting a pointedly strenuous display of campanology coming from the Pilton Parish Church of St John the Baptist, was Jah Wobble and the Nippon Dub Ensemble on the West Holts Stage. What started as an unlikely melange of King Tubby and Kabuki, with a hint of the Kodo Drummers, gradually turned into a corking set of Lovers’ Rock and toasting, with invaluable contributions from Candice Gabbidon (father Basil was on guitar) and - here’s a welcome return - Ranking Roger! During a euphoric and extended I’m Still In Love With You, the penny dropped: Glastonbury is a glorious celebration of the human spirit. It transcends age, culture, gender: if you can still access that first sense of absolute joy, then Glastonbury will open its arms to you. Negativity of any kind runs counter to the Glastonbury spirit. So, sorry Sam Duckworth; sorry Bono (on Katherine’s behalf), sorry B.B. I’m Still In Love With You was my choice for the unofficial anthem of Glastonbury 2011, beating close competition from One Day Like This by Elbow, and Haitian Fight Song/Goodbye Pork Pie Hat by Pentangle

Unfortunately this state of bliss didn’t survive a workmanlike set by The Popes. Ron Sexsmith tried valiantly to overcome the unvoiced sentiment of the majority of the Avalon crowd (“we hope you realise we could be watching Paul Simon now”) and, with hindsight, the Avalon people probably made the right decision. Self-effacing, fey and introspective, Sexsmith offers a kind of tenderness that would be impossible to replicate for mass consumption. Indeed, Katherine reported that Simon was lacklustre, and this was later corroborated by an impartial witness who watched the TV broadcast.  

However, there was now dissent and full-scale rebellion among the troops. “Your Robyn Hitchcock is shit,” declared brother Ant, returning with a couple of beakers of pear cider. “I was passing the Spirit of ’71 Stage and he was murdering Too Much Time.” (The programme mentioned that Hitchcock would be playing two albums from 1971, so he must have been re-enacting Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot; Ole Tarantula might have been a better choice.) A splinter-group from our little party went off to find The Vaccines, leaving some of us (me) to stay behind for Show of Hands. This was that rare thing: stadium-rock folk music. I know because people started waving their arms in a spontaneous manner (even Guy Garvey needed to prompt the Pyramid masses). The righteousness of SOH sometimes grates, but passion and sincerity eventually win the day.  

By evening, enough good-will had returned for us to join the multitudes gathering for the much anticipated, hotly debated Festival finale: the Glastonbury debut of Beyonce. Brother Ant was game - he had been converted by Jay-Z’s appearance a few years ago. I was curious, willing to sample the opiate of the masses. However, as the minutes dragged on, and Beyonce still didn’t appear (I made excuses on her behalf: being late is the prerogative of the diva). Then, the extravaganza belatedly kicked in - with fireworks, a madly gyrating dance troupe and soul-shrivelling razzmatazz all designed to perpetuate a pre-teen credulity in make-believe and fantasy. With one mind, we hastened to the only competition in town: NY songstress Suzanne Vega in the Acoustic Tent. Actually Vega treats of the same subject matter as Beyonce - the vagaries of feminine desire, I suppose - but does so on a more modest scale and with more recognisable humanity. Would Beyonce know who Carson McCullers was, much less write an off-Broadway musical about her? 

That was my Glastonbury, and it ended on a note of intriguing, kooky NY femme understatement. 

The last word goes to John, a merchant seaman who ekes out his retirement far away from the sea at brother Ant’s house in Pilton. John was my benefactor: residents of Pilton are given gratis tickets, and this got me passed the highwire fences and security guards that represent the real-life protectors of the dream city. John was talking about his adventures - he was a captive of Mao in China’s Cultural Revolution - and far-flung travels. He mentioned a trip to Central Mongolia. “I wouldn’t say I actually enjoyed Central Mongolia, but I’m very glad I went,” he said, nailing my own feelings about the past weekend, if you substitute ‘Glastonbury’ for ‘Central Mongolia’.   

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