Glastonbury is more than a festival. It is a temporary city in which dirt and noise roam the streets. If you make your way to one of the site’s far edges, you can overlook miles and miles of light, movement and colors. When you are standing there, it is also hard to believe that all of it will be gone within a few days. That what you see stretched out before you is ephemeral and will soon be turned back into a green space, a landscape like any other in this part of the UK. But for one weekend in June, it is Glastonbury, the world’s largest and most iconic outdoor music festival. Here are my personal highlights from this year’s edition:
The first act I saw were the Russian Riot Grrrls Pussy Riot. Minutes before they were supposed to go on stage, a truck bearing the emblem of the German Democratic Republic emblem appeared. What followed was a staged fight between two women in colorful balaclavas and a supposedly Russian soldier; the ten commandments of Pussy Riot (among them “don’t just follow the news, but make them” or “enjoy a good cup of coffee”) and statements like “Putin is an idiot that rides horses bare-chested and is afraid of no one – except homosexuals of course”, or “Adam was stupid. Eve was the one that invented space shuttles and coffee makers”. During the Q&A they were asked whether men could join Pussy Riot. Yes, they answer, of course. A middle-aged man with a thick Scottish accent yelled: “Can a goat join Pussy Riot?” His question was not answered. As they left the stage, the audience was left in equal parts cheering and puzzled about what had just happened.
There are band whose name already gives you an impression of what is to be expected. Australian Psychedelic Rockers King Gizzard and the Lizzard Wizzard can be included in that category. Front man Stu Mackenzie screams himself into a frenzy and headbangs like the young Metallica, while trippy bass sounds rumbling in the back, compete with dirty guitar riffs. It is generally bad advice to take LSD at noon on your first day of the festival, but this gig seemed to call for it.
Announced as a “voice that would fit on every Motown record”, whiz kid Leon Bridges filled the John Peel tent quite quickly with his 1960s rhythm and blues songs and his deep yet smooth voice. If there is a heir to the late Amy Winehouse, it is undoubtedly Leon Bridges.
To argue that Benjamin Booker plays loud rock music would be a severe understatement. The guitar riffs of the New Orleans-based musician are dirtier than the grounds on Worthy Farm after three days of apocalyptic rain showers. He finished his set with the energetic “Have you seen my son?” and enough frenetic guitar strumming to cause at least mild hearing loss among the front rows of the audience.
The Stone Roses? Blur? Beck? Rumors circulated widely about who would step in and play the vacant spot on the Pyramid Stage. When it was finally revealed that the infamous Libertines would play their first gig ever on the legendary Pyramid Stage, there was a sense of euphoria and nostalgia among the festival crowd, even though some of it was too young to remember the “good old days” of the “likely lads”. The Libertines didn’t disappoint, they played almost all of their hits and even introduced two new songs from a forthcoming album. When they ended their gig with “What a Waster” and “Don’t look back into the sun” the crowd turned into one gigantic choir screaming out the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
As the sun was setting, everybody got ready to watch the first day’s headliner Florence and the Machine. When it was announced that the young Florence Welch would take over from the Foo Fighters who were forced to pull out because front man Dave Grohl had broken his leg a few weeks prior, the backlash was enormous. There almost seemed to be consensus that she wasn’t up to the task. I personally had little expectations. I liked her first album but had little interest in her afterwards. Nevertheless, I decided to give her a chance and she did not disappoint. She played a perfectly orchestrated set and even honored the Foo Fighters by covering their “Times like These”. Was she up to the task? Yes. Would the Foo Fighters have been a better headliner? Highly doubt it.
I spent the rest of my first day running around the many nightlife locations at Glastonbury and finally chilling at the Stone Circle to watch the sunrise, an old Glastonbury tradition I was told, listening to the soothing sound of the early birds and the hissing sound of the British youth getting cheap highs on nitrous oxide.
What better way to start the day than listening to Australian rambling raconteur Courtney Barnett? The weird thing about her gig was that it took place on the gigantic Pyramid Stage, which seemed to be the least appropriate place for her music. The size of that stage could easily intimidate an artist, but Courtney Barnett doesn’t care. Not now, not in general – and she promptly delivered one of the best sets of this year’s festival, ending on a high note with the pulsing rhythm of her hit “Pedestrian at Best”.
The Young Fathers are complex. Not only because of their music but also because of the band itself. They make music nobody would classify as pop music but call themselves a pop band. They cause controversy but don’t want to be too political. The Young Fathers are a band thriving on dichotomy – as are their sets. At times the band’s members run and jump around on stage as if possessed by some evil spirit; it seems fitting that they don’t bother to engage with the audience through empty paroles like “Hey, how are you? Are you having a good festival?”. They let their music speak for themselves. Being able to successfully do that on one of the world’s biggest stages proves their choice to be the right one.
She was nervous, very nervous. Walking around during the sound check, biting her fingernails, London’s spoken-words prodigy Kate Tempest couldn’t quite believe that she was about to play for one of the biggest audiences in her still young career. When she came on stage, however, all previous stage fright seemed to have vanished and she started what would become one of the most critically appraised performances of this year’s festival. With songs like “Circles”, she got the crowd jumping. Even more impressive were here spoken words intermission that kept some people inh the audiences worried that she was about to choke on her words.
Next on was our favorite crooner, Father John Misty, presenting his latest masterwork “I love you, Honeybear”. He owned the audience from his first hip shake to the last. Spending almost more time in the audience or on the stage floor than standing on stage, he joked around (“What would Glastonbury be without a out-of-tune acoustic guitar?”) and got female fans screaming like only boy bands from Florida usually can. At the end of the show, he grabbed my iPhone and recorded a video, pretending to be a man from the distant future, who goes by the name of Chris Isaak. What more is there to add?
The organizers of the festival received death threats when it was announced that Kanye West would be headlining Saturday. A petition was signed thousands of times to stop West from performing at the festival. So when he stepped onto the stage on Saturday evening, the pressure on him to deliver the performance of his lifetime must have been enormous. Fortunately, Kanye West also possesses a famed super-ego, that should have compensated. Unfortunately, the gig did not live up to that promise. Too many breaks, a strangely ordered setlist and comedians invading the stage made it nothing more than a mundane Kanye West sing-a-long event. Even West’s statement that fans were now “watching the greatest rock star on earth” could not change that. I was tempted to leave but thought “I’mma let you finish”.
One of the most anticipated gigs was Patti Smith’s performance on Sunday afternoon at the Pyramid stage. And what a performance it turned out to be. Smith began by apologizing that her voice was almost gone but assured festivalgoers that she would give Glastonbury “every bit that is left of it”. After a staggering performance of “Pissing in a River”, she interrupted her show for a special guest: his holiness the Dalai Lama who addresses the festival audience, spoke out against global terrorism, joked about Patti Smith’s white hair and wished everybody a happy day. As he left the stage, and Smith started to play “People have the Power”, the sun broke through the densely clouded sky and tears started rolling down more than once face. Smith finished her set with “Gloria” and “My Generation”, accidentally tripping on stage and yelling out “I fell on my ass at Glastonbury but I don’t care because I don’t fucking care”.
Lionel Richie apparently broke the record for the largest crowd ever at Glastonbury. I stayed for three songs. It was fun. Let’s just leave it at that.
Belle and Sebastian played on Sunday afternoon on a sun-flooded Other Stage. The Scottish Indie Poppers played a selection of their greatest hits, criticized David Cameron for ruining Great Britain, had spectacular video projections and invited the front row on stage to come and dance with them to their anthem “The Boy with the Arab Strap”. Not much more you can ask for.
Mark E. Smith looks like a man in his 60s, wearing cardigans and constantly complaining about the noise from the kids in the neighborhood. In some weird way, that is exactly what happens when you go to see a gig from Smith’s band The Fall. The legendary Post-Punk band came on stage and Smith immediately started complaining about the sound of this instrument and that speaker. Mumbling lyrics to the ear-deafening sounds coming from his band, Smith just stood there, held the mic way to high – his trademark –, advised his fellow band musician on how to play their instruments before just leaving the stage to have a smoke and never returning. The Fall is for lovers but there were many present.
See you next year Glastonbury!