If last year’s Glastonbury challenges were meteorological (you can read my account here), the difficulties for this year’s festival were closer to home. I thought that I had done the hard bit, recovering from surgery, having had my gall bladder removed at the start of June. However the 18 hour journey from London, following two car breakdowns and a pit stop in Bath at a wonderful friends in the middle of the night, made me feel that the gods were conspiring against us.
It all drifted away in a wonderful and blissfully dry weekend at Worthy Farm. I took my daughter for the second time. A combination of the improved weather and lessons learned made the festival much more enjoyable. Distances got shorter, walking got quicker and as a result, we could absorb a great deal more.
Arriving early Friday afternoon, we made it up the hill to the Park area for the first time for Angel Olsen and Elbow’s secret set. Guy Garvey and the band embraced what was necessary to win over a neutral audience. I know the band’s softer style and Guy’s every bloke approach gets under some people’s skin but I’ve always warmed to them. They are often damned as Coldplay-lite. A combination of some more evocative and direct lyrics and a more proggy musical style elevate them and they went down a storm.
We gravitated toward the Pyramid stage on all three evenings. This served to illustrate the differing approach and merits of the headliners which fell on differing points of the entertainment spectrum.
We arrived half an hour or so into Radiohead’s set on Friday night. As I suspected, the band were in their own zone. There was a minimum of engagement with the audience. The video screens were showing glitchy cut up footage of the band, no shot lasting more than a couple of seconds. Whilst we got some classic Radiohead material from the more popular pre – “Kid A” LPs, we also had more challenging recent material. The crowd was thinning out significantly from the front. I couldn’t establish if people had left early or never arrived in the first instance but there was a significant sense of a vacuum in terms of enjoyment. I saw Radiohead’s wonderful iconic set in 1997 and this didn’t connect emotionally. This isn’t limited to Glastonbury as my last few experiences of Radiohead live has fallen closer artistic admiration rather than enjoyment.
Sunday night brought the polar opposite in the shape of Ed Sheeran. We managed to get very close to the front of the stage to grant my daughter her Glastonbury wish. I maintained an open mind, recalling how I had enjoyed her enjoying Adele in 2016. Quickly I felt out of place though. Whilst many were lapping up Ed’s acoustic guitar with its looping and his stilted rapping, I really couldn’t warm to him or the music. I started musing on his popularity. He is by no means bereft of talent. If he played an open mic evening at my local pub or coffee shop, I wouldn’t leave the building. His melodies though are tried and tested, his lyrics mostly banal and his guitar playing rudimentary.
And then I think I grasped it, his very ordinariness in these troubled times is his appeal. Perhaps millenials look at him and think “if he can do it, so can anyone”. In these unappealing times, they are looking for someone about whom they can think “if he can do that, so do I”. His lyrics are canny and calculated too – copping off over a takeaway pizza etc. He doesn’t upset the apple cart and is perceived to be an underdog.
But I prefer my pop stars to have a little more pizazz or mystique, a Prince or a Bowie, a Jay-z or Beyonce. Failing that I look for a communicator (Springsteen for instance) and Ed seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. His patter was limited to “sing along with me” or “let me see your hands in the air”. Adele’s sweary but ecstatic nattering between songs allowed the neutral to warm to her. Ed, despite his appearance of openness, seemed very much like a closed book and appears more calculating than natural. Unchallenging, this is music to numb the mind rather than soothe the soul.
We chatted amongst ourselves after the gig and my friends, experienced gig and Glastonbury goers, agreed that the set was an anti-climax. My daughter loved it though and that alone was worth tolerating the turgid previous couple of hours.
Saturday night’s headliners absolutely nailed it though.
Two years after Dave Grohl’s broken leg precluded them from appearing, the Foo Fighters delivered an enormous but human blast of rock classicism. This wasn’t innovative but a distillation of familiar tropes, distilled down to an essence that everyone appeared to be enjoying. There’s a bit of punk, some metal, even some AOR chucked into the mix. It is all delivered with such chutzpah and enthusiasm by the band that the lack of innovation doesn’t wear thin. We were right down the front again and my daughter particularly enjoyed the physicality of the environment. Mosh pits formed like random vortices and the crowd were in constant enthusiastic motion but always friendly, always safe. Grohl and his colleagues achieved a very personal connection with a crowd that were willing them to succeed. It was a winning formula and most left the arena very much on an adrenalin high.
It is ironic that I listen and enjoy Radiohead rather than the Foos sat at home listening on a decent hifi system. However put me in a field in Somerset, it’s the Foos everytime.
Other highlights and observations of the weekend:
After my comment on last year’s festival that anaemic white boys with guitars were on the ascendancy (I’m looking at you Blossoms), there was much more diversity. We saw many more female and black artists on the main stages, rather than tucked away on the West Holts stage.
- First Aid Kit’s set on the Pyramid stage on Friday afternoon was excellent. The Söderberg sister’s Scandinavian blend of gorgeous harmonies, sharp lyrics and the odd interesting cover (Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” on this instance, Sabbath’s “War Pigs” on other occassions) was gentle introduction into the festival after our car troubles on the way to Somerset. “Emmylou” brought a wee tear to my eye, the chorus featuring the iconic country duos of June and Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris with Gram Parsons.
- My daughter had selected Maggie Rogers to see at the John Peel tent. Maggie is a bit of a viral sensation at the moment having impressed Pharrell Williams already (read about it here). Her electronic folk music definitely has a trueness and uniqueness that has room for development. She successfully covered Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” as a mid tempo electronic number. I wasn’t so sure about her cover of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” though. Maggie was charmingly overwhelmed by the reaction she received and it will be interesting to see what happens next.
- We were both looking forward to seeing Lorde on Friday evening on the Other Stage. We’ve got a huge amount of respect for her from both her first couple of LPs plus the way she tackled “Life of Mars” as a David Bowie tribute at the Brit Awards, which took a huge amount of courage and self assurance. She didn’t disappoint. Flagging a little from our epic journey, we stayed towards the back of the crowd, safe in the knowledge that we would be seeing her later in the year at Alexandra Palace. Her set was stunning featuring the very clever use of dancers in a hydraulically powered glass box. Her songwriting is advancing and maturing at pace too. Finishing with “Green Light”, we were very much left wanting more.
- Sunday afternoon’s early set from Laura Marling was impressive. She remains a singular artist, drawing on Joni Mitchell’s seventies work and maturing into a significant talent in her own right. Her guitar playing with its use of open chords just thrills me and ability to move through personas and voices in her singing places her a cut above the singer songwriter crowd.
- The Big Moon’s set in the William’s Green tent was short and very sweet. Opening with the kick ass “Silent Movie Susie”, they won the audience over instantly. Energetic but musicianly, their dynamic performance drew upon the spirit of the Pixies and in particular Kim Deal. I wrote about their LP from earlier in the year here and they didn’t disappoint live.
This year’s festival felt different politically too. Last year’s coincided with the Brexit referendum and the combination of the demographic and the result left a flat atmosphere. In 2017 there was a significant sense of defiance. We bumped into Jeremy Corbyn as he was arriving at the Festival, a coterie of impromptu supporters following him in.
We watched his inspiring social and almost apolitical and passionate speech and then enjoyed Run The Jewels blast of classic hip hop. Politically and socially engaged, this was a trip back to the glory days of Public Enemy. The place was bouncing and El-P and Killer Mike were clearly feeding off of it, loving the vibe and sharing the joy with each other and the crowd. It was thrilling stuff and Johnny Depp on the side of the stage seemed to be enjoying it too.
They also addressed the issue of respecting safe crowd surfing and moshing as did Frank Carter on Sunday. More critically, they highlighted the need to respect female members of the audience. More power to both of them.
There were a couple of other enjoyable slots. I’m not a huge fan of the Killers but their “secret” Sunday set in the John Peel tent went down a storm, particularly with my daughter. I can see why people get off on their music – excellent entertainers although I wouldn’t be swayed to get into their LPs. The same could be said of Biffy Clyro, who preceded Ed Sheeran. They were enthusiastic and engaging and as someone new to their music, I can appreciate their talent and appeal.
I missed a few pre-festival picks. We arrived too late to catch country star Margo Price and I decided to forego the bulk of Barry Gibb, Sampha and Chic’s set to allow my daughter to get her picks in. Solange clashed with the Foo Fighters and she was missed too, despite my loving of her latest LP.
In summary then, another cracking weekend. The weather made a difference as did the changing political climate and the varied approach to slot selection on the main stages. A final shout out to my friends. There are now a group of roughly twenty of us who head down to Somerset including the approaching legendary Glastowolf. Going to the festival en masse adds to the experience, each of us catching up excitedly with a regular “where did you go/who did you see” conversation. We look out for each other and are warm and friendly to my daughter.
It just wouldn’t be the same without them.