Glastonbury is not for sissies. And that’s if you discount the mayhem created by the roughly 200 000 people you have to share the festival with and the more than 120 stages graced by countless bands, DJs, performance artists and generally unusual and interesting behaviour.
I’m talking about Mother Nature and rain that turns Worthy Farm, Somerset, into a massive field of mud. And if the mud doesn’t get you, the unpredictability of the weather will.
Day one – Spoiled for choice
Friday morning started out grey and rainy. I’m talking about proper rain – much to the dismay of Lily Allen and Foster the People fans who had been waiting the majority of the afternoon, slowly edging their way closer to the stage to share some face time with their icons.
To the organisers’ credit, instead of calling the two shows off, they managed to shorten the changeovers and bring a roughly hour-long delay back on track by the time the headliners – Arcade Fire and Skrillex – were due to close the night.
Attending a music festival the size of Glastonbury teaches you a whole bunch about trade-offs. At any point in time, you have to choose between two platinum record-selling artists.
For example, do you miss out on a stellar performance from Paolo Nutini playing at the Other Stage in order to get a decent vantage point for Arcade Fire?
And are you ok with missing out on Skrillex and Kaiser Chiefs (each playing on different stages at the same time) so you can get close enough to the Pyramid (main) Stage to see the aforementioned Canadian rockers?
It’s impossible to decide or plan. You’re going to feel like you’ve missed out on something. So you find yourself taking it one moment at a time and hoping for some magic.
And magic there was. My friends and I got to see Interpol, who are about to release their fifth album, for the first time in countless years.
Instead of playing a bunch of their new material, they played all of their favourites from their iconic first album Turn on the Bright Lights. It was an important and somewhat unexpected move from the band. After all, you’d expect them to play all of their new stuff in the hope of drumming up some album sales. Instead, they showed off just how tight they still are, inadvertently reminding their fans they’re still around – and will be for a while. And in doing so, they guaranteed that they will rush out to buy the new album the moment it hits iTunes.
It also meant seeing the fantastic Mexican guitar-duo Rodrigo y Gabriela playing at the festival for the fourth time, but this time at the Pyramid stage. They were nothing short of fantastic, mesmerising the crowd with their lightning quick fingerwork and charging riffs.
A particularly moving moment came towards the end of their set when Rodrigo started playing a familiar-sounding riff and stopped. And then played the same riff over again, stopping midway and gesturing in confusion to the crowd. Eventually he called for a microphone and bellowed at the crowd with a massive smile on his face: “You guys know f***ing nothing!”
The third time he played the riff, he joined in with vocals, bringing the crowd in on a rather unexpected but nonetheless fantastic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep.
It’s at that moment that it all makes sense.
It’s something you just can’t experience on the DVD or Blu-Ray: that spontaneous awesomeness between the artists and the crowd, the crowd singing along at the top of its voice, adding a backing vocal track you could not manufacture if you tried.
You forget all about the rain, the 200 000 other crazy fans and the mud bath you’re constantly fighting your way through.
You’re at the festival to end all festivals.
Day two – Owned by oldies
You’d be surprised at how many older and wiser attendees the Glastonbury festival sees each year.
The difference is, the oldies have seen more than a few festivals, so their wellies are comfy, grippy and waterproof, they have long, well-worn raincoats that were made in an age when things were made to last and they’ve long since thrown the whole “staying in a tent” vibe out the window and instead, opted to bring a camper van or caravan for the weekend.
But most importantly, the oldies know which acts are worthwhile braving the rain, mud and general madness for. And on day two, that meant music and artists from, or (at the very least) inspired by the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
My mates and I chose a Saturday that consisted of Hozier on the John Peel Stage, Lana Del Rey, followed by Robert Plant and Jack White at the Pyramid Stage, Pixies at the Other Stage and the tough choice of Metallica at the Pyramid or Bryan Ferry at the West Holts Stage.
I’m totally willing to accept that because I’m myself now north of 35, it’s the oldies who owned the day.
Robert Plant for example, rocked the living hell out of a decent sized crowd that pulled in at the Pyramid after what could only have been described as a dull and boring performance from Lana Del Rey.
Don’t get me wrong, her voice sounded great. But it’s like she’d smashed one too many Ambiens before slowly, druggedly walking onto stage. There was no life to her performance. Even Mother Nature couldn’t take it any more and opened the heavens up as Del Rey’s set was drawing to close.
While the Del Rey fans made for shelter, the rain could not deter the die-hard Zeppelin fans who stood for 45 minutes, through some of the harshest weather conditions the weekend had seen, so they’d get a decent spot for Robert Plant’s gig.
Plant reciprocated with face-melting performances of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Whole Lotta Love, some other iconic tunes from the Zeppelin era and few gems from solo career.
As much of a privilege as it was to see one of the world’s most iconic rockers give it stick at the age of 65, it was clearly as much of a privilege for him to play the main stage at the UK’s most iconic festival.
And he said as much.
The feeling I got from Pixies at the Other Stage and Bryan Ferry at the West Holts Stage, artists in their early 50s and late 60s respectively, was exactly the same.
Pixies showed that they can rock as hard today as they did in their prime, belting through Bone Machine, La La Love You, Nimrod’s Son and of course Where is my Mind? with a ridiculous amount of energy.
A particular highlight was seeing Joey Santiago playing slide guitar using a second guitar as a bottleneck during Vamos – a song that’s pretty much dedicated to Santiago making noise using random object on stage.
You just can’t make that up.
Ferry on the other hand proved he’s only gotten smoother and slicker with age.
Even though he was playing in his solo capacity, he regularly tipped his hat at his Roxy Music days by playing through Avalon, Slave to Love and other classics with pitch perfect, studio level precision.
They knew they were there for the crowd, and in return, the crowd was there for them.
That’s why I flew halfway around the world – to see artists that gave as much of a crap about being there as I did.
Not like Lana Del Rey that couldn’t get even remotely excited about playing Glastonbury’s main stage, or Jack White that was so drunk/high/both by the end of his set that he bailed over into a drum kit and had to literally be held up straight by fellow band members so he could walk off stage.
So give the oldies any day and call me traditional, old school or whatever you like.
But, I still know the words to Debaser.
Day three – It’s a wrap
As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And nowhere is this more true than at a music festival like Glastonbury.
No sooner have you unpacked your bags and gotten settled in, than you’re preparing for the long trip home and the even more excruciating year-long wait until it happens all over again.
Thankfully though, Michael and Emily Eavis know how to give festival audiences a send off and that’s why choosing the one act that stole the show on Sunday is virtually impossible.
There were two champs for me. If you judge things purely on turnout, Dolly Parton was the winner.
Now 68 years old and many plastic surgeries later, Parton belted out, Nine to Five, Coat of Many Colours, I Will Always Love You and other chart toppers with more energy and style than most of her younger counterparts.
Parton’s set had it all. Hits. Rhinestones. Crowd engagement. A special guest in the form of Ritchie Sambora for a mock-encore performance of Bon Jovi’s Lay Your Hands on Me.
And one or two very special moments, like seeing everyone – festival security guards included – dancing along to (who knew, there was a specific set of dance moves for this?) Parton’s iconic tune Jolene.
The only thing that could have made it better would have been listening to that song performed as a duet with White, but apparently he was due to perform somewhere else that Sunday.
At 68, Parton looks great, her voice is still perfect and she’s got a heap more personality than artists half her age. We can only hope that younger artists learn what they can from this legend.
The other champion act of 2014 was of course, Kasabian – who this year closed the Pyramid with their signature style of electronica-influenced hard rock/dance.
It was an act I’d been waiting for all festival, since Kasabian was the band that were outwardly bitter about the festival and its organisers last year, when they did not crack a nod to perform on any of the stages.
You’d think those comments would have struck them from the potential line-up list forever. Instead, however, the Eavis family offered them the closing headliner slot – nothing like some pressure to get a band performing, no? The performance could have gone either way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Kasabian live twice before and both times they were great. The difference was, each of those times they played much smaller sets at much smaller venues.
And while the band has become used to playing to massive crowds well in excess of 100 000 people, playing Glastonbury is another animal entirely. And that’s the reason you have to be amazing – or not bother.
On Sunday, things went Kasabian’s way and their gig was outstanding.
Having witnessed most of the bands play from the “pit” (that little gap between the audience and the stage where the security guards stand) – albeit from the relative safety of my trusty set of earplugs – I can tell you most unequivocally that Kasabian is the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.
This was evidenced by the feeling that my organs were being slowly but surely tenderised from the inside by the massive bass vibrations produced by the stage-front speakers. And more notably, the occasional malfunctioning of my camera lens.
Kasabian wasn’t just loud. They were energetic, aggressive and polished, drawing a great deal from the crowd’s enthusiasm as they played through some numbers from their new album, some of their older material and some beautifully improvised moments, like a cover of Gnarl’s Barkley’s Crazy and a great version of Fatboy Slim’s Praise You that somewhere along the way morphed into their own song LSF.
It was a great set and a great way to close the festival.
But I fear that, in becoming the kind of band that’s able to close Glastonbury, Kasabian has lost some of its edginess. I suppose that comes with the territory however.
Kasabian’s maturity brings another stark contrast to mind, namely how immature the Black Keys – who played a late afternoon set at the Pyramid – are as a stadium-sized band.
I’m probably upsetting a number of folks with that statement, but I can’t help but think that they were scared of the enormity of Glastonbury main stage – and that’s why they chose to set themselves up in a tight space, only occupying about a third of the massive Pyramid.
That shouldn’t take too much away from the experience of seeing them – and quite honestly, the whole bunch of fantastic artists they played alongside for the three days the festival runs in earnest.
Other festivals draw similar sized crowds, but none transform the countryside into a city that doesn’t sleep for three days straight.
It’s something you’ll only understand if you’re there and get a chance to look down over Worthy Farm at 2am.
Take my word for it. Glastonbury is unlike anything else you’ll experience in your life. And if you get the chance to go, the only questions should be how and when, and not if.