Thursday, July 14, 2011

In Search of The Glastonbury Roar

Every year towards the end of June I head off on my annual pilgrimage to witness, experience, hear, and enjoy the Glastonbury Roar. It’s a roar of an audience like you hear nowhere else in the world. It very organic and natural and it comes from nowhere other than a crowd of mostly non-partisans reacting to an excellent performance by artists at the peak of their art.

My adventure starts at Paddington Railway Station where the train company seems to be working on the infamous cattle market approach BA perfected in the good old days at their LHR Gate 49 for the Belfast shuttle. At Paddington anyone carrying a rucksack, tent and wellies were herded into a compound (literally) and then crammed onto special festival trains, leaving the scheduled trains free for the humans. I manage to avoid this zoo by booking a seat on a train to Taunton, the stop after Castle Cary. Castle Cary is the official station for the festival from where there is a free shuttle bus service into the site. This year I moved accommodation to The Wookey Hole Hotel just outside of Wells and my room is in the infamous Witch’s Hat-shaped tower of the hotel - I kid you not - certainly a good way to pick up the local vibe if not the festival vibe. The Hotel is attached to famous caves (where the aforementioned witch was turned to stone - something to do with unrequited love) and a paper mill museum, which I had intended to visit all over the weekend but never got around to.

Friday morning I make my way over to the site, secure the necessary passes and head straight to The Acoustic Stage, which I have programmed for Michael Eavis since 1993. The state of our field when I arrive testifies to the fact that it had rained for 9 out of the 11 days the team have been on site for the set-up and the resultant mud is already ankle-deep. If it rains when the festival plant is being moved on site it’s a disaster; if it doesn’t start to rain until the festival starts then that’s much more manageable. To the seasoned festival goers it’s water (and a bit more) off a duck’s back and they have all their personal favourite mud-free hang outs (like the cosy Acoustic Stage backstage Bar) while, for the festival virgins, there’s so much energy flying around and between the lay-lines they hardy even notice the mud on their boots is getting dangerously close to their knees.

At the Acoustic Stage the first act on, the Secret Sisters, do us proud with their heart-warming old-fashion styled, American Country Music approach. Their first album received great reviews and they most certainly lived up to expectations but the surprise of the day, maybe even the weekend, is Rainy Boy Sleep. No one knew a thing about him, yet he held the Secret Sisters large audience and even added to it with his charm, arresting lyrics and magic melodies.

The afternoon flew by all the more quickly due to John Ottway’s madcap performance including 7 death defying summersaults (while simultaneously playing the guitar) and a box of Brownies. The home-baked brown squares are pure, simple and (even though it’s Glastonbury) restricted to classic brownie mix. They’re amazing, probably the best ever and left as a present in the Asgard site office. The Ottway performance needs to be seen to be believed.

There’s lots of sound spillage from the main stage and the rain continues to bombard us, but with Michael Eavis one-man-vibing campaign it’s impossible for anyone to feel down for too long. It’s also impossible to keep anyplace tidy with all the mud. Everyone is sitting around waiting for the sun. Down on the main field regular festival attenders have long ago learnt that performing mud-dancing for the cameras (TV and Press)is a very quick route for national attention. I am fascinated by the way people walk through the mud. They have the arms outstretched liked wings and look like they are tip-toeing past a sleeping dog fearful of waking it. As I vainly search the skies for that breakthrough ray of sunshine I think of the classic George Harrison, song called Here Comes The Sun (which Sunday artist Paul Simon sometimes performs) and I remember Michael Eavis admitting to me a few weeks previous that his biggest Glastonbury regret was the year he was offered George Harrison but he couldn’t accommodate the former Beatle because he’d already confirmed his headliners for that year and Michael is too honourable a man to go back on his word.

This year he has a great reason to celebrate the name George because two weeks before the festival Emily (Michael’s daughter) and her husband, Nick, (who are both very involved with Michael in organising the festival) celebrated the birth of their first child, George.

This year the first Glastonbury Roar (that I experience) happened during Newton Faulkner’s set. He’s been an Acoustic Stage regular since before he broke big and he’s a big favourite with both the Acoustic Stage audience and crew. He’s been hanging around the tent all day (and most of the weekend) listening to the other acts and generally enjoying himself. He completely filled the tent himself later in the (Friday) afternoon and went down incredibly well with the audience. Towards the end of his set he performed his version of Bohemian Rhapsody using the audience as his backing band to cover all of the complex harmonies – note perfect - and when they get to the end of the song the Roar emerges from deep in the heart of the tent and erupts to fill the tent and the field beyond. The Roar really is a wondrous experience.

What rain and mud indeed?

Hothouse Flowers gain a Roar from the crammed Acoustic Stage tent for their unique blend of infectious Celtic Soul music. They just love to perform and it seems to matter little to them how small or how large the audience is. Size has nothing to do with music. Brit Floyd close the night for us and several of the crew where seen and heard wandering around muttering variations on, “it sounds just like the record.”

Back to my spooky room in the witch’s hat and by the time I get there it’s the early hours of the morning and the BBC are winding down their coverage of the first day of the festival. Glastonbury on TV doesn’t really work for me. The screen is much, much too small to catch even a millionth of what’s going on at the festival at any one moment, which we’ll discuss later in more detail. My worry is that people watching Glastonbury in TV-land will think what they see is all there is and never have a real idea of what’s occurring down on Worthy Farm. I’d hate people to think that one of two couples of “radio” presenters sitting around in clean wellies, talking a load of absolute rubbish, is all there is to Glastonbury. The BBC would be much better served with a set of different presenters each year who might inject some freshness and enthusiasm. And while we’re on the subject of telly, why on earth would U2 (and Coldplay on Saturday Night) agree to come straight from the stage to the BBC studio to do an interview? Can’t they see all they are doing is damaging their mystique? They came, they conquered; end of story. Napoleon certainly didn’t do interviews after his victories; no, he kept his box of tricks up his sleeve for his next battle.

My Saturday starts with an early morning adventure in Wells and a visit to the stunning Bishops Palace and Gardens, which I’ve earmarked for a return visit to investigate the amazing buildings closer. I then pottered around the market being greatly amused by a stall owner’s dog who’d been tied to the foot of a bench and obviously had been ordered to sit and keep quiet. The dog’s tail betrayed exactly how hyper the poor dog was and he’d cleared a spotless arc on the very dusty footpath in order to vent his pent up enthusiasm.

One of the big highlights of Saturday afternoon at the Acoustic Stage is Thea Gilmour, a very heavily pregnant Thea in fact. Her new album is her version of Dylan’s classic, John Wesley Harding (in its entirety). Thea’s version is adventurous and vital and I’d really been looking forward to her promise to perform the album live. Thea and her excellent band are in fine form and the adventurous project works just as well live as it does on her CD. She gets to the end of her set, singing her heart out and our Stage manager breathes a sign of relief as she safely sets foot on the earth without needing to visit her doctor.

Nick Lowe and his fine band have a new sense of purpose about them. Could it be due to the fact that they were playing with new found confidence now that they have what’s certainly their best ever album, The Old Magic, under their belt and due for a release this September. As they leave the stage and head to their makeshift dressing room, Alan Yentob, still buzzing from the show, nearly knocks me over in his enthusiasm to tell Nick how much he really loved the performance.

Next up is Pentangle and even with their (the 5 musicians) combined age of 350 years, they still raise a Roar with a truly virtuoso performance of their unique first class music.

Saturday’s closer Deacon Blue, led by major music fan Rickie Ross, pack the tent to the rafters with their loyal followers, and it isn’t long before we all experience another mighty Celtic Roar.

Sunday morning I bum a lift onto site in Don McLean’s pure luxury-on-wheels tour bus, which costs the entire budget of a small nation to rent. As we arrived on site the Fisherman’s Friends are making a strong connection with the growing audience at the Pyramid Stage, which is where Don will also be appearing. A whole different set of passes are required for this area of the site but it’s well worth the additional wrist bands and laminates if only because of the amazing spicy bean burgers in catering. The main stage area is packed for Don with fans keen for his world famous song but surprising the Glastonbury Roar happened long before he performed American Pie, during a spine tingling version of Crying. Don’s stripped down set-up with no frills and absolutely everything going into the power of the performance. And the performance is so emotionally charged that before very long every single member of the 100,000 audience is glued to the stage, lost in the song and in the performance of the song. As it ends 100,000 people from 9 years old to 90 years old, overcome by a communal lump-in-the-throat and tear-in-the-eye, react spontaneously to create a genuine Glastonbury Roar. But Don Mclean doesn’t play to the showbusines tradition and use that momentum of his second Roar, for American Pie, to go in for the kill. No, his band leaves the stage and he, accompanying himself only on guitar, does a show-stopping, heart-wrenching, version of Seaman, another of his own songs, and the amazing thing is that each and everyone one of the audience who had being going ape at the end of American Pie stay exactly where they are, magnetised to the layline and genuinely moved by the power of music – truly an amazing experience to behold. You see that’s part of the magic of Glastonbury; artists like U2, Elbow, Don McLean, Beyonce, Radiohead, Plan B, Primal Scream, Fisherman’s Friends, etc., can share the same stage and gain the same attention, respect and devotion from the audience.

That’s all down to Michael Eavis’ vision for Glastonbury.
If an artist is great Michael wants to try to find a spot for them at Glastonbury.

With an audience of 140,000 (plus performers, crew, staff, traders, stewards, security etc.,) it is officially the 3rd largest village in the SW of England over that weekend; bigger even than Bath!

This year was the 41st anniversary of first festival and the 30th actual festival and Michael had 1939 acts playing on 51 stages!

On top of that there was a Cinema, (Pilton Pavilion); the Kidz field; Circus tents; healing fields; dance tents; spaces for poetry, cabaret, comedy, talks and workshops. There are regular festival goers who never visit a single music stage over the course of the entire weekend. Still even for them there’s just so much going on they never get a chance to do all the things they wish to do.

Me, I’m happy just to wander around knowing there is the chance I’ll be able to experience the unique and soulful Glastonbury Roar.

And now the bit before I go...

This time I’ve seen:

Larry Crowe
X Men
Senna (amazing!)
Water For Elephants.
Wallander – the first 2 Swedish series. (Consistently incredible, the best TV detective series since Morse)
Life – the first 2 series – I’m still trying to work out why this got cancelled after the 2nd series.

And read:

Hans Fallada – Alone in Berlin

And heard:

Live Taste – Taste CD – very exciting and shows the band at their peak. I was disappointed though to see that the sleeve notes I did for the original vinyl album (1972) haven’t survived. This was my first professional engagement as it were. Well… it wasn’t really professional in the true sense of the word in that I didn’t get paid for my work. Eddie Kennedy, the Taste manager, said at the time he commissioned me that I could either receive a payment or a credit on the sleeve for my work, but not both. Vanity won out.
Dylan at Finsbury Park – a legendary performance.
Christy Moore & Declan Sinnott at Finsbury Park – working men in their prime.
Ray Davies his band, Choir & Orchestra @ The Meltdown Festival – a major treat.
Alan Price Set @ The Meltdown Festival – his between song chat is hilarious but didn’t distract from his perfect performance. He was in fine voice and he did all the songs and hits you long for.
Michael Eavis @ The Meltdown Festival – enlightening and inspiring.
Several Glastonbury Roars

Until the next time…