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Glastonbury 2011, part 1

Watching Radiohead in the mud and other endurance tests

Glastonbury 2011

By Kier Wiater-Carnihan

Four years ago I found myself huddled in the corner of a tea tent at the end of a particularly sodden Glastonbury festival. It was 2am. I'd lost my friends. My phone was dead. The rain had been raging all night, and even inside the puddles were a foot deep. The “designer drug” I'd taken earlier had apparently been designed to induce chronic fear, isolation and discomfort, feelings that weren't exactly in short supply to begin with. I couldn't sleep because the tent I'd borrowed had a miniature version of the Ganges flowing through it. Fighting despair, I watched a fat, semi-naked Geordie cackle maniacally while furiously rubbing his pendulous, rain-spattered man-breasts. And it was at this moment I decided that I would never attend Glastonbury again.

So when four days ago I disembarked the coach outside the gates of the world's largest music festival and surveyed the dark, dribbling clouds overhead, I had to remind myself why the hell I was back here. I turned back as the coach driver opened the hold, just in time to see my sleeping bag fall straight out into a muddy puddle. This was not an auspicious start.

Glastonbury, more than any other music festival (apart from that one in Scandinavia where the sun doesn't set the entire weekend and everyone subsists on whale blubber and vodka), is an endurance test. It's sheer size means that even in good conditions you do a lot of walking; according to my phone's pedometer I walked about 15 kilometres on Sunday just between stages. Furthermore, when it's wet you can add at least 50% to your journey times – the mud sucks your feet down with every step and a lot of the time, judging by the many abandoned boots that litter the site come Monday, it doesn't let them back up.

And yet people come back in larger numbers every year, many queueing to enter on Tuesday even though the main stages don't start till Friday. By Thursday morning, finding space to pitch a tent is nigh impossible. Even though there's never been a greater alternative of other music festivals to visit in Britain, not to mention cheaper overseas events, tickets still sell out before the line-up is even announced.

Partly this is because the scope of the festival goes way beyond music. There are areas given over entirely to politics, theatre and alternative therapies, while the Kidz Field alone constitutes the country's largest children's festival in its own right. There's a skate park, four cinemas (one solar-powered), two recording studios and endless oddities like Ken Fox's Wall Of Death, a 18ft high wooden cylinder built for maniacs to ride vintage motorcycles around at death-defying speeds. One area, Shangri-La, is transformed into a futuristic urban dystopia where “infected” visitors are required to visit Guerilla Science's ( guerillascience.co.uk) foreboding Decontamination Unit for moral and physical purification. Across the tracks a life-size recreation of a destroyed tower block sits opposite a decaying New York back alley where transvestites perform through cavernous gaps in the brickwork. I'm not sure what the obsession with transforming idyllic countryside into urban chaos is all about but it does look damn impressive.

The music still remains the main attraction here mind, and at noon on Friday Metronomy welcome eager ears to hear musical snapshots from “The English Riviera”, their latest and finest album. However, the summery flavour of songs like euphoric new single “The Bay” is somewhat spoilt by the menacing clouds prowling behind the Pyramid Stage, and yet it's still not dark enough for the electronic light discs on their shirts to be visible. Sometimes you just can't win.

For the first part of their set the synths seem a little stark, leaving an awkward unbalance that the soundman fortunately soon sorts out. The band visibly relaxes, with keyboardist Oscar Cash throwing shapes during the older numbers and bassist Gbenga Adelakan and drummer Anna Prior beaming throughout. The catchy end-of-the-pier organ of “The Look” is a highlight, and frontman Joseph Mount seems blown away to be playing on the main stage, admitting, “I've never had such an amazing chance to say something really profound to so many people...but I can't actually think of anything!” If their current rich vein continues then there should be plenty more opportunities in the future.

From there we move over to what used to be the Jazz/World Stage, now rechristened the West Holts Stage (presumably they realised the name was a bit misleading since they hardly ever book jazz acts to play it). It's the perfect place for Dengue Fever to play their unique brand of surf, psych and Cambodian pop. They're visually appealing too.

Between the diminutive singer, gigantic bassist, seedy trumpeter and hirsute guitarist they look like the cast of a hard-boiled pulp novel about a sultry karaoke singer, a misunderstood bouncer, a corrupt nightclub owner and the detective with the ZZ Top beard who tries to take him out. They end with a barnstorming tear-through of “One Thousand Tears Of A Tarantula”, which could be the novel's title.

Back at the Pyramid Stage, Wu-Tang Clan are regaling the crowd with their own tales of underground shenanigans. Despite nearing twenty years as an outfit they remain surprisingly badass, the dusty beats of tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” still sounding fresh after all these years. Method Man runs the show, engaging the crowd and looking visibly moved when they respond by enthusiastically joining in with a tribute to the dearly departed Ol' Dirty Bastard. The show is low on theatricals but high on enthusiasm as they know they have hip-hop classics to spare, even if the rapping isn't always as crisp as it is on record. “Gravel Pit” in particular gets a huge response, as does “Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit” which gets twisted, bizarrely, into a statement on British customs officials.

They then clear the stage to make way for blues legend B.B. King. After his band perform an extended warm up, the octogenarian shuffles on-stage and lowers himself into a chair before receiving his guitar like it's a holy relic. “I want to boogie with you, but I'm a little old...” he explains, gyrating his hips uncomfortably. Instead he lets his fingers dance for him, moving around the fretboard with a nimbleness that defies his years. While I've never been a fan of his particular take on the blues there's no doubting the man's talent, even if much of the set does sound a bit samey. His voice probably sounds better than ever though, rattling with some of the cracked fragility that made Johnny Cash's final work so touching.

The King of the Blues might have trouble with his hips, but at the tiny Stonebridge Bar rapper DELS is suffering from issues of a more technical nature. Taking to the stage massively late to an accordingly sparse crowd, the bass guitar appears to cut out almost immediately, never to return. This effectively reduces their planned set to a mere five tracks, and the Ipswich-born rapper never really looks comfortable with the situation. Fortunately his band raise their game, with the heavier sections of tracks like “Moonshining” packing a huge wallop. There might not be many people watching, but almost all of them are dancing. Del-Boy himself finally bursts into life on the magnificent “Shapeshift”, but as on record sometimes his rapping is outshone by the beats that are supposed to be backing it. “If you want to hear what we actually sound like come to the Dance Village on Sunday”, he says at the end, clearly pissed off with the equipment failure. Hopefully that show worked out better, but no one here seems disappointed with what they got.

The same, surprisingly, cannot be said about Radiohead's secret performance. Well, I say secret, but it seems pretty much everyone knows what to expect as they flood towards the Park Stage trying to secure a decent spot, of which there are few. See, a secret gig at a smaller stage is all well and good if it actually stays a secret. When it doesn't you just end up with a lot of people who can't see or hear what's going on. It ends up being a bit of a joke – while the people who can actually see are applauding the band's arrival on-stage, the majority are chanting “Who are ya?”, apart from one wag who exclaims, “Yes, it's Take That!” Three songs in another joker climbs on his mate's back, cranes for a view, then turns to his mates and yells, “Hey guys, it's Radiohead!”.

Perhaps this is a subtle criticism of the band's choice to draw predominantly on material from “The King Of Limbs”, an album which seems to have underwhelmed much of their fanbase. It's harsh if so, as most of these songs actually sound much better live. The verse of “Morning Mr Magpie” grows into a fantastic Talking Heads groove, whereas “Little By Little” is garlanded with a tasty new samba rhythm. But while the band certainly seem to be having fun with it, out in the audience the driving rain, poor sound and poorer views are not so enjoyable. You have to question the intelligence of having such high profile “special guests” on stages that aren't big enough to accommodate them. I'm sure the people nearer the front had a fine time, but ten times as many could've done so in a larger area.

By this point one of our party is having trouble remaining upright in the now perilously sticky mud, so we're forced to retreat to a nearby café. The sound from the stage is actually not much worse from here, but any hopes of salvaging something from this experience are dashed when the café's DJ puts on an album by The Darkness. From the prospect of a secret Radiohead gig to a damp box of greasy potato wedges and The Darkness. The fucking Darkness. This is definitely a low point. I start nervously looking around, expecting to see a fat naked Geordie laughing in the rain.

Thankfully he never appears, and a haunting “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” does reach us from afar, as does the yet-to-be-released gospel-tinged piano growler that is “The Daily Mail”. However, as the crowds fade and the increasingly cold rain beats down, the mood is getting increasingly morose. Luckily Dan Snaith's Caribou soon ride into The Park to lift the mood. When they're on form Caribou can blow away almost any band live. I'm not generally keen on bands turning every single song into an extended eleven-minute psychedelic rave banger but somehow they always make it seem so right. You get the impression they really enjoy walking that tightrope between experimenting with their material and entertaining a crowd, as they rarely teeter or fall off. Tonight they blast out a rapturous “Odessa” before offering up the pounding “Sun” as a sacrifice to the Glastonbury weather gods. It seems to work, as we see no more rain after tonight.

It's still spitting over Cee-Lo Green's closing set at the West Holts though, but this dampens neither his spirit nor his elaborate costume, which from a distance makes him look like King Bowser from Super Mario Bros. We get there just in time for a crowd pleasing finale of “Crazy” and “Fuck You”, during which the crowd eagerly raise their middle fingers while singing along. For some reason this is followed by a dubious cover of “Don't Stop Believin’ ”, which as a rule should really be punishable by death. Although he'd probably just take you out with a fireball if you tried.

With the main music finished for the night, it's time to watch some experimental Russian dancers manipulate floating metallic balls and bowls of alien placenta while a voiceover snarls “WE HATE YOU” over and over in the background. This is what happens when you start walking into random tents at Glastonbury. Like I said, it's an endurance test. And it's only Friday... Why do we go to Glastonbury? Do we love walking in the mud? Kier Wiater-Carnihan swore to himself that he’d never go to that hell again, but there he was, watching DELS, Radiohead, Metronomy, Cee-Lo Green and other acts of the Friday line-up. That was a test for the brave. And there’s more to follow…

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