By Kier Wiater-Carnihan
There's no doubting the demographic of Glastonbury has changed dramatically over the years. While you can still find a few hippies and crusties merrily yoghurt-weaving in the Green Fields, these days you're more likely to meet a lawyer than a druid at the Pyramid Stage. Despite this, there are still some attempts to acknowledge the festival's origins. For instance, this year sees the appearance of the Spirit Of '71 Stage, featuring performances from many artists (and occasionally their children) who performed here forty years ago. However, the area remains reasonably empty throughout the festival. Maybe the old hippies feel patronised by being pandered to in this way. Or maybe there just aren't that many old hippies here any more. The changing make-up of the audience is reflected in what at first glance appears to be the least adventurous Glastonbury line-up in history. Coldplay may have mastered their art (be it “music for bed-wetters” or not) but they're no one's idea of an exciting headliner. Beyoncé is a more interesting proposition, but still nowhere near capable of generating the controversy of hubby Jay-Z's appearance in 2008. U2 do manage to cause something of a stir, but mainly because a planned protest against the band's tax arrangements (existing as tax exiles while their country's economy goes down the toilet) is immediately quashed by surprisingly zealous security officials. And while their Friday night set does draw the expected army of fans, I've never heard a headliner attacked so much across the rest of the site – from jibes in the comedy tent to Cassetteboy & DJ Rubbish appearing dressed as the band on Sunday morning to a chorus of boos. Antipathy easily outweighs kindness towards the Irish rockers. While the bigger stages offer slim pickings, greater scrutiny of the truly humongous line-up reveals plenty of excitement elsewhere. The West Holts Stage has the best line-up on Saturday, where Omar Souleyman greets a crowd ready to worship both the Syrian superstar's up-tempo rhythms and the long-awaited re-emergence of the sun. He may have a Mark E. Smith-bothering 500 releases under his belt, but it's only since Sublime Frequencies started putting out compilations of his work that he's come to wider attention in the West. His popularity in the Arab nations meanwhile is highlighted by the amount of Middle-Eastern musicians from other bands that have flocked to witness his appearance.
Previously I'd only seen YouTube clips of him performing, often at weddings, and in comparison the meagre size of his entourage is slightly disappointing. I was hoping to at least see the poet who supposedly whispers words into Omar's ear for him to sing, but today there's only a keyboardist cueing beats and a man alternating between a hand drum and a stringed instrument I'm unable to identify, rattling out licks at breakneck speed. When he isn't employing his remarkable voice, Omar himself does little more than stroll back and forth in his trademark sunglasses and occasionally beckon to the crowd, who lap up every note. Though the pumping beats sometimes suggest the Arabic equivalent ofEuro-Pop, it nevertheless goes down a treat in the sunshine.
The weather does tend to improve audience reactions, which may partly explain the absolutely enormous following that has turned out to see Tinie Tempah on the Pyramid Stage. Then again he has managed over a million downloads in the US so far, cementing his position as the biggest British rap artist since Dizzee Rascal. It's not strictly rap though, incorporating elements of electro and even drum n' bass as it does into a cocktail that ultimately can only be described as pop. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as his pop is a fair bit better than most of the nauseating efforts in the charts right now. He certainly seems at ease in front of a crowd that surely must be the biggest he's ever performed in front of. Christ, he could almost be doing a karaoke set down the local boozer he's so relaxed. Impressive for a man barely into his twenties.
There may not be much room down the front for Tinie, but Gold Panda doesn't have that problem. Granted, this is mainly because he's playing the striking Cubehenge area where, weirdly, the loudest speakers are at the back, meaning many people sacrifice clear views for clearer sound. There's not much to see here anyway, with Derwin Panda hiding behind hood and headphones as he lets the music take precedence. It's fantastic music too, with the 90s rave of “Marriage” really hitting that sweet spot. Derwin decides against altering his tunes too much. Indeed, at times only the odd squelch or filter manipulation remind you he's there at all. The audience could be forgiven for feeling cheated but the uplifting, pastoral brilliance of his music fits the scene so well that nobody cares (apart from when he maybe takes away the beat once too often). He rightly chooses to end with the break-core majesty of “Win-San Western” which sends everyone off buzzing.
After Friday's secret gig from Radiohead, today's mystery should be which special guest will be appearing at the Park Stage, except a national newspaper has already revealed it's Pulp. While it would be fantastic to see Jarvis et al strutting their stuff at The Park, the memory of the sightless Radiohead crush and dodgy sound mean that the West Holts looks like a more attractive option, where Aloe Blacc is making a smooth entrance. Dressed up to the nines and with a band tighter than a cat's bum, his cheerful, classic take on soul is like being smothered in sun cream before being exposed to the hot stars appearing after him. He exploits “I Need A Dollar”, his biggest hit and probably the best song Bill Withers never wrote, by bookending his set with its instantly recognisable piano riff. A crowd-pleasing ploy, the only downside of which is that his other songs pale slightly in comparison.
Sadly for him though, the whole performance is overshadowed by the one given later by the irrepressible Janelle Monáe. The costumes are spectacular, the dancing energetic, and the music bouncier than a rubber spaniel. She's flanked by two dancers as she enters the stage, all three looking like ewoks in long hooded robes before she suddenly reveals herself in a stylish black three-piece suit and begins belting out tune after tune. I have to admit that her “The ArchAndroid” album is sometimes a little too eccentric (seriously, read the sleeve notes, she's totally doolally) but here she produces a set as cohesive as it is spectacular. Pandering to a crowd that's clearly up for a party, she chucks in a couple of Motown covers including a take on The Jackson 5's “I Want You Back” that's so uncannily accurate you wonder whether she's miming to a little Michael Jackson clone tied up backstage.
For pure entertainment value, it easily surpasses anything else seen over the entire weekend. At one point the entire band slowly quietens until they're all actually lying on the floor in the dark, before they leap up and piggyback the singer into the crowd. At another, a canvas is brought on-stage and Monáe decides to paint a ladies arse on it. Why? No idea! Who fucking cares! All I know is that I'm damn envious of her band, who all look like they're having a ball. And with a pint-sized dynamo like that conducting them, I'm not surprised.
Monáe was a backing singer for OutKast back in the day and for now it seems she's still playing second fiddle as Big Boi takes to the stage for his West Holts headline set. He has the advantage of a huge back catalogue of hits from which he selects judiciously, although there's something a bit weird about him doing a cover of “Ms. Jackson” without Andre 3000 being there, what with it being a massively personal account of the latter's break-up with Erykah Badu. To be honest, it's hard not to regret the absence of his erstwhile cohort as his quirky imagination is the perfect foil to Big Boi's heavier flow. It's still unclear when a new OutKast album will see the light of the day (probably not for a couple of years at least), and as accomplished as Big Boi is tonight, many will be hoping that next time he plays here it's alongside his old partner. Thus ends a superb night's action on the West Holts Stage, but the music isn't over yet; over on the G Stage the mercurial Lee Scratch Perry is just beginning a richly dubby, laid-back set for a tight clutch of appreciative onlookers. His vocals are unintelligible for the most part, but it hardly matters as punters are already collapsing against tree trunks as 'chronic exhaustion' starts to hit. Did I say punters? Sorry, I meant me. Thus my memories of his performance are a little hazy, but I definitely remember being very, very happy, for which he has to take some credit. While the end of his performance signals the close of the night's music on the main stages, that doesn't mean it's the same across the plethora of smaller venues sprinkled over the site. We end up settling at the cosy Small World Stage where a band called The Fat 45s are producing endless slabs of authentic jump blues, including a fantastic cover of Jesse Powell & Fluffy Hunter's “Walkin' Blues”. They play for bloody ages, mostly because the audience refuses to let them leave, but it's no disaster when they do as Sam And The Womp are more than happy to maintain the tempo with their mix of Balkan brass and bass-driven beats. The only problem with such non-stop entertainment is it makes it hard to ever get some sleep... Getting up the next morning is much easier. So far, even in the cooler weather, tents have become uncomfortably hot by around 10am, forcing people to emerge slimy and sleep-deprived into the open air, but today few sleep in even that late as the sun turns the festival into an unholy furnace. The only thing drying up quicker than the mud is the skin on some naked hippies in the Stone Circle, already turning hot pink as their floppy willies flap in a refreshing breeze, which everyone is grateful for (the breeze, that is, not the willies). Thankfully only the flags are rippling back at West Holts, where Jah Wobble & The Nippon Dub Ensemble are providing the one prescription necessary on days like this: lots and lots of reggae. Covers of “You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)” and “I'm Still In Love With You” go down a treat, so much so that no one even complains when we're warned, “don't get scared, but we're going to play a bit of jazz.” It's all lazily lush, and as you'd expect the bass is reassuringly fat. Afterwards many start moving towards the main stage where Laura Marling is finishing an assured-sounding set of earnest folk, but most are waiting for Paul Simon to take them on a trip to “Graceland”. The man himself is looking a little lukewarm and gets his excuses in early, “I'm suffering from a throat infection so if I'm not at the top of my game, that's the reason.” Perhaps that's why he gets the audience-friendly “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” in so early. The crowd may be pleased, but to be honest it sends me to sleep. Literally. I wake up from my slumber just in time to hear a final chorus “You Can Call Me Al”, but, to be honest, I don't feel like I've missed much. No one seems to want to miss any of Plan B though, who manages to pull an even bigger crowd. It's been an astonishingly successful re-branding operation that sees the former rapper occupying the main stage as Britain's premier white soul singer (at least until Winehouse sobers up for long enough to finish a song), so much so that he doesn't play a single track from his début album “Who Needs Action When You Got Words”. While you can appreciate that some of the significantly darker earlier material might not be entirely appropriate for a sunny Sunday at Glastonbury, it still seems like a bizarre erasing of history, and even a bit of a kick in the teeth to older fans. To be fair not many people seem bothered, and you can't deny the man's voice is incredibly versatile. The set is let down however by an ill-advised “karaoke section” where “Kiss From A Rose” and “Stand By Me” are awkwardly mutated into a beatbox-heavy extravaganza that fails completely. There's enough dodgy karaoke swamping mainstream culture as it is with The X-Factor and American Idol, and Plan B's covers have the unfortunate effect of making his original songs suddenly sound like they might be covers too, a tribute to their authenticity but also indicative that his work is not always particularly original. Fortunately the day is saved by a barnstorming performance of “Stay Too Long” during which he flips out and starts attacking his own band in a presumably staged demonstration of just how damn passionate he is. But it's only at moments like this, when the amps are cranked up high, that his music shows comparable muscle. In contrast, Lykke Li's performance at the Park Stage is at its most immaculate when the volume drops and she has to almost whisper out her words with breathtaking control. While her studio recordings sometimes come off over-polished and even a little sterile, here everything works. A beautiful rendition of “Little Bit” is the highlight of a luscious set, although I'm probably being biased as it has special place for me and my significant other, who happen to be halfway through celebrating a memorable anniversary. It's the perfect accompaniment to the sight of the sun, less scorching now, drifting down towards the horizon. The odd thing is, she has the crowd in the palm of her hand and doesn't even know it. “You're all so quiet and standing so still, I just can't take it!”, she complains, apparently convinced the crowd are bored rather than awestruck. It's odd that she seems to expect everyone to boogaloo to songs that aren't really all that danceable, and criticising the crowd at Glastonbury is a bit thick really, but the music remains utterly charming despite this error of judgement.
It's not a mistake that Queens Of The Stone Age even come close to making. From the start it's clear the band are stoked to be closing the Other Stage, with Josh Homme cooing “Glastonbury, you're fucking beautiful” whenever the stage-lights illuminate the audience. The band also guarantee a crowd-pleasing set by revealing that every song they play has been voted for by fans on their website, a system more artists should adopt if they want to ensure a perfect festival show. They open at blistering pace, with “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” shifting straight into “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” just like it does on “Rated R”. As a way of introducing themselves it's like turning up to a party and being given a line of coke and a blowjob before you're even through the door. As a result, they seem completely indifferent to the fact that Beyoncé is wowing a crowd twice the size just behind them. When Homme mentions her name the crowd start booing, but he halts them, insisting “no, no, no man, I'd like to put a ring on it! I'm just not gonna tell you where I wanna put the ring...”. He later says he wants to go out so loud that “Beyonce feels it in her bones.” Raunchy stuff. Admittedly, this isn't a classic Queens line-up compared to the one that appeared at Glastonbury in 2002. It's still one of my greatest regrets that I missed Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri perform on this stage just after the release of “Songs For The Deaf”, and thus I can't compare this set to what I imagine was a mindblowing experience back then, save to say the drummer does a great job matching all of Grohl's incredible fills during a riotous blast through “A Song For The Dead”. Meanwhile the opening riff to “Better Living Through Chemistry” suddenly sounds like the start of a lost Radiohead classic before descending into a feedback-drenched volley of brutal solos. A Lanegan-esque growl or Oliveri howl wouldn't have gone amiss here and there, but it's still by far the heaviest and most exhilarating music I hear anywhere all weekend. And though they're missing other personnel, they still have the inimitable Josh Homme, constantly puffing at cigarettes during solos despite never seeming to actually light them. Alongside Janelle Monáe he's a good shout for coolest person at the festival. Jesus, I'd love to hear what a collaboration between those two would sound like... By now the stages are starting to shut and there's little going on at the Spirit Of ‘71 Stage as we wander past, but the Spirit of ‘91 is in evidence over the road as Stereo MCs bash out their best baggy beats in front of an adoring audience at the G Stage. They're a lot more fun than I expect, and though frontman Rob Birch might look like he's taken a death-defying quantity of drugs down the years, he leads each chorus with the enthusiasm of a man half his age. While this is the sort of thing you might find at a number of festivals this year, the night ends with an experience you could only find at Glastonbury, when we find ourselves crawling through a cement pipe into an alternative universe apparently carved out of the mud. A grand stage complete with giant organ and royal box is flanked by stalls, a bar and even a crows nest. The entire thing looks like the set of an abandoned Terry Gilliam film. To make it even more surprising, I walked past the site just two days ago and there was nothing but a lot of stressed looking Irishmen labouring behind a large canvas. As we enter, a masked man on stage is playing a game called “Smash Hits”. Records handed down to him from the royal box are played on an ancient gramophone, and if people decide they're no good he snatches them off and smashes them over the head of anyone standing nearby. It's anarchic, endearing and completely insane. A man starts playing a hip hop medley on an acoustic guitar. I look around and the entire place is united in a chorus of “Gansta's Paradise”. Wax drips from the candelabras onto people's heads. Nobody cares. Through a gap in the canvas I see the sun starting to rise. And for a moment I don't want it to ever end. Need a Glastonbury round-up with no winning references to Coldplay or U2? Here you have it: a different approach to the world’s largest festival, with the two triumphant acts in Kier Wiater-Carnihan’s opinion being Janelle Monáe and Queens Of The Stone Age. No mud this time, though.
Glastonbury 2011, part 1: Watching Radiohead in the mud and other endurance tests