on being weird: Glastonbury as a journey: part two.
As a music festival Glastonbury’s scale seems unsurpassed. Many stories are told, many lives are led, and each one appears to follow a different path. I’ve heard stories of people’s experiences that are almost entirely different to mine, as if they went to a wholly different festival. I’ve met people who’ve never seen the sun rise from the stone circle or experienced some of the more absurd tents that can be found dotted around. I, for instance, have never really spent much time in Arcadia, which I know is a firm favourite of many, long enough to properly take it in. It just something that I’ve never done. Although my friends and I only appeared on the Saturday and stayed until Monday morning it still felt all-encompassing. I guess it has something to do with the gigantic nature of the event which with every turn entrances and captivates. There is always another place to visit, always another activity to involve yourself in.
And so it was on that Saturday afternoon that as we entered the great mass of fields, what was distant became close and what was close enveloped us. All that remains now is a vision in a dream. A block of time separated and cut off from the world around it, a little slice that exists detached.
My memory of that particular evening exists in a swirl as if time flits back and forth from one series of events to another. At times it’s dark and the pills have kicked in forcing us merrily to accept the bizarre circus of tents and bars, entertainers and musicians. We look around meeting people’s wide-eyed stares with our own wide eyes and grin vacuously in every direction. At other times the sun is still up and too much cheap vodka has sent us into a frenzy of activity as we make new friends and cheer excitedly at each song performed before us. In particular, the Rabbit Hole holds a certain place for me as we neared the height of our intoxication and all about us fell like a breaking wave as if all we could know was ourselves. As we stormed about below that stage performing bugged out ritualistic dances the band onstage kept the pulsating rhythms alive. They appeared to us as a tribal, spiritualistic element throwing out their flowing throng of sound to us and us only. They had a certain magic to them as if they were in perfect harmony with the universe. Somehow they belonged at Glastonbury, specifically to play for us at that moment in time. It turned out that band was Quintessence, a psychedelic rock band who, through some incredible serendipity, had performed first on the bill at the first ever Glastonbury back in 1970. Was this fate drawing us closer to the meaning of all of this?
From there we stumbled through the small crowd and out into the evening sun. Laura Marlin had just started her first number, and though I recall her voice the rest of the performance is lost time, never to be returned. From there my mind jumps to another place, again identified by the position of the sun. This time it’s morning and I’m staring out at Glastonbury from the stone circle with barely a thought in my mind but conscious of the restless beauty of the place. It appears from the stone circle as if it’s constantly moving, like staring down at an ant hill throbbing with the movement of thousands of tiny parts all somehow interlinked. As I get up and walk to my tent this thought becomes more real as even at this late time hundreds of people are still to be seen carrying out their business.
When I wake up it’s Sunday morning and I’m stuck in a stranger’s sweltering tent. The heat has made any sort of rest inside unbearable as the air has become so dry it makes it hard to breath. After making it outside I’m surrounded by a group of people who I had only met a few hours previous. Although I try to make it to see Villagers I’m exhausted from the lack of sleep and find some cooler, yet still stifling, shade under a nearby gazebo which allows me further rest. Although it wasn’t supposed to work like this Sunday is the only day of band gazing that I’m left with and my listings tells me that I’ll mostly be trying to have a blissed out experience to the bands on the Other Stage all day – and of course rounding it off with a large dose of Stevie Wonder. After returning to my tent to collect my remaining supplies of alcohol I meet up with my friends and we listen to the just-perceptible sounds of the fated England game being played over near the John Peel Stage (I think). My Irish girlfriend mocks me for my misplaced belief in the national team but fortunately I leave to see Grizzly Bear before the goals start flooding in. I swear it was our year, anyone who tells me otherwise is obviously not to be trusted.
Grizzly Bear have long been one of my favourite bands ever since I first heard Yellow House sometime around early 2008. There is something strangely captivating in Yellow House; I guess it sounds very American, like a journey on a great highway through the mid-west or gazing at Colorado’s vast mountains. Even the title is reminiscent of some old farmstead gradually being weathered as the yellow paint peels off. Veckatimest was a more mature affair, brought to life by its well-considered structural arrangements, yet the experimentalism that was in Yellow House is even further pronounced in Veckatimest than it was previously. And as I sit there and watch them play I’m also trying to convince my friend of their greatness but even as I tell him of the joyful subtlety of On a Neck, On a Spit, or how Two Weeks is an update on the blissful psychedelia of the Yellow House era, I feel I’m losing the battle. The sound isn’t quite right from where we are sitting, the wind is carrying the sound about to and fro dissolving some of the more intricate qualities that Grizzly Bear are known for. As the set ends I am left wondering what it would be like if we’d seen the band at one of the smaller tents, and I’m sure it would have been exceptional.
From here we go on a fairly unremarkable adventure to see Gang of Four tear about the stage as aged men are want to do but we return back to the Other Stage after a number of minutes have passed, not wishing to get too involved in the harsh, industrial noises that are being emitted from the stage. And so the next act we see are Glastonbury favourites MGMT. I saw these when they played back in 2008 at the Park Stage. Their music was fresh and exciting, the sun was setting gloriously behind them and it all commingled within me to reduce my mind to one harmonious entity, quivering with joy and at one with all around me. This time would be slightly different. I was neither high, nor did their music sound as fresh as it once did. Yet somehow it was their newest material that caught my attention the most. Much derided by critics as an introspective and egotistical album, Congratulations seems unlikely to wield big festival hits. However both Flash Delirium and Brian Eno seem to work marvellously and it remained to the title track Congratulations to close the set on a supremely blissful high reminiscent of 2008’s mind-altering performance.
After MGMT we flit across to the Pyramid Stage glimpsing Faithless momentarily before deciding on a new path and so move on listlessly. At some point however we make the decision to return to the Other Stage and watch LCD Soundsystem. After announcing their break-up earlier this year this becomes a pretty much must-see event. Although Murphy hasn’t retired himself and there will no doubt be more to come from him, to see LCD Soundsystem on their last procession towards band heaven was a joy. They play an astonishingly tight set (as if they’re renowned for anything else) reeling off the hits from all three albums and finishing on Yeah which storms by in all its disco beauty.
The light starts to recede from the sky as we make our way slowly towards the Pyramid Stage and we settle for a spot on the left of the stage just beyond the sound desk. The climax of the whole event, we feel, is about to happen. There seems to be an enormous sense of joy centred within the crowd and soon enough it begins as Stevie Wonder walks on to the stage.
Stevie Wonder is an odd fellow, he has a strange sense of humour that seems so childlike in the face of his prestige. Yet even though it seems to jar with his incredible professionalism he offers something like no other headliner could: a sense of humour and absurdity. It fits perfectly with the festival however, which if nothing else is completely absurd. And this only serves to woo me further. How could you not love the man, even if you don’t like his music (unlikely), his persona is strong enough to bring everyone together on this last night. His final act is to perform a tribute to Glastonbury and its founder Michael Eavis by playing that well-known song of yearly celebration Happy Birthday. It seems almost too perfect for this to happen, and it provides a glorious closure to events. As the night rolls on we leave the Pyramid Stage and embrace the darkness. With the weekend coming to a close it seems only appropriate to celebrate it in the same way as we arrived with more bleary eyed visions and the smell of alcohol on our breath.