The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts is a place and time where one can observe a man dressed as a whoopee cushion eating a curry. It’s a place you may find a pudgy Darth Vader, sans helmet, enjoying a cold beer in the rain. In a crowd of nearly 200,000, all converging on a sprawling dairy farm for a weekend of escapism, one is bound to run into a few eccentrics. At the Glastonbury Festival you will find circus tents, cabaret acts, comedians, magicians, art galleries, and poets, as well as an endless array of food, drinks, and less legal substances to be ingested. Oh, and apparently there is some music as well.
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Don't Forget Your Wellies: Glastonbury 2008
The rain pelted my flimsy $15 tent through the night, resulting in a few puddles. Fortunately, I had invested in a pair of wellies (think galoshes, Yanks). Even the most elaborately costumed attendees sported these dark green knee-high boots, as the mud in some areas was an almost knee deep slurry. Everyone spent the first day engaged in what I like to call the “Glastonbury Shuffle”, which is the wiggly, cautious trudge that one must use in order to keep from falling in the mud. I made my way through the rain down to the main Pyramid stage for the morning’s first performance.
Did Garden State change your life? Do you plaster your Facebook profile with worn Holly Golightly and Jack Kerouac quotes or precocious nonsense like “I like pink Post-it notes” and “I should have been born in the ‘30s” in an attempt to communicate your freewheeling teenage spirit? Well friend, Kate Nash is right up your street. She speak-sings boring (but real!) lyrics about first dates and breakups in second person narrative with zero stage presence. It’s only appropriate, perhaps, that she rose to prominence via MySpace. Seriously, Internet, this is the best you got? I liked you better when you were all about downloading single-track bootlegs of Zaireeka and not pushing coffee shop girlies to the main stage at the biggest music festival in the world.
Oh well, at least Be Your Own Pet is up next. Maybe Jemina Pearl’s caterwaul will wash the Nash out of my mouth, right? Woops! They’ve pulled out at the last minute, leaving the Rascals in their stead. Britain’s rock scene is still rife with samey post-punk revival bands attempting to ride the Franz Ferdinand wave, but the Rascals actually have something new to offer. The three-piece create a full sound, with interesting guitar effects that recall Wire or Mission of Burma. Lead singer Miles Kane menacingly rolls his “r"s like Johnny Rotten, but his efforts don’t quite rescue the Rascals from being another of the many slightly above average white British guitar bands to be found at Glastonbury
Glasvegas boast a sound that seems consciously designed to disarm critics—if you’re going to rip off a band, you could do worse than the Jesus and Mary Chain. With plenty of “ooh-wa-ooh’s” and other Phil Spector flourishes, Glasvegas is a bit more accessible than their noisy progenitors, but that’s not to say the band’s sound is watered down, just more focused on the syrupy sounds of ‘60s R&B than noise. Wrapped up in denim and black leather, and bathed in red fog for the entirety of their set, the band cruised through a series of sublime soda shop tragedies. If Amy Winehouse can make it to the top by refreshing the Stax/Motown side of the ‘60s soul spectrum, I see no reason why Glasvegas can’t do the same for the Four Seasons and the Shangri-Las.
Next up was Vampire Weekend. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the group, but I just can’t resist their boyish charm. How can anyone not like these guys? The singer looks like he’s on the verge of cracking up, the bass player jerks and springs like one of those push-puppet figurines that collapse when you push the button, and the music is distilled feel-good. Ezra Koenig looks as though he tickles the sounds out of his guitar. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band who seem to enjoy what they are doing as much as Vampire Weekend. I might be able to enjoy it too if the guy in front of me wasn’t waving a flag emblazoned with a smiley face smoking a joint. Why, hello 1990, I didn’t know you were here.
I made my way over to the Jazz World stage to see the legendary Candi Staton, who gave us a sampling of songs from her gospel, R&B, and disco eras, the latter of which, in the form of “Young Hearts Run Free”, was met with thunderous applause. She’s remained popular here in the UK due to her smash early ‘90s club hit, “You’ve Got the Love”. She’s spent recent years winning Dove awards on the gospel circuit, but recently released His Hands, a collaboration with Will Oldham, among others, that’s been hailed as her return to soul. Today she wowed us with the rollicking “I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool)”, “Suspicious Minds”, and an even-more-heartbreaking-than-Elvis rendition of “In the Ghetto”.
Following Candi Staton at the Jazz World stage was Lupe Fiasco, who began his set with little fanfare. Looking like Morpheus, with black trench coat, leather pants and shades, his smiling church boy enthusiasm and “positive” lyrics made for yet another sunshiney performance, despite the ever-present fog and drizzle. Like a half-dozen other artists I saw, he made time for a lazy “F-You” to Bush, which is apparently the new, “Everybody say ‘Yeah’!”
Hercules and Love Affair
Glastonbury boasts eight stages devoted to dance music, one of which hosted this year’s models, Hercules and Love Affair. The musicality of this group is impressive, and all the live instrumentation kept it interesting. It was here, however, that I became even more aware of the contrasts between British and American dance culture. Hercules and Love Affair looked like they walked straight out of the “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” video. And yet, the tent was full of the British equivalent to Larry the Cable Guy. In America, this type of fellow would kick the crap out of you for implying that Chevy is better than Ford. Throughout the festival, the dance tents were consistently filled to the brim with these E’d up thugs. I suppose America’s dance scene is more directly tied to the gay club culture of ‘70s Chicago and Detroit. Also, since Britain is mostly urban, and the British underclass could never really call hip hop their own, what else is there to do on a Friday night other than take lots of cheap drugs and dance the night away? This analysis is brought to you by someone who knows jack about the dynamics of British sexuality.
I stuck around the dance stages to see Roisin Murphy. I had only seen Ms. Murphy in her eccentric videos. Her unmistakable style, somewhere between Bjork and Britney, easily translated to a live setting, and she dazzled the audience with multiple costume changes. She approached the stage with a robotic lurch not too dissimilar to Pee Wee Herman’s “Tequila” dance and worked it through cuts from Ruby Blue and Overpowered. Her live rendition of “Ruby Blue” was particularly delightful, with the song taking on a ‘60s go-go sound.
Dizzee Rascal closed the day’s festivities, at least for me. Seeing Dizzee live brings out the complexity of his rhymes. There’s a reason why this guy is the face of UK grime. His flawless delivery of the motor-mouthed “Stand Up Tall” proves it. He performed his crossover smash “Dance Wiv Me”, and spent a while talking about how clean his shoes were. If the crowd’s welcoming reaction is any indication, Jay-Z has nothing to worry about tomorrow night.