Don’t Forget Your Wellies: Glastonbury 2008

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. + + + 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

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.

Candi Staton

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.

Day 2

All photos by Cole Stryker

By Saturday, the mud had miraculously dried up and the sun came out. That morning I saw Los Campesinos and Black Kids, two up-and-coming bands who seem to receive attention largely due to their youthful, “We’re just kids!” exuberance. Both groups mesh annoying cheerleader screams and ultra-hip, self-aware lyrics about parties and dancing with their childlike enthusiasm. I don’t get it. Perhaps it’s because they represent the first generation of indie bands younger than me?

Los Campesinos

I stuck around the Other stage to hear Neon Neon, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys’s newish band. They played the entirety of their John DeLorean-themed concept album, Stainless Style. Dressed in suits with skinny ties, the duo (the album was written and recorded in collaboration with LA Producer, Boom Bip) communicated their ’80s manifesto by bearing keytars. Har Mar Superstar made a surprise appearance, introducing himself with a complete rhyme verse performed mid-headstand.

Kool Keith

Kool Keith

I had time to catch one more act before the headlining performances, so I climbed the hill to the Park stage, where the audience welcomed Kool Keith with a chorus of “You ARE the best.” Led by Kutmaster Kurt, his resident DJ, Keith delivered a chronological sampling of material from each of his personas, beginning with his Ultramagnetic MC’s days. He transitioned into the Dr. Octagon era with the still chilling “Blue Flowers” and “Earth People”. He left us with some Black Elvis and ridiculous Spankmaster raunchiness.

Several years back I saw the Shins play a free show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was a year or so after the release of Oh, Inverted World. They seemed so tired of their repertoire. Midway through their set, lead singer James Mercer asked his bandmates if it was time to open the ‘Zep fakebook. They spent the next ten minutes playing Led Zeppelin songs–a chorus here, a bridge there. Mercer’s eyes lit up as he unleashed a shockingly right-on Robert Plant. It was as if they had transported themselves back into teenage rock fandom, noodling around in the basement, when it was still fresh and fun. That’s how I see the Raconteurs. Jack White’s “other” played a joyous concert in the afternoon sun. “You’re either with me or again’ me,” Jack playfully told the crowd, encouraging them to sing and clap along, and displaying why he is modern rock’s foremost showman. It’s clear that this is his “for fun” project. For a guy who’s built his career on minimalist indie-friendly guitar work, it must be such a release to shred like there’s no tomorrow.

Fans waited in front of the Pyramid stage long before the Amy Winehouse set. Her fans certainly have a love/hate relationship with their favorite starlet. Many were alternately chanting for her downfall and cheering her on. I overheard a few press people arguing about which photographer would be forced to endure her performance. Neither wanted to attend, but they agreed someone needed to be there, “In case she passes out or whatever.” The rubbernecking crowd buzzed with whispers of, “Do you think she’ll collapse?” The camera hovered on her drink. A group of completely out-of-their-mind-drunks behind me decried her drug use by screaming throughout the entire concert. I am reminded of “The Irony of It All.” Amy’s show began when she stuttered onto the stage and spat out her bubblegum immediately before singing, all smiles. The crowd loved it. With colorful cocktail umbrellas stuck in her beehive, she performed her first song with gusto before spitting out a second enormous wad of bubblegum. The crowd again went nuts.

She’s seems fine for someone who was just diagnosed with emphysema. She played a few Specials covers and powered through her hits, “My Tears Dry on Their Own” and surprisingly, “Rehab”. I expected boos for the latter, simply because so many people during the weekend cursed her rampant addiction. And yet, the enchanted crowd couldn’t help themselves. Yes, she punched out a fan for allegedly grabbing her hair or boob (the press can’t seem to agree and I was too far back). But forgetting the drama, the woman has more soul in her eyelashes than Kate Nash has in her whole body. After two decades of histrionic vocal calisthenics from the Mariah and Xtina crowd, we crave her brassy voice. This is not the woman on the verge of collapse that we read about in the tabloids. She owns the night. “My husband gets out of jail in two weeks,” she giggled. This is ultimately why we love Amy Winehouse: She’s a celebrity, but she chews with her mouth open; she eats white bread and banana sandwiches sprinkled with potato chips; she has to put up with a deadbeat husband; and she is always putting up with haters. We’re loathed to admit it, but, singing voice aside, she’s just like us.

Jay-Z, or “Jay-Zed”, as the English kept calling him that weekend (one guy even called him “hobo,” instead of “Hova”), was up next. The British media would make one think that Jay-Z had a lot to prove that weekend. He was the first hip hop headliner of the long-running festival, and that “Bastion of Cultural Relevance,” Noel Gallagher, recently told the media that there was no way he was going to allow it. Heck, even Dizzee doubted. Jay-Z played a clip of Noel’s disparaging remarks mashed up with images of old frowning grannies, George Bush, and extra-white hip hop-hating talk show hosts before launching into a mocking rendition of “Wonderwall”. This brilliant tactic instantly won over the nay-saying tabloids, and the next day’s dailies led with Jay-Z’s cultural victory. The rappers’ flirtation with rock and roll continued with a “Heart of the City/Sunday Bloody Sunday” mashup, and of course, the ubiquitous but less interesting Linkin Park “Encore” collab. He even teased the audience with a special English rap about the Queen, The Sun, London Bridges, and “taking the piss.” He made sure to proclaim that the show was a huge moment for hip hop, but it seems like the only ones who doubted were the sensationalistic British media and old fart rockers.

Day 3

All photos by Cole Stryker

Martina Topley-Bird woke me up this morning. The one-time Tricky muse has just released her second solo album, The Blue God, which was produced by Danger Mouse. I had no idea she was still making music, but I’m glad she is. Flanked by a back-up band dressed as ninjas, Martina, in a poofy red dress and braided blonde up-do, looked like a striking prom queen. Her sound could be described as surf rock mixed with elements of country and occasional hip hop beats. It sounds a lot like the Rosebuds. She cracked her mic cord like a whip and shimmied her way into my heart.

Yeasayer brought their “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel” to the John Peel stage. One of several recent bands to infuse their sound with African folk polyrhythms and unconventional tribal melodies, Yeasayer’s earnest set broke up the snide dance-punk that is still somehow dominating this festival. When Chris Keating sings, “I can’t sleep when I think about the times we’re living in,” he recalls the existential dread and herky-jerky stage presence of David Byrne. I was hypnotized by the intricate bass work of Ira Wolf Tuton. Musically, this set was the highlight of the weekend. I can think of few other new bands that have developed such a fascinating sound. They aren’t nearly as immediately accessible as Vampire Weekend, as far as Brooklyn bands jacking the West African sound go, but their winding, writhing songs ultimately possess much more depth.

Yeasayer

I passed the Pyramid stage as John Mayer’s sax man crapped out one of the most forgettable, muzak-worthy solo’s I’ve ever heard. Man, I hate that guy. When I returned to the John Peel stage, it was adorned with several dozen purple and white carnations. Stars set their sights a bit higher than the glut of slightly above-average white guitar bands with great melodies and tales of love and loss. I have to admit that their music loses much of its uniqueness when the horns and other supplemental instrumentation are removed in the live setting. I’ve never found the group as interesting as Broken Social Scene, their more adventurous sister band. It makes sense, though, why their music is featured so often on TV as a soundbed: It’s pretty and fun and evocative but not always interesting enough to command full attention.

Crystal Castles, on the other hand… well. Vocalist Alice Glass, who looked as though her tiny body was just dug up from a grave, skipped around the stage, immediately launching herself into the crowd. The on-looking staff of portly goateed AV dudes wrung their hands, supposedly worried that she’d damage her mic. They finally persuaded her to return to the stage, where she climbed the lighting truss, alternately screaming and whispering her lyrics. The duo’s gothic electronica recalled the Faint and more than a few Megaman stages. After twenty minutes of mayhem, the AV guys got their cargo shorts in a bunch and pulled the plug. I thought the crowd might storm the stage. Those 20 minutes comprised the greatest moment of electrifying, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll energy the festival had on offer, and it was awesome.

Lucky for me, Crystal Castles were yanked just as Leonard Cohen appeared on the Pyramid stage. He conveyed a grandfatherly elegance, but seemed confused at times, audibly asking his bandmates which song was coming up next. After several songs, he said “thank you, fans.” This struck me as odd; I don’t think I’ve ever heard a singer refer to his fans as such from a stage. It was his first live performance in 15 years, and he is 75, so I suppose slack should be cut. He opened with, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, which showcased his trademark monotone, absolutely unchanged. He also played a few songs from I’m Your Man. I’ve always thought that the instrumentation on Cohen’s post-’70s material was a little schmaltzy, and it is reproduced here note for note. Still, his lyricism packs a wallop that completely makes up for this. There is not a single artist in the history of pop capable of saying so much with so little. There were few dry eyes in the audience when Cohen finished “Hallelujah”, just as the sun set. Magic.

I stopped one last time at the John Peel stage to see the latter half of a performance by Spiritualized. I made it in time to hear a few songs form the new Song’s in A&E album, as well as “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)” and the electrifying “Come Together”, all were fittingly boosted into the stratosphere by a trio of gospel singers.

My Morning Jacket

Nightfall brought My Morning Jacket to the Park stage. Lead singer Jim James approached the stage shrouded in some sort of druid cloak, fitting considering we were within a short car journey of Stonehenge. The band brought mammoth riffs, scorching jams, and their unique blend of reggae, soul, and even some dance beats. The inclusion of silly metal number “Highly Suspicious” was a real WTF moment. The song’s outrageous falsetto chorus cracked me up because I thought it was a joke song. To my surprise, it’s an actual track on their new album, Evil Urges. For the most part, everything gelled in the cool breeze, under the flaming stage torches, and provided a fitting end to the festival.

The organizers did a great job pulling together a diverse group of acts in terms of style and popularity. I commend their willingness to include a wider, diverse range of sounds this year, despite all the pushback from the press and Noel Gallagher. If you are willing to put up with almost certain rain and the scuzzy living conditions that come with not showering for three days, Glastonbury is really a must-do event. There is never a lack of things to do or see, and if you get tired of music a wealth of alternative cultural experiences are a short walk away. Just don’t forget your wellies.

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