Three missed junctions, two villages from Middle Earth and one full English later, we arrived at 9am. With enough supplies to feed Big Narstie for an evening, we joined a static queue and endured the earwig terrorism of happy campers’ banter. It took us another three hours of shadow hopping and vigilant line-order auditing before we eventually got to the campsite we wanted at 12pm. Having never been to Glastonbury before, I’d been told the closest comparison might be a larger Bestival. Having now been to both, I can tell you that’s like comparing Phil Neville to Pelé.
We spent the majority of the day putting all our tents up the wrong way, reading the instructions and then re-doing them the right way. Phone reception wasn’t a problem at any point during the festival, which is a first for any event with more people in the same place than Christmas at Mum’s. The EE app was great for finding friends before heading to the Beat Hotel, which ironically wasn’t playing any beats. That was enough to send me to bed early as I reached my 20th hour since sleep.
Glastonbury is a temporary city full of talent shows, with its own church (Sacred Space), community centre (The Green Fields) and housing estates (Oxylers campsite, represent!). There are restaurants, cafes, bars and a mini hospital for the car crashes. Tent life doesn't lend itself to lay-ins; I awoke from a dream orchestrated by the conversation of my neighbours, which you can hear as audibly as your own thoughts when sharing tent space. Apparently there had been a giant bird set on fire and a fireworks display. After pretending not to care much for fireworks (I fucking love fireworks), I decided never to sleep again.
With the music not kicking off until the early evening, Thursday is a good day for exploring. Along the way we met Steve, a skinhead who’d replaced his hair for glitter in an unconvincing foray into the fabulous. He asked where he could build his house, gesturing to the duvet in a cardboard box on his lap. Steve was good value conversation from what was likely an LSD-perspective, but we picked up the pace when he asked if we were enjoying Exit Festival.
We wandered up through the healing fields and towards the sacred space which offers an amazing view of Glastonbury and a real perspective on how much walking we were going to be doing.
It doesn’t take much at festivals before you feel like you deserve a drink or treat of some sort. Have you just explored the wider area by foot for 30 minutes? Have a beer. Walked all the way to the toilet and back? Crack open a can. Just been to get some food? A tinny will go down with that nicely. So after Thursday’s hike, we were due our first night on the sauce in preparation for Benji B's Deviation night at the Stonebridge Bar where I’d heard rumours of a special guest playing.
I’m a huge Benji B fan, a regular listener to his weekly 1am slot on Radio 1/1Xtra every Thursday, and his Deviation club nights at XOYO are known for the quality of the sound system and the unannounced special guests that make each night a treasured memory. The set at Stonebridge Bar started off upbeat and proved a good choice of first night's entertainment for the more indie-leaning members of our group. Then Artwork came on and I struggled to maintain the "good this, innit?" face for long; the music could easily be criticised as repetitive so after a few hours we headed home. As we were leaving the 11 hours of drinking hit me and my legs stopped working. Big up to my new tent friends for carrying me for 25 minutes back to the campsite.
Friday brought traditional Glastonbury cloud and heavy rain which cleared towards the end of the day. Despite sleeping from the bar to the tent, I felt horrible and had somehow negotiated that I would watch Florence and the Machine with my new tent friends in exchange for a couple of fags and two beers. I'd sold my night to my vices and now my given word which meant I'd be missing my first choice of performers (Mark Ronson, Rudimental, Hot Chip, Jamie XX). I'm still wincing now.
By the time I'd eaten breakfast and scrubbed a lot of my dignity away with a wet wipe in the tent, it started spitting and due to our camping spot opposite the Other Stage, I was happy to wait it out. The benefit of queuing for three hours on the Wednesday is you can pitch a space within view and earshot of one of the stages. Jungle played at the Other Stage at 4.30pm and they were the best act to take that afternoon slot with a strong crowd growing throughout their set despite the ropey weather.
After Jungle it started really pelting down but we decided to head out to anywhere that provided music and cover. This came in the form of a London band called Bearcubs playing the BBC Introducing Stage. Offering the first solid bass-heavy set of my festival, their melodic, synth-heavy music went down like a racist joke at a UKIP conference. The lead singer reached the kind of notes that will guarantee him Jamie xx comparisons for most of his career, but if so it would only be a compliment to the potential they showed in their sound.
After that, we caught a band called Nova Heart in La Pussy Parlure. They played a unique mix of music that was difficult to allocate to a genre (a difficulty I’m sure they relish as artists). They were a Chinese band that sounded like a punk approach to making a disco pop record (ha! you couldn’t wriggle out of my genre sorting machine!). The performance was impressive, if weird at times, with sexual expression dominating the lead singers performance. It wasn't Miley-Cyrus-inflatable-penis "sexual", more crazy-Bjork sexual and a great performance with enough creativity to break through into mainstream attention, if they want it. The performance was described well by someone next to me who said "5 years ago, before I knew about drugs, I would have said she was possessed by the devil".
Still trying to avoid the rain, we headed to see SBTRKT and gave our best rendition of ‘Wildfire’, much to the annoyance of people around us. It felt like it went quickly and whilst the classics were played, I've seen better SBTRKT performances. However, to be fair to SBTRKT I was completely sober, it was only 8pm and I was focusing more on loopholes in my verbal contract to watch Florence instead of Rudimental or Hot Chip.
After all that trepidation, Florence turned out to be the best decision of the day. It was tough gig to pull off, but Florence grabbed that headline slot by the nuts and powered her place into Pyramid history as one of the few acts able to make a success off a back-up headline slot.
After an hour of soul and emotion, I was ready to get my rave on. That meant getting to the mecca of midnight music: Shangri-La. After a 40 minute trudge through soft mud, it appeared the rest of Glastonbury had the same idea so we headed to the Unfairground where our group could enjoy a more chilled night, getting knee-deep in meaningfuls and smoking far too many cigarettes. It’s not always about the music man…
You could have a brilliant weekend at Glastonbury just visiting the seemingly infinite variety of tents offering meditation classes, storytelling for kids, masonry workshops, horticulture, crafts fayres and more. However, if you do just go to Glastonbury for that, you’re probably one of those guys everyone avoids sitting next to at work lunches. I was most excited for Saturday’s line-up and was readying myself for the main event: Kanye.
Saturday was hot enough to spend the day sun-dodging and I was keen to find some food worth writing home about. The variety at Glastonbury seems wide but a lot of it turns out to be very similar and the overall quality is poor. Having said that, it seems to depend on where you’re camped. There are a few hidden gems if you’re in the know.
Kate Tempest was the only act I saw present on stage for the soundcheck. Both Kate and the band put a lot of effort into ensuring every instrument and note was on point before she started the show, which makes sense for an artist whose lyrical delivery is paramount to the enjoyment of her as an artist.
As a poet, spoken word artist and playwright, Kate Tempest’s lyrics teem with philosophy, politics and character-rich stories. Her catchy songs armed with great production and a strong live sound brought an authentic, heartfelt presence to the stage that demanded the attention of the packed-out hill facing the Park stage.
It wasn’t just introspective poetry however, Kate held it down as an MC, delivering rhymes at drum and bass pace with a level of clarity and expression rare amongst many of the best hip-hop acts. Kate, 29, cast a figure of an experienced entertainer as she explained to the crowd that she had been trying to perform at Glastonbury for years, whether that meant rapping for free burgers at food vans or doing spoken word on the healing fields. However, to balance out my adoration for the show, my mate chipped in with his own view: “Anything said with a bit of conviction is going to sound good though isn’t it, that’s why Hitler was so successful.”
This man is 42 years old
Pharrell Williams played an upbeat family show on the Pyramid stage (give or take the odd twerk) and what he lacked in stage presence and facial expression, he made up for in dancers, hits and note-perfect vocals. By the end of his career, Pharrell is going to have one hell of a playlist for his "Legends" show as he ripped through the hit records he’s produced over the years from N*E*R*D’s ‘Lapdance’, to Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’, to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’. The highlights were his two most recent hits ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Happy’, for which he invited members of the crowd on stage to dance.
Kanye is a “what’s he going to do or say next” kind of artist, hate him or love him. He opened the set with a robotic rip of ‘Stronger’ and screamed into the chorus, raising hairs on arms and drawing cheers from the crowd. The lighting effect was mesmerising and perfectly toned to give all that power to just one man rocking the famous Pyramid. For the first 30 minutes, Kanye left no time for breath as he smashed through anthem tunes like ‘Power’, ‘Paris’, ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘All Day’. Hearing tens of thousands of white Glastonbury fans articulate in perfect unison the full uncensored chorus to ‘All Day’ was a weird moment. However, the momentum was held high through ‘Clique’ and ‘Mercy’ before slowing it down for the original sample from ‘Blood On The Leaves’, a song about slavery somewhat controversially transformed into a Hudson Mohawke assisted banger.
A key factor that separates great from good performers at Glastonbury is how they approach the Pyramid stage and how much ego they bring with them. It was in the quieter moments of reflection that Kanye lost the crowd, whilst acts like Florence made an effort to engage them. Jay-Z received similar controversy when booked for the same slot in 2008, but he spent his set charming the crowd with a performance tailored to win them over. As much as we love Kanye’s music, I don’t think the crowd wanted to hear how much he loves Kim Kardashian or hear him sing lullabies to his daughter, North West. He started to lose the crowd and one hour in, there was noticeably more space as people started drifting away.
The biggest disappointment was the sound. Supported only by a DJ and some backing singers, the performance relied on Kanye delivering perfectly on the mic and engaging with the audience to hold the songs together. This isn’t Kanye’s strength and after the anthem songs were finished and the momentum was lost, the vulnerability of Kanye up there on his own became evident as the light show failed to evolve enough to keep us interested. There were still nice touches, like for example when he got an MPC drum machine out to remix the samples on ‘Runaway’ and when he came out over the crowd on a cherry picker for ‘Touch The Sky’. However, these moments were overshadowed by the length of time he let the crowd believe he had actually sulked off the set with “that’s not what we rehearsed back stage”.
There is only so much criticism from the people surrounding you that can be ignored and only so many missed notes during the slower more vocal tracks that you can pretend not to hear. As the last flare extinguished half way into the silence of Kanye’s fake tantrum, so did my patience. We spent the last three tracks making our way through the crowd to the exit, feeling disappointed.
To bring the tempo back up, we regrouped and set off for Shangri-La. We managed to catch half of Slaves playing at the Hell Stage. This band caught my eye when they remixed Skepta’s 'Shutdown' for Radio 1 and proceeded to bring Skepta out to play the track live at BBC’s Big Weekend. Their set at Hell Stage was their second of the day, having played at John Peel Stage in the afternoon, but energy levels were still strong amongst them and they had the 1am crowd bouncing.
To balance the night out and please the drum & bass heads in the group, we went to the Heaven stage for Etherwood & Dynamite MC, which sounded like a well-mixed set with the exception of it being quiet enough to use indoor voices... outdoors. There were possibly some sound engineering issues as it didn’t improve for Spy & Dynamite MC who also played a good set in need of some added volume. Shangri-La is an eclectic mix of genres, cultures and vibes brought together by a shared passion to cut shapes into the small hours of the night. Crazy characters whispering boozy similes in your ear somehow seems more romantic than in Yates on a Saturday night. The only drawback is the 45 minute trek there and back.
After getting back around 7am on Sunday, we made breakfast pledges to go out on a bang and prepare for the big one that evening. The day started with a much needed blast of positivity and wholesome goodness at the Healing Fields. In fact, we spent most of our hangover listening to talks on mindfulness at the Speaker’s Corner, promising our future free time and spare cash to charities and nodding through political conversations, eager to prove that we’re all on the same page.
I’d hoped to see the Dalai Lama, but I felt that being in the presence of someone so holy and at one with the Earth whilst I battled a dirty cider hangover wouldn’t do me any good. In the end we rocked up around 4pm to see Lionel Ritchie play at the Pyramid Stage. He was another artist I didn’t mind missing but turned out to be one of the highlights. Lionel graced the stage with the charisma of a performer with decades of experience, bringing the Californian sun and twang with him. The audience were on their feet from the first till the last song and as the show morphed into a crowd karaoke. Lionel entertained the 100,000 people that watched his set with ease, remarking in disbelief that he was finally playing Glastonbury and how loud we were as a crowd. “What was that?!” he joked, unable to come to grips with the volume of his songs echoed back to him. He gasped as the crowd drowned his voice out with their own as they sang every word. The set closed on a high with ‘All Night Long’ followed by ’We Are The World' (the U.S.A for Africa cover).
Lionel Richie at the Pyramid stage
It also makes sense that 100,000 of the 177,000 festival goers were at Lionel Richie because getting anywhere after was a mission. I was hoping to catch Kate Tempest again at the Sonic Stage but she was unfortunately running 30 minutes late due to soundcheck issues.
As we headed to the Other Stage for Jamie T there was an air of excited anticipation as we all started our last night. You don’t have to be a big fan of indie or rock music to enjoy Jamie T, he fits into the crossover area populated by bands like Arctic Monkeys, Oasis and Kasabian. The rawness in his music reminds me of old school 90’s hip-hop from New York; there’s rustiness to the beats and rhymes.
Jamie T played a solid set, in utter confidence of his ability to keep the crowd and took his time with delivery of each song. His sound team were on form making sure you could feel the bass in your feet but hear the words with the beat. There was a healthy mix of songs from old and new albums without losing momentum making it one of the best performances I’d seen in terms of crowd engagement and song choice so far.
Immediately after Chemical Brothers, opposite the Other Stage at Arcadia, there was a Metamorphosis show. Arcadia is essentially a large spider-like metal frame, supposedly an alien life form that landed in Thailand before travelling to Glastonbury for the weekend (I’m not cool enough to not read the festival guide). The show was a spectacular blend of lighting, flame throwers, gymnasts and dance music, like Cirque de Soleil on ecstasy. You’d pay £50 to see anything similar at the theatre and it brought home again what good value Glastonbury is. 2ManyDJ’s, a surprise guest, followed with a brilliant set. We finished the festival back at Shangri-La, though I have no idea what we saw thanks to the last night rule of drinking all your stock at the tent. It was a great finale to an unforgettable festival of new friends, great music and wonderful experiences.
Glastonbury is a place where time, nutrients and hygiene elude you for the best part of a week. Ultimately it’s a place of irony, where good feelings are bought with hard drugs and paid for with harder feelings. Where permaculture enthusiasts drive miles in land rovers to meet and create a sustainable garden and spread the message of green living to crowds that won’t even take their tent home. “It wasn’t about the music, man”, but the music was incredible.
With Glastonbury, you get a break from the social constructs we find in our society that tell you not to make conversation with anyone in a queue, or smile at someone who looks pretty, or tell a stranger they have food on their face. Whether people behave like themselves or who they want to be, they’re happier at Glastonbury than they are at home and they keep coming back year after year. I went to Glastonbury with three friends and left with ten; if only there were more places like that.