Live, Music, Reviews

You should’ve been there: Glastonbury 2019

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Daily Review music writer Jacob Robinson and photographer Alison Martyn were there last weekend

There is no more famous or important festival in music than Glastonbury.

The festival is not only the biggest in the world, it is also the most storied. Casting an eye across the festival’s history is to gaze on the history of contemporary music itself.

The Pyramid Stage is the most iconic music performance space in contemporary rock and pop music, routinely trampled by legends such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, U2, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Metallica and Radiohead, as well as the likes of Ed Sheeran, Adele, Jay Z and Beyoncé. The Pyramid’s ability to attract the biggest names in music is to the enduring envy of every other festival booker.

For many music acts, playing Glastonbury is not just about playing a gig – it’s the pinnacle of a career. Awards and industry events are generally considered less important in music than other artistic fields. A festival like Glastonbury represents one of the few times that not only the music industry casts its eyes on one place, but also music lovers across the entire world.

The festival has morphed from a muddy rock and folk fair to a sprawling and gigantic indefinable universe of its own.

The festival started in 1970 in the afterglow of the musical and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, buoyed by hippie ideals, spiritual awakenings and environmental action. The festival’s location is not accidental; on the property is an ancient stone circle with spiritual links to the nearby Stonehenge, while the timing is to coincide with the summer solstice.

In the intervening years the festival has morphed from a muddy rock and folk fair to a sprawling and gigantic indefinable universe of its own. As the wider world continues to expand into ever more diversifying genres, the festival brings all of them together in one place, somehow embracing every musical taste and niche into one whole.

Since 1997 the festival has been broadcast live on the BBC, attracting viewing parties across the globe of envious music fans. In 2016, the UK coverage was watched by 18.9 million people – some 31.9% of the UK’s population.

But the broadcast has probably done more than anything else to expand the cultural cache of the festival around the world. For this music fan, late night clips of Glastonbury were a sense of wonder, awe and envy.

The sheer numbers are simply overwhelming. Roughly two million people registered to try and negotiate the festival’s notoriously infuriating ticketing process, with 135,000-odd tickets available to purchase.

By night, whole districts open up hosting some of the world’s best DJs in secret clubs, strobe lit fields or the converted crane-turned fire breathing party stage of Pangea.

A tick over 200,000 people attended this year’s festival, with thousands of performers making an appearance at some point at the nearly 100 stages spread out over five days (three of which feature as “main stages”). A wide spectrum of ages attend – young girls can be spotted perched on shoulders at the main stages and grey haired veterans sporting glow-sticks are dotted around the late night areas.

But the numbers alone don’t convey the striking scale and size of Glastonbury. Referring to this self-described “performing arts festival” as a “music festival” is grossly unfair – it’s an entire city that springs up for a few days that just happens to have a lot of musicians and artists around.

With no corporate sponsorships, every single bar has its own unique theme and decorations, every shop its own weird and wacky delights, every food stall its own unique offerings. Even every single bin and fence on the site has been painted with a unique design.

The festival’s main couple of stages appear most readily in TV footage, but the most impressive elements are to be found by stumbling off the beaten track. By night, whole districts open up hosting some of the world’s best DJs in secret clubs, strobe lit fields or the converted crane-turned fire breathing party stage of Pangea.

No doubt most Glastonbury-goers would argue that you are missing out if you don’t explore beyond the limits of the main stages that are graced by the big name acts. Circus, spoken word, political brainstorming, cinema, beachside arcade games, comedy shows, cabaret; there’s something for absolutely everyone if you’re willing to explore.

As Glastonbury prepares to celebrate its 50thanniversary in 2020, the festival is shifting into a new phase of attempting to spotlight different genres and more diverse acts, starting with more women and people of colour than its traditional bread and butter white male rockers.

Worthy Farm’s dusty fields, baked by near record-breaking heat, may have lacked the festival’s infamous muddy quagmires, but it remained littered with the kind of iconic performances that have defined Glastonbury no matter rain or shine.

Friday June 28

Early Friday highlights included indie rockers The Vaccines and Danish songstress , who both took to the second stage (known rather literally as ‘The Other Stage’) early with aplomb. Sheryl Crow may not be the first name you’d expect to see on a Glastonbury line-up, but her country-tinged hits were roundly appreciated on the Pyramid Stage.

Lauryn Hill is one of the icons of RnB: a founding member of ’90s superstars the Fugees and a formidable solo artist in her own right. She’s notoriously unreliable for turning up at her shows, but while she was physically present on the Pyramid Stage, Hill left some of her best efforts back stage. She was visibly unsettled by her foldback sound, constantly motioning to raise the volume, while also leaving much of the singing of her biggest hits to her backup singers.

British rapper Stormzy had the Friday headline slot and took the Pyramid Stage by storm. His relatively thin body of music consists of only one album, but the lack of back catalogue was offset by his possession of the top of the singles charts. Stormzy (at one stage wearing a Union Jack adorned stab-proof vest designed by Banksy) has considerable goodwill from a British music community who are ecstatic that a local rapper can credibly hold his own against the more fancied and ground-breaking acts from across the pond.

Australia’s own Tame Impala took charge of the Other Stage for a spell-binding display of psychedelic pop-tinged rock. The band is fresh off a headlining appearance at America’s retort to Glastonbury: the gigantic Californian festival Coachella.

Their slot emphasises the absurd strength in the depth of the Glastonbury lineup, with numerous acts who would generally be considered mammoth headliners at most other events relegated to early timeslots or to the slightly smaller stages.

Attendees had not only Stormzy and Tame Impala to choose from on the Friday prime time slot, but also electronic artist Jon Hopkins, indie rock veterans Interpol, singer-songwriter Cat Power, bluesman Frank Turner, techno star Daniel Avery, and much more.

While Tame Impala’s recordings are the virtuoso work of Kevin Parker (who plays every part to every instrument, produces, mixes and masters each song himself), the live band somehow managed to capture the sprawling soundscapes and breath thumping life into Parker’s flourishing musical vision.

Saturday June 29

Glastonbury is renowned for its ‘secret’ gigs, many of which are simply listed in the program as ‘TBA’, others which are completely unannounced and unpredictable. Rumours of who is playing spread like wildfire around the site, but sometimes all you can do is turn up and check out who appears.

The most eye-catching of this year’s secret slots was filled by indie rockers Foals, fresh of the release of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, which hit the number one spot in Australia a few months back. A massive crowd swarmed the Park Stage after word of their appearance leaked and no one would have been disappointed by the group’s thumping set.

One of the most impressive performances of the entire festival was Norwegian pop starlet Sigrid (main picture). Her brand of up-tempo, sparkly pop bangers such as Strangers, Don’t Kill My Vibe and Don’t Feel Like Crying was lapped up by the large viewership at the Other Stage.

Las Vegas band The Killers may be on the last legs of their tour to support their 2017 album Wonderful, Wonderful but what their headline appearance on the Pyramid lacked in wider relevancy was offset by their canon of indie rock tunes that form an indelible part of pop consciousness.

A cynical fan may note that the last batch of these songs was probably released a decade ago, but the band is a sure-fire bet for a striking live show. The gravity and career defining nature of the slot was palpable on singer Brandon Flowers’ every move. Bringing out his personal idols, the Pet Shop Boys for a rendition of Always on My Mind and The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr for This Charming Man, resulted in a couple of barely believable ‘only at Glastonbury’ collaborations.

Sunday June 30

While many music festivals trumpet their environmental roots and left-leaning credentials, few go as far to enact them as Glastonbury. Profits from the festival are directed towards charities such as Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid.

At the last festival in 2017 (it took a year off in 2018), Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn elicited some of the largest cheers in the wake of a strong general election performance. This year, the festival banned the sale of single use plastic bottles and celebrated by bringing out Sir David Attenborough to speak on the Pyramid Stage.

david xxattenborough - pyramid stage - photo credit Alison Martyn

Earlier in the weekend, teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg made a speaking appearance, while a large parade was organised to promote the Extinction Rebellion climate change movement, culminating in a human formation of their now iconic hourglass symbol that was a regular sight across the festival grounds.

The biggest crowd of the entire festival assembled for Kylie Minogue’s appearance in the Sunday afternoon “legends” slot. It was a bittersweet appearance, coming 14 years after she had to pull out of her headline booking at the last moment for cancer treatment.

Back in 2005, Coldplay used a portion of its own headline slot to pay tribute to Minogue, and Chris Martin was happy to share the love again, joining in for a stripped back lead-in to Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Minogue’s friendship with alt-rock legend Nick Cave is one of the most fascinating and enduring curiosities of their respective careers, and Cave’s appearance for a rendition of Where the Wild Roses Grow was tremendously touching. But the set was all about Minogue, and as she struggled to hold back the tears as well over 100,000 people screamed her name, it was hard not to feel like something truly special was occurring.

Miley Cyrus (her set pictured below) clearly was nervous about establishing her rock credentials, peppering the early portion of her set with covers of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Led Zepplin’s Black Dog and Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. Her talent as a performer is undeniable, but it was readily apparent that she was more concerned with playing to the TV cameras rather than the audience in front of her.

miley cyrusphoto credit Alison Martyn

Her rather underwhelming performance was counterbalanced by the electrifying act competing for attention on the Other Stage. Billie Eilish may not be able to legally drink in the UK or Australia until the end of the year, let alone her home country of the US, but her stage presence and charisma make a mockery of her tender years.

Vampire Weekend has all the credentials to be one of the biggest bands in the world, yet seem determined to leave the mantle to others. Frontman Ezra Koenig appeared completely unconcerned by the scale of the crowd and nominal gravity of the slot, rollicking through the band’s back catalogue. A lengthy rendition of Koenig’s 2014 collaboration with dupstep artist SBTRK, New Dorp New York, was one of the eyebrow-raising elements of a fan-pleasing set.

The Cure closed the festival with a set that encompassed elements of their entire career that has now entered its fifth decade. The group performed several high-profile gigs the previous year in celebration of their 40thanniversary.

Robert Smith is an icon of alternative rock, inspiring generations of outsiders to don pitch black clothing, makeup and wacky hairstyles. The goth legend seemed uncomfortable with playing the band’s formidable canon of pop though, muttering into the microphone that he “hoped he wouldn’t regret this” and that he was doing it “because it’s Glastonbury”. No one else seemed to mind.

Glastonbury is not just about the music. It’s a place where people of different tastes, backgrounds and proclivities live in harmony for a few days.

While the 2019 instalment of Glastonbury was full of delightful moments, eye-catching collaborations and iconic acts, it lacked the immediate relevancy that its reputation thrives on. None of the headliners had released recent albums, while even deeper down the line-up was curiously clear of some of the current critical darlings.

The festival has attracted heat over recent years for its move away from booking rock bands to accommodate more pop and RnB stars, but it also underlines the lack of up and coming groups that have both the aspirations and ability to command giant crowds.

Without some of these buzz-worthy acts present, a little bit of the starry-eyed gloss of the festival’s stellar reputation fades. No one walked away from this year’s Glastonbury with the slightest hint of dissatisfaction. However, perhaps some of those watching at home were left wondering what all the fuss is about, and that maybe Glastonbury would appear to be just like any other festival.

But it’s not. Glastonbury is not just about the music. It’s a place where people of different tastes, backgrounds and proclivities live in harmony for a few days; where for a brief window in time a world where joy, hope and happiness seem like not just an intangible dream, but a living and breathing reality.

All photos by Alison Martyn

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