Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

The Big Review: Glastonbury

The good, the bad… Well, mostly the good, actually of Glastonbury 2013.
(Photo via BBC)

Thu, Jul 4, 2013, 20:38


It’s hard to describe Glastonbury to those who haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to the mothership of music festivals. For me, it’s about the experience as a whole, so segmenting it seems a little crass. Glasto is at least a dozen festivals in one, with the attention to detail, randomness, beauty, collective happiness, organisational excellence, and politeness of everyone from security to police to bar staff to fellow punters creating a magical vibe that most festivals keep trying to knock off, but simply can’t replicate. For first timers (this was my fifth Glasto, but there were a couple of newbies in my crew) there is a familiarity to the text on signs, flags, some food stalls and a few other aspects of the aesthetic, demonstrating that Glasto is where smaller festival organisers come to get ideas. But nothing can complete with the level of creativity, the scale of the stages and set builds, and the number of opportunities for adventure on this site surrounded by an 8km security fence. As long as it doesn’t rain, and this year, that was mercifully limited to Thursday night. Glastonbury has perfected what makes a festival work with decades of experience and learning, and it keeps getting better, with many areas being truly immersive. This was probably my favourite Glasto yet. My last one was in 2010, and there were so many new elements and improvements, such as The Common and the generally sparkling longdrop toilets. So here are some of the things I loved, and a few meh moments that ultimately didn’t at all detract from a joyous five days in Somerset.

Having volunteers and staff invested and punters committed
Glasto is a lot of work. Registration, deposits, battling for tickets and the trek there and back require commitment. You’re either in or your out. There aren’t many casual punters. So that commitment means everyone is up for a blast. People have been returning year in year out for decades. The mix of ages and demographics is huge (although it is a very, very white festival.) Everyone wants to have a good time and that sentiment creates a brilliant aura. Along with that, every volunteer and crew member is utterly invested in maintaining that vibe. The kindness, consideration and politeness that colours every interaction is mind-blowing. There is an incredible amount of respect for the festival on all sides; punters, crew, bands. Not having idiot security shouting in your face, or being thick about their knowledge of the site, which is pretty much the case at every Irish festival, is so refreshing. They’re there because they want to be there, and encouraging polite and communication across the site feeds into an atmosphere of respect, consideration and appreciation.

Opening the Pyramid Stage on Friday, it was hard to escape Haim all weekend. They were clearly having a ball on stage and off, although Este’s diabetic-induced wooziness threatened to cut the biggest gig of their career short. Her turn contributed to a more muted second half of the show on Friday, but they were back amongst the crowd for Solange on the Park Stage, then on that stage on Saturday for a packed set, and contributed to Primal Scream’s backing vocals before the Rolling Stones on Saturday night. Glasto is the perfect setting for Haim. Their grungey glamour, humour and killer ability to rock out just works.

The Rolling Stones
An epic set from the greatest rock band of them all was also enhanced by a gigantic anamatronic phoenix that came to life on top of the Pyramid Stage, raising its wings in a blast of pyrotechnics and mouthing the words to Sympathy For The Devil. That sounds nuts, and it was, but two hours of stunning playing and energy from the Stones flew by. A classic Glasto moment.

Amanda Palmer
Throwing herself into the crowd while unveiling a giant flag cape across the audience, storming through ‘Leeds United’, ending with her epic ode to ukeleles, Palmers gig had it all, winning over endless new fans who had never seen her perform before.

Definitely the winner of best area of the festival this year. A bar made of bullets, the weird shopping mall of tunnels leading to adventures and randomness, a life drawing class in one plush red bar with a naked man being painted by an artist while a drummer bashed out tunes, a magical door that led through a tiny tunnel and into a bar on decking, glass boxes containing bizarre doctors operating on ‘lab rat’ punters, the Mordor-esque Hell Stage which Goldie pretty much destroyed late on Sunday night, and countless other brilliant details.

The Common
The giant Rum Shack, a bar fronted with a giant waterfall, a bull ring amphitheater of raucousness, salsa dancing at Glasto Latino.

NYC Downlow
The low down dirty drag disco still manages to surprise and delight. Entrance with moustache only, great tunes, punters up for a laugh, and brilliantly sardonic and hilarious drag shows.

Smashing Pumpkins
It’s easy to forget how good a band the Pumpkins were in their hey day. While Billy Gorgan’s constant ‘God Bless’ and finally ‘God Bless America’ banter felt a little weird, the quality of ‘Disarm’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Zero’ brought a big crowd back to their moody teenage years, complete with mosh pit.

The xx
Towards the end of the gig, The xx told the Other Stage audience that it was the biggest moment of their careers, a surreal experience that they embraced with the best gig I’ve ever seen them place. Their voices and musicianship has improved dramatically over the past 12 months, and Jamie’s dextrous brilliance at the back holds the entire tapestry together perfectly. A majestic show that they were clearly still buzzing off in the early hours of Monday morning at the Stone Circle.

Greg Wilson
With Silver Hayes proving far too jammers on Thursday night after Zebra Katz on the eve of the festival starting proper, I headed to the Stonebridge Bar in The Park for a bit of a bop, and Wilson’s set was just the ticket.

Full bars
Thankfully, Glastonbury doesn’t expect people to just want to drink beer or go home. Nearly every bar has a full selection of spirits, although Gaymers cider (delish) and Tuborg beer (meh) pretty much control the cider and beer end of things, with Brothers cider bars scattered around. But there are also endless cocktail bars, rum bars, bloody mary vans, and so on, and people selling cans around the place. And you can bring whatever booze you want to into the site whenever you want, so there’s no idiotic body or bag searches. Preventing people from bringing the alcohol they’ve brought to a festival into the arena encourages binge drinking in the camp sites. You’ve already bought your ticket, so you should be allowed consume what you want when you want. And if you want to buy a drink, you should be afforded a decent choice.

The toilets!
There’s a fascination with the toilets at Glasto, and sure, providing sanitation for a couple of hundred thousand people is some job, but boy did they rock it. The longdrops were routinely power hosed down and there wasn’t one loo horror over five days. When you’re not given any realistic opportunity to shower for the best part of a week, having clean toilets really lessens that grimey feeling.

Honourable mentions
The Beat Hotel bashing it out all weekend.

Arcadia’s awesome nightly show that nearly burned my eyebrows off on Sunday night.

The Roast Chicken stand’s amazing pittas. It was their first time at Glasto and only their second ever event, and they would have been the nicest food at the festival had the Thali Cafe’s Kerala chicken curry and samosas not been so delish.

The great and crazy vibe at the Stone Circle, particularly in the early hours of Monday morning when The xx were holding court amongst the hedonists.

Not so amazing things
Silver Hayes
Once again, Glasto falls down when getting its dance area right. While there’s plenty of great stuff to look at, the stages and tents are simply too small. The crush trying to get into 2 Bears on Thursday night after Zebra Katz in the WOW tent was simply dangerous, and all weekend it felt like a place to avoid due to the impossibility of getting close to the acts performing. It’s hard to see how they can remedy this without dramatically expanding the multi-stage dance site.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Solange has one tune. That tune, ‘Losing You’ is a belter, but everything else feels rather boring next to it. She’s a charming performer, but the sounds all too frequently fade into the background in front of a large audience.

Getting close to the big stages
One of the persistent issues at Glasto is negotiating the scale and the number of people on site. The fact that it’s so big is part of its magic, but if you’re not up for heading to a gig an hour before starting time, then you just have to resign yourself to be watching from afar all weekend. This was especially the case at the Stones, where myself and my buddies initially ended up in a campsite far from the Pyramid Stage as the only possible vantage point until we bit the bullet and spent 20 minutes getting to an area that was still about 0,000 people back. Luckily, the sound in that arena still rocks, but you do feel occasionally disconnected from acts when you’re finding it hard to even pick them out on the stage. The Park Stage also suffers from this, considering there are no screens. And I couldn’t even get into the massive John Peel tent for Jessie Ware’s show, watching from the fringes outside instead.

Pretty much all the coffee anyone ordered was rubbish, so it’s just as well we brought our own coffee maker (seriously). If you ever wanted a top tip for your campsite, then bringing a stove top Bialetti and a little camping stove is it.

As I’ve said, it’s hard to get the amazing vibe of Glasto across. But if you were there, you know what I mean. Roll on 2014.