IN GLASTONBURY’s TEEMING Theatre and Circus fields on Friday afternoon, an outdoor installation called The Anthropic Organ is grinding out a pinging version of Prince Buster’s immortal One Step Beyond. Celeb DJ Jarvis Cocker wanders past and wonders, “how does it work?” In this case, it’s an assemblage of reclaimed organ pipes programmed to play pop hits. But how does Glastonbury itself work? Searching for an answer requires walking between dozens of stages and tents across the festival’s 900 acres and this year, contending with the intermittent bad weather that begins on Thursday afternoon. Best take inspiration from the beatific soaked-to-the-undies hero spotted on the al fresco rave pyramid of the Beat Hotel venue, who gyrates to Hercules & the Love Affair’s Blind oblivious to the hammering rain. Agreed?
“An outdoor installation called The Anthropic Organ is grinding out a pinging version of Prince Buster’s immortal One Step Beyond.”
Over at the Pyramid Stage, The War On Drugs commence the transcendence with songs from the wondrous Lost In The Dream LP. They’re a bedenim’d presentation – keyboardist Robbie Bennett also sports a headband – and when leader Adam Granduciel solos over their mid-’80s Springsteen-meets–Suicide sound, the departure from normal reality begins in earnest.
Then it’s off to The Glade, the tree-lined venue for freaks, where there’s fun to be had from Adelaide’s crazily-robed cosmic jazzers The Shaolin Afronauts, followed by a live bass experiment by ragga MC General Levy and venerable dubmaster Mad Professor. There are cheers when the sun comes out over at West Holts, where new England trio The Stepkids cover Cream’s I Feel Free and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky in smooth, crack sessioneer style, adding their own funk flavours and synchronised moves. Next up, Sun Ra’s Arkestra bring more expression through dance. Led by 90-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, their magically-attired cosmic big band sounds are accompanied by impressive “space dance” gymnastics from alto sax man Knoel Scott. The late Sun Ra, who gazes down from a huge screen, seems to approve.
Have their interstellar sounds stirred angry earth elementals, though? Before long rain, thunder and lightning mean Rudimental’s set on the Pyramid is abruptly cut off. It’s a brief lull, though. Elbow’s Beautiful Day is soon coinciding with a beauteous sunset, the crowd beguiled by good guy Guy Garvey’s entreaties to harmonise. The night’s headliners Arcade Fire also connect with a theatric and fast-paced presentation of songs from across their career.
But there is so much to see, such as Skrillex’s hyperactive EDM at the Other Stage and the event billed as Steve Hillage Fuses Gong And System 7 at The Glade. Originally intended to be a Gong reunion, it’s been adapted due to Daevid Allen’s health problems. What results is mesmeric, improvised techno-rock, with ever-questing guitar improviser Hillage augmented by long-time Allen associate Graham Clark on violin and all the kaleidoscopic Pot Head Pixie/Flying Teapot screen-visuals you could wish for.
Saturday begins with south London’s Fat White Family spreading the sickness at the John Peel Stage. There’s laudable aggression in their fun, gross garage pop, and they’re so open in their debt to The Fall they play a touching tribute called I Am Mark E Smith. Contrastingly, up at The Park Australian neo-baggyists Jagwar Ma chase ecstatic dancing through sudden rain. Warpaint’s drummer Stella Mozgawa comes on for The Throw, bringing an extra, LCD-like drive to their psych-lager translations of Madchester in 1990.
A squelchy trudge later, Jack White preludes Pyramid headliners Metallica with a taut, determined rock-heavy set bathed in blue light. Agreeably, it includes ten White Stripes songs, each rearranged for his new band with full percussive Meg-isms from drummer Daru Jones. “Do you love the person next to you?” asks Jack, forcing us into his Manichean reality. After a detour to the John Peel tent to see Little Dragon’s sophisto-dance tunes, it’s back to the Other Stage for a fierce Pixies performance. Another group who’ve beamed down from another world, they remain hazardously sharp.
The mood is smooth at West Holts’ Saturday night headliner, Bryan Ferry. With an arsenal of inarguable songs – Roxy Music faves Ladytron, Virginia Plain and inevitably, Avalon among them – faithfully and charismatically represented, it’s superb, and reminiscent of Bowie’s Glastonbury set in 2000. The subsequent wander up to the late night post-apocalyptic rave/art zone Shangri-La proves surprisingly relaxing: Roni Size may be DJing thunderously on the Hell Stage, but you can still get tea and cake. This place and many others stay open as long as anyone needs them, a remarkable turnaround from yore when after-hours Glastonbury entertainment involved a hike to the Stone Circle to watch the sun rise.
Sunday morning is spent in the William’s Green tent watching tribute act The Smyths, who don’t replicate The Smiths’ 1984 Pyramid Stage setlist but do a sterling job channeling songs including Still Ill, Bigmouth Strikes Again and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. “We may be plastic,” says convincing Mozzer understudy Graham Sampson, “but we are genuine.” Johnny Marr needed a shave, though.
“55 years on from her first single, Dolly Parton is still a wildly vivid presence.”
After Dutch electro swing voice Caro Emerald comes over like a wholesome Amy Winehouse at the Pyramid, MOJO goes wandering – an essential part of the experience, which apart from reminding attendees of the festival’s political and eco-message, enables us to hear Billy Bragg playing tunes off Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy solo, to clock Richie Hawtin in the crowd and to enjoy The Blues, a shanty town-like outdoor reggae venue which hosts shows by Mungo’s Hi Fi, Congo Natty and others where the bass is loud enough to buffet your plastic rain poncho like a windsock in a force nine (dub) gale.
Time is fast running out, but there’s still time to discover that a staggering 55 years since recording her first single, vision in white Dolly Parton is still a wildly vivid presence. Twitter gripers claiming she’s miming be damned: she drew the vastest crowd of the weekend, played Jolene, 9 To 5 and Islands In The Stream and warmed the most curmudgeonly.
So how does Glastonbury work? By growing and changing while remaining resolutely itself. Once you’ve been, you’ll never forget it: 45 years in, it remains utterly unique.