Review: Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2015.

In much the same way that no two ‘Glastonbury Festival[s] of Contemporary Performing Arts’ will ever be the same, no one will ever know what a “Glastonberry” (as each and every Yank seems to refer to the event thereas these days) really tastes like. “Shit and MDMA” was probably about the most precise approximation proffered throughout this past week, although each to their own, and whatnot. So, what was I nattering on about? Ah, yes: that no two Worthy Farm expeditions-slash-experiences, for any two people, will ever be relatable, nor even correlatable, such is the scope and supremacy of this ineffably special event…

And if it’s one in which my faith had waned somewhat in recent times, it’s since been rather spectacularly restored. Thus although I may be about to wax lyrical at enervating length, the 2015 edition really was one of, if not the finest that I’ve had both the pleasure and indeed the privilege of frequenting. Friends were picked up along the way – some more literally, en route, than others – while fellow Glastonbury-goers from bygone years fell by the wayside, with the age-old ‘peace and love’ platitudes by and large replacing the comparably hackneyed ‘middle class love-in’ clichés. So, in short, 2015? It was a very, very good year.

The Park, Glastonbury 2015

One made all the more so by a bill so brawny, that several decidedly maddening clashes were sure to ensue. Friday night, for instance, saw a resuscitation of the preceding weekend’s Sónar festivities take place over in West Holts, with Caribou backing up Hot Chip in what must’ve been an evening euphoric as the feeling of holding a royal flush close to your chest when the stakes are at their very meatiest. But increasingly, The Park is becoming my be-all and end-all; my first (or where I spent the majority of my first Glastonbury, watching the eminent likes of John Cale, Edwyn Collins, Battles, Lykke Li, St. Vincent and, for that matter, Caribou back in ’08), my last (or where I saw this one out) and, for one week in every fifty-two (fallow years notwithstanding), my everything.

The Park, Glastonbury 2015

As such, pretty well everything of merit and/ or note took place in this far-flung enclave of quiet delight, The Park’s amphitheatrical topography allowing for fantastic sight lines, while its east-facing orientation affords almost fantastical sunsets as a makeshift backdrop of sorts. Of these there were several, the forecast rains kept at bay – as is he of Hitchin and the hat, mercifully – by and large, enhancing the mood throughout the camp(sites) no end. But sunset-saturated sets by the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Jamie xx and Super Furry Animals (chronologically ordered, in a chronically excellent triumvirate to banish any lingering reservations, or wonderings about belatedly wandering over to West Holts) on Friday night, and Ryan Adams under the cover of Sunday darkness ensure it really is the place to be. (That the stage is now televised means that even those suffering from acerbic, sat-at-home-praying-for-rains syndrome can indulge in the curatorial delights rustled up in this remote corner of the world.)

Sharon Van Etten, Glastonbury 2015

As for Van Etten, she turns in a show that, if marred by slight technical mishaps, turns out to be as pleasant as it’s pained. Sharon’s approach to songwriting is such that it evidently serves as hugely useful cathartic therapy to she, its author, while fostering a feeling of fervid support among its audience which has grown both remarkably and markedly organically, going from strength to strength in recent years. Her lovelorn songs largely concern love lost, with this thus engendering that feeling of both she and our needing to reaffirm her virtue, irresistible allure, and the like. As such, there are probably about as many yodelled marriage proposals in the space of forty-five minutes as there are songs, those sharing in that same dream of holy matrimony with this exceptionally majestic siren now audibly needing to form an orderly line.

Because whether this be due to a perfectly tempestuous take on Your Love is Killing Me or a giddying Break Me, if Van Etten’s wounded wails correspond to torment and discomfort past, then both artist and audience struggle to stifle smiles brighter than the setting star that now blinds those further back up the hill. There is then, needless to say, a jocular levity to the concluding Every Time the Sun Comes Up, although there are two numbers – one comparatively old; another relatively new – that shine brightest tonight: abetted by the looped and layered drones of the increasingly indispensable Heather Woods Broderick, Don’t Do It proves devastatingly arresting, pumped hearts ascending into agape gobs where they promptly stop for a minute or two; All Over Again, by contrast, suggests there’s ample heartbreak for the songstress nonpareil still to break into. Which makes her apparent pact with herself to now follow her own dream of becoming a full-time psychotherapist seem pretty upsetting in itself; not least in light of the fact that her music already impacts upon so many, in ways neither she nor I can entirely comprehend, nor articulate. For musically, Sharon Van Etten very evidently has so much still to give to the troubled amongst us…

Jamie xx, Glastonbury 2015

More into euphoria than crestfallen euphony, meanwhile, is Jamie Smith who, improbable though this probably sounds, manages to compel a seething throng to sing along to every last vocal sample to comprise In Colour; to its dips, and drops, and the exceptionally poignant closing synth lines of Gosh. As per his set at Sónar the preceding Friday, Smith provides a positively inspiring lesson in plate-spun ambidexterity; a gobsmacking hour that scratches at the apices of possibility when it comes to a conventional ‘DJ set’. The Persuasions’ Good Times flows seamlessly into I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times), with these then flowing throughout; his seminal reworks of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’ll Take Care of You and Radiohead’s Bloom bumping and grinding up against cuts ranging from Murphy Jax and Somore, to others from Smith’s ‘hombre’ Daphni, Bicep and the Architects. Nevertheless, it’s the final one-two which comes from Stranger in a Room and Loud Places which reinforces Smith’s credentials as one of the country’s finest sonic collagists; and long may he continue to bring such daring, audacious colour to contemporary dance music.

And there are then the Super Furry Animals; an assemblage I’d always dreamt of watching down on Worthy Farm. Spotted intermittently betwixt numerous sticks flaunting the flag of their native Wales, from Slow Life – a song that, incidentally, shares an unlikely commonality with Smith’s Hold Tight – right through to The Man Don’t Give a Fuck, Gruff Rhys & Co. demonstrate how best to go about putting on a barnstorming festival show to blow many another clean out the gunky, quagmiry water.

Super Furry Animals, Glastonbury 2015

Drawing heavily from their gravely undervalued early oughties releases, the likes of Receptacle for the Respectable, Juxtapozed With U, Golden Retriever and Hello Sunshine have aged resplendently, while deep within the verdant rurality of this particular valley, the lyrically Arcadian Mountain People resonates far, and wide, and really pretty appositely. And, loathed though I am to admit to it, in foregoing the newly rereleased Mwng but for Pan Ddaw’r Wawr, their impact can only be said to increase considerably. ‘SFA, OK’ therefore, as per absolutely always.

Ryan Adams, Glastonbury 2015

Ryan Adams really is a bit of alright as well, and while material lifted from his most recent, eponymous full-length release may be that which most closely resembles the work of his Canadian counterpart and near-namesake, the likes of New York, New York, Dirty Rain and a suitably heartbreaking rendition of Come Pick Me Up mean that one day, when I look back upon the summer of ’15, I may be able to say – and do so safely, at that – that it did indeed comprise some of “the best days of my life.” But “nothin’ can last forever/ Forever, no” and so, as the dulcet strains of a dawdling Wonderwall come to a natural, and naturally languid conclusion, memories of Magnolia Mountain and the like immediately begin to disintegrate into the ether…

Admittedly, memory loss is not exactly an irregular occurrence at Glastonbury; while stumbling about the site, I sometimes wonder as to whether there was once money to be made in dealing Worthy Farm muck as a sort of roundabout black market workaround, given that the ground underfoot must, according to the ‘Misuse of Drugs Act’, be Class B at least. As such, recollections of, say, Four Tet at Genosys, or SIRIUSMODESELEKTOR on the Wow! stage, or Black Butter’s LBHQ takeover are faded; too few and far between to formulate cohesive ramblings thereon, as they’ve already been surrendered to the cognitive abyss. And while there are those performances that prove eminently forgettable for various other reasons (whether that be the phoned-in-ness of Burt Bacharach, the phoniness of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, the reprehensible languor of Real Lies or the mood of general inertia induced by each and every one of Death Cab For Cutie, Ibeyi, Mini Mansions and, alas, Roy Ayers), certain moments have surely been imprinted pretty indelibly onto my episodic memory.

Glastonbury 2015

For all of her proclamations to the contrary, for one, there is real, indubitable “drama” to Mary J. Blige’s Pyramid Stage takeover: she may not boast the abundance of hit singles that so many of her contemporaries might, but those more ‘EDM’-indebted cuts from The London Sessions – not to mention Disclosure collaboration, F For You – bring a contemporary vitality to proceedings, her tears achieving a oneness with the rain-soused masses. Similarly unifying is Todd Terje & The Olsens’ ecstatic West Holts jamboree, drag queens jiving to the rubbery bounce of Inspector Norse, with that refrain heard throughout the festival through the proceeding mornings, noons and nights. Malian four-piece Songhoy Blues clear the Sunday morning cobwebs with a blistering midday set that, if beset by another bothersome bit of spit and drizzle, benefits from such nimble-fingered, flittering, jittering greats-in-waiting as Al Hassidi Terei, Irganda and Soubour; rather more dour, if no less impressive for it, is Perfume Genius who, although playing to a deplorably poor turnout, turns in one of the most impassioned performances of the entire week, with a stomping Take Me Home stonking as the mud is honking come his Sunday, the painfully confessional Hood comparably glamorous, while Queen gyrates like a wild, animate glacier cherry atop a more lavish sundae than any Glastonbury caterer can now fashion. Nonetheless, it’s Floating Spit that remains Michael Hadreas’ pièce de résistance; a slinky, lugubrious beauty, the like of which we’re treated to only too infrequently. There are those who “can hold it” together no longer, many an eyeball going the way of Mary J. Blige and impulsively welling up all over the place, which seems the absolute testimony to the emotive tragedies whence the song was originally spawned.

Otherwise, well, there’s a tale of two ascendant troubadours, with Fort Worth, Texas’ Leon Bridges bringing with him the moves and suits of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye et alii, but forgetting to pack many punchy tracks beyond the opening Better Man and the truly opulent Coming Home; there is then Father John Misty who, for all of his heinously try-hard blathering, Messianic posturing and put-on “soulful affectation”, invariably beguiles, with material taken from the critically acclaimed I Love You, Honeybear of February accumulating yet more accolades come Saturday afternoon. Admittedly, the irresistible, titularly prolix likes of Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins), The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt. and Nothing Good Ever Happens At the Goddamn Thirsty Crow enamour more so than ever before, with the unapologetically power ballad-like True Affection and a gloriously raggedy rendition of The Ideal Husband adding requisite texture to Tillman’s compulsively irrepressible performance.

Father John Misty, Glastonbury 2015

Lyrically, you’d do well to find a more erudite wordsmith onsite, but his grandiloquent tales of conceptual disaffection are rarely better, nor more affecting, than when enwrapped in the comparatively pared-down, and barely sesquipedalian Bored In the USA. But if his staring into the camera, enquiring how many ‘acerbic, sat-at-home-praying-for-rains’ couples may be watching on on mushrooms seems a concerted attempt to have the Beeb bleep out his less polysyllabic babbling, then Samuel T. Herring goes several better on the Other Stage; a stage that has this summer undergone something of a transmutative overhaul, looking more like the kind you’d more traditionally associate with, say, Sonisphere. However, aside from Herring’s getting his expletives out of the way instantly, his is a grunt that could likely rival that of, for instance, Chuck Schuldiner; and while the mammoth anthems of Future Islands are far too lively to be compared with Schuldiner’s seminal metal outfit Death, there is ample, palpable morbidity to A Song for Our Grandfathers, in much the same way that there is an emphatic feel of finality to Seasons (Waiting On You). (Or “that one,” as someone behind refers to it thereas.)

But Future Islands, playing their 991st show on Sunday afternoon, very evidently have far more to give to a field filled with wizening, withered husks of human flesh, to which the ineffably buoyant Walking Through That Door attests. Of course, Gerrit Welmers’ keen ear for a keening synth hook was always sure to make them a shoe-in success story today, and Tin Man meanwhile witnesses what may be the very best usage of (albeit synthetic) steels of the week; and that despite appearances from such eminent practitioners as Hot Chip and Jamie xx, Herring raspingly growling about “find[ing] the one that’s just right.” In short, essentially, this particular refrain could be used to refer to any one of Balance, Spirit, A Dream of You and Me or pacy new(er) number, The Chase; and so, although “people lie, people love, people go,” Future Islands do their utmost to convince all within earshot that beauty does indeed lie “in every soul.” ’Eck, he may be preaching to the converted here, although there’s enough goodwill to go around; and sure enough, when not falling over himself, Samuel T. Herring spreads enough glee to inspire thoroughgoing forgiveness of those aforesaid someones who’ve fallen by the wayside since twelve months or so ago.

A duo who really ought to be targeting rather bigger, and with that better stages than the BBC Introducing come Glastonbury 2016, however, are EKKAH. To be totally honest, I’m beginning to lose count of the number of times I’ve seen Rebecca Wilson and Rebekah Pennington in action now; and on the basis of a short, yet indisputably sweet seven-song set, this shan’t be the last either. Because, and I paraphrase the sensational Love 4 Life, it’s “R.E.A.L. L.O.V.E.” and was as such at first sight. Pilfering from their formative ’90s years, from the satiny Figure It Out to the sassy, R&B-styled Last Chance To Dance, there’s ample enamourment going on again; not least when it comes to their proffering of a rather more literal “last chance to dance,” and Home Alone. It’s the sort of hip-splitting tour de force that, had Nile Rodgers had even as little as one little finger in its conception, production or whatever other faculty, would be bloody everywhere by now. But there’s time enough for Wilson and Pennington, and we can now only hope there are plenty more opportunities “to dance” henceforth…

Glastonbury 2015

But aside from an easy, sleazy Sunday afternoon snooze-a-thon from an ostensible ‘legend’ (which, ironically, I managed to nap through), Glastonbury 2015 was all about one man; an American who correlates his presence to that of divine “greatness,” and yet is perceived by so many to be “the abomination of Obama’s nation.” Of course, that man is Kanye West, and his Glastonbury bow was always sure to rank among the most divisive shows of its kind since the festival’s early ’70s genesis. But if ever a headliner were likely to garner the headlines, then it would definitely have to be Mr. West. However, with all this said, this is neither Kanye at his self-proclaimed best, nor his exceptionally pompous worst; there are no diabolically protracted diatribes, as per Wireless last year, nor the spectacular, scintillating cameos that are surely a prerequisite condition for a supreme rap show that’ll stand the test of time. Instead, Justin Vernon (who, inexplicably, looks not unlike a dime-a-dozen frat boy these days) features on an extraneous snippet of Bon Iver’s Woods, before fumbling his way through vocoded mumblings on both Lost In the World and, subsequently, Hold My Liquor. Whether or not this one lingers in memory thus very much remains to be seen…

Of course, there are moments of sheer “greatness,” and others of unadulterated genius: the usual suspects, such as All Falls Down, Bound 2, Gold Digger, Power and Runaway amass mass hysteria; there remains a visceral allure to Yeezus too, the Gary Glitter-aping Black Skinhead an early highlight, before Blood On the Leaves harks back to the better bits of Graduation. Said record is afforded a somewhat unnecessary heft tonight though, I Wonder drastically pedestrian, with the similarly elate Good Life at odds with what is otherwise, a fierce, ferocious demonstration of West’s solo credentials. Yet herein lies the issue: that, as was with Jay-Z way back in ’08, the ego gets in the way of the show, with vindication (and West’s consequent go-it-alone-at-all-costs attitude) apparently of more paramount concern than celebration. Thus West’s band – one that never visibly numbers any more than four at any one time – is ensconced in shadow for some while, a whole load of low-lying lights lending a claustrophobic intimacy to the opening moments. Eventually it lifts, like Friday’s dense cloud blanket, although West does little to divert attention away from himself, his egocentricity perfectly encapsulated by the moment the plug is pulled on Touch the Sky, only for him to later reemerge riding high on a bespoke cherry picker, the Chicagoan thus establishing a greater proximity to the realm which, according to a defiant Can’t Tell Me Nothing, he once dreamt he may be able to buy his way thereinto.

But if his shows at Wireless last summer were, rants aside, fucking killer, there’s far too much filler tonight, with the backing track-backed Niggas in Paris and No Church in the Wild distinctly lacking. There’s space enough on a bill of Glastonbury’s enormity for all forms of music – whether that’s the dub which pumps out of the Gully area all week long, the Latino tones to emanate from those more sedate extremities of Shangri-La, or the omnipresent grime phenomenon which, this year, overwhelms so much of Silver Hayes – and this is said inclusive of the hi-fi hip hop that West tends to peddle. But there is little time, by contrast, for either one of Cold or Mercy, the two Cruel Summer cuts relying on hackneyed lyrical content rather than the revelatory turns to be expected of “the greatest living rock star on the planet.” This he ain’t, to which a disastrously ropey performance of Bohemian Rhapsody attests; although by that exact same token, so lofty an accolade can’t be accredited to the overly vocal Noel Gallagher, nor the similarly egomaniacal Jay-Z. What West provides instead – and probably does better than anybody – is an absolute, unadulterated lunacy to compel you to question his own mental wellbeing; an evening comprising as many invaluably overground, ground-breaking rap tracks as incontrovertibly irrelevant cover versions. And while it remains unbelievably obvious that “no one man should have all th[e] power” that West now wields – or at least seems to believe he does – it could quite easily belong to someone with all the more abominable aspirations than a self-perceived visionary, whose perception could merely do with that little bit more focussing on occasion.

Glastonbury 2015

Putting Glastonbury itself back into finer focus mind, following on from a few mildly underwhelming editions, the event is very much back ‘on song’ so to speak; as indispensable a staple of the (often, less than great) British calendar as any Bake Off, X Factor or, more temporally applicably, Wimbledon final. Perhaps ‘peace and lov[ing]’ are virtues worth fucking believing therein after all, therefore?