And so to Sunday, which begins as I so often long for festival twenty-fours to do: waking up with Mr. Nice in a creative, if less of a coital sense. It’s a booking which has always ranked relatively highly among preferred alarm substitutes, and in theory Howard Marks is the perfect breakfast date for a particularly groggy Glastonbury Sunday: as the title of his so widely lionised autobiography aforementioned may suggest, he’s a thoroughly amicable bloke and then of course his abiding penchant for gently illicit substances makes him an all the more apt fit with the festival itself.
Whether smoking, or indeed smuggling the stuff, Glastonbury’s ubiquitous fragrance is his most cherished intoxicant thus that he should reconstruct certain chapters from his memoirs in a series entitled Scholar to Smuggler makes him even better equipped to entertain an audience only too eager to spark up something pungent. Like eating a Welsh cake in Cardiff, it’s the done thing and endearing as his “cautionary tales” tempered with occasional regret and the outlining of various repercussions may again be, the formatting is more than a little confusing this time as Marks carries out dialogues with IRA affiliate Jim McCann amongst others, whose transcripts come from a recalcitrant laptop.
Punctuated by myriad elementary sound effects and a commensurately rudimentary PowerPoint presentation indicative of an abnormal foresight for an academic best known for his insatiable thirst for a memory-blotching narcotic, there’s little to feed on that hasn’t been heard before and it’s all that little bit too formulated as a consequence. Infuriatingly, he then ends where he should’ve begun, and with the best anecdote heard this weekend: that having been offered the job of English grammar instructor at USP Terre Haute, Marks encountered a certain Christopher Wallace. “I didn’t know he’d go on to become The Notorious B.I.G. at the time, but I taught the fucker where to put fullstops.” It’s a cheery, if nostalgically active parting shot and one to remind us if nothing else of the fact that we’re fortunate to have a man of Marks’ world-weariness from whom we can still learn the rights and wrongs of this little thing called life firsthand.
Reverting to audio as is so often our wont, kinky Montréal noiseniks Suuns awaken the afternoon with compulsive throbs and hefty clunks to garner a stronger turnout than anticipated in the process. Edie’s Dream rendered a claustrophobic apparition and retranslated to a stilted thing of predominantly electronic agitation, theirs is a showing cut with life and so too hairdos anew, and on their Glastonbury début they appear to adhere pretty strictly to the festival’s ethos with mantric jams and extensive bluesy improvisations the order of the day. The only aspect up for debate concerns how well suited they are to environs sizeable as the fairly considerable, if this year only infrequently frequented John Peel Stage, as lead vocalist Ben Shemie is the sort to really thrive on a real creepy intimacy and as such, a strangely meditative Pie IX lacks its usual bite.
Although it’s perhaps due to that deflating feel of defeatism to so habitually torment the archetypal Sunday feel: the torrents of early leavers; the swarms of starved gulls that swarm ravenously overhead; the obligatory appearance of Rufus Wainwright, who seems to have become a Charles Aznavour impersonator since last seen last summer. It’s he, a grand piano, an acoustic guitar and a whole load of chatter, and finds itself a far cry from better days before he got Out Of The Game. The title track from said record dusted down and pared back, it’s one of few recuperative tonics to a weekend of ruination that he condescends to crack open this afternoon, another of which is, or rather would be Hallelujah were it not so heavily laden with connotation. Preluded by tales of encounters with the late Jeff Buckley – a man he “didn’t sleep with. Unfortunately” – and irrevocably altered by his having a baby, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, with Leonard’s daughter Lorca, it sits awkwardly as such and the remainder of the set – that which veers away from the themes of “dead singer-songwriters and the defamation of America” – is spent willing him to do alright in the same way I’ve tirelessly tried to get along with he and his truly haphazard back catalogue.
Kenny Rodgers, by contrast, comes across an everlasting charmer. “I’m really not used to playing to such a small audience” he joshes, sashaying into the wet-legged Love Or Something Like It before leading on through the unapologetically schmaltzy Through The Years and the squiggly country schtick of If You Want To Find Love. And in turn, Captain Plastic provides some relatively sublime respite. Whether he or Wainwright was supposed to have assumed the mantle of Sunday legends slot remains unclear, although there’s only one winner and The Gambler, even after all these years, is his unchanging trump. The customary array of Sex Pistols tees then decorates the Other Stage, much as those of the Rolling Stones did so omnipresently only yesterday. Again, it’s now lamentably typical Topshop attire and as Public Image Ltd deplorably phone one in, they prove to be prickish as both Oxford Street and their prophetically phallic moniker alike.
Dysfunctionally enormous, John Lydon’s seemingly had Country Life hooked up on an IV drip and he’d best stick to the parodic ads on this sort of evidence anyhow, as it’s all a bit embarrassing and bloody chagrin-inducing. This Is Not A Love Song would surely fail to butter up a glutton whilst Warrior, although once a pioneering hybrid of pompous rock and muffled electronic intervention, now sounds utterly crusty. The faux-dub stylisation of One Drop, during which Lydon reads lyrics contrived as “I am no vulture/ This is my culture” from a lectern, sounds more forced still but it’s best expected of a band primarily remembered for stuffing a CD in an aluminium can now decades ago. (They incidentally opt not to air one solitary cut from Metal Box.) Though the most pertinent lesson learned this afternoon is that there’s little more distressing than a onetime punk ageing gracelessly and whether barfing brandy or commenting on how the festival is “not so corporate after all” in a statement of absolute self-contradiction, Lydon can unquestionably be added to the unending litany of erstwhile pioneers gone passed it.
Of which, it must be said, there are many this weekend: from Johnny Marr to Mick Jagger; Billy’s Corgan and Bragg, they’re not exactly in short supply this time around. The Silver Hayes, as a rule however, is largely exempt from such annal-plundering with only Family Stone stomping through the ostensible classics last night as the area instead favours the flavours of the humdrum British high street: Disclosure; AlunaGeorge; Rudimental, etc. ad infinitum. And another love of the current mainstream demographic is of course Tom Odell, who prompts a nigh on Biblical exodus once done with the John Peel Stage even in spite of the tenuous cultural similarities between he and the ensuing Jessie Ware.
I know which I’d rather, or perhaps rather I did as for all the premeditated pop star posturing, musical quality only really comes in waves in that Devotion for the most part proves dull once translated to the live environ. It’s maybe due to Ware’s strangely negligible stage presence, or the ungainliness of the performance in general, or even that the weekend hears from considerably better vocalists over its duration – it’s a little Whitney in bits, and largely backing singer schtick otherwise. (Ware by happenstance happened to back up Jack Peñate on this exact stage back in 2009.) There’s no questioning her enthusiasm, and it grows increasingly infectious as the show drags on as she gushes of this being the “best day of ma lahf” but backed by a band that smacks of session musician uniformity and chinky Prince guitars, the atmosphere’s totally flat. And the consequence is a painfully mundane performance the like of which is only rarely preserved for something, and indeed someone so ubiquitously revered. There is one moment of ephemeral redemption though in the form of a rousing Wildest Moments, but it’s more a reminder for all that could’ve been and a suggestion as to precisely why Kid Harpoon should’ve been lassoed in on a couple more numbers. It’s thus that the whole Ware phenomenon is so easily lampooned and in turn exposed as the potentially fleeting thing it may yet transpire to prove and with the general vibe equal parts V Festival hysteria and Big Weekend rapture, aside from the hit it’s well miss.
That she can be accredited with a crowd equivalent in size to that afforded Sunday hags Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds again highlights the herds’ fancy for the temporary – a land where Marcus Mumford is considered a better equipped curtain caller than the inimitable Cave himself. He’s the filler in a soggier than thou focaccia with Vampire Weekend on the squashy underside, though that couldn’t possibly stop We No Who U R snatching a couple gasps with its sultry beauty. With Jubilee Street spreads further joy and whilst the becoming comforts of Brighton town centre feel a long way off after five days and nights amidst the great unwashed of Glastonbury, there’s a striking intimacy to it even when recited from midway up such a colossal erection. Cave jolts and jives wildly; violently, even as though self-exorcising the exultation sporadically intrinsic to latest full-length, Push the Sky Away. But then again, as was with Primal Scream before them, an eerily sedate ambience prevails with the sound nowhere near loud enough. Thus as was twenty-four hours previous, the evening would appear to be all about the headliners to follow – the exact antithesis of the supposed “Glasto experience”, where enjoyment via unplanned exploration is purportedly paramount.
Though if this shift in supposed focus tells of a British musical landscape in dire straits, whereby its chief weekend is presided over by authorities in mediocrity, then Corgan’s seemingly drifting up shit creek with only a star-spangled banderole for a paddle suggests a similar predicament unfurling stateside. The CEO and only remaining original member of The Smashing Pumpkins – the now almost comedic overlords of American off-kilter cock-rock – looks about as bulbous as most Hallowe’en treats, his belly protruding from beneath his taut tee in order to seek solace in the dip of his Strat. And this latest configuration of the Chicagoan alt. titans ain’t exactly their most becoming either, 2010 recruit Nicole Fiorentino looking more like an in-house strumpet in coquettish suspender tights and stilettos than a bassist per se with Silverlake whippersnapper Jeff Schroeder looking similarly incongruous stage-left. The pertinent question, therefore, is how does one construct a convincing line up around one ageing, depilated and self-professed “wrestlemaniac” with as much a wont for firing as hiring?
It’s a question as yet bereft of resolution, as is the harrowing reality that the onetime bona fide headliners tonight feature beneath The xx and whereas the Putney trio array themselves in their trademark monochrome, when it comes to The Smashing Pumpkins, gone are the pseudo-sci-fi duds with angsty teen garb instead the order of the evening. Whether in protest at their demoted billing or indicative of Corgan’s diminished standing as provocateur extraordinaire, they’re an innate outlier to the remainder of the line up regardless although that said, questionable irrelevance from more recent recordings aside, their sludgy brand of breakneck throwback proves considerably preferable to that which I’d anticipated to come.
Indeed, as Corgan whines: “Oh, don’t make me suffer” midway through Panopticon – one of four insubstantial numbers lifted from last year’s Oceania – it would appear that he’s almost become self-aware of his past foibles. I can vividly recall a total shitstorm of a show at Reading Festival in 2007, during which dressed in spotless sovereign silver he went on to insult and sneer his dastardly way through much of his disastrous Zeitgeist effort of that same year. And although even this record is touched upon tonight – most notably a United States featuring the aptly Druidic Uli Jon Roth, who donates a truly superfluously protracted guitar solo – the remainder is the stuff of evocative jackpot: the woozy blurs and theremin wibbling of Rocket; the quasi-psychotic ooze of X.Y.U.; even a beyond ludicrous interpretation of Space Oddity which dislocates the two and probably inadvertently recalls Where Are We Now.
For irrespective of changes in personnel, Corgan’s subjective perspective on the music he so diligently continues to produce, and our perception of his cherubic baby The Smashing Pumpkins have relatively consistently kept themselves positioned if not at the vanguard of experimental rock, then at the peak of its retrospective power. They are, by their very being, true paragons of the ‘old-fashioned rock act’ and it’s for this very reason that they find themselves totally, and so too gloriously out of place today.
Yes, it’s an eternally egomaniacal exercise in despotism, with Crown Corgan the dictator of their every procedure. And indeed, at times it can all be that bit too heinously self-indulgent even once considered that even the comparatively lowly Rachel Zeffira had an eight-piece ensemble in tow. (Disarm is thus murdered by sensations of niggling lethargy in that its tubular bells and ascending strings are synthetically reproduced.) But the indisputable merit inherent to it rings out regardless, and the subsequent Tonight, Tonight proves commensurately excellent today with Fiorentino afforded the odd vocal interjection here and there. It’s a sign of the autarch’s grasp slipping a touch and the repression thus easing, and indeed the band as one ease into the evening like a slob on a sofa with Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Today and a wondrously ruinous Zero ratcheting things up for a darn climactic denouement the like of which I never thought I’d see nor hear of them again. And so “viva la revolución” indeed for faux-mystic Sky Academy bullshite aside, they’re quite alright when Corgan wants for them to be.
Nonetheless there’s always a nagging suspicion that neglecting to indulge in the Pyramid Stage headliners come Sunday night will result in ultimate anticlimax but what with tonight’s Pyramid Stage pharaohs being the insufferable Mumford & Sons, there’s little alternative to seeking consolation elsewhere. And mercifully for all crammed into a nigh on rammed John Peel Stage, Francophone pop minstrels Phoenix have their metaphysical party poppers at the ready…
Emerging, as per, to the synthily anthemic strains of Entertainment Thomas Mars et al. instantly plunge into an abyss brimming with the kind of vim so drastically lacking from the ‘Stones’ headlining turn just last night. That should perhaps instead read the vim only ever ostensibly experienced by the likes of Katia Ivanova, Sally Humphreys, David Bowie and so on but to thematically return to Versailles, les Français are only becoming increasingly entertaining with our every rendezvous, as they anaesthetise the traditional Sunday depression to antithetically furnish us with one of the weekend’s real barnstormers. Cannoning off a barrage of irrefutable hit, as they float through the likes of Lasso and Listzomania there’s a graceful je ne sais quoi to it that might make them out to be coasting, though never are they anywhere short of thoroughly compelling. The sometimes latent ’80s theme erupts with Trying To Be Cool – another number to illustrate their plateauing at the acme of consummate pop production – as there’s a newly assumed rap bounce to it, before an illuminating Sunskrupt! heralds the dawning of luminous glow stick showers. It’s compulsive stuff to inspire the most diehard of obsessions, such is the OCD perfection of this latest production which, so conducive to clapping and so too clamour, belies their insouciant tunes although as “static silhouettes” begin to shimmy to a truly stonking Rome, it makes itself manifest as their absolute standout. A fundamentally vital facet as is the Colosseum to the Italian capital, it’s an unassailable colossus to cap an hour that, if a little scant, is never short on exhilaration. And as Mars surfs his merry way toward one of the tent’s four poles to scale it and wave to the doting below, we bid farewell to Glastonbury 2013.
While it may not have been the leading festival in Contemporary Performing Arts’ most inspiring edition from a purely musical attitude, there was doubtless enough on show to substantiate its standing as the essential festival of this, or indeed any year inclusive of those denoted only by its absence. And so even from the very second we trod boot-coated tracks back into Worthy Farm after last summer’s excruciating hiatus it became devastatingly flagrant that absence has, at least in this particular instance, only made the heart yearn forever harder. For Glastonbury somehow transcends not only each and every expectation traditionally reserved for the now worrisomely conventional music festival format, but so too reality itself and for a few all too ephemeral days and nights, it became utterly inconceivable to not live life to its fully maximised potential. Michael and Emily, much obliged. As I will be with every year until the cows finally come home…