I will run through some numbers to put things into perspective. There are over 60 official stages, more than 3000 loos on site and an estimated 11,000,000 liters of water were used over the weekend. A ticket is £216, compared to £1 for the inaugural festival in 1970, for which you even got free milk! You can get a tipi for £900 or a luxury tent for up to £8000. The perimeter of the site is 8.5 miles and spread across 900 acres in the Vale of Avalon. More than 150,000 punters are estimated to attend, on top of thousands of staff. Official figures suggest the total is more like 170,00 – greater than the population Oxford. 1300 recycling volunteers work to clear up – usually paid only with a ticket. It costs almost £800,000 to dispose of all the rubbish, and contrary to rumors there were no marriages – unfortunately it is not legal to hold weddings at the festival. It contributes an estimated 100 million to the economy – that’s £565 a head. It also raises many millions for charity.
I had a punishing schedule over the weekend, so I will give you a whistle-stop tour of the acts I caught.
On Thursday night, before the music had officially started, a friend whispered to me that we ought to make a move because apparently Fatboy Slim was going to make a surprise appearance in one of the dance tents. I don’t think he was the only insider because the tent was packed like a tin of sardines that was left in the glove compartment of a car going through a car crusher. It happened, and we were put through a set not too dissimilar in format to a preacher riling up an excitable congregation.
First up on Friday was Haim on The Pyramid Stage. Their upbeat 80s indie-pop was a tonic to the drowsiness from the night before and they delivered fun, bounce and funk – despite some late drama when bassist Este had to take a moment out with a diabetes induced panic. 7/10. The Lumineers were very fun and put a folk-pop spring in my step. 7/10.
I then ambled over to the John Pell Stage to see Frightened Rabbit. They are one of my favourite bands EVER, but I don’t think they played their best show. They have had me jumping higher than ever before, covered in goose bumps and blubbing like a baby, but this time they seemed to lack something. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t their best. 6/10. There are some bands whose sound doesn’t really work well onstage and Alt-J unfortunately fit into this category. Their album was glorious, but their slightly thin electronic indie sound doesn’t quite cut it for me when live. 5/10. A band that do nail it live are Foals. Woah! Theirs was perhaps the performance of the weekend for me. They produced a set of real weight and groove. Two Steps, Twice was the pinnacle and had the whole crowd pulsating. Yannis even nailed a sweet crowd surf. 9/10. Portishead grooved and swirled away to bring the day to a close. Beth gibbons’ voice cut through the hypnotic beats and melodies that ran underneath. I found myself becoming stealthily entranced quite a few times. 8/10.
I peeled myself out of my tent on Saturday morning to go and see The Staves. They had the unenviable stage time of 11:30, and looked distinctly groggy. They played beautifully and I felt renewed by their soothing harmonies, razor sharp wit and irresistible folk perfection. 8/10. Dry The River then brought the volume up with their rock infused power-folk. Their set was full of energy, but I didn’t think they sounded that great. I’m not sure if this was their fault, or the sound mans, but I didn’t feel particularly involved. 5/10. Ben Howard was charming. His smile alone is worth turning up for, but he also happens to have written some corking acoustic-pop songs. The Wolves had us all howling. 8/10. I was extremely excited about seeing Noah And The Whale. Their second album ‘First Days Of Spring’ changed my life. Sadly their pre-show-chat probably ended with the summary, ‘It’s sunny…lets just play all of the fun ones’ because they almost entirely overlooked this album. I enjoyed them, but I was sad not to hear the sad ones. Admittedly, I may be alone there. 7/10.
A hearty boogie was had by all when blues rock band Alabama Shakes took to the stage. Lead singer Brittany Howard absolutely tore it up with her thundering voice and groovy guitar. 8.5/10. The mythical and elusive Rodriguez (look up the story, it will blow your mind!) was fun and provided a temporary throwback to the 60s. 7/10. Willy Mason took a while to warm up, but ended up on a roaring high with I Got Gold. 8/10. This was followed by the big dogs – The Rolling Stones. Like most people I was standing quite far back. This prompted the stranger next to me to turn and explain how it sounded a bit like his old man lying on the sofa listening to The Stones too loud on his headphones. He had a point. Despite being a little quiet, they put on a good show. It was a no-frills performance of uninterrupted hits, and the crowd absolutely loved it. Jagger strutted like a man walking home from a strangers’ house wearing the same clothes that he wore out. 7/10.
I crawled out of a sauna-like tent on Sunday morning feeling like a damp cloth wrapped in honey-drizzled cling-film. The early rise was in honour of dance infused indie-pop band Zulu Winter, the first band on the Other Stage. They started at around 11:00 and although not soothing like The Staves they were a strong start to a day that would leave me with sunburn akin to an over-ripe tomato. 7.5/10. After chomping a large sandwich I went to see the wonderful Stornoway. As a band I grew up with at home (Oxford) they hold a special place in my heart. I thought their debut album was a triumph and I have really enjoyed their latest – ‘Tales From Terra Firma’. They were great fun, and raucously funny. Their set ended with a folkified version of a Wiley tune that they renamed ‘Wearing My Casio’. 8/10.
Villagers were brilliant and drew predominantly from their recently released album ‘Awayland’ – one of my albums of the year. 7.5/10. Everything Everything must have been relieved not to be competing with The Rolling Stones again and they produced a set of real vigor and intensity. 7/10. Bobby Womack was joined by Damon Albarn for his set and the two produced a soulful mood of joyous celebration and feel. The responsibility of closing the festival was given to Mumford & Sons. They were crowd pleasers, and suited the occasion. The high point was the last song when the band welcomed Vampire Weekend, First Aid Kit, The Vaccines and Communion Records’ own The Staves to the stage. They played With A Little Help From My Friends and as someone who feels similarly to Mumford & Sons as I do about beige, I have to admit that it was a great moment.
That drew a curtain across the bands.
It’s when you walk up one of the hills and look down onto the festival that you understand the city-like proportions of it all, and it’s not until you spend an evening walking around that you start to see the magic. There are fields lit by hundreds of flickering candles surrounded by wide-eyed faces, illuminated by the yellow, like a buttercup beneath a chin. There are men performing in chainmail that have visible electricity crackling around their bodies, dancers that hang from giant metal spiders, intriguing sculptures around every corner, rabbit holes, towers, ice caves, secret hideaways, separate villages, areas of magical geographical importance, pockets of druids, wooded areas and this is just what I got to see. The only shame is that it lasts a mere 5 days.
P.S a very good friend of mine foraged some elderflowers from the festival and is making some cosmic looking elderflower liquor. He has written a brilliant piece on it in his blog.