Live Reviews

Glastonbury 2023 – An Alternate View: Festival Review

Our man in a sleeping bag was there. (Do I really have to say where it was and when?)

Well this was unexpected!

As you may know, ATB are proud to be a judge for the Emerging Talent Competition for the festival. Seeing as the rest of the team were otherwise occupied, I innocently asked and, a few forms filled in later, here I was, beckoning my Glasto experience into the 21st century.

The last time I came, 1994, it was different, and somewhat smaller (slightly), the same adjectives perhaps applicable to myself. Plus, hell, I’m nearly as old as some of the headliners! (Not that old! Ed.) Anyhoo, not here to tell you how rammed it is and how it’s not how it used to be; you can get all that in the papers and social media, this is all about the music, maaan. Or mainly…

WEDNESDAY

This is a day for acclimatisation and exploration, given there is precious little, stage wise, open. So time to impress on my step count and find all the nooks and crannies in the far flung peripheries. To prevent getting lost, yeah, right, later down the week.

Rather struck on Strummerville, an amiable campfire vibe of road warriors and reprobates. The Green Fields have more stages than you can shake a totem stick at, often powered by ever more intriguing off grid sources. Solar and wind obviously but bicycle powered? Tick. Field of Avalon, Tipi Village all offer future reference and the Bandstand, down by the fabulous Carhenge, looks to have a full bijou niche function. Knackered by nine, so early doors after the obligatory firework display.

THURSDAY

A day of good intentions, effortlessly thrown off track by the sheer volume of footfall. With the big arenas still shut, there are only so many places to go. One place I hadn’t factored in was the Mandala stage, which lured me in with a familiar sounding chug, adorned by full on bleep and booster, ring modulators and all that. I had to investigate, finding the daily Nik Turner daily memorial jam in full on assault mode. Wonderful nonsense, until the electrics cut out, the stage responding with bongo (and drumkit) frenzy. And a couple of punters jumping back on the pedal power bikes.

Next up for me, at that Bandstand, was the estimable Archie Churchill-Moss, melodeonist extraordinaire, in tandem with Tom Moore and his viola, the pair a now established draw for their hauntological spin of box and fiddle, defiantly di dee free. A partisan throng awaited them, Moss having been brought up in the town that gives this shindig its name, and they didn’t disappoint, using that support to veer off into the more experimental tunes in their repertoire, to cheers, especially when Moore’s miked up foot thundered out a stomping pulse. But it was becoming apparent the area around the Bandstand was fast becoming squeezed up room only.

Word of mouth had given ShowHawk Duo a huge buzz, two fellas with acoustic guitars. Two acoustic guitars? In name only, miked to the max for a percussive maelstrom of pounding beats, their brief to recreate classic house and rave. Hard to believe such power could come from the two of them, but it does, the years peeling away, memories of Alice DJ and Sash, nothing subtle but simply stunning. (Memo, but anything other than simple, needing a classical training to accomplish, I understand.)

Green Fields drew me back to Toad Hall stage later, for the indestructible force of Kangaroo Moon, present at every festival since 1992, usually playing across a number of stages. 192 Glastonbury shows was the number quoted. Good old fashioned hippies, certainly in their lyrical content, with a set that seemed to mix and meld an acoustic-ish (1970s) Hawkwind (again), with Fairport Convention, again of that time passage.

They were followed by ATB favourites, Track Dogs, fully explaining the love. Two Irishmen, an Englishman and an American, Madridenos by residence, who offer an earthy texy-mexy mix of Americana roots fusions. Lots of mariachi style trumpet had me hooked, other textures from banjo, uke and guitar. Given the recent Show of Hands link-up, it was hardly surprising that Steve Knightley just happened to be on hand to grace their final song. The day having turned into tomorrow, that was me, happy if footsore.

FRIDAY

And still the sun shines. Seeing as they had taken the time to get here, it would have been churlish to ignore the Master Musicians of Jojouka, who opened the proceedings for the Pyramid stage. Good choice, as they were an appealingly bonkers start. A line of be-robed and turban wearing elders, split between reedy woodwinds; a bit like a bombarde section, and some drummers. A glorious droning din, enlivened by each of them taking turns to shimmy and sway across the stage, making the old guy in Tinariwen look positively staid.

Duly uplifted it was time to catch some Swedish hi-octane rock and roll, courtesy of The Hives. Given it was barely midday, they played an absolute blinder, with the massive field of the Other stage eating out the hand of singer, Pelle Almqvist. A peerless showman, his mid song patter was perfect, as the band, all in dapper white suits, thrashed their garage band schtick, bringing Midsommar to Somerset. The band Abba could have been.

A brief burst of the Lightning Seeds followed, Ian Broudie’s jangly pop perfection almost enough to sustain the momentum, but more was required, with a hoof over to the Acoustic tent to catch the Mary Wallopers. Their Pogues with ADHD ambience was a treat, even if the sound was a tad muddy. But a naive enthusiasm is all part of their chutzpah, and the higgeldy piggeldy front line of guitar, banjo and whistle/uillean pipes kept the marquee bouncing, with doughty bassist, Ròisin Barrett, keeping the bottom end firmly in place. Most of the cheerfully subversive songs from the first album were included, with the rousing Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice, Hamish Imlach’s song of mischief, reserved towards the end.

A bit aimless for a while, finding Unknown Mortal Orchestra over on the Park stage. They were fine if a little dull, sort of like a funkier version of the Manchester Orchestra, but with fewer tunes. Time for a lie down. Revived, it was back to the Acoustic tent for a solo Steve Earle set that nothing short of amazing. Just him, a battered guitar and some corking songs, mainly from the earlier part of his careeer. So we got Devil’s Right Hand, My Old Friend The Blues, all with some suitably cornpoke mouthharp to punctuate the verses. Rocking the dress down Friday vibe of a minor university English Prof, with a penchant for truckstop chic, this was sublime. I’ll swear something got in my eye for Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye, let alone when he introduced and played his son Townes’ son. Harlem River Blues. Switching to mandolin(s) for the closing few songs, with, inevitably, Galway Girl. What a treat, and a shame how relatively scant was the audience.

Staying put, it was the Saw Doctors next, for this Irish of days. Having seemed a little lacklustre last year at Wickham, I can report they were on fire tonight; maybe the therapeutic effect of a haircut for Davy Carton. (Don’t say Albert Steptoe, whatever you do….) All the favourites, and I mean all the favourites, bounced forth, with Carton and Leo Moran the only originals still standing, not counting the near original presence of ex-Waterboy sidesman, Anto Thistlethwaite on some honking sax. The band are just so charming, their songs so sweet, it is hard to believe my first sighting of them was 30 years ago, in this very festival, if then playing the Main, not yet Pyramid, stage. The slower songs, Clare Island and Share the Darkness blended mellifluously with the rowdier shenanigans of I Useta Love Her and Greeen and Red of Mayo. And of course everyone was hollering along with all the words.

Needing a night cap, and knowing The Damned were playing the Field of Avalon stage at 11pm, that I had to catch, so as to compare with December’s original line up reunion tour. A different band, really, with now a definite psych-rock-goth flavour, Captain Sensible channelling any and all his guitar heroes, gurns and grimaces aplenty. Dave Vanian very dapper in a Spanish suit and fedora, black gloves as ever. Paul Gray showed quite how solid a bass player he is, whilst keyboard man, Monty Oxymoron, was all but inaudible. With a mosh pit, um, moshing, it was a mix of the new, from new album, Darkadelic, to all the well fondly recalled year zero singles. Being the end of the day, they were granted not one but two encores, ending gloriously and gothically with Eloise.

SATURDAY

Halfwayday, and jings, it’s still hot, bewildering the social media weather prophets. Shower queue, la-di-da, was enormous, so any good intention to catch Max Richter fell by the wayside. But The Unthanks were there to pick up my pieces, with an uplifting set of consummate chamber folk, courtesy the beguilingly faltering vocals of Rachel and Becky, filled out by Niopha Keegan, doubling also on fiddle. With a string trio and regular trumpet player, Lizzie Jones, adding to the throng, the core band of Adrian McNally on piano, side-lined to one side and the three piece “rhythm section” to the other, they took up most the space available. (Rhythm section sounds oddly rockist, when the fare presented here so anything but.) Sometimes this has drifted towards overly polite, in my experience, twee even, but I wanted this to be different. And it was, utterly, convincing me at last to their live merit, the recording never in doubt. Was this a first, Shruti box and clog dancing on a Glastonbury main stage? By the time they finished their slot with the supremely gorgeous Sorrows Away, audience participation and all. Converted.

A brief burst of The Lathums failed to engage, their normal bloke guitar band kitchen sinkery erring a little too far on the landfill. Maybe not the thing for a scorching midday. So, off again on an explore, finding the Woodsies (née John Peel) stage, and Working Mens Club. What a find! Their singularly dystopian electro-post punk seemed a vibrant uplift of the Joy Division/New Order MO, as once was. Front man, Syd Minsky-Sargeant, engaging and effervescent, a lost love child of Ian Curtis and Mick Jagger, moving and shaping all over the stage, forgetting never when to press the next button on his gadgetry, his singing impassioned and maniacal. Meanwhile, on various keyboards and bass, his 3 cohorts, one male and two female, stood facing forward, largely blank and dispassionate, staring forward, stabbing either the odd key, of slashing some strings. All very Blade Runner, if Vangelis had been born fifty years late, in the industrial fading grandeur of Todmorden.

Such was the swelter, I elected to stay much put, snoozing gently as Murder Capital and then Shame did their respective things. All a bit generically shouty and thrashy young people with loud guitars, but, I confess, whether by immersion or attrition, by the end I found myself increasingly absorbed, even getting up to cut a rug for the latter.

There had been method in my madness in sticking where I was, for the rumour mill had earlier confirmed this was where the much vaunted Rick Astley/Blossoms melange were playing a “secret” set, dedicated to the songs of the Smiths. And what a delight it was, Astley, fresh from already playing his own headline slot elsewhere, and apparently a blinder, in a slightly too large powder blue suit. With Blossoms in standard biker/rocker garb, they made for quite the contrast. But the love was evident, as the combination worked through a well-chosen greatest hits. Astley’s boyish enthusiasm frequently got the better of him, fluffing lines and when to start, but he endeared himself all the more thereby. That Rick Astley, 40 years on, could find himself one of the weekend highlights is a thing of some magic. (Note to students: Blossoms evoked perfectly the guitar sound expected, irony noting it took often three guitars to provide the jangle Johnny Marr provided alone).

That ringing both in my ears and heart, I hot footed it to the Park, it fast becoming my favourite stage. This time it was the second “secret” of the day, if widely informed through all and any media. How Chrissie Hynde gets to look so darn good, and sound so good, is downright borderline annoying, all perhaps her healthy meat-free diet. Jibes aside, she and the Pretenders were nothing short of incandescent, the singer clearly enjoying to be there. In the style of her recent tour of smaller venues, the fact she was here on, in a (fairly) small arena, spoke volumes, and I suspect was her choice. With the rock dialed up to captal R, few prisoners were taken, as they sturm und dranged their way through an hour or so of songs, brand new and oldies side by side. James Walbourne, her trusty lieutenant these past several years past, enjoys rock god guitar posing and he was today in heaven. No Martin Chambers on drums, sadly, he again perhaps taking leave of the band. Kid really set up the momentum, so, having introduced her guitarist as one of so many guitar legends she has worked with, Hynde anounced a special guest to add some additional guitar, none other than Johnny Marr, himself a Pretender, it seems, if for a nanosecond, last century. The familiar intro for Back on the Chaingang rumbled into gear and they were on fire, Hynde all grins. No wonder that old buddy Macca was seen to slip into the wings for a poleside position. Another guest then bounced the new drummer from his perch, if temporarily, this time Dave Grohl, this years Chris Martin for stagebouncing. Without going into my thoughts about the Foo Fighters, let me at least state what a mighty shit hot drummer he still is. This truly heartlifing performance ended all too soon, with, as the band exited, Sir Paul shuffling on to raise the arm of the still beaming singer. (I’d love to have known what Marr had thought of the Astley late blossoming, SWIDT, of his back-catalogue, or even whether he had witnessed it. I hope he’d have been gracious.)

Leftfield provided more listening than visual pleasure for me, as sustencence needed taking. What I heard was terrific, underlining, if needed, that they/he are still arguably the leaders of the old school techno brigade still standing. (And that is despite knowing the Chemical Brothers had offered a first class DJ slot the night before.) Used to the bass notes shaking the foundations of any indoor show, I had no idea the Somerset soil could actually tremble. Lord knows what King Arthur, deep in the Tor, made of it all. My intent had then been to wind down with a bit of Lana Del Ray, but so too, it seems, had another 100k or so of punters, the crush and cram, even before she came on, daunting even for my rugged frame. Reader, I confess, I made my excuses and left, itself a difficult exfiltration. I’ll watch her on telly next week, hair styling leading to the curfew closing her off mid stream, so to speak, and all.

SUNDAY

Boy, was I a bouncy bunny the day, all that sleep managing to stuff the sound systems, failing to stop my slumber. In fact, the courteous timing of a heavily remixed Girls Just Want To Have Fun was just the alarm call I needed, at 5.50 a.m., so as to down tent and fill the car again with my gear, nice and bright and early. Of course that tune remained firmly earwormed for the next few hours of wandering around, trying to find the bloody jalopy. Back in good time, however, for the effervescent enthusiasm of N’Famady Kouyaté. You might know ATB are judges of the festivals Emerging Talent Competition, and, whilst I personally had no part, this guy from Guinea was the winner, so I felt obliged. Glad that I did, as he was a definite highlight. Now resident in Cardiff, his instrument is the balafon, a wooden xylophone, with dried gourds giving extra amplification. Rocketed into the 21st century, he sings and leads a five piece band, who lay down a solid wedge of afro-acid-jazz. Playing also guitar, it was as good a 45 minutes as the festival was able to provide me all week.

Mellower was the mystical Kernow motorik of Gwenno, back at the Park. Dreamy yet driven, is what I see I noted, the singer channelling a more cerebral Stevie Nicks as she shimmied behind her keyboard. Sticking with sterling, Cara Dillon drew me back to the Avalon stage, where Kouyaté had been. A year or several since I have caught her, she looks and sounds unchanged, her voice as pristinely crystalline as ever. With Sam Lakeman faithfully omni-present at her side on guitar and piano, brother Seth was augmenting, on second fiddle, having had his own set a day or two before. Other brother Sean (with Kathryn Roberts) was possibly playing elsewhere at the same time, as all the Lakemans were down to appear at some stage. Sticking to trad, Blackwater Side, Carrickfergus and the like, it was lovely. What could have been a mawkish moment, when the three Dillon children were trooped on, to rattle through Raggle Taggle Gypsy, wasn’t, not at all, proving the Lakeman dynasty shows no sign of ending any time soon.

Mindful I hadn’t yet found the West Holts stage, Jazz/World as was, so I next tried out Speakers Corner Quartet, celebrated sessioneers on the London jazz and rap circuit, with (mainly) flute, violin, bass and drums. Neither an expert or advocate for this sort of genre, I found myself mainly admiring the rhythm section, the flute being a bit too experimentally dissonant for me, the violin there mainly for drone, not that the audience had any such misgivings. Various guests slotted in with song and spoken word, all very Beat poets to me, c. New York 1957, but with a better rhythm track. I knew, however, that the speech would soon become staccato, making then my exit. (Sorry to sound churlish.)

With the afternoon drawing on, a bit of Cat Stevens seemed too good a pull to miss, hoping my crowd antipathy could be thwarted. As I trudged over I could hear music dipping deep back into my memory banks, from my teenaged years. It was lovely, what I could catch, eventually finding myself at the side of the stage. Unable to see him or his accompanists at all, let alone the stage at all, I had a splendid close up view of the right side screen for Father and Son. Suddenly it was 1970 again, and I realised I had something in my eye. Quite beautiful, with his voice in good nick, the singer himself looking also in fine fettle. Which was nice. Which wasn’t my opinion as the next band cranked up.

With the same non-view, I fear Ms Harry and Blondie seemed more artefact than icon, random spluttered ejaculations between each line of lyric having to make up for the shortcomings in her vocal department. Clem Burke looked business as usual, however, which was good, with Glen Matlock packing some powerful bass by his side. (I wondered, idly, whether Matlock had mingled any, backstage, with his old muckers, Cook ‘n’ Jones. Their new band, Generation Sex, with Billy Idol on vocals and Tony James on bass, had gone down across the way earlier, apparently quite well. I do hope no sandwiches were shared.) The hired hand Blondie guitarists all looked a bit too cool for school, more image than interest, and regretfully I bade my leave. Another to watch and dissect from home.

By now best laid plans were wilting. Hopes to see the War On Drugs or Rickie Lee Jones were being overruled by my knees, each bitterly complaining, the left now as large as my head. So my apologies to the Eavis’ and to my editors, it’s a car I have to find and home I have to head.

So, then, Glasto farewell. It has changed and a lot, it mainly the sheer size that sticks with me, along with the sheer diversity of what is available. However, it is that very diversity that ultimately defeats, as the ability to take full advantage is swallowed up by an inability to actually manage any such aspiration. I fear, likewise, with so much attention directed to the superstar headliners, it has become heritage and possibly, thus, counter-intuitive to any “true” and/or lingering spirit of Pilton as was, half a century ago. The thrust toward such seems entirely driven by the BBC, so as to maximise viewing figures at home, selling an unrealistic dream that to see such acts is as fine, dandy and easy for the attendees as is presented. But hey, I gripe, I had a largely great weekend, seeing a bevy of less famous acts, an alternative selection, mostly, to the iPlayer. Beam me up, Scotty, Cambridge next.

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1 reply »

  1. Fab review, as ever, Mr Og. Shame you missed your 2 dogs at home with a “tummy bug”. Full 5 days of merriment.

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