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Glastonbury rules

The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts is as close as Generation X can come to Woodstock.  The music, the crowds, the hippies, the love, the mud, the sex, drugs & rock’n’roll…it’s all there, but now with a twenty-first century twist.  Known simply as Glastonbury, it’s the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world, and it has to be experienced to be believed.

The glory of Glastonbury lies in its kaleidoscopic variety, which is inspired by its immense size.  This year, I was one of more than 177,000 festival-goers.  Bang, instant city.  Imagine the entire population of Hamilton deciding to pitch tents in a nine-hundred-acre field with mates from around the world, and you will have some idea of the scale.  You would think the logistics would be a nightmare, but Michael Eavis, owner of Worthy Farm where the Festival is set and grand-daddy of Glastonbury, has had plenty of practice.  The first Festival was held the day after Jimi Hendrix died, on 19 September 1970, with around fifteen hundred attendants.  After a fitful first few years, Eavis has guided the Festival from strength to strength.  I was lucky enough to attend the previous Glastonbury, my first, in 2005, when we were blessed with so much rain (read: mud) that the land had to be left to lie fallow in 2006.  Thus it was with double-strength anticipation that we all descended upon the tiny village of Pilton, near Glastonbury in Somerset, last Thursday.

The extraordinary variety of Glastonbury is expressed first and foremost in its music.  There are literally hundreds of bands and artists to see on dozens of stages and performance areas over the official three-day period, not to mention the days surrounding.  Everything can be yours to sample, from a random bloke with a guitar and a good voice in the tent next to you, to the big-name headliners such as The Who or The Killers on the main Pyramid stage late at night.  Programmes are provided to help the dazzled festival-goers plan their weekend, but often the best idea is simply to wander and follow your ears.  It was in this way that I came across Chas and Dave, way atop the Festival in the new Park area, which is run by Eavis’ daughter Emily.  Being a Kiwi, I had never before been exposed to Chas and Dave’s idiosyncratic kind of Cockney pop rock (or “Rockney”), but it was a complete blast.  It wasn’t long before I was joining in on the choruses with the rest of the crowd.  At the more earnest end of the folk-rock spectrum were The Men They Couldn’t Hang, whose gig I caught at the Acoustic tent on the recommendation of a friend.  One of the band members endeared himself to me by putting his young daughter on his shoulders and letting her play the tambourine along with the music.  I was particularly taken with their “It’s a smuggler’s life for me” song, the chorus of which I was still singing on the long drive home.

Every kind of music is represented and reinvented at Glastonbury, from classical to rock to electronica to folk to ska to pop to hip-hop to crazy mixes of them all.  Equally varied are the artworks and performance artists who manage to appear all around the site when you are least expecting them.  This year, I spent a while perusing the new Trash City, which doubles as a statue gallery and dance arena.  There was a chained wooden dragon roaring against the sky up in the Sacred Space near the Standing Stones, and an angular cow upside down in a tree, in the Green Fields where the hippies hang out.  The wicker statues of double-life-size people were back, as were the circus troupes with their serious-injury-defying skill.  And everywhere you look, someone is wearing something crazy or amazing.  You can even dress up for dinner – Lost Vagueness, the super-eccentric festival within a Festival, offers silver service dining, no muddy boots allowed.  While you’re there, you can even hire a big white dress and get ‘married’ in the Chapel of Love and Loathe.  Last Glastonbury, I participated in a mass ‘wedding’, presided over by an Elvis-impersonating ‘priest’ and several ‘naughty nuns’, as well as a DJ who ditched “Here Comes The Bride” in favour of the Spiderman TV theme song.  You really, really had to be there.

The magical Glastonbury diversity even sparkles through the mud.  I was in my wellies the whole time (I refuse to call them gumboots on the grounds that they’re pink and flowery).  I learned to differentiate between thin slip-slidey mud and thick, powerful, boot-stealing mud, as well as the myriad shades in between.  The frequent showers kept the traditional Glasto mud well-watered and super-squelchy, but it really is all part of the fun.  Huge cheers erupted each time the sun showed itself, and heavy downpours were greeted with feisty cries of “Bring it on!”.  One of my first Glastonbury Moments this Festival was discovering that the tent I’d borrowed from my cousin was one hundred percent waterproof; a welcome change from last time.  Bliss.

A Glastonbury Moment is a difficult sensation to describe.  It has something to do with the fact that you’ve temporarily entered a different world; something to do with serendipity; something to do with whatever you brought to the Festival meshing with the vibe that’s there; and something to do with sheer grinning happiness.  Every one of the hundreds of thousands of festival-goers has their own personal Moments, and I think it must be the sum of these Glastonbury Moments which gives the Festival its special magic.  One of my favourite Moments occurred in the Croissant Neuf tent early on the Saturday afternoon.  The venue was intimate and the two-man band, Nizlopi, were communicating their energy so well to the audience that everyone was smiling and dancing.  Eventually their set had to finish to make way for the next act, but we were applauding so much that they came out into the crowd and made themselves a space in the centre.  Nizlopi then gave one of the best acoustic performances I’ve ever experienced, even getting us to sing the chorus in harmony.  It was a song I’d never heard before – I was only familiar with their hit JCB song – but, in that Glastonbury Moment, I felt I knew it well.

My other Glastonbury Moments for 2007 include drinking hot spiced cider with some mates when we were all cold and wet, and developing an enormous crush on Arctic Monkeys’ lead singer Alex Turner.  I was also delighted to discover that Water Aid, one of Glastonbury’s nominated charities, had laid on more female urinals this year than ever before (they’re called She-Pees, and they give you a cardboard funnel, in case you’re wondering).  Anything which keeps you away from the portaloos has to be a good thing, believe me.  I also enjoyed hearing Lily Allen tell us about her family connection to the Festival – turns out that she was a baby for her first Glasto, when her parents were selling beers out of a van, and now she’s performing on the biggest stage.  During her and others’ gigs, I was proud to see NZ flags, both the official and the All Blacks versions, waving atop tents and swaying through mosh pits.  I also had my own mini-Woodstock Moment on Sunday night, when it became clear to everyone that The Who still completely rock.  Hearing Roger Daultrey belt out “I hope I die before I get old” was glorious.  They’ve definitely still got it.

The magnet that draws the crowds back to Glastonbury every time is the variety of experience on offer, the variety of happiness.  You could be moshing to indie rock, or lighting huge coloured candles in the Stone Circle.  Debating geopolitical issues in the Green Futures field, or dancing with your headphones on at the Silent Disco.  Chilling with mates old and new in a tent around a fire, or jiving at the Jazz World stage.  It’s always different, and it’s always amazing.  Everyone’s happy.  Next Festival, you should come.  I’ll see you there.

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