Live Music + Gig Reviews

Glastonbury 2011: Day 1 @ Worthy Farm, Glastonbury

27 June 2011

Radiohead's Thom Yorke

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke

Thursday morning, and its raining again. No, that term doesn’t begin to describe it: the sky seems to actually be flooding, the ground turned to liquid waymarked by floating Wellingtons. Michael Eavis will later profess that “the weather forecasters let us down”, but for now were wading nearly to our knees through an actual river of mud somewhere near the Other Stage.

But this being Glastonbury, nobody cares. In the Dance Village discarded boots have been arranged into Stonehenge; on the hill above the Park Stage good-natured cheering greets the failed attempts to descend without sliding 50 feet down. Rain macs are worn like Batfink’s cloak, and everyone is smiling. And well they might: they’re at Glastonbury, after all.

Sure, this years might not be a classic line-up. Its a sentiment repeated again and again across the site, a mantra that seems to be carried on the wind, but once again – nobody cares. Pretty much uniquely amongst festivals, the line-up at Glastonbury is irrelevant. It’s why it sells out before any performers are announced, why so many people return each year, a significant number barely seeing any bands at all. Indeed, thats the advice given this time round by Caribou‘s Dan Snaith: to ignore the music and the programme and to just let the festival carry you along.

You can see his point, although its wrong: theres too much good stuff to ignore it all, and to do so would just be rude, frankly. Like Beardyman in his packed East Dance appearance, whose beatbox talents are never less than awing whether he’s dropping drum and bass or reprising Pink Floyd.

Metronomy don’t fare quite so well with their Friday Pyramid set, despite attracting a massive crowd for a 12pm slot. Primarily a casualty of the weather, their sun-drenched pop seems out of place under the overcast skies, and the band are dwarfed by the sheer size of the stage.

There are no such issues for the Wu-Tang Clan, of course, whose eight-strong collective fill the space with ease, even if musically they’re now less the innovators and more raps elder statesmen. Despite the drizzle they receive a pretty rapturous reception, not only justified by the set that follows but a further testament to the absurdity of the notion that hip-hop doesn’t belong on the main stage: this may not be a challenging performance, but its one of the festivals most entertaining.

A long, long way from any level of main stage Glasgows Conquering Animal Sound battle with sound issues and a crowd more distracted by the accelerating rain outside the Stonebridge Bar. Nonetheless they play a pretty set of fragile, porcelain electronica, Anneke Kampman evoking Björk’s delivery with vocals that seem carved from myth and mist, although their sound gets lost amongst an audience looking less for glitchy beats than just a canvas to keep them dry.

Over at the West Holts stage Sweden’s Little Dragon is rather harder to ignore, their multicultural electronica galvanizing the field. It helps that singer Yukimi Nagano is such a captivating stage presence, but their songs warrant the attention too, meshing frenetic percussion and a blur of genres with a surprising, disarming level of subtlety and warmth, particularly on mid-set highlight Twice, a quiet pause with the festivals chaos.

Back at the Other Stage Bright Eyes are playing a louder, harsher set than usual, as though attempting to disassociate themselves from the rash of new indie-folk pretenders. Whatever: it sounds good, Conor Oberst’s voice with just the right tinge of anger as we, like most of Worthy Farm it seems, trudge towards The Park.

Because, of course, Fridays Special Guests – Radiohead – are rather less than secret, particularly as two of the band played whats due to be renamed The Thom Yorke Slot last year. And whilst hopes are high, the wisdom of putting the biggest band in the world on the smallest stage at the festival is sorely tested, the majority of the vast audience facing a stark choice: a claustrophobic hour within vague hearing distance of the speakers but with a view entirely limited to the matted hair of the person in front, or a spot on the hill from which the bands performance effectively consists of a game of charades.

The latter option, at least, brings with it the thrill of sliding back down through the mud afterwards, which would likely have been the highpoint for most. This is not the classic Radiohead set anticipated by the afternoons Twitter hype, no reprise of 1997 to bond the crowd together even as their limbs atrophy in the mud. But it was never going to be: Radiohead are playing this stage precisely to escape those expectations, the pressures and the scrutiny of a Pyramid appearance, pored-over and picked apart and broadcast to millions. Their naivety in thinking they could succeed here is not the point – we were foolish to expect anything other than the set we got.

Which wasn’t a bad set, actually – just a misjudged, stubborn one. Primarily a showcase for material from The King Of Limbs, the choices reflect the woozy, amniotic character of that album, frustratingly restrained to an audience fired up for the first proper night of the festival, seeking a release that doesn’t arrive. I Could Be Wrong comes close, but its only Street Spirit that fully engages the crowd, even if the band themselves clearly begrudge this token nod to a back-catalogue that no longer holds their interest.

Likewise, for a band whose live shows have been their bread and butter in recent years, U2 fell short of the mark. With the threat of a much talked about protest against the band’s tax avoidance hanging over him, Bono is perhaps understandably apprehensive: the protestor’s banners might have been controversially removed long before he takes to the stage, but he never quite shakes off the nerves. Opening with Even Better Than The Real Thing, he was reserved, his voice weak. The only concession to the theatrics and showmanship they’ve carved as their niche comes during an apparently live link-up with the International Space Station, during which an astronaut reels off the opening lyrics to Beautiful Day.

It’s a disappointing set that was a long time coming, but what the band lacks the crowd makes up for, and as the rain lashes down the packed field unites for the sing-alongs – One, Sunday Bloody Sunday, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You.

No such disappointment for Caribou or Crystal Castles, though, both delivering performances high on energy, familiar but crowd-pleasing even as the hypothermia sets in and the waterproofs start to disprove their manufacturers’ claims.

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