FIFTY3 FRIDAYS: AN ARMCHAIR GLASTONBURY
Last week’s Glastonbury Festival would have been my tenth. I’ve been privileged to attend originally as guest of a band, then as a writer for Consequence and BestNewBands and latterly as a Round 1 judge for the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition. Once life intervened and I was unable to go this year (see last week’s Preview), a little empty feeling crept inside. It was soon dispelled. I am very grateful to friends, performers and fellow writers for keeping me posted about who they were seeing, what was going on around them and for checking out some of my recommendations. It was the closest thing to being there. I missed being alongside my ace photographer friend Maja at the festival and am blessed that she has graciously shared some brilliant images you can see here and in the closing gallery.
All photos kindly supplied by Maja Smiejkowska
Last week I noted how important Wednesday and especially Thursday are for emerging and grassroots acts who can have multiple gigs on the smaller stages over the weekend but get the chance to shine in front of decent sized crowds before the main stages see action from Friday lunchtime. The BBC proudly announced more Glastonbury coverage than ever this year but it is odd that there is no TV coverage of the corporation’s own Introducing Stage. Radio is all well and good for aficionados but surely stage highlights on iPlayer at the very least would expose the acts lucky enough to be chosen to a wider audience. OK, there are some snippets on the BBC YouTube channel but they are literally just that; a bit about the act’s Glastonbury journey and a snatch of a song. Here is a case in point from an artiste on my preview list, Nieve Ella.
With little BBC Introducing footage and nothing official from the likes of Lizard, Toad Hall, Strummerville or The Rabbit Hole to review from the armchair, this issue is going to have much more of a mainstream focus than had I been there in person. So, with a swivel of the easy chair, here is much of what I loved about Glastonbury 2023. Picking highlights is a personal thing and I know that others will have had a brilliant experience and it will not have included anyone I write about here, although they might not read this column if that’s the case.
I’ll start with what I thought was the standout performance of the entire festival: Christine and the Queens who closed Woodsies – the new name for the John Peel Stage - on Friday evening just as Lana Del Rey was having a bad hair evening. A performance of songs drawn entirely from his latest album Paranoia, Angels, True Love, this was as different from the changeling artiste’s past Glastonbury sets as it was astounding in its intensity and command. Tonight, there was no turning the Somerset fields into a French disco, no space for the sublime “Tilted” but rather performance art set to a brilliant soundtrack and graced by the singer’s acrobatic vocals and divine movement. You can watch the full set on iPlayer now.
I wrote last week that the artiste I was most looking forward to seeing at Glastonbury 2023 was American songstress Weyes Blood (pronounced Wize Blood). She was all I’d hoped for and more. Dressed all in white and launching into “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody”, the elegant opening song from her 2022 jewel of an album, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, Weyes Blood set an ethereal tone. Without diminishing the beauty and grace of her performance, the otherworldliness was progressively mitigated by her humorous asides between songs while the balletic “God Turn Me Into a Flower” was cleverly followed by “Everyday”, upbeat and in her words the nearest thing you can mosh to. Her eight-song set was perfectly judged and delivered with precision and grace, together with her fine band. Given that Weyes Blood’s set coincided with Yusuf Cat Stevens on the Pyramid Stage, she still had a big appreciative crowd and I was impressed how many knew the words. Her show on The Park Stage is on iPlayer under ‘Hidden Gems’.
From the Park to the Pyramid next. I am hardly target market for the songs of Brighton’s Maisie Peters yet have her admired her gilt-edged writing since I first encountered the fabulously catchy “Pyscho” in the summer of ’21. There was no room for that song as Maisie hit the mega stage on Friday lunchtime, though lead single “Body Better” from her new album made for a confident opener. Any butterflies were well concealed and there is a core likeability to her personality that defuses any facade of arrogance. She also has a great connection with her fans most of whom are singing every word, even to songs from the new album, The Good Witch, just released at midnight. I love Maisie’s turn of phrase and the way she balances perception with self-depreciation, self-doubt with empowerment. Her lyrics are little vignettes of female teen and early twenties contemporary life and simmer with sparkling melodies. Songs like ”You Signed Up For This” and “Lost The Breakup” were delivered with vocal command and stage magic befitting a good witch. I watched Carly Rae Jepsen later and felt Maisie Peters' songs knocked spots off hers. Full show is here.
For all the new breed of music stars you could see at Glastonbury, the old guard still had plenty of life and soul to share. One of the very best among them were Pretenders for whom leader Chrissie Hynde still displays the vocal range and panache of a young ‘un married to the priceless maturity that comes from a lifetime gigging. The band delivered an immaculate set of songs old and new. Guest and (briefly) former Pretender Johnny Marr added his elegiac guitar to the final six which included a pin-sharp “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and emotive “I’ll Stand By You”. It wasn’t the best thing Pretenders played but “Tattooed Love Boys” again featuring Marr with the ubiquitous Dave Grohl, sitting in for one song and drumming at breakneck speed, certainly got the crowd even more fired up. There was a lovely surprise at the end when BBC cameras revealed Sir Paul McCartney watching from the wings and a great photo opportunity for the crowd when Chrissie Hynde brought a reluctant Macca displaying full Wayne’s World humility onto the stage. Watch the lot here.
I am conscious that the word count is creeping up and before I bring the drawbridge down on this year’s Glastonbury there were indeed several more sets that I really enjoyed from the armchair and have still more to watch. Elton John will go down as a seminal Pyramid stage closer and I have rarely seen such passion put into a Sunday evening set by a headline act, reflected back by the suitably immense crowd. His vocals may dip a wee bit into the club style but remained strong and tuneful throughout the set, he played a mean piano while his use of the hands wafting up gesture beloved of football managers and players fittingly roused the crowd to even higher decibels. Rick Astley both in his solo guise and alongside Blossoms for their ‘Best of The Smiths’ secret set proved to be the showman who could milk a crowd as well as show humility.
Watching Yusuf/Cat Stevens perform his Legends set on the Pyramid was a simply beautiful experience which culminated in perhaps his finest song of them all, “Father and Son”. The time when he looked back to the screen as his younger self delivered a verse was priceless. The Lightning Seeds literally lived the life of Riley with a sparkling set of Britpop topped by the inevitable but wonderfully bittersweet anthem, “Three Lions”. I’ve also never seen so many beanie hats in a single audience. Hozier was in particularly fine voice during a surprise Woodsies set on Friday. The Irish singer-songwriter is probably fated to play “Take Me To Church” forever as his closing song but this new one, “Francesca”, from his upcoming LP Unreal Unearth, really caught my ear.
Seeing Pale Waves again after encountering the band here in 2019 was another treat. Fronting the band with a full blonde bad girl look, Heather Baron-Gracie combines a natural rock swagger with the vulnerability of her vocal octave tics while the band’s repertoire oozes indie pop earworms. From snippets I saw, both The Big Moon and Prima Queen impressed me with strength of songwriting allied to a growing stage presence.
Becky Hill underlined her dance royalty credentials with an effervescent early Sunday evening set on the Other Stage. Vocal heights were also reached on West Holts in the shape of Anglo-US trio Gabriels led by the commanding Jacob Lusk. As a bonus the band also introduced Celeste for a great cover of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life”. Meanwhile, here is a fine taster, “Glory”.
My armchair did not allow me to see any of the emerging and grassroots acts I had particularly asked friends at the festival to check out. I was delighted with really positive reports back for, among them, the likes of Alex Hall, Andrew Maxwell Morris, Cerian, Frankie Morrow and Gecko, plus ETC Winner N’Famady Kouyate who was also recognised with a BBC backstage spot that you can watch here.
For the next month, you can continue your own armchair surf of Glastonbury 2023 via the dedicated BBC site. BBC iPlayer includes whole sets from the main stages to single songs, themed highlights to some hidden gems. There are plenty of individual songs from the Festival on the BBC Music YouTube channel and you can play along to why-didn’t-they-pick-this-one if you are feeling grumpy.