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Tuesday, July 02, 2013 

Glastonbury: the view from at home.

There is but one thing everyone knows about Glastonbury.  Every year, regardless of the weather, regardless of the quality of the music, regardless of how many people have their possessions stolen and regardless of how long it takes for everyone to first reach the site, and then when the time sadly comes, to leave, it's The Best Festival Ever.  Michael Eavis himself says so.  Every Saturday night headliner is the best ever.  Ever John Peel stage line up is the best ever.  Every section of fence that keeps the hoi polloi out and the gathered white, middle class masses in is the best ever.  Every Lauren Laverne appearance is the best ever.  And so on.

I speak, naturally, as someone who has never been and has no intention of going.  I simply don't understand how amazing an experience it must be to stand in a field with approximately 100,000 other people, barely being able to move, hardly being able to hear the Rolling Stones and also barely being able to see them, when I could instead be sitting at home, able to go to the bog at the moment of my choosing, and both hear and see the band better than practically anyone who's there.  I also won't have paid a small fortune for the privilege, nor should it have been a wet year will I have experienced conditions that could pass for the Somme during one of the lulls in fighting.  For every account of how wonderful Glastonbury is, how spiritual it is, and how if you want to you can go and not even see a single band and have a great time, there is someone who will have had an experience akin to the one Stuart Campbell did back in 1998.  Doubtless, things probably have improved since then. Probably.

All those of us back home can judge the festival on then is the music, the way the BBC deigns to showcase it, and how the rest of the media hype the whole thing up to the point at which it isn't just a festival in Somerset, it's the Greatest Weekend of the Year. This year at least the BBC finally realised that this internet thing means we ought to be able to choose what we'd like to see, so you could watch the West Holts stage all day if that's the sort of thing that floats your boat. This also meant you could dispense entirely with the BBC's hosts, and so I succeeded in going the whole weekend without once seeing the aforementioned Lauren Laverne. Sadly, I did still encounter Jo Whiley and the "presenters" on BBC3, but at least Whiley was alongside Mark Radcliffe.

The only problem was that the site was temperamental at best, and delighted in repeatedly locking Firefox up. It worked slightly better in IE, but still wasn't perfect. It would be remiss though not to comment on the main nightly show, and the BBC still insists on the same practice year in year out of having "up and coming" bands and artists playing live in the studio. If there is a single person watching outside of their friends and families that wants to see them rather than a few more highlights from the day itself, I'd really like to meet them.

The other obvious flaw with the BBC's offerings was that while most of the stages were represented, apart from the Essential Mix on Radio 1 on Friday night there was no coverage whatsoever of the dance tents. Considering this is the year when it's been decided that the likes of Disclosure are the New Big Thing and when house in general has made a resurgence, this is baffling at best. True, it would mean more expense, and DJs aren't always happy to have their sets live streamed if they play new stuff which then instantly gets put up on YouTube, but when the Beeb can pay out £50m to former managers it can surely afford to spend a bit more on Glasto.

That we can also now choose not to watch the Pyramid stage was a very good thing considering the line up and also, sadly, some of the performances.  With the exception of Nick Cave, and the Stones towards the end of their performance, the main stage was a bit of a horlicks all round.  Very little needs to said about Mumford and Sons, while it continues to astonish me how Primal Scream continue to get to headline festivals despite having only produced one decent album, and that was 20 years ago.  The Vaccines are equally perplexing: how does a band that sounds like the Cribs did on their terrible first album without having any of their charm receive such adulation?

Arctic Monkeys were also disappointing, but then the crowd were easy enough to please, singing Yellow by Coldplay when Alex Turner jokingly played the first couple of chords.  What it did bring home was just how ghastly their debut is: I wasn't completely won over by it back in 06, but with the exception of When the Sun Goes Down and Mardy Bum it's now all but unlistenable.  I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor sounded like what it is, one of the first songs written by a young band who would go on to much greater things.  That it was probably the best received track they played was rather sad.

Away from the Pyramid, there was some great stuff amongst the dreck.  Portishead were, as they always are, incredible, all the more so for coming on after a tepid showing by Foals, who I really like, and the depressingly average Alt-J, who somehow won last year's Mercury.  Crystal Castles on the Peel stage were promising, until either they or the BBC decided it was time to cut the stream; that the cameramen seemed to be trying their best to point their lenses up Alice Glass' skirt might have had something to do with it.  Continuing tribute as it is to John Peel to have a stage named after him, it's more than slightly incongruous when he would have never played some of the bands scheduled to appear on it; while you can quite easily imagine he would have stuck on James Blake, Crystal Castles and Odd Future, he's probably turning in his grave at how Tom Odell and the ghastly Courteeners were also plying their turgid wares there.

Only the West Holts stage seemed to get the headliner right each night (although the Park stage came close, Fuck Buttons' intensity not coming across, at least not at home): Chic, Public Enemy and Bobby Womack providing the antidote to so much of the tosh on the bill elsewhere.  The xx also defied expectations: their intimate, stripped back sound, not instantly translatable to festivals, was the perfect contrast to the self-aggrandising of the Mumfords and they seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the way they were received.

It was hardly then what you would call a classic festival, and it's likely to be remembered only for the Stones, regardless of how they could never live up to the hype and didn't seem to try.  That they probably had the biggest audience ever at the festival seems more down to the fact you have to pay close to what you would for a Glastonbury ticket to see just them than anything else.  And as this seems to be pay the way concerts and festivals are going, there's likely to be many more of us watching from home.

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