In Glastonbury’s Absence


It’s usual at this time of year, when the rain hammers down and stirs the fields to deep muck, for thousands of festival-goers to descend on a certain spot in the West Country.  It’s not happening this year, much to the despair of Wellington boot retailers, and its absence leaves, in my view, something missing from the English summertime.  Glastonbury is a bit like Wimbledon.  You might not attend it, follow it or watch it on the telly, but if it didn’t happen you’d still notice its absence.

The closest I’ve ever got to the festival is a visit to the town itself, and the abbey and the tor and the thorn tree.  I love all the eccentric stories that have sprung up around the place (see, for example, ‘Was Jesus taught by the Druids of Glastonbury?‘).  Conversely, I was miserable when somebody hacked down the Glastonbury Thorn, because even if it isn’t the flowering staff of Joseph of Arimathea, and even if that cutting was only planted in 1951, and even if I sound like an archetypical Glastonbury hippy for saying so, we could all use more trees and fewer chainsaws.

If, like me, you’ve got an itch for a little bit of Glastonbury this summer, there are various ways to scratch it.  The BBC has a vast archive of highlights that should keep you reminiscing and the Guardian is showing a tongue-in-cheek live-stream of the empty fields (hey, you might see a bird, or a bumblebee).

So many great musicians have played the festival that there are now loads of fantastic performances online.  Here are six of my favourites.

1. Something gentle and intoxicatingly folky from Alela Diane, with her father accompanying.

2. I get a William Blake vibe from this performance by The National.  England, angels, pleasant pastures and clouded hills.  Must be something in the water there.

3. One of my favourite songs, and one of the few I managed to dance to at my wedding.  I want a whole load of black and white balloons.

4. The thing I love about Shibusashirazu Orchestra is that every time the camera cuts back from one shot to the other, it seems to have discovered a new musician, a new wig, or a new naked man crawling on the speakers.

5. The Flaming Lips closing their set in 2010.  I bet there were hundreds of teary eyes and tingling spines when he played the encore part at the end.  It chokes me up just listening to it on YouTube.

6. The late Jeff Buckley back in 1995.  I was overjoyed to stumble upon this.  There’s a bit in this film where Buckley takes a breath and you get the sense that the crowd have just been wowed into silence.  Probably it’s just the editing – in my experience there’s always some jerk at a gig who shouts out his own name in the quietest part of a song – but here, hearing that impeccable voice, those abstract lyrics, you can believe that the crowd fell quiet.  Thanks, Glastonbury, for this and many more.