Glastonbury Festival, Worthy Farm, Somerset
Pop music adjusts to a new world order
Saturday 27 June 2009
The night the King of Pop died, the news rapidly passed round the world's biggest pop festival as an electrifying rumour, people gabbling his name one to the other in wide-eyed disbelief.
"Tribute" T-shirts had been knocked up before morning. But perhaps it is a measure of how long ago his real tragedy happened that yesterday I didn't hear a single musician even mention his passing on stage. Like Elvis in the year of his death, the reason he was King has been forgotten. At Glastonbury's first full day, pop in all its ever-changing forms moved on without him.
It's no coincidence, though, that the most moving early performance is from the young Bronx soul singer Stephanie McKay. When she sings "The Letter", to a soldier trapped out in Iraq, she stretches its desperate emotion out over light, mantric funk guitar, before finally crying her feelings out. Touching on church foundations but dealing relentlessly with street concerns, her ballsy morality and thoughtful singing bring a tear to the eye.
She is a living reminder of the old black musical world that Jackson's wondrous talent came from.
Regina Spektor, meanwhile, is a Russian New Yorker from further downtown. Though sharing Mackay's sentiment that money corrupts in "Locked Like Machine", she encompasses every white New York style: Laura Nyro's weird wing of Brill Building song-writing, off-Broadway showbiz, Lou Reed's deadpan sex talk, and most of all the Greenwich Village anti-folk movement of recent years. Rhythms and ideas switch and scat around like synaptic short-circuits, as Spektor plays classical piano études and whacks a chair for a drum. Scatty and surreal, her cult is slowly but surely growing. The gently delivered, bizarre psychodramas of Iceland's Emiliana Torrini, VV Brown and Little Boots are among the other diverse female spirits here, with Lily Allen due later. But the other prominent wing is British indie guitar bands still struggling to escape The Libertines' baleful musical shadow. London's Maccabees try quavering yelps and muscular Celtic guitars, but still bounce helplessly from one love song to the next. Dundee heroes The View, by contrast, are on relatively sober form at 4pm, and deliver an exuberant set. The innocent openness in Kyle Falconer's young voice during the acoustic "Superstar Wannabe" is natural art. He sings of needing to be rescued later, which this music is designed to do. Ska-punk shanties and doomy prog-rock intros break up the breezy rockers.Though they lost a battle when their second album under-performed, this set suggests this ambitious people's band is going to win the war.
The previous night's massive thunder-storm has left the ground liquid. A girl's gold slipper buried in the mud is a definitive Glastonbury sight. But the sun is blazing again by the afternoon. It's a perfect time not only for The View, but Seattle's Fleet Foxes. Their vertiginous rise from home-town underground band to high on the Pyramid Stage, looking out at tens of thousands, leaves them giddy. "How do we communicate best?" they wonder. "Twitter?" They wisely concentrate on their high, hymnal harmonies instead. This feels almost meditative as the huge crowd stand and listen. The band look like old hippies from the backwoods, and, when their music rises much beyond contemplative quiet, the guitars have a rustic choppiness.
It isn't a triumph so much as an affirmation of how far they've come with such primal elements. "What a life I lead in the sun," they sing – a feeling they make you share.
N.E.R.D. lose much chance of such mass happiness when Pharrell Williams starts 15 minutes late, and spends another 10 minutes complaining to the crowd about their time being cut. Sound problems are mostly to blame, as malfunctioning pops from the guitars make clear.
But Williams' impassive stare from behind freezing-cool shades silences dissent. With "Put Your Hands Up", he is soon bouncing backwards as if taunting enemies on a basketball court. Spaced psychedelic vibes are mashed with accelerating, aggressive rap, rescuing the shambles. And even Pharrell, while I'm watching, doesn't seem to know Jackson is dead.
Lily Allen, The Streets, the partially reformed Specials and Neil Young were still to come, as sun and music brought Glastonbury alive.
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