Glastonbury Festival 2024 small stages Review

Glastonbury - the Other Side of the Tracks

By David Vass | Published: Wed 10th Jul 2024

Glastonbury Festival 2024 - aroundthesite
Photo credit: Phil Bull

Glastonbury Festival 2024

Wednesday 26th to Sunday 30th June 2024
Worthy Farm, Pilton, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, BA4 4AZ, England MAP
Daily capacity: 210,000

Glastonbury can be exhilarating, mind-expanding and even life changing but it can also feel bewildering and a little overwhelming. This year, with stages full to bursting and - in an all-time first - even the Other Stage turning away the punters, questions are bound to be asked in the house. The solution to the noise, the crowds and the mayhem has traditionally been on the other side of the tracks, the disused railway embankment that cuts through the site. Since the introduction of the Park back in 2007, and then Arcadia, it's ceased to be as simple as that, but there are still more than enough quiet corners for those that want to get away from the madding crowds and the gimlet gaze of the television coverage. This is a look at the areas the crowds, and the cameras, shy away from.

For many, a traditional start to the festival is offered by the speaker’s tent, opening its flaps to all manner of issues, but with an understandable focus on immigration and climate change. Having handed out copies of her comic, Kate Evans took her audience through the uneasy balance of sharing the experience of encamped refugees while trawling their life experience for tales to be told. Across the way, The Laboratory Stage presented what I presumed to be a wiring problem in the PA, but turned out to be the cosmic noises of space. Most intriguing, however, was the brand new Tree Stage, an adjunct to the magical wooded area near to the Woodies Stage devoted to ambient sounds, inviting quiet contemplation while staring at the sky. The area was opened by scenes straight out of the Wickerman, as Ravens, Starlings, Angels and juggling hobgoblins danced around the fire pit before entering the area to an emphatic drum beat. What followed was an eclectic mix of the weird and wonderful.

The murmuration of starlings, presented by Jan Van Ijken on a vast screen was followed by quiet contemplation from Jasmin Harsono and her gong bath. Judging by the crowd that had built up, many assumed Emily would have stayed longer than a drive by hello, which given Merlin Sheldrake's fascinating talk on fungi (who knew that could be a thing) felt like an opportunity missed. Youth then gave a sonorous rendition of Alan Ginsberg's Iron Horse, followed by the highlight of the evening - Sam Lee in what must have been the perfect setting for his mix of spoken word and folk song. A talk on Prehistoric Britain came after, for those brave souls prepared to handle the cold, but for some of us it was time to go to bed.

Fulu Miziki appeared to be missing in action at the start of Thursday, leading to a frustrating delay on the Greenfields stage. Fine once they started, they consequently  lashed with an appointment at Toad Hall across the way, where Green fields regular Cerian, part of the Heard collective, charmed with a cheeky harp adaption of Coldplay songs, before focusing on her own material.

I did take a sneaky trip into the fringes of the dance village, but it only served to remind me why I tend to keep away, as the usually excellent His Lordship seemed lost on the soulless BBC Introducing Stage. Buffeted by passing crowds on what was a thoroughfare, I lasted 10 minutes before coming to my senses and retreated to the bandstand for a second dose of Sam Lee.

Anyone unfamiliar with Utopia Strong might be more than a little surprised to find Kavus Torabi  from Gong paired with Steve Davis. When discussing their DJ set later in the day, my companion point blank refused to believe I'd seen your actual, interesting Steve Davis of snooker fame, but there he was, twiddling his knobs like a pro. (I came across him later in the weekend in an otherwise empty tent, eating a pie, looking bewildered, but that’s a story for another day). They made for an engaging pair, as much to watch as listen to, Tarabi grinning like a loon and dancing on the table, while Davis stoically manned the ship. 

There was nothing stoic about Jonathan Pie, who fumed with splenetic fury at the then out-going government. Granted, he was pushing against an open door with a Glastonbury crowd, but was nonetheless pleasingly provocative. I returned to the Tree Stage to reports of a brilliant set from The Egg - even on a Thursday Glastonbury is a place of hard choices - but thereafter settled in for another night of immersive sound and vision, culminating in a superb violin and voice performance from Violetta Vica, followed by Glastonbury legend Steve Hillage reaching back into his early work to play Rainbow Dome Musick into the small hours. As far from System 7 as you could  imagine, this was nonetheless utterly mesmerising.

To those of us that tend to spend their time at Glastonbury hovering around the edges it comes as something of a shock when on Friday there are suddenly huge stages with huge crowds to match, not least Squeeze on the Pyramid as ostensibly the opening act of the weekend. Unsurprisingly, there's people aplenty ready for a dose of nostalgia, and while the newer material stood up well, it's the hits we turned up for and got. Having ticked off the Pyramid for this year, a double bill of pop diva Asha Bill and Squid beckoned at West Holts. Hardly obscurities, but having first seen Squid on the Greenpeace stage with less people in the crowd than on stage, it seemed appropriate to go see one of the few bands I've tipped for greatness that didn't then disappear into oblivion. I wonder if the same can be said for Cosmo Sheldrake, brother of the previously mentioned fun guy (see what I did there?) a marvellously bonkers one man band. Assisted by his similarly eccentric dance troop, he sang of the soil and sea with an infectious childlike wonder.

Only a few of the bigger stages have yet to be televised, and it always feels like a special sort of secret attending one of them - this, at least, you can say to yourself, has to be seen now, and live. Yes, the crowd for Lulu at the Avalon was enormous (why wasn't she on the Pyramid? Is she not the very definition of a legend?) But the Avalon stage is always full of good natured folk happy to give their fellow man some elbow room As she flawlessly belted out one classic after another the crowd sang along, at one point reducing her to tears. It may only be Friday. I thought, but this is surely destined to be the highlight of the week. 

A highlight it proved, but not an unrivalled one, as Heilung performed a dark and menacing set that was as much theatre as gig. To the sound of drumbeats and instruments fashioned from bones, bare chested warriors took to the stage, tied each other in knots, and summoned the earth gods from the centre of Lord knows where. Not something to tap your feet to, or perhaps even see twice, but as a one off spectacle, they were astonishing.

Back at the Avalon, Kate Nash delivered in glorious potty mouth form, injecting just enough of the old stuff to keep those of us hankering for Foundations and Dickhead happy. Which leads to the Idles, adding to the top performances to date. Put off by the characterless wasteland in front of the Other Stage and the crowds it tends to attract, I regrettably missed the opening of their blistering set. Having seen and admired them in a more modest setting I wasn't convinced they would scale up, but they did so in spades. Full of sound, fury and righteous indignation, their unique combination of anger and love was best summed up when they invited a young lad on stage to bang on a drum. Tough though Joe Talbot might seem, he cracked up when the lad used his public platform to thank his Dad for bringing him. 

After a day of breaking my own rules, visiting more main stages in a day that I usually manage in a weekend, I resolved to do better tomorrow, as I gently dropped off to sleep listening to Edgar Wright talking about Baby Driver in the Pilton Palace. Previously a haven for sleepy souls escaping the sun, the cinema tent really raised its game this year with all sorts of enticing talks and I was pleased to return the following day, as did Edgar Wright, to hear him chat amiably with Simon Pegg prior to a showing of Shaun of the Dead. Previously, an ill-advised trek to the Park found a surprisingly countryfied Johnny Flynn not doing the one off the Detectorists, followed by a self regarding waffle about the Young Ones in the Cabaret tent. At least I got to go on the pinball machines on the pier, though. 

And then - chastising myself for my obsession with the obscure - I ventured for the Pyramid. Oh The horror! Perhaps there was something wrong with the sound - Cyndi Lauper did seem to keep fiddling with her earpiece - but this was a lamentable performance. I lasted two songs, nearly trampled underfoot by a swell of folk akin to rampaging water buffaloes, so desperate were they to get beyond earshot. And all the while I’m thinking, why wasn’t Lulu given this spot? 

It’s worth saying that it was another blistering hot day, and while I was happy to have avoided the rainfall of previous years, you do have cut your cloth accordingly. The bright idea of a triple bill at the stage close to my tent emerged. With Albert Lee, The Manfreds, and, Russell Crowe's Vanity Project (sorry, Garden Party) hastily fashioned into a make do afternoons entertainment. The acoustic stage is an admittedly odd place to camp out for the afternoon. There have been some fine performances there over the years - Alan Price, Suzanne Vega, Hawkwind - but it has garnered a reputation as an old folks home. Orientated so that no one can see probably - why on earth don't they switch that whole thing around - and plagued by dodgy sound, it says much for Albert Lee's guitar prowess and the Manfred's back catalogue that a jolly time was had by all. Crowe, sadly, was neither a fascinating car crash or a surprisingly fine singer. His admittedly excellent backing band couldn't compensate for his average voice and vacuous sermonising. I swiftly joined the large crowd, no doubt drawn to him out of curiosity, swiftly drifting away.

Which did at least give me the opportunity to sample an evening without Kate Bush, an intermittently fun and consistently affectionate parody of said singer, before settling down to an hour with the Bard of Salford. In fine form, the poems of John Cooper Clarke may be familiar, and some of the jokes should be listed they are so old, but he's an avuncular fellow that practically invented stand up poetry, his influence clearly heard in anyone from Kae Tempest to Luke Wright.

Still searching for the definitive music act of the day it finally came in the shape of Orbital, with a stand out guest spot from Mel C. The Park Stage at night was a perfect showcase for classic retro Glastonbury. Shame they didn’t do Dr Who, but you can’t have everything. I did take a peek at Coldplay, in all their illuminated finery, and it did seem to be quite a show, but only en route to the bandstand to watch World Government, a local band that performs improvised funk quite brilliantly, and is someone I make a point of seeing every year, whatever the competition. Another regular pit stop is The Egg, and having missed them once, I was determined to round off the night in their company in the tiny Lizard Stage. The stages they are gifted seem to get smaller every year but the music doesn't, as they played into the small hours.

Sunday is often an odd day. Fatigue has set in, both physically and mentally - there's only so many acts you can hear and only so many steps you can take getting to them. There's a degree of melancholy that it’s nearly all over and perhaps - whisper it - a degree of relief too. The secret, I have found, is to, once again, keep out the crowds, away from too much noise. As such, opening the Pyramid Stage with the Birmingham Ballet was an inspired move. Like so many, I didn't think I liked ballet, but when you see dancers at the top of their game it is transformative. What a marvellous use of a platform to bring something new under the noses of folk such as I, with silly preconceived notions.

That said, any notions about Alexis Sayle were wholeheartedly confirmed in his amiable but scabrous run through of his career and political leanings. Fältsånger provided some well received space rock in an unusually full Mandella, while Toyah and Robert basked in the good natured affection of the Avalon Stage. Affection was in ready supply for Pam Ayres in the Cabaret tent, the poetic antithesis of Cooper Clarke, yet held by many in the same regard. Her poems may be sweet, her tales whimsical, but I detected a steely centre to the woman determined to become a poet in an age when no one had such thoughts. The warmth that radiated between Pam and her audience was well worth missing half of the messianic James, notwithstanding their musical excellence.

A quick shout here to Avril Lavigne, who seemed to epitomise this year's first world problem of overcrowded stages. I wasn't there at the time, preferring Paul Foot's startling Dissolve in the Cabaret tent, playing to an audience of several. A performer known for his confrontational, zany stage persona this was achingly personal and quietly revelatory. I mention them in tandem as, to my mind, it shows up everything that's wrong with moaning about crowds. If you don't like them, go elsewhere.  There's so much to see and do at Glastonbury I heartily recommend you keep asking - am I enjoying this? If the answer is no, then move on, providing that bit more elbow room for those happy to put up with an unexpectedly popular performer.

That said, it wasn't such a surprise that with SZA as Pyramid headliner it would crowd out every other stage, and after an exhilarating double bill of Fat Dog and Paranoid London, I was a tad disappointed to find myself in the only uncomfortable crowd of my weekend, craning my neck trying to see Daft Punk wannabes Justice twiddling their knobs. Not to worry, though, as Basil Brush was only a tent away, and unleashed he proved a foxy fellow indeed.

So that was it for another year, barring a stroll over to the Tree Stage where it all began, to lie on the ground and listen to Konx-Om-Pax struggle with technical problems, take one last walk along the magically illuminated woodland walkway. My first year without a trip to the formally beloved Glade, or the tent formally known as John Peel's. No naughty corner, no Arcadia, no Silver Haze and with Squeeze the only band seen on the Pyramid, I’m sure many would argue I missed out. But they did too, and on things that can't be caught up with on the telly. With a hundred venues on offer simple maths tells you even a 24/7 shift would only get to see 1% of what is on offer. There's no right way to experience Glastonbury, other than what is right for you, and that’s the only Glastonbury you can sensibly talk about. Long may that be the case.

review by: David Vass

photos by: Raph Pour-Hashemi & David McLenachan

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