Image from NME.com
I think that getting up at 5:30 to catch a 6:10 train in order to make my 7:00 coach is the second biggest effort I've ever made for the sake of live music. The coach was run by a company called “The Big Green Coach Company”. It was actually a milky white colour, but credit where it's due, it was quite big. It was full of families and people younger than me. I was the only one travelling alone, a fact our friendly driver brought to everyone's attention before we set off. Whether he was encouraging the other travellers to talk to me, I don't know. But they didn't. Heaven knows I tried talking to them. We stopped at Watford Gap and I bought a coffee. Recognising someone else from the coach in the queue, with a smile I raised my cup and said in a semi-suggestive voice: “One more cup of coffee before I go, hey?” The look I received was blank.
When we got to Finsbury Park, I experienced the closest I'll ever come to VIP treatment. I paid but £5.40 for my ticket thanks to the beautiful people at Supajam, who were selling spare guestlist passes. Trudging across the mud I waved to the bearded fellow who was shouting “Supajam” again and again. He directed me towards a special gate where I was allowed entry without hassle, completely bypassing the long queue of those who'd paid £70 or so for the pleasure of being there. I felt as important as it's possible to feel whilst wearing a rust-coloured jumper.
Walking around the site, I couldn't wipe the grin from my face – festival season has begun! And it felt incredible. Adding to my feeling of well-being was the knowledge that I was, at that moment, sharing a vicinity of sorts with Bob Dylan. That's the sort of fact which bears thinking about: It feels amazing.
There were three stages on-site. Besides the main, there was an almighty tent reserved for the more trad-types on the line-up. Then there was the “Third Stage”, really just a raised platform under a tarpaulin. Their compère was reciting a verse from an epic concerning lemmings between each band. I listened to the prologue before watching Brian Kennedy do his thing in the tent. That man had credentials, and he was more than happy to tell us about the time he played with Van Morrison, the song he wrote with Eddi Reader (who, up until that very moment, I had assumed to be the singer from Pearl Jam). He was pleasant enough, but soon the drums from the main-stage began to drown-out his lilting. It was a band called The Coronas, who sounded about good enough to have supported Razorlight circa 2002. A few songs were sung in Gaelic, which was something, but not a lot. Still, it was my first instance of live and loud outdoor guitar music of the year, and it induced a hankering for cider to which I was more than happy to succumb.
Presently Dan arrived, and scrutinising the line-up we worked out an itinerary of who to see. In doing so, we realised that we really were going to have a lovely day, and didn't we just?
The first band we saw together were The Undertones, who proclaimed their intentions to play their first album in its entirety. This they did, but not in sequence – Teenage Kicks came towards the end – but not even John Peel's favourite song which, as he used to say, is indeed perfect in every way – could raise the stature of what was essentially a throwaway set of forgettable punk rock songs which, sounding too similar to one another, simply bled together into one big, tedious drone.
Now, as sentences go, this one will do wonders for shattering every ounce of cool I might ever have harboured: Luckily, The Waterboys came on next. Their Glastonbury Song raised the hairs on the back of my neck as I was reminded of where I'd be in less than a week. We also got their other two biggest songs in The Whole Of The Moon and Fisherman's Blues – powerful stuff – and a song from their upcoming Yeats album sounded excellent. Unfortunately, their set was marred by a breaking of what's sort of a golden rule of mine – never cover a band who're going to play on the same stage, on the same day. Their version of You're A Big Girl Now wasn't necessarily bad, but it ate about eight minutes of an hour long set which could've been filled with something else from their mighty canon.
After this we ventured into the trad-tent to have a gander at the Sharon Shannon Big Band. She was magical, the place was heaving and the atmosphere was incredible – a surging, whooping mass of goodwill and abandon. We should've spent more time in there, actually. It'd've been drier, at least.
But then we wouldn't've seen The Gaslight Anthem and The Cranberries! The former's albums had never really impressed me before – I thought they sounded like an even more polished version of The Killers – but live they were something of a glowing force of positivity – finally all of the Springsteen comparisons began to make sense – their hopeful chords and plaintive vocals were like gentle arms around the waist under a sky which broke repeatedly. And The Cranberries! Queuing for a pie, I regrettably all but missed the pounding opening trills of Zombie, but it did mean that I could savour the taste of soft, fluffy and warm mash as they rhymed “finger” with “linger”. That was a moment to which I'd happily return right now – for to return to that moment would mean that I'd be able to live through all that followed once more.
What followed? A spell at the third-stage to watch The Treetop Flyers. Their sprightly shouty folk-rock had drawn quite a sizeable crowd, and their noise was such an empowering force that it could've billowed hairs and spilt pints – theirs is the sort of music that grabs you by the beard and with a sly wink puts a fiver in your front pocket. We exchanged a bemused look as they introduced their last song with some fifteen minutes of their set time remaining. Turns out, though, that they were just saving room for a multi-part folk opera which seemed to be a haunted house. I was every bit as enthralled as I was the first time I saw Mumford and Sons. But, seeing as these guys seemed to have more than one metaphor at their disposal, I might not even find myself disappointed when I expose them to deeper scrutiny!
After “bumping into” some old friends, I excused myself to go and see O Emperor. Meekly I admitted that they sound a bit like Starsailor. Yep, I sighed. That's the sort of music which gets me excited these days.
Except, they don't. Their sound has a lot more in common with the likes of Midlake and Mercury Rev – cosmic, mercurial, spellbinding. Not even the girl who asked me for a cigarette and a light after seemingly every single song could shake me from the awestruck trance they inspired. I surrendered, and life has been that little bit better ever since I set a place at the table for O Emperor – a band wholly worthy of the vocative in their name. May they conquer the world, and may all who oppose them find themselves knee-deep in the blood of their children.
So, suitably limbered, I was, as they say in some parts, “Ready For Bob”. I was asked, earlier in the day, if I expected him to be shit. Truthfully, I was fearing the worst. It's a good means of ensuring that you're never disappointed, is fearing the worst. Within moments of him taking to the stage, though, I wondered as to what exactly those scribblers of bad reviews in which I had immersed myself the night before had crammed up their collective arses. Then it struck me: they all came from such resources for which I have no respect at all. Principally, The Telegraph and The Quietus – two resources which I hold in about equal esteem. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I think it says something about my intense loathing for The Quietus when The Telegraph release shit like this and dare to call it a "feature".
Anyway, Bob Dylan. Despite my reservations, very little of my enjoyment of his set stemmed from the reverence of being in the presence of a hero. Rather, it all came from the music – it had to, really. There were no screens flanking this stage.
All the tyrannical rearrangement of his songs of which I'd been warned simply resulted in tighter grooves and bigger drums – the result being that you could dance to most everything he played, and most everyone did. Dance, that is. It was one of the most energised, alive and amplified crowds of which I've ever been a part. To such wondrous boogies as Thunder On The Mountain, Summer Days and an incandescent Highway 61, ho did we ever “get down”. A particular highlight was a tremendous slow-burning rendition of Cold Irons Bound. Closing the main set, Ballad Of A Thin Man radiated evil. Rather than plugging their fingers in their ears and insisting that “he's still got it” (as The Quietus would like to believe we do), I firmly believe that there must still be scores of people who dream of being as cool as Dylan. God knows I'd love to be able to inspire such widespread reverence at seventy.
Indeed, only during the horribly strained choruses of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall did he even come close to embodying the criticism with which he's often levied these days. However, this can be forgiven of an artist capable of such an encore: Like A Rolling Stone, All Along The Watchtower, Blowing In The Wind. Three of the most intense, beautiful and timeless compositions from the entire rock canon whipped out successively and with fiery aplomb by the very man who originally penned such masterpieces. I live for times like that.
So, yes, our realisation that we'd have a great day came to be. We had a great day. It unfortunately has made a tedious type out of me, though, as it's now probably the case that I'll extol the virtues of Dylan at the top of my voice at every given opportunity.
I apologise in advance.