FEATURE: The British Festival Season: Fair-Weather or a Sign of the Times?

FEATURE:

 

The British Festival Season: 

 

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IN THIS PHOTO: Secret Garden Party

 

Fair-Weather or a Sign of the Times?

________

IT was, perhaps, inevitable that Glastonbury’s final…

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PHOTO CREDIT: Samantha Milligan (Secret Garden Party)

headliner was announced: the omnipresent, over-exposed Ed Sheeran will fill that slow. I have already written a feature assessing Sheeran’s rise – and whether music is taking a bad turn. Many have joined the debate as to whether the charts have validity and truly reflect British music. Sheeran’s new album is – and I have heard every track – not a huge improvement on his previous work and not the sort of work that sticks in the mind. It is very meticulously-designed for a largely female/teen market. I know women in their 20s and 30s who like him – in fact, middle-aged women appreciate him – but few guys. One of the reasons might be the sort of song he whips up: that mushy, love ballad; songs reflecting his cheeky persona and topics that fit pleasantly into the mainstream. Whilst % is not going to go down as one of 2017’s best albums: at the very least, it will be seen as the most hyped and attention-grabbing records. Glastonbury’s organisers have seen the attention and press the album has garnered and booked Sheeran as their Sunday-night closer. I wonder whether that decision is based on the needs of the majority or jumping on the bandwagon? If one were to scan through a list of names that would perfectly close the festival; would you have Ed Sheeran at the top? I understand the appeal he has: a singer-songwriter who has grown from his busking days and forged a successful career. The trouble is, a festival headliner – one that closes a festival, no less – should have a sense of epic, drama and universality. That Sunday-night is not going to be the most uplifting and unifying experience. Instead, it will be filled with Sheeran fans all nodding pleasantly to one of his anonymous, formulaic songs. How many people will come away from that experience and recall it years down the line?

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IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran

I shall leave Sheeran alone but feel rather deflated by the fair-weather booking. It does not seem to respond to the needs of all the festival-goers – it is aimed at chart success and commerciality. If one looks at the headliner acts from Glastonbury, you will see a rather peculiar selection. Foo Fighters are, predictably, back on the bill and filling that headline spot on the Saturday. I am certainly not a fan of Foo Fighters but appreciate they have made a mark on music. The trouble is, how contemporary and relevant are they? It seems like such a lazy booking having the U.S. band headlining. Sure, they put on a good show but are hardly the most original and deserving band. Sonic Highways was their last album and released three years ago. They have not released any new material since then so what are they offering that we haven’t already heard before? It seems like Glastonbury has lost its vision and sense of perspective. Instead of providing opportunities to headliners that will bring people together and push the event forward; they are stuck in the past and showing very little imagination. One wonders, were the likes of Sheeran a bit quiet this year, we’d be seeing U2 on the bill? It seems like the Eavis’ are looking at past acts and those that put on a decent show. Glastonbury has very little to do with edginess, the masses and showcasing our best and brightest. I am sure Sheeran’s fans will be pleased on Sunday but it is not the fireworks-laden finale Glastonbury warrants. Similarly, Saturday-night will be rocking and memorable but will, essentially, be a recycled set and not really offer anything new to the punters. The only sensible booking (in terms of headlining) is Radiohead. Not only have their released a recent album (last year’s superb A Moon Shaped Pool) but have not played at the event since 1997 – not on that headline stage anyway. That epic 1990s gig is seen as one of Glastonbury’s best so it will be great seeing the band back. Can they bring that magic back and give Glastonbury the theatre and brilliance it requires?

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IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead (Glastonbury, 2011)

I would say Radiohead represent what a headline act should possess. Not only are they universally acclaimed but have a new album out. They are not a last-minute booking or a predictable act: the masses want to see them; we know they will put on an incredible show. It is a shame they are not closing Glastonbury as it seems like they are ready-made for it? Why is Sheeran doing Sunday when he should be there on the Friday? It is baffling Radiohead are the first day’s headline act – they warrant that grand finale and big crowds the day will attract. Regardless, it is a wise booking and one that has not been replicated across the board. I am not completely down on Glastonbury but feel it fits into that Q magazine, Heart Radio school of music: bland and forgettable bookings aimed squarely on a narrow demographic. If one looks away from the main stages and there is a lot more credibility and potential to be discovered. I believe Laura Marling and London Grammar are making appearances. With London Grammar on the cusp of releasing their second album; it is a great time for them to take to the Glastonbury stage. Whilst not ready for headline responsibilities, they are capable of producing a great show and are a headline act of the future. With so few women being given big slots at festivals; it makes me wonder why Laura Marling is not topping one of the days? She has had a longer career than Ed Sheeran; she is more acclaimed by critics than Foo Fighters (in terms of recent material) and fully capable of producing a fantastic set! Many might say she has the same issue as Sheeran: not the most dynamic, electric and energetic set. True, but she could easily have headlined the Friday and kicked off Glastonbury with a real impression. All of the female performers at Glastonbury are playing smaller stages which bring up issues of sexism. If we are going for acts that deserve that headline slot, a few women come to mind. I keep campaigning for Björk to play at Glastonbury and, like Radiohead could provide a career-spanning epic set.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Samantha Milligan (Secret Garden Party)

If festivals like Glastonbury are to be seen as balanced and all-inclusive, why are we seeing such a white, male line-up? There are some great black artists emerging and legends like Beyoncé – someone who, were she not pregnant, could have owned the Sunday night headline pitch. I worry the biggest festivals in the U.K. are putting the wrong acts in the wrong spots. The same can be said of that other big festival, Reading and Leeds. Kasabian’s last album was released a few years ago but have just teased new single, You’re In Love with a Psycho. It is the first taste of the album For Crying Out Loud. Whilst Serge (from the band) has bemoaned the proliferation of Pop in the mainstream – the lack of great guitar music – Kasabian’s latest music is hardly an argument in his favour. It is a rather forgettable and average effort that makes me think the band have had their day. I can see why Kasabian are headlining but they are not the most acclaimed and popular act. I feel they have had their best days so question their booking.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Muse

If you want great guitar music then new bands like The Amazons are a much better bet. Too new to headline Reading and Leeds; they can, at least, provide guidance where guitar music should be heading – big and memorable riffs with some imaginative hooks and incredible vocals. Whilst the U.S. has credible and trendy festivals like SXSW, we are lumbered with festivals like this. Head away from the main stages and there is plenty of cool and stunning music. Again, Muse are on the big stage and are at the festival for the nth-time. Sure, Drones (released in 2015) was a fine album that was a bit underrated – it was not their best effort and signifies a bit of a fallow patch. Like Foo Fighters; what are Muse offering Reading and Leeds they haven’t brought to Glastonbury?! It is a guaranteed spectacle but is that really enough?! You want to see big, new acts or unexpected musicians given a chance. If you keep booking the same artists then you are going to risk losing people and lacking that originality and relevance. Muse will put on a bonkers show but not hugely different to previous years.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Eminem

Like Radiohead; Eminem is the best shout from Reading and Leeds’ perspective. I am not sure if he has played the festival but is an unexpected choice. I know he has not released a new album for years but, at least, is a breath of fresh air. He will bring a huge amount of force and command to the stage – showing Kasabian how you SHOULD rock! Like Glastonbury; it seems Reading and Leeds’ headliners is that blend of predictable and uninspiring and the odd brilliant shout. Reading and Leeds’ best performers and new artists will play the minor stages: a great opportunity to hear some future stars cut their teeth. Maybe it is a risk putting some lesser-known artists at the top of the bill – their commerciality and profitability might not make the venture worth it. Perhaps money and commercial concerns are more important than quality and taking risks. I can understand that but that does not mean (festivals) need to be so obvious and predictable. There are so many choices festival organisers could go with but tend to stick with the average and bland. One of the best and most inspirational festivals in the country is coming to an end. Secret Garden Party pretty much moulded and defined newer festivals and seen its influence seep into their ethos. In terms of variation and eclecticism; the way musicians are chosen and other considerations – security among them – they are the forefathers. The reason this year’s is the last is down to the fact they have done all they can. That legacy has been laid and they have compelled and inspired big festivals to up their game. It will be bittersweet this year for them. Crystal Fighters, RAY BLK and Wild Beasts are among the fantastic acts who will be gracing the festival.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Secret Garden Party

Thinking about Wild Beasts and you have a Glastonbury-ready band. Why are they not there?! The ethos of Secret Garden Party‘s organiser/head gardener reads:

Whilst I have always known I was going to have to write this, it still feels strange. We have been on a long journey but I concede to the infamous phrase that ‘All good things must come to an end’, and so it is, I announce today that this summer will host the last Secret Garden Party as we all know it.

I know some of you will be questioning, why now? And more importantly , why tell us now? I hope you don’t find the timing Machiavellian, however there is never the perfect time to drop this bombshell, too early or too late and people are going to miss out and be disappointed. Hopefully we have struck the middle ground here. Secondly I’m sure you will have, by now, spotted that this is the punchline to this year’s theme as it is ultimately going to be a huge celebration of the people who make the garden party: you…

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… 15 years ago I started out with a set of ideas as to what makes a good party and the most perfect venue for it. But with no set idea of what the destination was for this venture the ‘festival’ was, at that time, the perfect medium through which to explore these ideas. 

Much has changed since that first Garden Party, when there was nothing else like it in the UK: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter had yet to be invented and no one knew what a boutique festival was, let alone Glamping.

Since then, with you always at the heart of it, The Garden Party has defined and redefined”.

That ethos has never been compromised: it makes it, in my view, the best festival in the U.K. Newcomers like BBC Radio 6 Music’s festival are leading by example and retaining Secret Garden Party’s mix of pure ethos and exceptional musicians. The quality of Secret Garden Party is incredible and continues to promote the brightest and most credible acts. Maybe Secret Garden Party has that glamorous, slightly posher reputation – should a festival be all about mud, tents and booze? I would argue not be wonder whether Secret Garden Party has shut the gate too soon. It is still, as this year’s line-up shows, the coolest and hippest festival around. In a sea of commercial, mainstream festivals – GlastonburyReading and Leeds among them – we need those festivals that stray away from the mediocre and embrace something different. As I said, BBC Radio 6 Music have their festival and takes that a step further: some big artists like Depeche Mode will mingle alongside the best of the newcomers. Like mainstream music and the nature of the charts: it is hard discovering what people want and the best way to evolve. It would be nice to see the charts reflected more broadly.

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There are so many great artists coming through and they are not being represented. Maybe charts are an obsolete and a bit pointless right now – do we really buy songs and albums based on the singles charts?! Maybe the album chart is more accurate but I still wonder whether changes needs to be made. I am afraid festivals should reflect changes and desires in music: not just stick with the same formulas and easy answers. It is with a heavy heart we bid farewell to Secret Garden Party and thank them for the music (and floral beauty!). Whether we will see festivals like Glastonbury booking current, potential-laden headliners – Bon Iver springs to mind alongside Laura Marling in terms of the gentler side of the spectrum – or inviting back some legends to give proceedings a touch of class and authority – someone like Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin, maybe? There are some great boutique festivals popping up and those examples that are more genre-specific. They do good work and are faithful regarding quality: I fear the bigger festivals are losing touch and stuck in a rut. Instead of responding to the mainstream and chart positions; thinking outside the box would not only revitalised festivals like Glastonbury but inspire new ones to form. If Secret Garden Party taught us anything (among many) it is how original concept and a solid ethos can lead to a revolution. If we are learning anything from music it’s that changes do need to happen. Whether that happens quickly (or over time) the wheels need to get into motion. Change and improvement are not just a subjective and narrow desire. It is a very obvious progression…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Secret Garden Party

THAT every music-lover desires.

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