I watched the Gorillaz headline set on the TV last night, mellow with red wine and a good week's work under my belt, and was very happy that I had caught it. I'll admit up front that if Damon Albarn had a dinner of baked beans and sprouts and recorded the resulting noise the next morning I would probably hail it as great art. But I thought the band was great and I liked the choice of songs. I thought that the songs they chose from Demon Days made more sense side-by-side with the Plastic Beach numbers than they had done on the original Demon Days album, spoking directly into the all-out eco theme of the later album.
I was surprised, therefore, to find out the next morning that I was supposed to have been very disappointed with their performance. Fans and critics alike seemed to feel that a well-primed crowd had been let down (for example: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/lucyjones/100044469/glastonbury-2010-gorillazzz/ ). Normally I would have shrugged it off as "there's no pleasing some folk" but, having just started reading Paul Weston's "Avalonian Aeon" in whose first few chapters the bizarre events leading to the creation of the Glastonbury festival are masterfully detailed, I began to wonder if there was some greater force at work between the band and the crowd and whether the disappointment of the fans present at the festival (as opposed to the contentment of the couch potatoes like me) made more sense in this context.
I'm not going to detail the ghostly "psychic" Glastonbury that permeates the physical festival, nor how the genesis of the music festival was triggered by coincidences, dreams, visions and plenty of altered states of consciousness. (Paul for one, as an attendee of the earliest concerts and eyewitness of many of the key events, does this brilliantly). But think of the festival as a gathering of the tribes. Look at the tall, fantasy banners flapping against a dark sky but visible due in equal measure to the strobes and to the light of the full moon. Imagine the pyramid stage as the entrance to a cave, with the band as capering shamen leading the sacred ceremony.
And herein lies the problem. Gorillaz is a concept band of cartoon characters. Devised originally as a way out of the postmodern dead-end that Blur had become, Gorillaz has matured into an ensemble piece. I think it hugely to his credit that Damon has chosen to submerge his ego beneath the Gorrilaz concept while using it as a vehicle to showcase other talents, many of whom (and this is no disrespect to them) have been left by the wayside as the juggernaut that is commercial music thunders off in another direction. On Plastic Beach, Damon doesn't even sing lead vocal until the fourth song.
But for all the brilliance of the music and directly because of his good intentions, Damon is tucked away at the back of the stage playing the keyboards for much of the set. For the shamanic master of ceremonies, this is a mistake. If you get a chance watch how many times he pushes the "special guest" into the spotlight. They are uncomfortable; several miss their singing cues. Instinctively they know that they are not, should not be, leading the ceremony. They are onstage for too short a time. The real leader, despite it being for the noblest of reasons, is hanging back when he should be directing from the front. Snoop Dogg is one of the only guests who measures up and he again instinctively senses that something is wrong "Make some motherfucking noise" he shouts and the crowd respond. But it is too little too late.
Another issue is the theme of the music. On paper an environmentally driven agenda should be a natural fit for the Glastonbury crowd but it is too materialistic for the headline slot, too "feet on the ground". Compare and contrast Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips on the other stage at the same time. With "Do You Realize?", they sing a perfect invocation of the otherworld ("Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die?") but instead of it being a comedown it takes the audience where they want to go and makes the return all the sweeter as they appreciate better the here and now ("Do You Realize – that you have the most beautiful face?"). The Flaming Lips' visual psychedelics also help with blizzards of golden paper adding a kaleidoscopic effect to proceedings and transforming the song from a mere existential reminder to the beginnings or a genuine shamanic experience. Or contrast again Neil Young at last year's festival turning "A Day in the Life" into a sonic and spiritual journey. Or even, and more unfairly, compare Damon to himself in last year's Blur headline slot. While Blur may not be for everyone, even I on my sofa could see that the emotional impact was so much higher last year compared to last night.
Tonight Muse headline. They are noted for the mystical and occult themes that are often to the fore in their songs. You would expect them to understand or intuit some of the invisible performance that accompanies the superficial music set. But are they wise enough to carry it off? Do they need more experience to be more than mere adepts at the pyramid altar or will they offer a far more profound experience for those at the festival than Gorrilaz, for all their brilliant musicianship, were able to provide last night.