Australian comic Brendan Burns leaps onto the Cabaret Stage like an abusive PE teacher. One of the breed of comedians who convert adrenaline into laughs using swearing as an all-purpose enzyme, he delights the many children present with a cavalcade of f-words. "Why have they put tape between you and me?" he shrieks, promptly jumping from the stage to remove the offending obstacle between act and audience. His question is soon answered when an over-zealous punter gets up and steals his microphone, clearly overcome by the generous spirit of equality that the tape-breaking has engendered. Burns manages to disarm him, but not before he has a mumbled stab at a routine of his own. "Thanks," says a visibly restrained Burns, "for proving just how much charisma I actually have." Undeterred, the man gamely grabs back the tool to pose a question of foolhardy brilliance to those assembled. "Who's the wanker, him or me?" Seeming to rationalise the resounding chorus of "YOU" as a conspirital sarcasm on the audience's part, he continues to stalk Burns round the stage. Vive the smaller stages, where anything can happen with an audience on mushrooms.
Friday evening in the Avalon Tent and the crowd awaits Eliza Carthy and the Ratcatchers, running late after emergency work to secure the stage in the wake of the morning's electrical storm. "You know, the Carthy family give folk music a bad name," the music teacher stood next to me is saying. "She can't play the fiddle well, and she can't even sing without studio help." He prefers Damien Rice, apparently. After criticising the unprofessionalism of the soundcheck, he sweeps out of the tent in a fit of pique muttering something about The Killers being on the Pyramid stage. On cue, Carthy emerges to cement the truth of the maxim "Those who can't...", singing beautifully and fiddling with startling intensity. Most of the set is taken from the excellent 'Rough Music', her most recent album, and includes a sublime cover of Billy Bragg's 'King James Version' that ebbs and flows with an unbearable poignancy. This is traditional folk to the letter; song's about dying and gallantry underpinned by a bass-line played on a tuba, and it leaves some stars in your belly afterwards.
"She's such a wench", says comedian Stewart Lee in front of me, fresh from a triumphant set in the Cabaret tent musing on 9/11 ("the atrocities of November 9th"), the inevitable deterioration of the sphincter muscles over time, and the ability of a fart to speak across cultures. It's as close to a technically perfect stand-up routine as you could witness, by turning cleverly satirical, relevantly digressive, and comfortingly toilet-based laughs, all smoothly delivered in Lee's none-more-deadpan style. Describing how he witnessed the twin towers collapse from a bar in an Arab part of southern Spain, he reflects on his apprehension at how the event would effect his relationship with his drinking partners. He visits the urinal. "I started to pee, my sphincter relaxed, and I farted. I looked at the Arab next to me. He looked at me. And he laughed. Then I laughed. And I knew (pause) that everything was going to be OK."
"What are you all doing here?" says Steve Earle at the beginning of his Friday night Acoustic Tent headline set. "Hell, I love The White Stripes, I'd be watching them if I didn't have to work." The tent is packed because, while The Stripes revel in the stripped-down sound of a guitar and drum-kit, Earle is about to perform for an hour and a half accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. Rock 'n' Roll. Or more accurately, Country. Seemingly hewn from the same Giant Redwood that produced Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, his songs speak with a big-hearted integrity lacking in the shallow rebel posturing of more fashionable bands. Early hit 'Devil's Right Hand' is reincarnated as an anti-gun anthem, and newer material from 'The Revolution Starts . . . Now' embraces the responsibility of the songwriter to act as a catalyst for social change. Fiance Alison Moorer comes out to sing the Emmylou Harris part on 'I Remember You', and Earle announces that "the next time you see her, that won't be her name" with enviable pride. Not strictly true, as she's due to perform in the Leftfield tent on Sunday, but truth never spoilt a sentiment before. One criticism is that Earle seems to lack the inspiring righteous fury of his forebears, so that as you leave the tent your thoughts turn to Vegan burgers rather than revolution.
The Acoustic Tent is rammed for such an early hour, and it would seem that I Am Kloot have bussed in the fanclub for some country air. The exquisitely doomed romance of latest album 'God's and Monster's' is only lightly touched upon, and the band spend a little too much time on older, less accomplished material. The whole thing seems a bit cosy and complacent, and the suspicion lurks that the performance might benefit from having to fight for an audience on one of the main stages. That aside, highpoints 'Strange Without You' and the single 'I Believe' bespeak a grand indie classicism that should see them higher on the bill in future.
By evening it would seem that ageing men resting on withered laurels is the order of the day, with New Order appearing on the Pyramid Stage. Here in the Avalon Tent however, are The Proclaimers. The Reid brothers seem wary of the bulging crowd, like fat kids suspicious of a smile in a usually hostile playground, and Craig even takes it upon himself to announce that they have recorded albums worth of material since 'the hits'. Despite the best efforts of commercial radio playlisters to ruin them for all of us, 'Letter From America' and 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' are reborn in the live setting. Indeed, the euphoria attendant on a tent full of pissed Scots howling every word is comparable to last years Paul McCartney karaoke session. Even the ever-silent (when not singing, obviously) Charlie seems to shed his cynicism halfway into the set, beaming widely at the rapture the crowd affords the newer material. Songs of love and Scotland are delivered simply and with a surprising melancholy, and one particularly country-tinged ballad is introduced as "the first song we ever wrote in a minor key". These are great pop songs, and in a parallel universe The Proclaimers are deservedly bigger than Oasis.
The euphoria continues on the Jazzworld stage for headliner Baaba Maal. He stalks out to the tightly regimented percussion of 15-strong backing band Daande Lenol, resplendent in bright traditional dress, and from start to finish there is no let up from the choreographed pandemonium onstage. The infectious griot rhythms are draped in a surplus of technicolor melody, and Baaba Maal conducts everything like a sort of Senegalese Sammi Davis Jr.
Whether performing dizzying spins, repeatedly leaping as high as he can into the air, or pretending to spank the pair of hyperactive female dancers, he effortlessly commands the attention. This is despite the best efforts of the lead drummer, who keeps coming to the edge of the stage to point at his crotch until he gets a cheer. Halfway through Baaba Maal plays a single, beautiful song on acoustic guitar, before the carnival whirls into action once more. By the end the whole crowd is physically incapable of standing still, and the calls for an encore ring out for a full ten minutes. Unfortunately the curfew is passed, but the audience's party continues with some spirited booing of the compere sent to break the news that the band will not be returning. Highlight of the weekend, bar none.
Billy Bragg has evolved into a Glastonbury institution, and the converted are queuing out of the Leftfield tent for the traditional recitation by the Bard of Barking. Armed with just a Stratocaster, Bragg plays to the crowd. 'Milkman of Human Kindness', 'Greetings to the New Brunette', and 'A New England' are all rolled out to the deep-throated accompaniment of 5,000 weekend trade-unionists. Fascism is laid to waste after the third song, leaving just New Labour ("the inheritors of 100 years of radical tradition") for the rest of the set's ire. Disarmingly the worse for wear after a weekend of debauchery, Bragg relys on the crowd to supply the lyrics lost in his internal chemical fog. Professionalism? The spawn of capitalism, no doubt. But the Bud served at the bar is going down very nicely. True.
Phil Jupitus appears for a comic song about bestiality, and it is all wrapped up with an encore of The Clash's 'Garageland'. There are more bands to come yet, but this feels like the real end of the weekend. The only jarring moment comes when King Billy calls for a punter to be slung out, the crowd obediently bundling the offender over the railing and into the arms of some menacing looking security guards. "Oi dickhead, if you're going to do that you have to take the consequences", barks Bragg. Just for a moment it seems like this temporary socialist paradise has no room for free speech, even if it is just a few hundred square metres inside a tent. The enemies of freedom vanquished once more, the music continues, but the bonhomie seems more forced than at the start of the gig.