Diary of a Dodge Brother skiffling at Glastonbury

Twenty years since his last – disastrous – visit, how did the Observer's film critic find performing live with his skiffle band?

Saturday, 10am
I arrive at the outskirts of the Glastonbury encampment and head directly to the Pilton Palais Cinema tent where my band the Dodge Brothers and pianist Neil Brand are booked to perform a live musical accompaniment to the 1928 silent film Beggars of Life. This is a first for Glastonbury and they've made a big deal of it. A brochure listing "44 Things to do at Glastonbury" pegs us as Number 38 ("See a Weird Band Play Along to a Movie"). It occurs to me that it's 20 years since I co-presented Channel 4's coverage of the festival alongside Mark Radcliffe, Marc Riley, and Katie Puckrik. They were all great. I was rubbish. This is the first time I've been back since.

I'm booked to do an 11am talk at the Free University of Glastonbury at the Crow's Nest on the other side of the festival. I gaze in bewilderment at the ocean of mud and people that separates me from my destination. Luckily, Pilton Palais organiser Michael Denner has a solution in the shape of a US army vehicle that saw service on the Normandy beaches and has the bullet holes to prove it. We head off into the fray. I feel safe in the truck and resolve to spend as much time as possible in there.

Arrive at the Crow's Nest as the heavens open. Rain means a packed house. I take to the stage and ask for the background music to be turned down so that I can be heard. The background music turns out to be the sound of Glastonbury. So I turn my PA up and enter into the spirit of the festival in which everything battles to be louder than everything else.

Exit the Crow's Nest and start to trudge back toward the cinema tent, knowing only that it is on the other side of the festival. I feel like Gandalf setting out from the Shire and probably look as old. Luckily, everyone is really helpful and about an hour later I arrive at my destination. At which point it's time to head straight off to the Croissant Neuf where the Dodge Brothers are due on stage for a warm-up gig ahead of the screening.

Arrive at the Croissant Neuf where there's just time for a quick line-check before we're on. The venue is packed, which is always encouraging. During Ghost House, I persuade the audience to become a "human theremin" and they respond magnificently, making eerie swooping noises in response to flappy-handed gesticulations. Later, someone tweets that they shall be forever "part theremin".

Rush offstage, lug the gear back into Michael's army truck and strike out once again into the mud.

Arrive at the cinema tent sound-check for Beggars of Life, only to discover the stage is still being built. As each section is constructed, we occupy it with the piano, the double-bass, drum, washboard, guitars, mandolin, banjos, harmonicas and other assorted skiffle detritus. By the time we're all up there, you can't actually see the stage – it looks like an explosion in a skiffle factory. The crowd are already filing into the tent (once again, the rain is our ally) and it's showtime.

A mere five minutes later than planned, the lights go down, lead singer and guitarist Mike Hammond plays the opening theme from Beggars of Life, and we're off. Louise Brooks shoots her abusive stepfather to the sound of a large drum strike from Dodge Brother Aly Hirji, and then hits the rails with Richard Arlen, our harmonicas wailing. Wallace Beery's character turns up with a keg of beer and everyone sings Hark Those Bells!. This is great and the audience are terrifically responsive.

But the quieter sections (Brooks and Arlen in a haystack accompanied by Aly's plaintive mandolin) are a struggle due to the booming sound of the ironically named Acoustic Tent next door. We enter into a battle of noise with the neighbours, throwing washboards, snake-rattlers and train whistles their way. Neil handles it all magnificently, cutting an eloquent path through the movie, capturing every nuance of the action even when the projector momentarily gives up the ghost and leaves us starring at a blank screen. It all ends with an almighty burning train wreck, which sees the band virtually smashing up their instruments in a cacophonous finale.

And then it's all over, Glasto having successfully hosted its first accompanied silent movie screening. Mike makes an impassioned speech about supporting silent cinema to whoops and cheers of approval. I step backwards and fall off the stage.

With the instruments loaded back into the cars, we decide to walk once round the festival. I see four minutes of the Pixies before finding the crowd overwhelming. Heading away from the stage, I meet the tide of muddy humanity moving inexorably toward Metallica. Finally, I wind up in a small tent on the outskirts of the festival where a rockabilly trio are giving it some lo-fi welly. I raise a plastic cup to their good health.

In the car on the way home, I get a number of tweets telling me that it looks like I'm "fronting Metallica". I Google their lead singer. He looks nothing like me. Someone asks if we'll be back next year. I look at all the mud-splattered instruments in the back of the car and find myself smiling unexpectedly at the prospect.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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