Over the years, there have been great performances and historic moments at the annual Glastonbury Festival. This year should be no different.
Along with predictions of rain, there are rumors that Prince will make a surprise appearance. The five day festival, which runs through Sunday, June 29, features an eclectic line-up of musical acts; scheduled to perform are Arcade Fire, Lily Allen, Jack White, Robert Plant, Lana Del Ray, The Black Keys, Foster the People, Blondie, Yoko Ono, Dr. Feelgood, Dolly Parton, Nick Lowe, Suzanne Vega, and the tUnE-yArDs, among others.
One act breaking new ground are the Dodge Brothers, a five man quartet (I’ll explain later) that play a sometimes exuberant, sometimes raucous hybrid of country blues, rockabilly, jugband and skiffle. Some have called what they play roots music, others call it Americana. Whatever it’s called, it rocks.
On Saturday, June 28, the Dodge Brothers are set to become the first band to accompany a silent film at Glastonbury. The film is Beggars of Life (1928). Directed by the great William Wellman the year after he made Wings (the first film to win an Academy Award), Beggars of Life is a American drama about a lovely girl (the beautiful Louise Brooks) dressed as a boy who flees the law after killing her abusive stepfather. On the run, she rides the rails through a hobo underworld where danger is always close at hand.
Based on a novelistic memoir by hobo author Jim Tully, the film also features future Oscar winner Wallace Berry and the early African-American actor Edgar “Blue” Washington. Girls dressed as boys, race mingling, pastoral life gone wrong, and desperation among the glitz and glamor of the Twenties — there is a lot of friction in Beggars of Life. In her book, 100 Silent Films, BFI curator Bryony Dixon calls it a movie to “wallow” in. And indeed, Beggars of Life is rich with mood, tension, sentiment, harrowing danger, and beauty. Dixon has noted, “Never has a film and a band been more perfectly matched than Beggars of Life and the Dodge Brothers – deep dish Americana, rail-riding hoboes and Louise Brooks – they were made for each other.”
For the record, Beggars of Life is not the first silent film shown at Glastonbury. That honor belongs to Metropolis (1927), which was first screened in the 1980s. The Dodge Brothers, however, will be the first band to play live music to accompany a silent. It is something they’ve done before.
The Dodge Brothers are Mike Hammond (lead guitar, lead vocals, banjo), Mark Kermode (bass, harmonica, vocals), Aly Hirji (rhythm guitar, mandolin, vocals), and Alex Hammond (washboard, snare drum, percussion). Joining the band at Glastonbury and elsewhere when they accompany silent films is composer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand, a regular at London’s National Film Theatre.
According to founder Mark Kermode, who doubles as film critic for The Observer, “all this started because Neil Brand approached us with the idea of playing to silents as they used to with local pickup bands. Neil can do this as he’s a solo performer, but we were concerned about doing this as a band, and whether our music would fit with the films. He said ‘Trust me – it’ll work’. I’ve found that as long as I can see Neil’s left hand I can follow what he’s doing. The more we play silent films the less we use our cue sheets and the more we play to the film itself. This means that every performance is different.”
Over the last few years, the Dodge Brothers have accompanied Beggars of Life around the UK, including well received gigs at BFI Southbank, The Barbican London, National Media Museum, and other venues. Aly Hirji, who performs under the name Aly Dodge, recently remarked “As we’d played to silent films all over the country, I thought it was time we took it to Glastonbury. I contacted the festival and they happened to be looking for something that would be different enough to draw an audience from the big music stages on Saturday night.” Even if the band draws only a fraction of the estimated 175,000 people expected to attend the Festival, Glastonbury’s Pilton Palais Cinema Marquee should prove their largest audience to date.
For those keeping track, the Dodge Brothers are not the only Glastonbury performer with a connection to Louise Brooks. (The silent film star is becoming something of a rock icon.) Also set to perform at this year’s Festival on Sunday is Caro Emerald, whose 2013 “Tangled Up” video features three hard-to-miss images of the actress, one of which is the poster forPandora’s Box (1929). And then there is Metallica, who perform Saturday. In 2011, they collaborated with Lou Reed on Lulu, their oblique, noisy riff on the legendary character played by Brooks in the film version of Pandora’s Box.
The Glastonbury Festival is a five day music festival that takes place near Pilton, Somerset, England. In addition to contemporary music, the festival hosts dance, comedy, theatre, circus, cabaret and other arts. More at www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist, film & music enthusiast, and the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the film star. Gladysz has curated exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress’s films around the world.