After much criticism of the line-up in the media, and hundreds of complaints about the conditions and endless queues just to get on site, could Glastonbury live up to its status of Britain’s best festival, or is the magic starting to wear off?
There’s a certain degree of poignancy going into this year’s Glastonbury, not least with the death of two musical icons associated with the festival. It’s no surprise to see Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ lightning flash adorning the Pyramid Stage, while Prince’s legacy – forever rumoured to be playing, but seemingly the one that got away – felt everywhere.
This year, though, there’s also a real worry about the lifespan of the festival itself, compounded by confusing comments by founder Michael Eavis. He’s long stated that Worthy Farm and the surrounding land – much of which is loaned from other farmers especially for the festival – may not be a sustainable location for such a huge event.
It seems there’s uncertain times ahead going into the weekend – we know a sister festival is likely to happen at Longleat in 2019 while the Pilton venue takes its six-yearly fallow break, but after that, and with Michael not getting any younger, the future is uncertain. With all the traffic complaints from both festival goers and locals, it’s all a bit gloomy. And at this point, we’ve not even heard about Brexit.
With most people finally in and settled, it seems right to start the festival with something to lift the sombre mood. Unfortunately, unlike the well-orchestrated Jo Cox tribute earlier in the day, Glastobowie – a sing-along to some of the great man’s most loved songs – gets drowned out by the PA system and speaker test on the Pyramid Stage. It’s a shame, particularly with many dressed for the occasion, but it’s onwards and, literally, upwards.
After deciding not to squeeze into a heaving oxygen-deprived crowd in The Common’s tiny Rum Shack to catch Kate Tempest, it’s a short walk to the Hell Stage at Shangri La where she’s appearing again an hour later. In the meantime, The Correspondents, oozing infectious energy, light up the place with their mix of ska, jungle and electro-swing. Finally, the party has started.
Afterwards Kate Tempest duly arrives to deliver a freestyle set, accompanied by long-time collaborator Kwake Bass. Largely it works, but some elongated incoherent parts do miss the mark. The expectant crowd, however, appreciate the occasion and respond in kind when bars from the hits like ‘The Beigeness’ are dropped into the mix.
Further up still to the Park area – still resplendent despite the mud – and to the Rabbit Hole Bar where its hipster cocktails and decent tunes are appreciated by everyone. Many are here for Joy Orbison in the Stonebridge Bar just down the way, and while most are used to sticky dancefloors, the mud proves an altogether new, but not insurmountable challenge.
As word of Brexit slowly spreads around the campsites – and Glastonbury is fairly unanimous in its shock and disapproval – an antidote comes very early on in the form of The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn & Guests. Best described as a diverse variety collective, they bring sunshine, albeit metophrocally, back to the festival. There’s beautiful choirs, colourful singers, hip-hop rappers and many unusual instruments, and of course, Damon himself leading a rendition of Blur’s ‘Out of Time’. At a time when Britain is wondering about its place in the world, it’s a welcome reminder of what other shores can bring.
Beauty reins too from the Greenpeace area and, as usual, it is a place of wonder, albeit with a definitive message. Last year’s ‘Ocean Destroyer’ fishing trawler installation is replaced by a giant ‘No Planet B’ rocket sculpture and a strangely modern David Attenborough virtual reality experience. On the stage things are more traditional as Beans on Toast appears with his usual disarray of folkish tunes and crowd requests, accompanied by sidekick Bobby Banjo. Ending with a rare ‘Can’t Get a Gig at Glastonbury’, he claims he won’t play it again after this weekend, which seems appropriate now he’s rightly becoming a regular fixture again.
Blossoms are due on the Other Stage next, but last minute technical difficulties mean the stage – which never looked close to being ready the night before – has adjusted timings for the whole day. So it’s straight to Rat Boy at the new and more secluded John Peel area. He arrives along with a downpour, which luckily for him somewhat fills a previously rather empty tent. There’s still plenty of room for a mosh pit circle at the front though, and despite giving him the benefit of the doubt for sound issues, it sadly resembles Tom from McFly singing Arctic Monkeys. The frequent Jamie-T comparisons, however, are way off the mark for now.
The rain continues over at the Pyramid Stage, but it doesn’t stop the welcome return of Two Door Cinema Club. Gone is the fresh-faced naivety of 2011’s and 2013’s performances; we now have a temple of giant black speakers, rock-star haircuts and sharp shirts. It’s a band firmly stepping into the limelight, and with a setlist packed with indie dancefloor favourites, come out with all guns blazing. Whether or not they are purposely aiming for it, a headline slot is definitely on the horizon.
Dancing shoes are kept on for Jess Glynne who follows in a similar, but albeit much poppier, relentless vein of sure-fire hits. It’s far from remarkable, but as the sun breaks through the clouds for the first time, she certainly puts a smile on people’s faces and at least gets the camping chair punters out of their seats for once.
The aforementioned scheduling delay gives plenty of time to tackle the muddy trek back to the Other Stage for indie-stalwarts Editors. Never a band to demand attention, it’s a respectful but fairly restrained crowd who witness the usual introverted performance, despite singer Tom Smith’s best efforts. Musically the new songs – particularly the excellent closer ‘Marching Orders’ – hold up alongside the classics and thankfully, ‘Papillon’, the closest the band have come to perfect the electro-indie crossover, brings the best out of the Glastonbury crowd, and is, as the frontman says, “a timely reminder of what is good in this world.”
The evening brings another trip to the very south of the festival site to the Crow’s Nest bar, which sits proudly at the top of the hill alongside the Instagram-famous Glastonbury sign. The views are spectacular, as can be confirmed by Jarvis Cocker who’s seen lurking around outside. First though, NZCA Lines (Michael Lovett joined by Hot Chip’s Sarah Jones) take to the bar’s tiny stage and deliver a strip-backed synth-pop set which delights the waiting crowd.
Presumably though, Jarvis is here for Richard Hawley who headlines Emily Eavis’ own Park Stage. While very much the alternative booking for the slightly older Glastonbury goer – the teenagers are all down at Disclosure and Muse – it’s a reassuringly comforting end to a day that brought much turbulence. The way back sees a quick detour to the Silent Disco, where once again you have to pledge your allegiance to one side, although in this DJ referendum the only bad outcome is being temporarily forced to listen to Simply Red or Nickelback.
The day starts more serenely than its predecessor, strolling through the peaceful Greenfields, via Henry’s Beard for refreshment, then onto the Stone Circle to be greeted by a natural voice choir, which grows in numbers by the minute as passing wanderers stop to join. It’s simple, but effective and a welcome relief to the bustle of the busier areas in what is already becoming an exhausting weekend.
A long trek to the Pyramid Stage follows for what is certainly a change of pace in Wolf Alice. Ellie Rowsell starts a trend for a day of empowering women determined to steal the show from what’s usually a largely male-dominated line-up. She reminisces when her and guitarist Joff failed to get into Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition, but those days are long behind them. They seem humbled throughout, which, alongside tearing through a set containing many now well-establish songs, bodes well for the future.
While numbers weren’t exactly lacking before, the swell of people that follows is certainly noticeable. What becomes one of the biggest turn-outs of the weekend is here for Madness, themselves no stranger to Glastonbury and in many ways the perfect all-round festival band. They don’t disappoint, entertaining throughout and even managing to get away with a dreadful cover of David Bowie’s ‘Kooks’. When you can end on something like ‘It Must Be Love’ with the sun beating down, everyone’s worries are – at least – temporarily forgotten.
Matt Healy’s state of both inebriation and ego often decide what kind of The 1975 turn up to their gigs. Luckily today over on the Other Stage both are relatively subdued and encompassed by some of the most radio-friendly indie hits since The Kooks, and of course the largely teen crowd lap it up. While it’s completely mainstream fodder – and indeed with their career trajectory seemingly going the same way as Luke Pritchard’s band – the frontman does provide a genuinely impassioned speech about the EU situation, which might make a few doubters think again about their credibility.
Following them are Chvrches, who, from the moment they take the stage, clearly stand leagues apart. With Lauren Mayberry fast becoming one of the best frontpeople out there, she dominates the stage with her huge persona far outweighing her tiny stature. The same can be said for the songs; the simple set-up of two synths and vocals is deceiving, giving way to huge tunes that soar way above their origins. Certainly another band to add to the list of potential future headliners, where the cover of darkness and obligatory light show would suit them perfectly.
The night, though, of course belongs to another leading lady. Adele has been rumoured to play Glastonbury several times, but becoming one of the world’s biggest artists has made this less likely in recent years. Indeed, she – possibly quite rightly – assumed her songs and performance style wouldn’t suit a huge outdoor and possibly ambivalent festival audience.
Off the back of a huge, highly-orchestrated and stage-managed tour though, her arm was twisted, although it did nothing to allay her own nerves, as becomes apparent. As for the crowd, though, from the moment the iconic image of the superstar’s eyes appear on the screens and the opening lines of ’Hello’ ring out, any fears they may have had are gone. This is really a huge event.
Adele herself, while undoubtedly a force majeure in performance, is a strange juxtaposition between songs. It’s four songs in before we properly hear from her, and the angelic voice makes way to what can’t only be described as the more common touch. For the most part it’s adorable and what endears us to Adele, but does occasionally unfortunately stray into a level of bad language and crudeness that somewhat takes away from mystique that surrounds a headline act.
It’s a shame, and takes very little away from the performance, but – being preserved in recorded form forever and potentially watched by an audience of millions via the BBC on the night and many more in the future – may well be something she looks back on and wishes she handled slightly differently.
That said, the charm and, of course the vocal performances more than make up for it. While by her own admission only ‘Water Under The Bridge’ and ‘Rollin’ in the Deep’ really get the crowd moving, there’s no denying that moments like the Pyramid Stage lighting up with tens of thousands of mobile phones to ‘Make You Feel My Love’ can’t fail to tug at the heartstrings.
There’s a few bum notes, notably a diversion from the usual setlist to play ‘River Lea’ which gets restarted and then lyrics forgotten, and ‘Skyfall’ which, amongst others, is crying out for something different on the screens to add atmosphere, rather than the incessant close-ups of Adele herself. Not once do we see a shot of her band during a song, or even have variation with the lighting or backdrops.
That said, this was never going to be about the music, shown no more so than ending on ‘Someone Like You’, the song very clearly recognises “changed her life”. Glastonbury has been a part of her life for may years, and, let’s face it, she can sing what she wants. But for those wanting to go out on a high, Adele leaves the stage breathing a sigh of relief screaming “I did it, I did it!!” while the band are still playing, without returning for a bow, let alone an encore. Still the couple in front – along with presumably many others – are ecstatic after the man successfully rises from being down on one knee, and, let’s face it, that’s more than good enough for anyone.
In search of one more high to end to the evening, tonight’s finale belongs to Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs, although the one-way system in the South-West area mean the walk to the Avalon Stage is almost a muddy road too far at this stage. It’s worth it though for a brilliantly drunken escapade, with guests including Attila the StockbrokerFerocious Dog’s Ken Bonsall. There’s also a second proposal of the night on stage, before one final rendition of ‘One Way’ by the Levellers to send everyone off into the night.
As has been traditional, it’s down to a local act to start the final day’s proceedings with the Burnham and Highbridge Band taking to the Pyramid Stage to greet the early risers. Thankfully a rousing rendition of ‘Ticket to Ride’ helps soundtrack the initial stages of a long muddy trek back to the car to initiate a quick getaway later.
After a pitstop at the excellent Thali cafe for lunch, Laura Mvula takes to the Pyramid Stage for some afternoon easy listening. Unfortunately in lacklustre fashion, it borders a bit too close to ‘Radio 2’ territory, sadly not helped by the inclement weather and everyone’s tiring enthusiasm for the conditions.
In need of something fresher, and indeed a welcome respite from the weather, it’s off to William’s Green for two lively new female acts. First up is Pixx, aka Londoner Hannah Green, with her airy, light mix of electronica and pop. Next follows Georgia Barnes, daughter of Leftfield’s Neil Barnes, who goes by the both simpler but less Internet-friendly Georgia. Her sound is nothing if not diverse; amongst the vocal screams, electronica beats and sub-grime beats, there’s the potential of a few decent tunes.
They serve as a perfect warm-up for the day’s first mainstream highlight, as a return to a packed Other Stage sees Catfish and the Bottlemen put on one of the shows of the weekend. It’s always great to see a band on the verge of greatness, and given the crowd’s singing of every word as if it were their last, it’s fair to say the Llandudno boys are destined for something special. And with new haircuts and all black attire, they even look like a rock stars now.
Whether a band can actually achieve the heights of an Arctic Monkeys or Oasis in this modern disposable era is debatable, but with tunes like ‘Kathleen’ and ‘Cocoon’ now firmly seeped into the public consciousness, if anyone’s going to do it, Catfish are at the front of the queue. The newer songs are equally buoyantly received, and with ‘Soundcheck’ and ‘Twice’ adding a maturer sound that Kings of Leon would be proud of , they are deservedly pushing towards arena territory.
In seemingly a different world, and eschewing the traditional Sunday afternoon ‘legends’ slot on the Pyramid Stage, the dance village welcomes an alternative kitsch performance from 2001’s UK Garage multimillionaire Craig David on the Sonic Stage. Amazingly, it’s rammed – and while most who bought ‘Born To Do It’ in their teens are here for the nostalgia, there’s equally as many younger fans raving and singing every word. While he really should be chillin’ on a Sunday, it soon becomes one of the surprise stand-out moments of the weekend.
The grand finale, of course, is left to Coldplay. Having handed out tens of thousands of Xylobands earlier in the evening, the crowd – including many doubters – are instantly transformed from a soggy mess to enjoy one last party the moment they light up as the band step on stage.
What follows is – as is often labelled a criticism of Coldplay – a textbook performance. But, in essence, there’s nothing wrong with that. With their recent albums having a far dancier edge, it provides a platforms for the show to flow incredibly well, with very little dwelling on the more commonly associated ballads. The key touchstones are all there from the current ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ tour: The inspirational opening Charlie Chaplin speech; the Mohammed Ali tribute; and the now common reworking of old songs to include snippets of newer tracks including ‘Oceans’, ‘Midnight’ and ‘Army of One’.
There are surprises too, and while always worrying from a band who don’t exactly ooze cool, mostly they work. The usual David Bowie ‘Heroes’ cover is dropped in favour of an incredibly poignant tribute to Viola Beach, during which we see Chris Martin at his humble and emotive best. “It just reminded us of us, and all the other bands that come through here”, he says. “The excitement and the joy and the hope. We really felt that in them.” Indeed, it can help but remind you why you fell in love with Coldplay themselves in the first place.
Later, in an slightly stranger turn, the usual acoustic section makes way for an appearance by remaining Bee Gee Barry Gibb to perform a sadly seemingly under-rehearsed ‘To Love Somebody’ and incredibly cheesy ‘Stayin’ Alive’. Most of the crowd aren’t sure quite what to make of it, but by this point emotions are running high, and just about anything goes. And, if nothing else, we all know the dance moves.
The Xylobands light up one last time for usual set-closer ‘Up and Up’, complete with children Apple and Moses joining for backing vocals, and that should be that. But just when you thought the night was over, there’s one last card to play. “Is there anyone we can speak to to make this not be the last song? Who’s in charge?”, bellows Chris Martin after abruptly halting his piano playing. The answer, of course, is Michael Eavis himself, not seen on the Pyramid Stage since the infamous Stevie Wonder ‘Happy Birthday’ episode. A duet of ‘My Way’ follows, led by Eavis, who, as those at his karaoke performances will attest, can hold a tune.
It would be easy to criticise, as with everything Coldplay do, but the sentiment, and, more importantly, the reception is incredible. As Chris Martin sings “Believe. In. Love.” to one last coda, the fireworks go up and the crowd disperse, there really is a lot of love in the air – and it’s just what the festival needs after a rollercoaster of a weekend.
In many ways it’s the perfect ending. While Coldplay, Adele and others will take the credits, it is of course Michael Eavis, along with Emily and all the hundreds of other staff and crew that are the real ones to be celebrated.
Complaints poured in like the rain itself on the opening days, and while conditions were horrendous in parts – and the effects on the travel situation and car parks some of the worst ever experienced – the show rolled on. While it does make for an exhausting experience, it is just that – part of the experience.
You can’t deny that Glastonbury has changed beyond recognition over the years, not least since the fence went up in 2002 – you’d now be hard pressed to spot a true hippie amongst the Superdry parade – but it’s still an incredible place. Maybe losing a few of the more fair-weather punters is what the festival needs, alongside the well-earned break in 2018 with time to recuperate and revitalise.
Whatever, be sure that the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts will continue to reinvent itself as it always has done, and long may it continue. Because, of course, it is just that – a festival of many different art forms to entertain, amuse and amaze. For many the music is secondary to the sheer wonder of the world created around it, and at a time when it feels like the country is crumbling around us, Glastonbury remains something quite magical that we should hold on to and cherish.