Forty years of Glastonbury. Forty years since that first solitary day of music in a field with 1,500 people watching. Unrecognisable now with a 177,500 capacity and acre upon acre of music, cabaret, theatre and late night wonderlands. A flawless (and accurate) weather forecast and an England World Cup match screening on the Pyramid Stage ensured it was already pretty packed out a full two days ahead of the main stage opening for music. But then as the price of a ticket approaches 200, everyone wanted to get their money’s worth.
Fast forward 48 hours and with sunburn and dehydration claiming blistering victims all over the place, and Rolf Harris proved himself as a huge draw with the opening set at the vast main stage. Bouncing kangaroos in the audience helped him through a joyful series of songs, from Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport to a quite literally tear-jerking Two Little Boys. A perfect start.
From there we whizzed around catching what we could among the 10 primary stages (there were dozens of other tiny ones). That included some sun at the West Holts Stage for the inimitable tUnE-yArDs and The Bronx alter egos, Mariachi El Bronx. Then some shade in the Avalon Tent for gorgeous sets by the nutty but beguiling Gabby Young And The Other Animals and the young Brit version of Fleet Foxes, Goldheart Assembly.
A chance eavesdropping on a passer-by’s phone call sends us missioning to the Park Stage, snagged guy-ropes trailing behind us in our haste, where we arrive withThom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood‘s surprise set already underway. Given the crowd assembled, word spreads quickly, and deservedly too: Radiohead are entwined with the Glastonbury mythology, and their absence from the festival’s 40th birthday celebrations was glaring. Whilst Yorke’s solo material starts the set it’s the songs from his day job that leave the mark, the final lines of Karma Police taken up by hundreds and echoing around the field long after Yorke and Greenwood have finished it. A minimalist Arpeggi/Weird Fishes might lack impact but a piano-driven rendition of Idioteque somehow lends its pending armageddon a warmth absent from the chilly defeatism of the Kid A original, heightened by the drawn-out shadows and fading, flickering light.
The performance may add little new but it’s something just to see these two on this stage: far from the impossible expectations of the Pyramid they’re free just to, well, play. Yorke and Greenwood could never have gotten away with a set this stripped-down and laid back anywhere else on site, especially if their names had appeared on the bill: the jarring rhythms of Pyramid Song would have elicited rioting from the England-shirted masses safely cooped before Dizzee Rascal at around the same time. But for those of us there for Street Spirit’s ending moments, the daylight taking its cue from the song’s closing refrain, higher points are hard to come by this festival.
It’s a divided crowd gathering within the John Peel tent for Kele‘s afternoon performance. A fair number, it’s likely, are here simply fleeing the heat, currently turning those outside into versions of the Nazi commander in Raiders Of The Lost Ark who opens the Ark of the Covenant: the rest of us, though, fall broadly into two camps, those here to see Bloc Party and those keen to see what that band’s primary creative force is doing next. The commingling of synths and beats is nothing new, but Okereke’s voice lends heart to the binary, familiar themes of youthful disenchantment and relationship breakdown a fitting match for the disjointed rhythms and emotive swells of sound.
Shorn of his guitar Kele is free to roam the stage, confident and assured and far more alive than he seemed on last year’s endless Intimacy tour: “As you know, I used to be in another band,” he teases, before launching into a medley of Blue Light, The Prayer and Bloc Party’s swansong single One More Chance. The response, warm before, becomes electric, the tent as heated as the air outside. Tenderoni brings little respite, its ’80s dance hooks demanding movement, whilst a driving, impassioned Flux closes the set with fresh sweat and weary smiles.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Mumford And Sons became ubiquitous. Last Autumn they were playing a former public toilet in Tunbridge Wells: here they’re performing to one of the largest John Peel Stage crowds of the weekend.
Their popularity makes criticising them a risky game, really, but here goes. They’re dull. Sure, they play excellently, closer Dust Bowl Dance piquing interest temporarily with a superbly riotous crescendo, and the crowd’s engagement throughout certainly lends atmosphere, but in the main their songs just don’t do enough, the overriding tweeness turning to suffocation by the end of the set. There are highpoints, certainly, a frantic Little Lion Man foremost amongst them, and the band’s considerable onstage charm will carry them far, but staring around the tent at the glut of beards and straw hats framing the rapt attention of thousands of faces, mouths moving in unison with perfect recall of every single lyric makes for an uneasy sight. They’re like a cult. And aren’t cults supposed to offer something new?
Meanwhile over on The Other Stage, those queens of the 2009 debut album La Roux and Florence And The Machine made their presence known. Elly Jackson’s mum Sergeant June Ackland watches on from the sound desk and it’s impressive to note how far her daughter’s stage performance has come on in the last year or so. She seems much more comfortable on stage now and with Heaven 17‘s Glenn Gregory joining her for a version of Temptation she acquits herself well.
Florence And The Machine however is all conquering these days, and leaves La Roux in her wake as her dramatic posturing and wailing brings one of the biggest crowds to this field over the whole weekend. For all of her irritant value, this was a great performance, topped with a storming cover version of Fleetwood Mac‘s Formula 1 theme The Chain. After the festival season she’ll hopefully just leave us all alone for a bit. When she returns, a growing back catalogue will find her climbing up the ranks until early evening slots on a second stage are but a memory.
All that negative press surrounding the Gorillaz‘ headlining performance? Lies, every word: this was tremendous. Ambitious, yes, and far from the usual parade of karaoke hits that the Pyramid Stage churns forth, but ‘disappointing‘? Never. Give the people what they want reads the old adage, and it’s a path that leads to Coldplay: kudos to Albarn for forging another route.
Well, journey actually. This was a show that took in the world, rendering genre redundant in an effortless blur of hip-hop, dance, classical and rock. The guestlist was awing – where else will we ever see Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Shaun Ryder and De La Soul share a stage again? – but more impressive was that this was a show bigger than any one person, and dominated by no-one. Albarn himself, the photo-boy for so much of Glastonbury 2009’s copy, for the main took on a background role, out of focus but obviously in thrall to the musicians before him, most notably for the mid-point pause for an orchestral ensemble of Lebanese drummers.
Those who stayed got the crowdpleasers they wanted in Dare, Feel Good Inc and a bravura Snoop Dogg infused Clint Eastwood, but these weren’t the point. This was a proper show, and sure, there were flaws: the audio-visual elements weren’t as accomplished as they could have been, Shaun Ryder looked depressingly like a paunched, middle-aged salesman and the guy next to us decided to urinate like a garden-centre sprinkler over all around. But these are minor grumbles – after all, urine washes out – when there’s a performance this sprawling, overwhelming and yeah, interesting.