Yes, it actually happened. Three years since the brave and sleepless last turned Michael Eavis’s dairy farm into southern England’s seventh-largest and first-noisiest city, Glastonbury festival returned for a 50th birthday party that will be hard to top. I’d like to say I saw it all, but not even the BBC can make that claim. Where was their camera crew when the spoon carving was afoot?
The long weekend in Somerset remains Britain’s most overwhelming cultural experience. Those who attempt to conquer it armed with strict timetables, crampons and oxygen tanks will be left wishing they had simply given in to its strange mystic energy, like the guy who opted for a sunburned snooze by the bins in preference to Diana Ross.
Nevertheless, some themes emerged. Here is about three per cent of what went down.
Blimey it was busy. Capacity-wise, at 138,000 tickets sold and 67,000 staff on site, Glastonbury was more heavily populated than ever and often it really felt like it. Thursday’s afternoon triple of Melanie C DJing, Michael Eavis actually singing and Bastille’s surprise set shut down the William’s Green area. The Sugababes also closed their field due to overcrowding. I became scarily stuck trying to get to TLC on the West Holts Stage on Friday and ended up watching the R&B greats through the window of an ice cream van. Both Paul McCartney’s and Diana Ross’s Pyramid Stage crowds were so large that you were probably geographically as close as I was to them if you were watching the iPlayer at home. And as for seeing one of the “secret” shows, forget it.
FASHION ON STAGE
Apart from Noel “a black jacket’ll do” Gallagher, most of the performers put some sartorial effort in. How about St Vincent’s plush Gucci/Adidas tracksuit, Lorde and Megan Thee Stallion’s contrasting leotards, or Dave Bayley from Glass Animals’ cherry-spotted dungarees? Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice wore a dress that looked as fragile as she must have felt, having arrived from LA by the skin of her teeth following cancelled flights. As for Kendrick Lamar’s bleeding crown of thorns – wow. No one was going to outdo original diva Diana Ross, though, who helpfully made herself visible from great distances with a feather headdress and huge gown.
FASHION OFF STAGE
Among the punters, anything was possible. I saw a man in a shirt illustrated with a cowboy cat riding a shark vomiting a rainbow. In space. Outlandish flared leggings were everywhere. Others were more conventional. For a festival with a long history of welcoming alternative cultures, a surprising number of audience members looked like they’d swum here from Love Island. Retro football tees abounded, and if you happened to be planning a blind date, telling your prospective partner that you would be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a bucket hat would not narrow it down.
POP AND POLITICS DO MIX
The politically engaged had plenty to yell about, especially the US Supreme Court abortion ruling that happened during the festival. Kendrick Lamar ended his Sunday headline set with a fierce cry for women’s rights. Phoebe Bridgers led her crowd at the John Peel Stage in a chant of “F*** the Supreme Court”. Billie Eilish pointedly referred to it before her bleak song about male abusers, Your Power. Meanwhile, a video speech from Volodymyr Zelensky opened the Other Stage on Friday morning, and anti-Tory slogans were seen on numerous flags, hats and T-shirts (“This is a work event” was a good one). Rapper AJ Tracey reminded everyone of the need for justice for Grenfell victims. Glastonbury’s long-term environmental concerns, so central that Greenpeace has its own field and stage, were brought into sharp focus with a surprise appearance from Greta Thunberg on the Pyramid Stage on Saturday. Hopefully no one introduced her to Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen later, who had flown all the way from the US to play for 10 minutes each with Paul McCartney.
As if navigating the vast, rammed festival site wasn’t difficult enough, a growing number of people choose to do it while lugging a long pole displaying an enormous in-joke comprehensible only to a handful of mates back home. It’s great for medieval battle vibes, less good if you actually want to see whoever’s on the Pyramid stage. However, once you come to terms with the fact that you’re not really there to watch the musicians, but are actually watching Glastonbury itself, they make for a wonderful view.
As an irregular visitor, this was my first dry Glastonbury, and what a difference it made. The place can be uniquely hellish on those weekends where it’s all but impossible to sit down. The endless walking was easier this time, the outlook from the steep hill above the Park Stage was gasp-inducing, and the inland pier of the Glastonbury-on-Sea area, with its candy floss and pinball machines, was a wonderful place to visit. There were a handful of brief showers, not enough for mud to develop, and if you happened to be up at 6am on Sunday, either staggering back from Shangri-La or, for example, as a journalist on a deadline, you were treated to a perfect rainbow.
Glastonbury treats its veterans well, not only billing Diana Ross’s Sunday Teatime Legend’s Slot as effectively a fourth headliner, but also giving 82-year-old pianist Herbie Hancock a prominent Pyramid Stage spot instead of cordoning him off with the rest of the jazzers on the West Holts Stage. Many older artists found welcoming homes on the Acoustic and Avalon stages. But when we look back on this vintage year, the dominant memory will surely be Paul McCartney unveiling not one but two additional legends as his epic set drew to an extraordinary conclusion.
THE NEXT GENERATION
With all those TV cameras watching in addition to the many thousands who are there, when a newer act manages to have a Glastonbury Moment it can set them up for years to come. The John Peel tent was a great place to see future Pyramid Stagers, not least Self Esteem, who prompted a huge singalong while wearing a corset designed to make her boobs pay tribute to Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre. Phoebe Bridgers received such overpowering adulation in there on Friday that she had to stop playing. Then there was Wet Leg drawing an impassable crowd to the Park Stage, and indie rock heartthrob Sam Fender taking Friday’s Pyramid sunset slot and demonstrating that one more great album could make him a headliner.
THE SECRET SETS
Glastonbury’s penchant for “surprise” shows by previously unannounced stars might need a rethink. Yes, they generate unexpected excitement, but when they’re revealed a few hours beforehand, giving fans plenty of time to swarm, all you’re left with are George Ezra and Jack White playing great Sunday shows to crowds that mostly can’t see them. Paolo Nutini, with a new album out next week, seemed determined to remain invisible. He performed on Saturday at the Rabbit Hole, a tent not much more spacious than an actual rabbit hole.
THE SPECIAL GUESTS
Have I mentioned that Paul McCartney brought on Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen? He was far from the only one offering an Avengers-style team-up. Arlo Parks got around, popping up to sing with both Phoebe Bridgers and Lorde. Cartoon punk Yungblud may have gone unrecognised by Chris Difford’s Acoustic Stage audience when he arrived to duet on Up the Junction. The Pet Shop Boys had Olly Alexander from Years & Years, but guest rapper Kevin Abstract was less successful, flying from the US only to forget the words of his only verse with Easy Life. Finally, young American superstar Olivia Rodrigo made protesting the Supreme Court fun by bringing on Lily Allen to sing Allen’s jaunty vulgarity F*** You.
THE GLASTONBURY STRATEGY
Some people may be travelling home today feeling that they somehow failed at Glastonbury, having missed three-quarters of the things they planned on seeing. I didn’t see a large number of my favourite musicians, but by Thursday teatime had already accidentally watched folk-punk man Beans on Toast three times. Strategising this uniquely discombobulating weekend might be a bit like planning a birth. Sooner or later you have to hand over the keys and accept that you are not going to be able to control how this bizarre experience pans out. Glastonbury is something that happens to you. And if you surrender to its magic, it isn’t possible to fail.