There’s something in the air at Worthy Farm, other than the rain and the fresh smell of cow excrement. It hangs, invisible, in the valleys of Somerset, floats around Pilton and ingrains itself into the hills around the Tor, the rumoured site of King Arthur’s castle Camelot. Those who attend Glastonbury Festival speak of it reverently, and in hushed tones, and claim that others just don’t understand the fables until they’ve experienced them first hand.
And so, it came to pass, that in the wake of a political earthquake that shook the country to its core, that was built upon lies, deceit and the uglier side of Britain, it fell to the Eavis family, Michael and Emily, father and daughter, to rebuild a national spirit that revelled in community and communion over a mud-drenched, storm-brushed and sun-kissed weekend in the south west. And, as they have done for countless years before, they transformed several acres of green fields into the greatest party in the world.
It started with a Smiths tribute band ringing in the chords of Panic, and ended with an octogenarian crooning Sinatra’s My Way to an estimated hundred-thousand people. In between were immeasurable highs and the occasional low, all thrown together in a fabulous carnival where fun never slept. It was dirty, exhausting, wet, wild, delirious, preposterous and utterly, utterly magnificent. As the establishment started to catch fire in London, Glastonbury delivered an antidote that united rather than divided and brought together individuals from all walks of life to have a bloody good time.
There is far too much to cover individually in a festival like Glastonbury, and such an in-depth verdict would exceed the length of a moderately-sized novel. But there are always “Glastonbury Moments”, the point where it all clicks into place, the little songs and sets that go down in folklore as legendary, such as Blur’s headline set in 2009, or Dolly Parton in the Sunday afternoon slot, or when The Rolling Stones finally made it in 2013. These are the history-defining calling cards that make an artist who they are, the moments that are talked about for years to come.
The opening spot, first thing on the Friday morning on the Other Stage, has gradually become Glastonbury’s second unofficial headliner position, after the Legends slot. In 2014, Kaiser Chiefs played to a larger crowd than the one they had as headliner of the John Peel Stage later that night, and last year The Charlatans went down a storm. Mining the same vein of nineties rock, it falls to Madchester-Britpop veterans James to kickstart festivities which they do with a charming line in wry pop rock. They take a gamble playing five tracks from latest offering Girl at the End of the World and eschewing their signature song Sit Down (openly disliked by members of the band) but the sheer charisma of frontman Tim Booth elevates it beyond simple music into the first transcendent experience of the weekend, with familiar college anthems Come Home and Sometimes particularly well-received. They dedicate Tomorrow to “the beautiful people who voted to remain” and close the set with the euphoric Laid, leaving a mud-smeared Booth grinning from ear to ear as they leave the stage.
The Pyramid Stage can hold six-figure crowds if needed, and whilst only a third turned up for Skepta’s early-afternoon performance, it’s still a space that needs a commanding presence to draw attention. Thankfully, the Tottenham-born grime superstar has personality in spades, holding tens of thousands of attendees in the palm of his hand with a disarming ease, delivering a blistering set where the hype is real without the need for an additional man. It’s short, at forty minutes, but tearing his way through That’s Not Me and Shutdown with an awesome braggadocio, there is a definite feeling that Skepta’s set represents a watershed moment in the grime revival that could act as a springboard to bigger things. He closes with the braying, Queens of the Stone-age sampling Man, delivering a slice of ominous rap-rock that rumbles through the Somerset sky, painting a bright future for him and his compatriots over the coming months.
An unexpected booking, ZZ Top’s appearance pays testament to Glastonbury’s wide, genre-straddling pull, and they provided the perfect tonic to the intense showers that battered the site from lunchtime to early afternoon. Although naysayers could accuse the Texan trio of being rather rote and one-note in their style of bluesy, mid-tempo hard rock, it’s a formula that catapulted them to the top of the charts in the early eighties with a clutch of hit singles that are duly rolled out here. They are not the tightest band in the game; Pincushion is underpinned by an almost lazy bassline that threatens to lose pace, and a cover of Foxy Lady is not so much electrifying as moderately zinging. But they’re full of rugged Americana old-time charm, and when the hits come – Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man, Legs – they’re comfortably the most fun any band has been so far. When Billy Gibbons, sporting a beard and sunglasses under his wide-brimmed hat, brings out a guitar decorated in white fur, it’s difficult not to cheer at the sheer ludicrousness of it all.
Closing out the Other Stage on Friday night, Disclosure gave no real hint as to why they’ll be sat on top of the pile come August, when they headline Reading and Leeds with Foals. Whereas the Oxford five-piece delivered a ferocious, if occasionally too artsy, performance on the Pyramid Stage, Disclosure’s dance party was muted to say the least. With no standout special guest spots to help tide their bigger vocals over, their show felt run-of-the-mill and lacking on big-name hits to truly sustain its power. Their second album, Caracal, fared unwell on a commercial and critical level. And it shows with new singles Jaded and Magnets serving more as mood-killers rather than fire-starters. The brothers are likeable, for certain – but Disclosure are a band faced with a Herculean task of rescuing their fallen stock over the next two months if they are to even vaguely justify a headliner slot ahead of two-album bands on the circuit.
Muse are one of the most technically flawless and accomplished bands of the twenty-first century, and have finally shrugged off the “new Radiohead” tag to become renowned in their own right. They’re not just massive in the UK, they’re one of the biggest bands in both Europe and America. So why does their third headlining performance at Glastonbury feel anything but special? Despite wheeling out a veritable selection of greatest hits, delivered with great precision – Plug-In Baby, Supermassive Black Hole, Time Is Running Out, Stockholm Syndrome – there’s a passion to the performance missing from what you’d expect of someone heading up a Worthy Farm jaunt. They’re not helped by a clutch of tracks from last year’s so-so Drones; whilst opener Psycho cribs the riff from The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues to menacing effect, subsequent squeaky-rock wig-out Reapers is forgettable and the less said of twelve-minute prog number The Globalist, played to finish the main set, the better. They rescue the crowd with an encore featuring Uprising and the pseudo-space-Thin Lizzy of Knights of Cydonia, but by their own high standards, Muse missed a trick they long since perfected at Glastonbury 2016 – but what they missed is subjective.
After the appearance of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir as the customary out-of-field Pyramid Stage opening act around half past eleven, London veterans Squeeze made the most of an unexpected spell of sunshine to play out a fifty-minute set full of wry, working-class pop that strays between such cheerful topics like alcoholism, adultery and unplanned pregnancies. One of the smaller crowds of the weekend greats them, leaving a somewhat muted response for those further back, and the decision to cull a third of their set from most recent effort Cradle to the Grave, an album that barely tickled the charts, is almost as baffling as Muse’s insistence on playing a twelve-minute prog epic the night before. But the rest of their set is new wave gold, with lead vocalist Glenn Tilbrook in fine form as they roll out Up the Junction, Is That Love and Tempted (the latter inexplicably opened on an ukulele). Co-founder Chris Difford gets a chance to shine on the bouncy Cool for Cats, before they close out by bringing the rest of the band to the front of the stage for a semi-acoustic, Romanian-gypsy-inspired rattle through Slap and Tickle, Labelled with Love and Goodbye Girl. Leaving the stage, they return unexpectedly, Tilbrook beaming as he reveals they’ve been allowed “one more!”; a craftily delivered Take Me, I’m Yours, all posturing wit and sharp edges. They may not understand the finer points of a lunchtime festival set, but thankfully, Squeeze compensate with some excellently-tuned gems that serve as a fitting soundtrack to the brief blast of sunshine.
The crowd for moody Depeche-synth duo Hurts, later on at the Other Stage, is even smaller, with barely a couple of thousands of punters choosing them other the much-feted grunge Wolf Alice and old-school fez-sporting heroes Madness. What they miss starts off a touch on the side of damp, but it ultimately evolves into one of the most stirring sets of the weekend, thanks to Theo Hutchcraft’s effortlessly commanding vocal performance, even with a ten-strong gospel choir behind him, and the maverick musical organisation of his partner Adam Anderson who tries his hand at damn near every instrument on stage. They lean heavily on new album Surrender, which could have alienated a bigger crowd; the rather intimate gathering of fans actually works in their advantage as a result. That being said, despite all their pinpoint musical accuracy and stirring renditions of Illuminated and Lights, the show only truly comes to life when it hits the midway point, with a pulsating, driving version of Sunday turning the muddy conditions underfoot into a veritable quagmire of lost wellies and glowsticks. From there until the end, the energy sits high, with Hutchcraft, preening in all-white, a majestic figure as he delivers a visceral synthpop-drama blast with Wonderful Life and Illuminated. They close on their beautifully desperate power ballad Stay, and as he throws white roses into the crowd, the grin on Hutchcraft’s face is gloriously infectious, those last quivering notes an elegant finale.
Not to be outdone, Matt Healy dons his own pristine white suit, and ramps up the rock-star cliché with the addition of tousled, moussed hair and a dangling cigarette at various points. He’s preposterously self-aware of this during his band The 1975’s hour long set – which is what elevates it from pastiche to genuine greatness, in addition to the fact that they remain one of Britain’s best indie pop bands of the twenty-first century. Opening with the Bowie-riffing funk of Love Me and drug-addled ditty UGH!, they evoke choruses of screaming teenage girls behind their every move, and have a saxophone player burst from the background at varying intervals to blare out off-tune blasts of brass. It’s all preposterously eighties and preposterously good fun; from the fragile synths of A Change of Heart through the sexually-charged, chirpy hooks of Chocolate, Healy and co. serve up an intoxicating cocktail that blends the old with the new, forward facing yet shamelessly nostalgic. Halfway through the set, he addresses the continuing fallout from Brexit, repeatedly summing up his statements with a wry “But I’m a popstar, what do I even know?”. He captures the mood of youthful rebelliousness in the face of an older generation vote that has crippled thousands of futures; in his own foppish way, Healy is a spokesman for the disaffected, even if he is a multi-million selling artist; there is a raw understanding to his tone, of a kid who may have grown up wealthy in Cheshire but is all too aware that those less fortunate than him will suffer for the foolish judgments of others. They close out with the catchy dancefloor-pop of biggest hit The Sound and their breakthrough track, the wild, emo-glazed fantasies of Sex, before they take a bow of slouch of stage; defiant after all that has unfolded around them.
Back on the Pyramid Stage, sunlight has broken through once more, fittingly for the sounds of surf-kissed psych rockers Tame Impala, who are in the midst of transforming themselves into shimmering disco kingpins. Recent album Currents saw Kevin Parker (effectively a one-man band in the studio) shift his swirling, kaladescopic melodies from the beaches to the dancefloors to startling effect, particularly on the awe-inspiring Let It Happen, which comes early in the set. Eyebrows were raised at their ascension to sub-headliner position at the world’s largest festival; whilst they justify it musically, the band are still relatively niche. Furthermore, the atmosphere suggests that the vast majority of punters are waiting for Adele rather than enjoying the trippy light show and superb musicianship that unfolds around them. Parker rescues the atmosphere with a driving rendition of breakthrough number Elephant that gets the majority of fans jumping, as well as helping to convert the litany of middle-aged women dotted around the hills. Additional props must be given to his sound team; furthering Parker’s insistence that Tame Impala are a form of “musical experiment”, the whole crew are dressed in lab coats and thick-rimmed spectacles, like a team of scientists who got lost on the way to a chemistry convention and roped into producing exhilarating feedback during The Less I Know, The Better. They appear to finish on the euphoric, arms-aloft sway of Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, but a pause at the stage edge leads into a final version of New Person, Same Old Mistakes, their Rihanna-covered psych slow-jam, as streamers burst through the pink and grey evening sky. They may have a while before they top the hallowed turf at Worthy Farm – but the musicianship of Parker compensates if their bill position ever belies their size.
There was a considerable storm of crusty, right-field rock juggernauts rearing up in anger when Kanye West was announced as the Saturday night headliner of Glastonbury in 2015 (though not Noel Gallagher, who seemed to have learnt from his criticism of Jay-Z back in 2008). In the event, West underwhelmed at the festival – for the self-proclaimed biggest rockstar in the world, he failed to match both Friday and Sunday’s late-announced headliners Florence and the Machine and The Who (the former drafted in for the injured Foo Fighters, the latter booked when an unannounced Prince was pulled out). As such, considerably scepticism still surrounded Adele – the no-need-to-be-self-proclaimed biggest musical artist in the world. Torch-ballad soul is not exactly festival music, perhaps less so than any other genre out there. And, it was noted by the naysayers, Adele had perhaps only two songs across her three albums that vaguely resembled party anthems, the rest a collection of “miserable songs” as the lady herself put it. Finally, the final nail was her stage-fright; her detractors pointed to the fact that 2016 was the first time she had moved out of club venues, and that she would not be able to command the vast presence afforded by the Pyramid Stage.
And yet, there should never have been any doubt. Though not the biggest crowd of the weekend – or even the day after Madness pulled close to six-figures – Tottenham’s Miss Adkins blew away the high expectations and pressures to deliver a bona-fide classic set that will be immortalized for years to come in Glastonbury legends. Opening with Hello, she physically reels back from the crowd in shock, but as soon as she switches out the line “I’m in California dreamin’” for “I’m in Glastonbury dreamin’”, she has the crowd in the palm of her hand and a giddy, excited smile steals across her face. Her vocals are effortlessly beautiful, her band near-faultless – and what follows feels like a communal celebration of love lost, love sought and the power of healing friendships. “Anybody watch Muse last night?” she shouts between songs, before regaling us of a tale about eating a Chinese the prior evening whilst watching on the telly. Her East End, Sid James-voiced charm adds a bawdy edge to proceedings; she explains that she has a tendency to ramble when nervous, and its rather apparent right now. She grabs a young girl out of the crowd for a selfie, and at one point, returns from the barrier sporting a fez and a loopy grin.
This music-hall routine adds to the sense of genuine pleasure that surrounds Adele, but it would only work if the songs cut it. Electing to lean more on previous album 21 as opposed to current cut 25, she delivers a fifteen-song, ninety-minute set where every track is a singalong, even the obscure numbers, such is the width of her appeal. Rumour Has It is full of sassy stomp; Skyfall is layered with brassy bravado; Hometown Glory one of many tearjerkers. New single Send My Love (to Your New Lover) gets an oddly muted response, but when its chorus bursts in, it feels like the darkest mass kiss-off in the world. Rolling in the Deep unexpectedly comes out mid-set; with it, a sea of flares erupt across the night. Her cover of Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love is now more her song than it ever was his, and it shows when seventy thousand lights rise into the air from the crowd, illuminating the Pyramid Stage like a collapsed sun. Last track Set Fire to the Rain feels oddly anti-climactic; the stage goes dark without fanfare and after five minutes, there’s a fear she’s gone for good. But then, a video montage of the singer as a child, all sepia-tinted photographs, brings her back for When We Are Young. “I’ve got one more song,” she announces, close to tears. “You have made this the greatest night of my life.” There’s raw emotional honesty and then there’s this; as the, now-iconic, piano intro to Someone Like You kicks up, she need not even sing – the crowd delivers a bravura performance to compliment her own, and are still singing it long after she has gone. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind after that; there is truly no stage that Adele cannot conquer.