There are many reasons for befuddlement at Glastonbury, but this one is a real three-pipe problem. How on earth has this year’s festival got itself in the pickle of hosting antique hard rockers Guns N’ Roses as its Saturday headline act while controversially cutting short a set by one of today’s biggest pop stars, Lana Del Rey, as she performed at the same time on a lesser stage?
To a mystic-minded onlooker, conscious of the ley line that supposedly underlies the festival’s Worthy Farm site, this odd confluence of events was the result of malfunctioning magical energy. Or, to put it more prosaically, the kerfuffle at the top of the bill marked the fateful culmination of a disappointingly conservative set of choices for this year’s marquee acts.
Arctic Monkeys occupied the main Pyramid Stage on the opening night, the third time that the indie rock band had done so. Meanwhile, Elton John is due to close proceedings on Sunday with his last ever show in the UK. This momentous event, to be reviewed tomorrow, would be even more momentous if Elton hadn’t been lavishing his goodbyes on the world since his gargantuan farewell tour began in 2018.
On Saturday, it was the turn of a dinosaurian Guns N’ Roses, making their Glastonbury debut. The kindest thing to say of this selection is that it would have been a coup in 1991. Lana Del Rey, appearing on the second-biggest Other Stage on the same night, seemed distinctly unimpressed to be playing second fiddle to a legacy act. She turned up 30 minutes late for her slot and had the power switched off mid-set amid boos. More of that later.
Compensating for this questionable line-up was the most important headliner of all, obtainable for neither love nor money. A warm midsummer sun shone throughout the festival, providing a karmic see-saw of good vibes and bad sunburn for the 210,000 people present on the vast 900-acre space. The vibes won out over the sunburn. Even the most lobster-complexioned individuals wore a look of contentment at their painful lot. Better that than trench foot.
Opening the West Holts stage on Friday were the Star Feminine Band from Benin. “We are the same,” the all-female troupe chorused, dressed in identikit African patterns. Mostly teenagers, they are rarities in their homeland where music is dominated by men. Their songs were a mix of charming melodiousness and defiant messaging. Cheers arose when one of their number announced, “Women, stand up!” — an unexpectedly smarting sentiment for Glastonbury itself in 2023, with its all-male headliners.
Another African act opened the Pyramid Stage on the same day. The Master Musicians of Joujouka are a traditional Moroccan troupe whose pipe and percussion wall-of-sound drowned out the electronic whump-whump-whump of nearby sound systems. To ears untrained in the nuances of Sufi trance music, they resembled a Scottish bagpipe ensemble playing free jazz, a formidable sonic proposition.
Amid a preponderance of rather uninspiring rock acts, US rappers were in short supply. Earl Sweatshirt turned in one of my favourite performances of the first two days, a masterly exercise in freewheeling stoner rap, but it was hidden away on a small stage. In contrast, UK rappers were better represented, bringing a welcome disruption to the heritage acts and cosy feelgoodism.
Stormzy’s triumphant headline set in 2019 has made Glastonbury a rite of passage for UK rappers, a green and pleasant territory that has not always been favourable to their genre. Digga D’s show in the Woodsies tent opened in a torpid fashion — “Got to protect my energy,” the drill MC rapped over a lazy beat — but it picked up tempo, acquiring the raw, thuddy feel of an old-school rap gig.
Central Cee brought pyrotechnics and urban territorial slang about “opps” and “ends” to his sunset appearance on the Other Stage. Screams from near the front attested to his popularity, the first UK rapper to notch up 1bn Spotify streams in a single year. But a comparatively sparse audience stretching back across the field demonstrated Glastonbury’s ongoing challenge to craft a contemporary musical identity for itself.
A huge crowd awaited Friday’s “mystery” act on the Pyramid Stage, billed as The ChurnUps. The ill-kept secrets were the Foo Fighters, with new drummer Josh Freese replacing Taylor Hawkins, who died in 2022. Their leader Dave Grohl threw himself into their set with much screaming and frantic thrashing at his guitar. Flares were set off as though it were a midnight headlining set, although the bright sunshine made them pointless. The sound was similarly sabotaged by a breeze.
There were some unexpectedly noodly classic-rock breakdowns in songs. But a feeling of sameness lingered, the enactment of tired rock festival rituals. “You know what we’re going to sing!” Grohl roared before launching into signature hit “My Hero”. Predictability ruled supreme with this particular surprise band.
Mystery surrounded Arctic Monkeys’ headlining slot: would they make it? A previous show had been cancelled when singer Alex Turner contracted laryngitis, which caused much diagnostic Googling among festival-goers to check how long its symptoms last. But by Friday evening, Turner’s voice was back. His theatrical rock-croon rang out across the huge nocturnal space, dramatically lit by the flares that had been so feeble in daylight. A good mix of singalong anthems and more sophisticated newer material gave form to the tricky task for festival headliners. Give ’em what they want, but get ’em wanting more.
My festival highlight of the first two days was Sudan Archives. The American singer, aka Brittney Denise Parks, wore a red belted outfit that gave her the look of a Marvel superhero. A bow for her violin was kept in a quiver on her back. Her music was an idiosyncratic but coherent blend of R&B, electronic music, hip-hop and surreal passages of Irish fiddle-playing, performed with bravura stage presence. “I want the best so much,” she sang at one point, voice rising to a shout: the best is what she achieved.
Guns N’ Roses emerged on the Pyramid Stage to a smaller audience than the Foo Fighters or Arctic Monkeys. Axl Rose dashed across the stage in the manner of someone anxious to prove he can still dash. The top-hatted Slash played long solos with eyes shut like a somnambulist. I made my excuses and left to catch Lana Del Rey’s set.
A fervid rumour that she wasn’t even in the UK went through the audience as we waited for her to turn up. But then she materialised with the superb “A&W”, a trip-hoppy torch song from her latest album. Del Rey sang well, in a languid voice that eased itself into higher registers with a misleading impression of carelessness. The staging was a characteristically enigmatic affair in which strenuous backing dancers amplified the singer’s graceful stillness.
Her songs were placid and textured, yet they also managed to create an electric atmosphere. However, the sense of occasion — and also the feeling of witnessing the evening’s real headliner — was abruptly curtailed as she sang “White Mustang”. Curfew had been breached and the plug was pulled, leaving a good portion of her setlist unplayed.
Del Rey, a suddenly tiny-seeming figure in white, reappeared on the stage like a ghost, ineffectually trying to communicate. Whatever the reasons for her lateness — her hair was being done, she had earlier claimed — and however understandable the licensing rationale for her show’s forced ending, it was a disastrous conclusion to the night. Glastonbury’s lack of adventure with its headliners had backfired.
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