Like Dickens’ Uriah Heep, The Rolling Stones were “ever so ’umble” in the run-up to Glastonbury. Keith Richards said they were apprehensive of headlining the festival while a band insider spoke of them “stepping out of their comfort zone”. They weren’t going to step too far outside it, however – a £3,000 per night luxury yurt was reportedly placed at Mick Jagger’s disposal for the Stones’ visit.
Their Pyramid Stage appearance was on Saturday, the weekend’s main headlining slot. The booking was a coup for the festival, which pays acts less than rivals. It relies on its status to attract big names – Glastonbury’s 43-year history stretches back to when Sir Mick was an unknighted rocker making Sticky Fingers.
The Stones also stood to profit from the encounter. Their appearance, broadcast live on UK television, gave them a chance to bury the bad publicity of greedy ticket pricing and unsold seats dogging their 50th anniversary tour. With typically opportunistic brio, they made the most of the opportunity.
The set opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, Richards grinning as he windmilled a chord, Jagger clapping in that strutting manner of his, Charlie Watts – dubious beforehand about a Glastonbury washout, as any right-thinking 72-year-old would be – permitting himself a smile behind the drums. It was a clear, warm night and the hill sloping up from the stage was crammed with a large proportion of the festival’s 180,000 inhabitants. Flags waved, the Pyramid Stage’s glowing tip sent a shard of white light into the sky. Choruses and even riffs inspired a mass sing- along.
The atmosphere was like “People’s Sunday” at Wimbledon – it was less sedate, more democratic and younger than a usual Stones show. The band responded in kind, a great British institution at play. The classics came fast, played in that loose yet electric manner that only they can muster – “It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll (But I Like It)”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Paint It, Black”. Then came a specially composed song, “Glastonbury Girl” - a reworking of Beggars Banquet track “Factory Girl” - a witty folk pastiche in which Jagger rhapsodised about a girl “wearing cut-off jeans”, as though having spent the afternoon at the luxury yurt with binoculars clamped to his eyes.
Their former guitarist Mick Taylor guested on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, dominating the sleazy blues-rock with a long, mesmerising psychedelic solo, echoed by wild sax blasts from Bobby Keys. Richards was galvanised to respond with a charismatically dishevelled “Honky Tonk Women”. When Taylor returned for “Midnight Rambler”, he, Richards and Ronnie Wood leant forward in a line, ancient comrades adopting a fighting stance. Meanwhile Jagger worked the stage with unbridled theatricality, a masterclass from the man who more or less invented the art of the rock frontman.
They ended with a diptych summing up the central themes of their 50-year career – desire, appetite and insatiability. First came a choir-assisted “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, then an intoxicating “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. “Never stop playing!” a young woman near me shouted. The band’s usual dynamic between ruthless monetising spectacle and sloppily exciting rock and roll had tilted decisively towards the latter tonight.
The previous night’s headliners on the Pyramid Stage were the Arctic Monkeys, hoping to atone for a lacklustre appearance in 2007. A solid set was judged to have done so, although I didn’t witness it. Instead I was left twisting on the horns of a dilemma: Portishead or Chic?
Both were headlining different stages at the same time as the Arctic Monkeys – one promising disco nirvana with the Daft Punk-renewed Nile Rodgers, the other threatening to cast festivalgoers into a bleak pall of trip-hop-fuelled anxiety. Naturally I chose the latter.
The gamble paid off. The Bristol trio have compensated for their frustrating lack of studio productivity (just three albums in 20 years) by turning themselves into an extraordinary live act. Beth Gibbons stood centre stage, gripping the microphone stand as though in a maelstrom, accompanied by dramatic visuals and lighting, her voice going from anguished torch singing to angry cries. Outbreaks of turntable-scratching from Geoff Barrow gripped the songs, moments of stuttering emotional confusion rendered with gripping musical clarity. Songs about paranoia and distress became a perverse kind of festival anthem. “How can it feel so wrong?” we chanted with Gibbons during “Roads”.
The tyranny of choice is one of the pleasurable torments of Glastonbury. The festival is built on an epic scale, spreading over 900 acres of Somerset farmland. The difficulty of negotiating its packed schedule is amplified by rumours of surprise guests that sweep through the site: wildfire gossip of Daft Punk materialising for Nile Rodgers and Chic’s set or David Bowie emerging from stage retirement.
But Glastonbury, like life, teaches us to withstand disappointment. Thus Liam Gallagher and Beady Eye were Friday’s surprise act, chugging through their grimly mutton-chopped Britrock at 11am on the Other Stage. Elsewhere, Savages played an intense afternoon set of uncompromising new wave punk, all sharp riffs and commanding vocals. It was like seeing a Harold Pinter play as a matinee: I emerged from the tent, eyes blinking, disoriented to find it was still daylight.
Over on the West Holts Stage, Tom Tom Club revived an earlier era of new wave, Tina Weymouth singing a cover of her old band Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” in the style of Patti Smith. Meanwhile on the Pyramid Stage Dizzee Rascal cemented his remarkable transition from underground grime rapper to mainstream star. The former chronicler of east London poverty has become a charismatic and infectiously entertaining performer, as shown by a no-holds-barred finale of “Bonkers” during which he waved a Union Jack, borrowed a hat from the audience and stage dived into the crowd. The fireworks that erupted at the end were damp squibs in comparison.
Saturday morning brought a blue sky and blazing sunshine. Bodies lay strewn around the John Peel tent, from which a baggy “Madchester” beat blasted out. It was Jagwar Ma, playing their vibrantly updated take on 1990s indie-dance. The bodies outside twitched and climbed unsteadily to their feet. Onwards!
A short walk encapsulated the festival’s variety, from Ed Harcourt seated at a piano playing his finely crafted songs at the Park stage to Azealia Banks ruling the Other Stage in a futuristic fluorescent green outfit, rapping at great speed over booming bass lines. A flamboyantly fierce rendition of “212” confirmed her as a performer with genuine stage presence: her much delayed debut album cannot come soon enough.
New developments on site, following a year off in 2012, included a reggae stage, a mock-up of a Jamaican dub shack, and a rap stage that was headlined by Nas on Saturday night. Meanwhile the old spirit of the festival survives the numerous signs of its gentrification. It took the form of the weathered hippy with a trumpet singing “Pinball Wizard” in an obscure tent at 1.30am; or the two young men demonstrating the useful art of whittling wood into a spoon – a far cry from the backstage champagne bar where festivalgoers discussed the helicopter flight home.
In the Left Field – slogan: “The fightback starts here” – a panel of speakers earnestly debated Islamophobia. A youth remarked to his companion as they left: “I just want to get drunk and dance.” He spoke for the majority of the 180,000 present. But that he was presented with the choice, in however compromised a form, is what elevates Glastonbury above other rock festivals.