“Welcome to Glaston-mud,” announced the bus driver on the way from the train station to the festival. “A few days ago we were getting sunburnt.” At least the humour is always dry in the West Country. But in the event the rain that swept over Glastonbury when its stages opened on Friday turned out not to be too bad. The mud was bearable. Passages of sunshine provided respite. The real threat of a damp squib lay elsewhere.
On paper the three-day line up didn’t lack star power. In Lana Del Rey and Ed Sheeran it had the current holders of the number one album in the US and the UK respectively. Elsewhere was the usual amazing profusion of acts, hundreds of them. On the main Pyramid Stage, Robert Plant looked over the tens of thousands of people in front of him and recalled how, many riffs ago, Led Zeppelin played the 1970 Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music, Glastonbury’s forerunner. “Quite a trip,” the relic sighed. Meanwhile, in one of the subsidiary tents, up-and-coming pop singer Charli XCX was on her first visit to Glastonbury. “I’m a virgin!” she trilled during a breezy lunchtime set, then: “Who’s hungover?”
The variety was immense, from queen of country Dolly Parton to fratboy favourite DJ Skrillex. Yet a crucial element was missing: the “wow” factor, as provided by the Rolling Stones last year and Beyoncé in 2011.
Prince would have fitted the bill, but the festival fumbled negotiations with him to appear: according to festival organiser Michael Eavis, the publicity-shy singer pulled out when news of the possible booking leaked. So instead we got two headliners drawn from Glastonbury’s indie-rock comfort zone – Arcade Fire on the first night, Kasabian on the last – flanking an oddity: Metallica, the first heavy metal headliner in the festival’s history. That was a curveball, true – but more “really?” than “wow!”.
Even the mystery guests were underwhelming. Kaiser Chiefs opened the festival with a surprise slot on the Other Stage on Friday morning, but their brand of tired Britpop nostalgia was the sort of surprise gift that should come with a receipt. So the FT headed in the opposite direction, in every sense, to catch Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood playing a solo composition on the West Holts stage under grey skies and spitting rain, conjuring a guitar motif that looped around repeatedly, not so much an emblem of stuckness as gracefully inhabiting the moment. Then came the London Sinfonietta, playing minimalist composer Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”. Pulsing piano and xylophone conveyed a taut sense of expectation, the perfect Glastonbury launch pad. The exchange was mutual: this was surely the first time the orchestra has been compered by a man in a cow hat.
There were cheers as the sun came out. Or were they for the simultaneous sound of Blondie playing the opening chords of “Heart of Glass” on the Other Stage? In the nearby John Peel Tent highly tipped London newcomers Jungle lived up to the hype (if not their junglist name) with a vibrant, festival-friendly set of loping, baggy beat-inflected dance music. The ensuing good mood was able to withstand the pang brought about by hearing a snatch of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” playing in a bar as I headed out afterwards. The Minneapolis showman was the ghost at the fest.
“We’re going to try to steam it up a little bit,” said swamp-rock veteran Tony Joe White in a deep Louisiana accent; and so he proceeded to do in the Acoustic Tent, with a set culminating in a fiercely distorted blues version of his 1968 signature song “Polk Salad Annie”. Perhaps it was too steamy: an early evening electrical thunderstorm gave a dramatic backdrop to London dance act Rudimental’s set on the Pyramid Stage, lightning forking over the Mendip Hills. The band, joined by Ed Sheeran for “Bloodstream”, couldn’t match the drama, outbursts of clattering drum and bass lacking punchiness in the open air. They rallied with their hit “Waiting All Night”, but then real lightning struck and the set was brought to an early end.
All the stages were shut down for half an hour. The situation was tailor-made for Arcade Fire’s apocalyptic rock – except there was a catch. The earnest Canadians have lightened up on their new album Reflektor, with whose title track they opened their headlining set alongside fireworks. The band wore carnivalesque outfits – multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne in a glittery cape, her husband-frontman Win Butler with trompe l’oeil eye mask painted on his face – and they were joined by Haitian percussionists. The staging was a riot of activity, yet it felt forced to me, Butler’s efforts to be the big rock frontman going against the grain of his instrument-swapping group’s collective identity. Old songs such as “Joan of Arc” were retooled in line with Reflektor’s more groove-based sound, but the results lacked heft. Before the end the FT’s patience snapped, and it was off to the Other Stage to catch the end of a daft but storming performance from Skrillex, dropping gleefully dumb beats from an insectoid spaceship. And why not?
Saturday brought more passing showers and mud. The crowd spilled out of the John Peel Tent for Brighton duo Royal Blood’s garage blues, the pair creating a massive sound from minimal means. On the Pyramid Stage Lana Del Rey effortlessly transferred her moody pop-noir to the Somerset countryside, languidly moving around the stage, smiling teasingly at the line “Call me poison ivy” from “Driving in Cars with Boys”. Weather and music dovetailed: the clouds rolled over as she sang “Summertime Sadness”.
A hoarse but charismatic voice shrieked out: it was Robert Plant, struggling to hit the old high notes but compensating with a mellow, good-natured tour through his solo albums and Led Zeppelin songs, climaxing with a Gambian fiddle-assisted “Whole Lotta Love”. Another charismatic voice shrieked out: it was Plant soundalike Jack White delivering an intensely manic set of songs, theatrical in look (White wore black, his musicians wore white) and fuelled by an obscure sense of fury.
The stage was thus set for Saturday’s headliners, Metallica. An introductory film showed the thrash metal veterans shooting fox hunters, a comic peace offering to critics who felt that singer James Hetfield’s enthusiasm for slaughtering big game was somehow contrary to the Glastonbury spirit. Their set was equally eager to please, a powerful and focused tour through their biggest hits.
A conceptual leap was required to link Hetfield in Glasto hippy mode (“Hands up all those who want to make the world a better place”) with the bulging-veined roarer of songs such as “Cyanide” and “Creeping Death”, but the band’s bulldozing force won out, sending revellers off into the night chanting the pulverising riff from “Seek & Destroy”. Only the absence of new material led one to suspect that Glastonbury’s first heavy metal headliner would have been even more remarkable 30 years ago when they were in their pomp.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards