Unlike the apocryphal Inuit vocabulary for snow, the English language does not have enough words to describe the many varieties of mud. Nowhere was this lack more in evidence than at Glastonbury.
Softened by wet weather in the weeks preceding the festival and host to rain on Friday, the Somerset site was churned into a quagmire by 177,000 pairs of boots. Connoisseurs of mud had a field day. There was sticky mud that felt like you were walking through molasses; slippy mud that felt like you were walking on ice; oozy mud that gathered in treacherous lakes; and stray mud that insinuated itself into your sleeping bag. It was, in short, a very muddy experience.
The wretched conditions called for an anthem-friendly rock band to make the wet huddled masses gaze heavenwards and think inspiring thoughts. By chance, Glastonbury had two on hand: U2, who headlined the Pyramid stage on Friday, and Coldplay, who followed on Saturday. (The final headliner was Beyoncé, the first woman to headline Glastonbury in its 41-year history.)
U2’s set was stripped-down and forthright, the work of a band with a point to prove. The Irish foursome had flown in especially from the US where they are on their “360 Degree” world tour. They were booked to play Glastonbury last year but had to pull out after Bono injured his back.
The singer’s vertebrae aren’t the only sign of frailty in the U2 behemoth. The album they’re working on has been pushed back to next year after initial recording sessions didn’t work out, and they’ve been under fire for moving part of their business affairs from Ireland to a lower tax jurisdiction in the Netherlands, leading tax-avoidance protesters to threaten to disrupt their performance.
The protest duly materialised with an inflatable balloon reading “U Pay Tax 2” appearing during the opening song, but it deflated after a violent intervention by security staff. The usually loquacious Bono made no allusion to the subject. “Have you come here to ask forgiveness?” he sang cryptically during “One”, rain splashing his sunglasses. Incandescent guitar playing from The Edge lit up the damp scene. Without the high-tech stagecraft of their usual shows the quartet were focused and hungry. But the heavy-handed suppression of the protesters left a sour taste. Glastonbury’s reputation as a haven for freethinking was dented.
Friday’s surprise was an unannounced show by Radiohead on a small stage in a far-flung part of the site, playing a low-key set drawing on their new album The King of Limbs. It was an ill-kept secret, however; the space was overwhelmed and many disconsolate festivalgoers were turned away.
The weather added to the downcast mood. Getting wet and cold sharpens one’s temper towards pop stars, with their comfortable dressing rooms. When Bobby Gillespie moaned, “C’mon Glastonbury, you can do better than that,” during Primal Scream’s underwhelming set you wished someone would unfurl a banner reading “So can you”.
Succour came from an unlikely quarter. Hardcore New York rappers The Wu Tang Clan are about as far from Glastonbury’s touchy-feely image as it’s possible to get without being arrested, but they strong-armed an initially lukewarm audience into submission with a belligerent hip-hop masterclass at the Pyramid stage, led by chief rapper Method Man, a mud-defying spectacle in box-fresh white trainers and white towelling robe.
The weather picked up on Saturday. The mud, however, remained. Jessie J performed sitting on a throne, lame with a broken foot. Both the singer’s chutzpah and her immobility summed up the festival, hobbled by the mudbath but making the best of it. A Stonehenge of discarded Wellington boots appeared in the dance area. Elsewhere some wag placed banana peel on an evil-looking slick of mud, cordoned it off and left a sign reading “Caution: slip hazard”.
When sunshine finally appeared on Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere was transformed. At the West Holts stage, one of Syria’s most popular singers, Omar Souleyman, performed a vibrant set mixing up-tempo dance beats with traditional Arab music. There was no mention of the unrest roiling his nation. Janelle Monáe played her quicksilver R&B as the sun set. The uplift in mood extended to the mercurial dub reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry: the 75-year-old was reluctant to leave the stage after his pulsating midnight show.
After nightfall, the Pyramid stage looked majestic. A light beamed into the night sky from the apex of the pyramid and flares were let off. It was an open goal for headliners Coldplay and they didn’t miss; but nor did they execute it very memorably. Chris Martin’s yearning falsetto pressed the right buttons but the sense of transcendence they engendered felt too formulaic, too easily won.
Mud-spattered festivalgoers deserved better – and they got it from Pulp, Saturday’s secret guests. Led by an irrepressible Jarvis Cocker, the re-formed Britpop band played a well-judged mix of rarities and hits, climaxing with a stirring rendition of “Common People”. The audience sang each word with Cocker before streaming off into the night. It was the moment of renewal for which Glastonbury was crying out.