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The annual battle over the soul of Glastonbury — a contest pitting lobster-and-chips gentrification against the keepers of the hippy flame — has been overshadowed this year by an immensely bigger identity crisis.
News of Brexit was announced at the site on Friday morning, the start of its official programme. There were groans from most of the 177,000 present, alongside pockets of cheers and a certain amount of shoulder-shrugging, a determination to ensure the long weekend would be business, or rather pleasure, as usual, a temporary Glexit from reality. But the wet conditions that had turned the 900 acres of Somerset farmland into a quagmire reduced any opportunity for escapism.
“Reasons to be cheerful,” Blur’s singer Damon Albarn announced from the main Pyramid Stage, wearing a mourning black armband around his bomber jacket. “It’s not raining.” That scrap of consolation was soon extinguished by a passing shower. But the act that Albarn was introducing, the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, was equal to the conditions.
The large stage was crammed with musicians and singers mainly from Damascus, touring under the auspices of Albarn’s Africa Express collaborative project, in defiance of civil war in their homeland and visa difficulties overseas. Violins swirled and droned, string melodies lilted into view, piercing flutes rang out, percussion wheezed antique folk rhythms, accompanied by Arab vocalists and guest African musicians, one of whom, in tribute to that enduring sprite, the soul of Glastonbury, played a groovy psychedelic solo on a lute-like instrument.
Albarn sang an Arabised version of Blur’s sad ballad “Out of Time”. The cultural exchange sounded an optimistically cosmopolitan note in the context of resurgent anti-immigrant politics. But the song’s melancholy sense of defeat undercut the defiance with which Albarn had earlier reacted to the Brexit vote (“We can change that decision!”).
On the Other Stage, the festival’s second biggest, veteran indie band James were delayed for an hour by technical gremlins. The hold-up epitomised Glastonbury’s own difficulties this year, including epic traffic jams that snarled up Somerset when the festival opened its gates. Its founder, Michael Eavis, suggests it might move to a new location in 2019, a permanent Glexit.
Amid these signs of fallibility, one trend that the venerable festival has managed to address is the declining influence of its main genre, rock. This year’s headliners include two acts familiar from previous festivals, Muse on Friday and Coldplay on Sunday, a ho-hum token of the lack of headline-worthy new rock bands coming through. But Saturday’s headliner was a coup, the height of pop royalty, Adele.
There has always been an eclectic range of genres at Glastonbury. Increasingly, however, they share the same stage rather than being segmented. On the Park Stage, Ronnie Spector, former singer with 1960s girl group The Ronettes, charmed a Friday afternoon audience with a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”, a husky-voiced salute from a survivor to a fallen follower. At the same location, at midnight on Saturday, a large crowd gathered to watch an orchestral performance of the composer Philip Glass’s tribute to David Bowie, Heroes Symphony, conducted by Charles Hazlewood, with lasers lighting up the night and an immense symphonic climax to rival even the loudest rock band.
The UK’s version of rap, grime, is particularly well represented this year. Its current star Skepta appeared on the Pyramid Stage on Friday afternoon, a cavernous setting that proved surprisingly receptive to his songs’ rapid-fire raps and beats, as though the surrounding hills were transformed into huge woofers amplifying the bass. The London rapper treated the occasion as a challenge, not giving an inch in translating his underground scene to the mainstream, accompanied by fellow emcees, two of whom wheeled around the stage on bicycles, a reversal of “rus in urbe”.
Birmingham rapper Lady Leshurr made an irresistible case to be grime’s next crossover star on the Park Stage on Saturday afternoon. Comical “diss” tracks, many centring on her Ladyship’s high standards of personal hygiene, were reoriented for a bemired festival audience, as when an audience member suffering the dreaded condition of “crispy bacon lips” was offered Vaseline. Ingenious wordplay was delivered with handbrake turns and deft shifts in pace, the vocal equivalent of Grand Theft Auto.
Leshurr ended by descending to ground level to greet her new fans, thus sacrificing her box-fresh white trainers, a status symbol at muddy Glastonbury. The 1975’s singer Matt Healy took the prized pristine look even further, wearing a dazzling white suit on the Other Stage as the sun set opposite him on Saturday evening.
“I’m a pop star in a suit, what do I know?” he said impulsively during the Manchester band’s set. “But when you stand on a stage like this, it’s difficult to say nothing.” An angry denunciation of the Brexit vote followed, a betrayal, in Healy’s view, of the young by the old. The next song, “Loving Someone”, was butter-smooth pop-R&B, an abrupt transition expressive of the jarring sense of disorientation that overhung the festival.
Brexit’s glare has been inescapable, a harsh light bearing down on even the most likeable act. Five hours after I passed veteran protest singer Billy Bragg singing “I Keep Faith” in the Left Field tent, he was to be found singing exactly the same song in the same place, a stuck record. Meanwhile, ska old-timers Madness came across as a banal heritage routine in their afternoon slot on the Pyramid Stage, churning through “House of Fun” with automatic jollity. “I must say, I’ve had a terrific weekend,” said their singer Suggs, from somewhere within the deep, deep sleep of England.
Muse played a concentrated, loud set for their Friday headline set, without special guests or excessive stage gimmickry. Singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy dashed out punchy riffs and fierce solos and wailed with Freddie Mercury-like drama. Songs had a groove descended from Led Zeppelin, an ancestral debt honoured with the snatch of “Heartbreaker” that Bellamy played during their own song “Hysteria”.
But Muse’s paranoid world view, expressed in tracks about drone warfare and international conspiracies, acquired a pantomime character in the light of the real-life global crisis taking place that day. Offered a stage in front of tens of thousands, with many more watching on television, Bellamy had nothing to say about Brexit. His silence reduced the band to a cartoon-like approximation of heftier influences, the likes of Queen and Radiohead. Lightweights masquerading as heavyweights, they were all pomp and no circumstance.
Adele was better, alluding to national troubles with an aside about how people had to look after one another. There was a suspicion beforehand that her stately songs, built like luxury ocean liners and about as fast-moving, would prove too ponderous for the Saturday night slot. But the likes of “Hello” and “Hometown Glory” proved apt for the occasion, big emotive singalongs led by Adele’s formidable vocals, one moment growling, the next soaring towards high notes.
Even this most technically gifted of singers struggled with the occasion, however. She went astray with “River Lea”, restarting the song but still getting the vocals wrong, and disappeared from view for a muddled moment of dead time before encoring with “When We Were Young”. They were small mistakes but significant, betraying the larger uncertainties that have gripped this year’s Glastonbury.
Ends today, glastonburyfestivals.co.uk