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At the weekend the Glastonbury Festival welcomed to its site one of the greatest minds in history and one of world’s most revered dignitaries. No, not Stephen Hawking, who had to cancel his scheduled appearance on the kids stage, nor the Dalai Lama, who visited on Sunday. I refer of course to Kanye West.
The rapper, who in the past has variously compared himself to Shakespeare and Picasso, was Saturday’s headliner. He was a controversial choice: an online petition against his booking attracted 135,000 signatures. But those with a more open mind — those less inclined to turn Glastonbury into a whites-only country club — welcomed it. West’s boundless appetite for provocation promised to shake up a festival half in love with its cosy new “national treasure” status.
Only half in love, mind you. A perfect illustration of Glastonbury’s mix of radical and mainstream came with the tantalising proximity of Pussy Riot and the Women’s Institute, both present at Worthy Farm for the first time. The Russian activists were in conversation about authoritarian Russia in the Leftfield tent. Meanwhile, a scone’s throw away in the Green fields, their British sisters (or more accurately, grandmothers) had a stall selling tea and cake.
Such juxtapositions are Glastonbury’s lifeblood. There were more than 2,000 performances this year, catering to more than 170,000 festival-goers. At lunchtime on the first day the FT saw LoneLady, aka Julie Campbell, perform a fierce set of post-punk, all sharp geometric angles and guitar like panes of glass shattering. Twelve hours later, I returned to a nearby tent to see a midnight screening of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu with a superbly sinister live score by the soundtrack group Minima, played before a small but appreciative audience of cineastes. Glastonbury, which costs about £40m to produce, hosts numerous loss leaders among its acts.
Friday afternoon was marred by heavy showers, which made negotiating the 1,200-acre grounds a muddy slog. At the Park Stage, Wolf Alice’s singer Ellie Rowsell showed the right response, capping the London indie band’s powerful set of modern alt-rock by performing her first ever crowd surf, before returning to the stage to issue a wild whoop and whack the cymbals with a water bottle. The display of elemental excitement put the dreary Somerset weather in its place.
Friday’s headliners were due to be the Foo Fighters. But whoever said “break a leg” to Dave Grohl before the band’s gig in Sweden this month put paid to the plan: the singer promptly fell off the stage and did just that. Their replacements, moving up a slot in the line-up, were Florence + The Machine, whose place in turn was taken by a surprise act, which turned out to be the collection of failed solo careers otherwise known as The Libertines.
The secrecy surrounding their appearance was impressively tight, unlike the reunited Londoners, alas, who proceeded to play a scrappy and spindly set. New songs such as “Gunga Din” showed no sign of moving on from exhausted Britrock reference points, punkish rabble-rousers lost in an unenticing dream of the past. Glastonbury’s rabble was unroused.
Their underwhelming show gave Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine the opportunity to shine all the brighter. She seized the chance, invoking the spirit of Mick Jagger not only with a white trouser suit but also a ravenously charismatic performance, pirouetting round the huge stage in bare feet, and at one point, during “What Kind of Man”, risking a Grohl-like fate by slipping over mid-sprint.
A naturally maximalist singer, she projected herself to the furthest reaches of the huge outdoor space. The band, arranged around a large harp, also brought a pounding momentum to tracks such as “Drumming Song”. Amid the epic scale, Welch demonstrated a personal touch, placing a garland she had been thrown on the head of a woman in the audience while singing the refrain, “This is a gift” in “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”. She ended with the seize-the-day anthem “Dog Days Are Over”, with her shirt off, racing across the stage in her bra, the spirit of Glastonbury nocturnal adventure brought to life.
Saturday brought sunshine. “It’s 40 degrees outside and I’m dyng,” the Australian indie musician Courtney Barnett sang, opening the day’s line-up on the Pyramid Stage with grungy tales of Melbourne alienation, more untamed than on record. She was followed by veteran roots-rockers The Waterboys, whose unexpectedly intense adaptation of W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” — given a raging psych-rock makeover and played in eerie bird masks — induced the closest I had to an out-of-body experience all weekend. Or was it the lunchtime pint of cider?
My Glastonbury highlight came on the Other Stage with Scottish band Young Fathers. Glaring at the audience, betraying no sign of submitting to any feel-good Glastonbury fluffiness — the opposite, indeed — the quartet played an uncompromising and confrontational set. The tone was established by “No Way”, with its tribal hip-hop chants and wall-of-noise electronics. It didn’t let up until a stern a cappella rendition of “Only Child”, during which the stage manager tried to shoo them off to make way for the next act. Unlike the decrepit Libertines, here was the true spirit of punk rock.
Burt Bacharach provided the opposite on the Pyramid Stage. The great songwriter, 87, sat at a grand piano, joined by his son, also on piano, and string and horn sections, playing the likes of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “That’s What Friends Are For”. Their charming melodies beguiled a lazy teatime crowd. Wisely Bacharach, whose voice has grown croaky, left the majority of the singing to a vocal trio.
Kanye West played to a packed audience (the Pyramid Stage’s space can hold about 100,000 spectators). He performed alone under a bank of lights; the staging was focused entirely on the rapper, or “the greatest living rock star on the planet”, as he described himself during the set.
The hubris was characteristic but the rapper’s performance, which felt somewhat ill-rehearsed, lacked a matching sense of occasion. He began strongly with a sequence of hits, kick-started by the Daft Punk-sampling “Stronger”, West rapping powerfully beneath the megawattage of lights above his head. It looked as though his show would live up to his unpredictable reputation when “Black Skinhead” was interrupted by a stage invader, whom West brushed off with magnificent unconcern.
But a lull came with a dull section of Auto-Tuned ballads, including a mawkish cover of Bon Iver’s “Woods”, with Justin Vernon as guest, while a maladroit piece of stage business occurred when the lights abruptly went off towards the end of the set, leading to a mystifying passage of dead time. Then West reappeared in a crane above the audience, rapping, with hokey literalness, “Touch the Sky”, a spectacle neutered by his near invisibility in the cherry picker. It was emblematic of a stripped-down show that failed to live up to the hopes invested in it, neither confronting Glastonbury’s complacency nor living up to its nonconformist traditions.