The Killers lived up to their name on Saturday night by slaying the Glastonbury opposition with a technically devastating performance on the main Pyramid stage. It was a triumphant return for the Las Vegas foursome, who only three years ago were on the festival’s New Bands stage. Fireworks filled the sky above a sea of Somme-like mud, as the group, clad in gold lamé outfits, kept the vast crowd enthralled. It was hard to believe, as they ended with a thrilling encore of “Mr Brightside”, that in 2005 The Killers had refused to play a headline slot, fearing that their material was too thin; with one more successful album under their belts, any such concerns have been firmly put to rest.
Other key slots of the weekend could have been characterised as youth versus experience: Friday night was seen out by the precocious Arctic Monkeys, while on Sunday it was the turn of The Who – a band both of the ’60s and now in their 60s – to wrap up the long weekend with a display of defiant, old-fashioned rock. The band held the crowd’s attention with hits such as “Pinball Wizard”, “You Better You Bet” and “My Generation”. Did they generate veneration? Not exactly. But with a solid, rain-beating performance you could forgive the irony of sexagenarians Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend performing “Teenage Wasteland” and “The Kids are Alright”.
To the Arctic Monkeys, Daltrey & Co might as well be the Indus civilisation. The nonchalant northerners faced perhaps their biggest challenge since word of mouth and MySpace transformed their fortunes a couple of years ago. It would be wonderful to say the band lived up to the hype. Hits such as “I Bet you Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Fake Tales of San Francisco” went down well, as did “Fluorescent Adolescent” and “Mardy Bum”. But the group’s signature strength – tight, frenetic bass and drums and laconic lyrics – sounded thinly stretched after an hour and even a bit tedious. Matters were not helped by poor sound quality; a guest rap by Dizzee Rascal was virtually inaudible.
Arctic Monkeys’ pared-down sound was the opposite of Björk’s inspired cacophony on the Other stage. As the Icelander twitched around the stage in green robes to an accompaniment of brass band and techno, her luscious vocals stopped the show from teetering under the weight of its own ambition. Behind her were an otherworldly host, also in robes, bearing flags and assorted musical instruments. “We come from elsewhere” seemed to be the message.
If Björk seemed eccentric, The Guillemots appeared positively crazed during a rain-struck set on Saturday afternoon. Fyfe Dangerfield, the band’s hirsute lead singer, wore a red suit and alternated between keyboard and strange special effects. Three dancers, who may or may not have been transvestites, cavorted on stilts while Dangerfield lay on his back and wrestled with a chair. “She’s evil, she’s evil,” he screamed. A sullen double-bassist plucked away and the guitarist ran a machine-tool over his frets, creating odd sonic effects.
Perhaps it was the least the band could do to engage the soggy audience, who stood in the cold and wet with heads bowed like penguins. In the end The Guillemots’ tunes won the day; anthems such as “Trains to Brazil” and “São Paulo” left many listeners wanting more.
Yes, even before the first bands struck up on Friday it had been raining on and off for hours. The site coursed with rivers of brown, glutinous mud reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “It’s nice out there,” said Amy Winehouse, as
a nano-sliver of sun emerged between brooding black clouds. Few believed her. But the Glastonbury spirit, buoyed by perry and exotic fudge, is hard to quash.
With a record attendance of almost 180,000 the festival has become a vast, sprawl of events within an event. The choice was mind-bending: jazz, dance, circus acts, comedy, poetry, new bands, big bands, folk, techno. On the one hand, union hard man Bob Crow addressing the brothers and sisters about injustices towards comrades in Cuba; on the other, the dreadlocked folk singer Newton Faulkner leading a crowd in a singalong of the SpongeBob SquarePants song.
Across acres of mud, revellers drank chai in damp yurts, danced to assorted sound-systems, signed up to good causes and decanted sludge from collapsed tents. And everywhere there were visual treats: a faux- tonehenge made from Portaloos by artist Banksy; the Gawkagogo freak show starring Elvis Elephant Man; Peaches Geldof looking unhappy.
Part of the joy of Glastonbury is the opportunity to stumble on fresh acts you have never seen before and familiar performers in unusually intimate settings. Among the stand-outs were the folk singer Seth Lakeman, injecting spirit and passion into a genre not always known for its sex appeal. With dextrous violin and guitar, the singer brought unexpected life to old Devon drinking songs as well as his own material.
Another unexpected delight was the upstart popster Mika. His high-camp songs may be a bit rich for some, but the likes of “Grace Kelly” and “Love Today” went down a storm. There was no getting away from the Freddie Mercury comparisons, what with his window-shattering falsetto and playful stage presence. Somewhat more serious in tone was the Montreal ensemble Arcade Fire, who led the crowd through a heartfelt, foreboding set that began with the pounding “Black Mirror” from their new album Neon Bible and ended with an almost hymn-like “Rebellion (Lies)”.
Elsewhere, The Magic Numbers played an ecstatic singalong set in the cosy Guardian tent. The singer Romeo also popped up the previous day to duet with Ed Harcourt, Britain’s most underrated singer songwriter, in a tiny venue. Lily Allen likewise ventured to the festival’s margins, with an appearance at The Park, a new area far from the main stages. She treated the mud- drenched punters to a far more intimate acoustic set than her hit-and-miss performance on the Pyramid the next day.
It is special moments such as this that help Glastonbury maintain its position as one of a kind among the UK’s pop festivals.