Listen to this article
“Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone,” declared one of the many slogans exhorting you to be an unrealistically better you as you walk around Glastonbury Festival. I saw it while heading to the John Peel tent, named after the deceased British DJ who championed obscure and challenging music. Inside, up-and-comer Freya Ridings dedicated a song called “You Mean the World to Me” to her mother, a powerful piano ballad solidly couched in the lingo of mainstream pop. Somewhere in the great beyond, outside any mortal’s comfort zone, the spirit of Peel must have looked on aghast.
Or perhaps not. Maybe the shade of Peel understands that Glastonbury has had to move to the edge of its own comfort zone in order to survive. With the fading away of the indie-rock culture that nurtured the festival for decades, it has had to incorporate the kind of mainstream sounds that once would have been anathema. But the Somerset festival has not entirely exited its comfort zone.
The choice of two of the headliners over the three-day line-up had a ho-hum, workaday feel: The Killers and The Cure, both big indie bands on the wrong side of the curve, whose best years (majestic in The Cure’s case) lie behind them. As though staking everything on a single bet, all the risk had been concentrated into the figure of the opening night’s headliner, Stormzy, the first British rapper and first solo black Briton to top the bill. He proceeded to steal the thunder of every other act during the first two days with one of the best Glastonbury headlining sets I have seen. (More on that later.)
Friday’s opening act on the main Pyramid Stage was Abba tribute band Bjorn Again, representing a dubious Glastonbury tradition of raising the curtain with light entertainment. (The sinister shadow of Rolf Harris discomfits that particular comfort zone: he was a Glastonbury fixture until his conviction for child sexual offences in 2014.) Amid kitsch Abba routines, the parody band’s “Frida” plugged their forthcoming tour.
Soon afterwards, over at the West Holts stage, Japanese psych-rockers Acid Mothers Temple, self-proclaimed makers of “extreme trip music”, ended their blistering performance by also shilling for custom. “Please spend your money!” guitarist Kawabata Makoto said. The mystic voyagers to far-out musical galaxies promptly decamped to the merch stall to sign T-shirts.
Although many businesses profit handsomely from Glastonbury, such as local taxi drivers and stodgy food vendors, the festival does not represent a bumper payday for its acts. It costs as much as £40m to stage, according to co-organiser Emily Eavis, but its booking budget is comparatively meagre. Less commercialised than rival events, and with a commitment to tithe a portion of proceeds to charity — £2.1m in the last tax year — the festival can afford to pay only about one-tenth what other festivals pay, Eavis says.
Compared to its flashy Californian rival Coachella, playground of A-list pop and rap stars, Glastonbury’s biggest names and surprise acts (Foals, Vampire Weekend) had an underwhelming aspect this year. Perhaps the most famous star, Janet Jackson, was little short of disastrous on the Pyramid Stage, doing a 50-minute whirligig through truncated versions of songs. There were imperious dance moves, defiantly in the mould of disgraced brother Michael, while the sharp contours of her 1980s R&B hits gleamed amid the setlist’s over-rushed tempo. But the breathy voice she adopted was almost inaudible. There were suspicions of miming: if so, she had somehow contrived to mime too quietly.
Friday and Saturday took place in a heatwave. Queues for water and people clustering in any patch of shade on the 900-acre site underlined the festival’s climate-crisis messaging, although — in a characteristic Glastonbury blur between instruction and entertainment — alarm was surmounted by relief. The warm conditions were far preferable to the notorious mudbaths of other years.
In the Field of Avalon, a drinker obeyed the ban on single-use plastics by swigging ale from a reusable plastic Viking horn. In a nearby tent, 1970s folk-rockers Steeleye Span celebrated their 50th anniversary, one year Glastonbury’s senior. An audience drawn from the more mature elements of the festival’s demographics ringed the tent in concentric circles of camp chairs, murmuring appreciation as the ’Span introduced a song: “We’re going to give you a little bit of prog-folk.”
With more than 200,000 people on site, the range of acts was customarily profuse, although it was not quite a case of something for everyone: heavy metal remains steadfastly outside Glastonbury’s comfort zone. The dance music line-up was impressive, from new DJs such as Peggy Gou to Chicago house music pioneer Larry Heard. At the Other Stage, UK chart-topper Lewis Capaldi made light of Noel Gallagher griping about his presence at Glastonbury by dressing up as the former Oasis man. But the last laugh was on him: the loud beats of a neighbouring Carl Cox techno set cut across his brawny but dull ballads like a belligerent remix.
In a stubbornly muddy tent, the appallingly named Amyl and the Sniffers brought a genuinely hostile edge to their unreconstructed Australian punk rock, led by superbly antagonistic singer Amy Taylor. The Comet Is Coming played a track with the hippyish title “Unity”, but the trio’s mix of free-jazz saxophone riffs, heavy-duty drumming and four-on-the-floor electronics was abrasive and intense. Ezra Collective, fellow representatives of London’s burgeoning jazz underground, struck a mellower note with guest vocal spots from Jorja Smith and Loyle Carner, more appropriate to the sunny afternoon setting.
The Killers threw the kitchen sink at Saturday’s headline spot. Brandon Flowers bestrode the stage with toothy showmanship and sang as though his sternum was a gargantuan echo chamber. He set the tone with his first utterance — a “woah-oh” stadium chant to which a large Pyramid Stage audience heartily responded. It was entertaining enough, especially an encore featuring the Pet Shop Boys and Johnny Marr. But the hammy vacuity of Flowers’ lyrics (“I got soul but I’m not a soldier”), amplified by the bellows of merrily uncaring revellers, was left exposed by Stormzy’s impact the previous night.
The Londoner played an almost pitch-perfect headline set. An interlude featuring ballet dancers took the remit to celebrate black British artistry in an unnecessary direction, but otherwise the rapper did not put a foot wrong. Hard grime numbers were balanced by emotive songs with a gospel choir. Coldplay’s Chris Martin was a surprise guest for a piano duet, as though passing the headlining torch from rock to hip-hop. Fellow London rappers Dave and Fredo performed their number one single “Funky Friday”, the “first pure British rap song” to top the UK charts, in Stormzy’s words. It was followed by the second, his own “Vossi Bop”, played with kids doing wheelies on bicycles on the stage.
Wearing a Banksy-designed Union Jack-decorated stab-proof vest, interpolating harsh truths about modern Britain into his positivity, Stormzy performed with both swagger and humility. He placed himself at the centre of a culture, reeling off a long list of names of other UK MCs, inducting them alongside himself into Glastonbury’s own culture. Force of personality, stagecraft and high-quality songs backed up the gesture. Here, at the edge of the festival’s comfort zone, was the moment when it felt most alive.
Get alerts on Music when a new story is published