Thursday morning, and it’s raining again. No, that term doesn’t begin to describe it: the sky seems to actually be flooding, the ground turned to liquid waymarked by floating Wellingtons. Michael Eavis will later profess that ‘the weather forecasters let us down’, but for now we’re wading nearly to our knees through an actual river of mud somewhere near the Other Stage.
But this being Glastonbury, nobody cares. In the Dance Village discarded boots have been arranged into Stonehenge; on the hill above the Park Stage good-natured cheering greets the failed attempts to descend without sliding fifty feet down. Rain macs are worn like Batfink’s cloak, and everyone is smiling. And well they might: they’re at Glastonbury, after all.
Sure, this year’s might not be a classic lineup. It’s a sentiment repeated again and again across the site, a mantra that seems to be carried on the wind, but once again – nobody cares. Pretty much uniquely amongst festivals, the lineup at Glastonbury is irrelevant. It’s why it sells out before any performers are announced, why so many people return each year, a significant number barely seeing any bands at all. Indeed, that’s the advice given this time round by Caribou’s Daniel Snaith: to ignore the music and the programme and to just let the festival carry you along.
You can see his point, although it’s wrong: there’s too much good stuff to ignore it all, and to do so would just be rude, frankly. Like Beardyman in his packed East Dance appearance, whose beatbox talents are never less than awing whether he’s dropping drum and bass or reprising Pink Floyd.
Metronomy don’t fare quite so well with their Friday Pyramid set, despite attracting a massive crowd for a 12pm slot. Primarily a casualty of the weather, their sun-drenched pop seems out of place under the overcast skies, and the band are dwarfed by the sheer size of the stage.
There’s no such issues for the Wu-Tang Clan, of course, whose eight-strong collective fill the space with ease, even if musically they’re now less the innovators and more rap’s elder statesmen. Despite the drizzle they receive a pretty rapturous reception, not only justified by the set that follows but a further testament to the absurdity of the notion that hip-hop doesn’t belong on the mainstage: this may not be a challenging performance, but it’s one of the festival’s most entertaining.
A long long way from any level of main stage Glasgow’s Conquering Animal Sound battle with sound issues and a crowd more distracted by the accelerating rain outside the Stonebridge Bar. Nonetheless they play a pretty set of fragile, porcelain electronica, Anneke Kampman evoking Bjork’s delivery with vocals that seem carved from myth and mist, although their sound gets lost amongst an audience looking less for glitchy beats than just a canvas to keep them dry.
Over at the West Holts stage Sweden’s Little Dragon is rather harder to ignore, their multicultural electronica galvanizing the field. It helps that singer Yukimi Nagano is such a captivating stage presence, but their songs warrant the attention too, meshing frenetic percussion and a blur of genres with a surprising, disarming level of subtlety and warmth, particularly on mid-set highlight Twice, a quiet pause with the festival’s chaos.
Back at the Other Stage Bright Eyes are playing a louder, harsher set than usual, as though attempting to disassociate themselves from the rash of new indie-folk pretenders. Whatever: it sounds good, Conor Oberst’s voice with just the right tinge of anger as we, like most of Worthy Farm it seems, trudge towards The Park.
Because, of course, Friday’s Special Guests – Radiohead – are rather less than secret, particularly as two of the band played what’s due to be renamed The Thom Yorke Slot last year. And whilst hopes are high, the wisdom of putting the biggest band in the world on the smallest stage at the festival is sorely tested, the majority of the vast audience facing a stark choice: a claustrophobic hour within vague hearing distance of the speakers but with a view entirely limited to the rank, matted hair of the person in front, or a spot on the hill from which the band’s performance effectively consists of a game of charades.
The latter option, at least, brings with it the thrill of sliding back down through the mud afterwards, which would likely have been the highpoint for most. This is not the classic Radiohead set anticipated by the afternoon’s Twitter hype, no reprise of 1997 to bond the crowd together even as their limbs atrophy in the mud. But it was never going to be: Radiohead are playing this stage precisely to escape those expectations, the pressures and the scrutiny of a Pyramid appearance, pored-over and picked apart and broadcast to millions. Their naivety in thinking they could succeed here is not the point – we were foolish to expect anything other than the set we got.
Which wasn’t a bad set, actually – just a misjudged, stubborn one. Primarily a showcase for material from The King Of Limbs the choices reflect the woozy, amniotic character of that album, frustratingly restrained to an audience fired up for the first proper night of the festival, seeking a release that doesn’t arrive. I Could Be Wrong comes close, but it’s only Street Spirit that fully engages the crowd, even if the band themselves clearly begrudge this token nod to a back-catalogue that no longer holds their interest.
Likewise, for a band whose live shows have been their bread and butter in recent years, U2 fell short of the mark. With the threat of a much talked about protest against the band’s tax-dodging hanging over him, Bono is perhaps understandably apprehensive: the protestor’s banners might have been controversially removed long before he takes to the stage, but he never quite shakes off the nerves. Opening with Even Better Than The Real Thing, he was reserved, his voice weak.
The only concession to the theatrics and showmanship they’ve carved as their niche comes during an apparently live link-up with the International Space Station, during which an astronaut reels off the opening lyrics to Beautiful Day.
It’s a disappointing set that was a long time coming, but what the band lacks the crowd makes up for, and as the rain lashes down the packed field unites for the sing-alongs – One, Sunday Bloody Sunday, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You.
No such disappointment for Caribou or Crystal Castles, though, both delivering performances high on energy, familiar but crowd-pleasing even as the hypothermia sets in and the waterproofs start to disprove their manufacturers’ claims.
Saturday starts with Yuck, a fitting description of the John Peel tent although the band’s distortion-wracked take on Sonic Youth is anything but unpleasant, whilst Dry The River play a spirited set of pastoral indie-folk. Anna Calvi is striking if a touch surly, whilst Warpaint are characteristically beguiling, their snaking, sludgy tracks aptly-suited to a stage standing in the centre of a bog.
The prize for most bizarre double-header goes to Oxylers In West on Saturday afternoon. Right after Leeds rockers Pulled Apart By Horses play a set that sparked circle pits throughout it was left to Patrick Wolf to take us to the other end of the musical spectrum. On this occasion the flamboyance overcame the riffs. If you needed any proof of the ascending and declining popularity of pop and rock respectively, this was it.
Like thousands of others we can’t get anywhere near Pulp’s guest appearance, so feeling combative we head to see Battles play a frustrating set, Tyondai Braxton’s absence keenly felt in the recourse to mainly sampled vocals and the omission of crowd favourites Atlas and Tonto. Despite their staggering technical skill the three-piece’s performance fails to engage the audience, with only closer Futura managing to transcend the nagging sense that we’re merely peering in on a very impressive drum clinic.
Wild Beasts, by contrast, play a show that borders on the magical, their fragile, finely-nuanced songs casting a spell from the off that never lessens: even during the three-minute silence during closer End Come Too Soon the audience remains entranced, faces rapt and bodies locked in position.
It’s one of those ‘why aren’t they headlining?’ moments: Elbow have the tunes, they have the sing-alongs and Guy Garvey has more charisma and charm than any other frontman on site. Inevitably, One Day Like This is the pinnacle but the sheer power of Neat Little Rows is juxtaposed by the beauty of The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver as the sun starts to set.
For all the stick they get, Coldplay are born Glastonbury headliners. Chris Martin’s long-standing affiliation with the festival means this is their third outing – their second as Pyramid headliners – and it shows. Martin is so at home that even a sickly-sweet new ode to Gwyneth, Us Against The World, goes down a storm.
As fireworks cascade left, right and centre, the likes of Yellow, In My Place and The Scientist sound anthemic, warming and heaped in emotion. As the crowd shoves and shuffles its way into the night, still singing Vive La Vida, many will go back to their tents surprised by the ‘forgotten’ headliners, leaving Beyonce quite a show to live up to.
There’s a tinge of sadness to Sunday afternoon, waking up to find half the tents nearby packed away and a slow procession dragging their bags wearily to the car parks, the mud turned to dust. But there’s no hint of flagging in TV On The Radio’s Other Stage performance, their songs tightly-wound and flecked with jazz. A frantic Wolf Like Me aside, there’s a notable lack of commitment to older material though, a mid-set Staring At The Sun seeming almost grudging, and their closing cover of the Ghostbusters theme is frankly baffling and almost hallucinatory in the heat.
The crowd for The Eels might have started thin, but it quickly grew as the band reminded us how solid and consistent their back catalogue is. The re-arranged likes of Losing Streak, I Like Birds and My Beloved Monster were the highlights and Novocaine For The Soul inspired one of the gentlest audience sing-alongs of the weekend.
Robyn should always perform with faulty equipment. As entertaining as her songs are – and they are very entertaining – it’s her rage at a malfunctioning wireless microphone that provides the real highlight, Robyn venting at a hapless stage technician before storming offstage, returning moments later to launch a mike-stand through the air before offering a meek apology. The set that follows just can’t match that for an intro.
For Queens Of The Stone Age aggression and rage are pretty much the norm, and they’re on good form, Josh Homme throwing out mocking barbs at Beyonce and The Kaiser Chiefs that play well with a crowd that looks fresh from Download. After the Roskilde tragedy Michael Eavis had pretty much sworn off booking heavier acts, but their Other Stage headline slot is a masterstroke, grinding and visceral and genuinely exciting.
Which sadly can be said of The Streets’ Glastonbury swansong at the John Peel tent, which has the rowdy quality of Wetherspoons on a Friday without even the thrill of the flying glass. Sure, Mike Skinner’s shows always had a shambolic, cut-and-paste feel – charmingly so – but the shoddy sound and largely apathetic crowd, coupled with Skinner himself, topless and leery as he fantasises about Beyonce, just makes this seem a bit pathetic, a far cry from the bow-out that the band deserves.
Beyonce’s set is, of course, exactly the end that the festival deserves: bold, dynamic and verging on the ridiculous, Beyonce herself rising through the stage, her thighs primed to hypnotise the masses. And she’s pretty much perfect, her performance effortlessly enjoyable if rather empty, like gorging on sugar.
And sure enough, the crash comes later, as the crowds buzz towards Arcadia and the Pyramid lights dim over a flow of paper cups and plastic bottles, fold-up chairs and sweat-drenched clothing, and festival programmes that point out that it’s 725 days until we get to come here again.
Christian Cottingham, Max Raymond and Helen Clarke