This year’s Glastonbury Festival represents a significant milestone in getting back to where we once belonged. And festival bosses Michael and Emily Eavis certainly rise to the occasion, laying on the youngest-ever headliner in Gen-Z icon Billie Eilish and the oldest-ever headline in Sir Paul McCartney; a pandemic-delayed 50th birthday bash for the greatest music festival in the world. Closing Friday and Saturday respectively, Billie and Macca are two sides of the same coin, both screening childhood photos of themselves to underline inspiring rises to the top.
Macca, who recently turned 80, brings out Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen (who breezes through his anthemic ‘Glory Days’), followed by a virtual duet of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ with John Lennon; the feeling your left with is that The Boss’s words could apply to the festival as much as The Beatle when he says: “Here’s to 80 more years of glory days.”
Before all this, Friday sees indie survivors The Libertines show themselves to be in improbably fine fettle on The Other Stage. Pete, ready for heavy weather in a full-length hooded poncho, interrupts ‘The Good Old Days’ to lead a chanted tribute to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who precedes their set with a video message in which he implored punters to “spread truth” about Russia’s war on his people. Such solidarity is, as you’d expect, a theme at this year’s Glastonbury. Ukranian Eurovision winners Kaluush Orchestra play to rows of their country’s flag on the Truth Stage, having told NME beforehand: “It’s amazing that we can perform our music here at Glastonbury”.
The festival is all about unity, and sometimes you find it in unexpected places. Sleaford Mods’ scabrous, sweary take on post-punk might initially sound solo antagonistic, but frontman Jason Williamson regularly punctuates the set by sweetly checking the audience are still enjoying themselves. The band stand atop a wave of post-punk coursing through the bill: Yard Act stake their claim for Glasto greatness at William’s Green and IDLES make a surprise appearance at the BBC Introducing Stage, tearing through their near-seminal debut album ‘Brutalism’ in full.
In fact, there’s plenty of guitar music full-stop to appease the “people in bucket hats” Noel Gallagher somewhat grudgingly acknowledges before abandoning his seven-song opening salvo of solo material to bang out one Oasis classic after another. When he rolls his eyes throughout ‘Little By Little’, though, those buckets must be wilting as the prospect of a reunion with Liam looks less likely than ever. Luckily Sam Fender looks more bright-eyed as he finally gets his Glasto moment on the Pyramid Stage, having cancelled in 2019 due to ill-health and in 2020 due to that whole pandemic thing. “This just doesn’t feel real at all,” he admits.
Wolf Alice singer Ellie Rowsell also describes Glastonbury 2022 as “surreal”; the band pulled through a well-documented transatlantic travel saga to arrive onsite. Bassist Theo Ellis makes no bones about their whirlwind 24 hours: “We nearly didn’t make it, but we couldn’t be happier to be here.” HAIM, who finally make it to the Pyramid Stage too – they settled for the festival’s livestream last year – are similarly effusive, telling NME backstage: “We’ll play Glastonbury any time they want us to play.”
Jack White, meanwhile, makes a surprise appearance on the Park Stage, studding White Stripes favourites (‘Ball And Biscuit’ gets a mild jam band makeover) with cuts from his storied career. While The Raconteurs’ ‘Steady As She Goes’ receives an enthusiastic response, it’s of course the ubiquitous ‘Seven Nation Army’ chant that defines his return to Worthy Farm.
But this Pilton party is of course all about eclecticism. Heavily pregnant Greentea Peng (“I think this will be one of my last performances … I’ve got mother duties and that”) brings louche, jazzy R&B to the West Holts Stage, while Burna Boy pauses his sun-kissed Other Stage set to assess the sprawling crowd.
The audience for rising R&B star Tems is similarly impressive, doubling during her Saturday afternoon set, which peaks with the pulsing ‘Crazy Tings’ when her guitarist falls to his knees and shreds away as Tems exclaims: “You’re too hot!” In the feted Legends slot on Sunday afternoon, 78-year-old disco icon Diana Ross admits that her body doesn’t move “like it used to”, but still raises the temperature with a combination of Supremes classics and solo cuts; ‘Upside Down’ goes off so much the security guards twirl around to it.
At the poppier end of Worthy Farm, Gen-Z icons Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo prove the kids are alright, the former’s historic Pyramid Stage performance demonstrating it’s not always the loudest person who makes the most noise. Eilish’s often hushed set, which sees her near-whisper through minimalist production – provided by her brother Finneas, who joins her onstage – so sharp it could slice your tent in half. She introduces the mournful ‘Your Power’ by acknowledging that the constitutional right to abortions was overturned in the US on Thursday: “Today is a really dark day for women in the US. That’s all I’m going to say about that as I can’t bear to think about it anymore at this moment.”
Rodrigo goes further, bringing out Lily Allen so that the duo can vent their anger via the latter’s ‘Fuck You’, which the American star dedicates to “the five members of the Supreme Court” who made the decision. Californian alt-folker Phoebe Bridgers similarly leads a chant of “Fuck the Supreme Court” in the John Peel tent, ensuring the late DJ’s legacy of championing rabble-rousing artists lives on.
And if rock’n’roll passed on the countercultural torch to hip-hop long ago, there’s little wonder Megan Thee Stallion, on the Other Stage at the same time as Macca, makes her case as a future Pyramid headliner material with a fabulously boisterous set that bounces from her breakout 2019 hit ‘Big Ol’ Freak’ to the Cardi B smash ‘WAP’, strutting across the stage with a formidable army of voguing backing dancers.
Kendrick Lamar is similarly unapologetic on the Pyramid Stage on Sunday night, barking through ‘King Kunta’ (“I GOT A BONE TO PICK!”) like a man who still has points to prove despite being the only Pulitzer Prize winning rapper in the world. Yet there is also a bruised sense of clearing away the past, Kendrick drawing on the recent ‘Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers’, an album about purging trauma and overcoming pain. “I love when you count me out” he raps on ‘Count Me Out’ while female dancers in flowing red gowns twist around him.
As a representation of resilience that’s also packed with crowd-pleasing anthems (punters gleefully fill in the call-and-response “Drank!” on ‘Swimming Pools’), it’s a poignant way to end to a festival that features the Burning Lotus, a 40-foot sculpture on The Park, which punters fill with letters to those they loved and lost in the pandemic. It goes up flames at midnight, 15 minutes after Kendrick closes, the ground razed to illuminate the route ahead.
But the last word must go to Sir Paul McCartney, who taps into that feeling of catharsis when he brings out Dave Grohl for the Foo Fighter’s first public appearance since his bandmate and beloved best pal Taylor Hawkins passed away in March.
While there’s no explicit reference to the significance of this occasion, their joyous rendition of ‘She Loves You’ – which anticipates Macca’s virtual team-up with his own musical soul mate – plays into a momentous, career-spanning three-hour celebration of community, music and, ultimately, friendship. With over 100,000 people continuing to belt out ‘Hey Jude’ long after Paul’s left the stage, getting back together sounds pretty damn good.
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