Glastonbury 2016 verdict: Muse, Adele, Coldplay and more

Alexis Petridis watched as Worthy Farms vast audiences were swept away by preposterous pomp, moments of magic and real emotional connection

There was a time, before smartphones and broadband, when you could happily spend the Glastonbury weekend cut off from the outside world. News of what was going on beyond the festivals boundaries tended to arrive in the form of profoundly unreliable rumours: for some reason, on annual basis in the mid-90s, these included one about the sudden death of Cliff Richard. Now, you cant get away from current events. Early arrivers on Thursday take part in a gathering in memory of MP Jo Cox; a tribute video, featuring Portisheads sombre version of Abbas SOS, is shown before proceedings begin on the Pyramid stage on Friday morning. Over in the NYC Downlow, DJ Roger Sanchez interrupts his set to read out the names of the victims of the Orlando massacre.

While you would have a hard time arguing that Friday mornings news about Brexit plunges the festivals mood into shellshocked reflection or anger indeed, if it affects it at all, you get the feeling that people who have paid a lot of money to be here might have been even more determined than usual to enjoy themselves before returning home to face an uncertain future it would have taken an almost superhuman effort to avoid it altogether.

People keep talking about it from the stage. Sometimes their comments are downcast: I have a very heavy heart today, says Damon Albarn. Democracy has failed us because it was ill-informed. Sometimes they are angry Fuck David Cameron, yells grime MC Novelist and sometimes theyre self-deprecating. Im a rock star, what the fuck do I know? muses the 1975s frontman Matty Healy, before suggesting: Theres a sentiment of anti-compassion thats spread across the older generation, and theyve voted us a future that we dont want.

And sometimes they urge us to look hopefully at the bigger picture. I know this is a disappointing day for some, offers Yannis Philippakis of alt-rocker Foals, but the sun is out and its a big day for us. Alas, the cheer that greets this feels a little half-hearted, as if even their most vociferous fans are beset by the sneaking suspicion that Friday 24 June might not go down in history as A Big Day For Foals.

Damon Albarn with and Bassekou Kouyate and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Albarns comments come at the start of a performance by the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, the latest world music project to arrive in Britain under the auspices of his Africa Express organisation. It feels like a brave move, not just because of the logistical difficulties in assembling the musicians, scattered around the globe by Syrias civil war, but because it was an expectedly lengthy musical interlude featuring some of the musicians performing today that sent Gorillazs famously underwhelming 2010 Glastonbury headlining set off-piste: strangers to the concept of leaving them wanting more, the Syrians ended up leaving them leaving to see what was happening on the Other stage.

This performance, however, really works. The strings weave dramatically around the kora of Seckou Keita and the ngoni of Bassekou Kouyate, the latter played through a wah pedal to distinctly psychedelic effect. Albarn comes out for a version of Blurs Out of Time, set to an eerie, off-kilter backing. It sounds haunting and strange, although the increasingly frantic looks being passed between the singer and the musicians suggest its eerie off-kilterness might not be entirely intentional.

Over on the Other stage, Hlose Letissier of Christine and the Queens has come up with a novel approach to worsening weather conditions: standing at the lip of the stage, throwing punches at the sky, she appears to be offering the rain out for a fight. Then again, Letissier seems to have come up with a novel approach to virtually everything she does. Her set is one of Glastonburys unequivocal highlights, slipping between the coolly stylised and choreographed flanked by male dancers, shes a slick, captivating performer and the impassioned and eccentric.

She throws roses at the crowd because its a first date, muses on the resemblance of various other flowers to a selection of R&B divas (This one is like Rihanna, she says, brandishing a lily, So beautiful. Id like to eat Rihanna), interpolates her own songs with covers of Technotronics Pump Up the Jam and Stardusts Music Sounds Better With You, and smacks herself in the chest with her fist as she sings. She couldnt be more French if she came on stage in a beret with a string of onions round her neck, but watching the crowd sing along with Tilted her addition to a fairly slender pantheon of anthemic pop songs about pansexuality the idea of her achieving the same mainstream fame here as she has across the Channel seems far from inconceivable.


French royalty: Christine and the Queens (AKA Hlose Letissier) performing on the Other stage. Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage
Indeed, for all the Radio 2-friendliness of some of this years big names Bastille, whose brand of synth-pop sounds as if it was thoroughly scrubbed with Dettol before being allowed out in public, the cheery one-woman M People de nos jours that is Jess Glynne more complex and idiosyncratic approaches to pop music are cheeringly easy to find.

Up on the Park stage on Friday afternoon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra draw a big crowd for their off-message blend of 80s funk, psychedelia and lyrics about the emotional convolutions of a polyamorous relationship. The crowd hang around for Ezra Furman, having clearly decided that if you only listen to one cross-dressing, gender-fluid, observant Jewish singer-songwriter performing ramshackle 50s rocknroll-influenced songs heavy on the honking sax, it should be him. They are rewarded with a set that opens with Furman, for reasons best known to himself, eschewing the traditional Hello Glastonbury, its so good be here greeting in favour of shouting, Tentative stab wound!, and gets progressively less predictable from thereon in: the whole thing teeters, rather thrillingly, on the verge of a collapse into total chaos.

Anyone who likes their music more reliable is presumably over at the Pyramid, watching ZZ Top, who are exactly as you would expect ZZ Top to be: beards, hats, furry guitars, the mid-80s MTV hits floating around in a sea of amiably chugging blues-boogie with lyrics about things that unreconstructed real men from Texas write lyrics about: going to barbecues, cars, female buttocks etc.


Pomp and circumstance: Matt Bellamy of Muse. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
You couldnt wish for a bigger contrast with headliners Muse, a band who are not likely to write a song about having a barbecue or, indeed, goin downtown to look for some tush any time soon. Their set opens with a Big Brother-like figure mercilessly haranguing the audience from the screens on either side of the stage, but its not all as subtle as that. For years now,
Muse have sounded like the winners of a competition to see who can cram the greatest number and variety of bombastic flourishes into every song: riffs that sound as if they are based on Bachs Toccata and Fugue in D minor; widdly-woo guitar solos involving much tapping of fingers on the fretboard; bovver-booted glam drums; pounding Giorgio Moroder-ish synth lines; ostentatious Rachmaninov-inspired piano embellishments; a combination of quasi-operatic vocals and conspiracy-theory lyrics that occasionally leave them sounding like Queen if Freddie Mercury had digested the complete works of David Icke en route to the studio.

At its worst, when youre assailed by the terrible creeping fear that all the New World Order and survivalist cobblers in their lyrics might not be meant ironically, it can feel a bit exhausting its hard not to wish they would occasionally dial it down a bit: perhaps a couple of numbers about barbecues or bums might not be such a bad idea after all. But at its best, when the songs pack choruses as big as the bands desire for grandiosity Plug In Baby or Starlight its both preposterous and preposterously entertaining.

Saturday morning brings with it more rain, which seems to dampen peoples enthusiasm for Shuras take on synth-pop a shame, because it sounds noticeably richer and smarter than the kind of thing Radio 1 usually clasps to its heart. Squeeze, on the other hand, go down a storm with an audience that is, admittedly, largely of an age to remember the band from the first time around. Their set is peppered with impermeable hits Up the Junction, Tempted, Is That Love? while Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrooks evident delight at the rejuvenated Squeezes success is a pretty infectious thing. Labelled With Love, the saga of an ageing, lonely alcoholic, seems a strong candidate for the most depressing song ever to provoke a mass festival singalong.


Skepta performing on the Pyramid stage. Photograph: exEX/Shutterstock
Anyone surveying the swaying crowd and wondering where all the young people went could do worse than head up to the Park stage, where Lady Leshurr is doing her second set of the weekend. There is a lot of grime on offer at Glastonbury this year. If you are looking for confirmation of the genres ascendancy to huge commercial, as well as artistic importance, then Skeptas Friday-afternoon set on the Pyramid stage seems strong evidence. He is not the first grime MC to appear there: Dizzee Rascal beat him to it by several years. But Dizzee Rascals sets were heavy on concessions to pop-rap, and Skeptas is anything but. Its raw and wilfully menacing, the appearance of fellow MC Frisco on stage astride a BMX notwithstanding: it provokes a mosh pit.

Lady Leshurr, meanwhile, wins over the crowd with self-deprecating Brummie wit: Go crazy, she tells the crowd. Just pretend youre watching Adele or Jay Z. Shes an incredibly engaging performer, dedicating Crispy Bacon to a particularly sunburnt reveller in the crowd, and enquiring after the audiences hygiene: How did you brush your teeth today? Toothpaste and no water? Ugh. Behind the pulverising bass and the gunshot sound effects, there lurks a very British and very funny kind of lyrical bathos. In Queens Speech 5, one adversary is dismissed as a pick your nose and eat it gyal; elsewhere, her lyrics are changed to reflect her surroundings: I cant stand girls who take their wellies off in the rave, Ill step on your big toe to teach you how to behave.


Wigging out: Suggs with Madness. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Curiously, it doesnt feel jarring at all to leave her performance and go and see Madness, who draw an immense crowd to the Pyramid stage. Id like to apologise to anyone whos camping near my family some of them seemed to move away this morning, says Suggs, who does have the air of a man who has recently been enjoying himself in time-honoured Glastonbury style. The success of their performance is about as close to a foregone conclusion as you can get the sun comes out during Our House, It Must Be Love retains its nonpareil ability to make everything seem temporarily all right with the world, the crowd let out a collective aw when the stage is flooded with the bands children and grandchildren. But its not without its surprises: quite aside from Suggss increasingly wayward between-song pronouncements, theres both a beautiful cover of David Bowies Kooks and a baffling interlude where proceedings are halted in order for guitarist Chris Foreman to sing a karaoke version of AC/DCs Highway to Hell.

In the John Peel tent, John Grant seems to be having one of those fabled Glastonbury moments where festival mood and music combine into something that feels genuinely magical. He has flu, he complains, and hes losing his voice. But when it gives out, on Glacier, a tumultuous version of Queen of Denmark and GMF, the audience take up the slack, to hugely moving effect: you realise how much the lyrics of these songs at turns coruscatingly bitchy and tender and warm mean to people. Grant looks authentically overawed: later he takes to Facebook and calls it one of the greatest experiences he has ever had on stage.


Every inch the rock star: Matty Healy of the 1975. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Elsewhere, the 1975s Matty Healy has helpfully turned up on stage dressed as a rock star white flared suit, sunglasses, cigarette dangling from lip but, like Hlose Letissier, his onstage persona is an intriguing, engaging combination of the knowingly mannered and the heartfelt. He moves like a man who took that motivational poem about dancing as if no one is watching very much to heart; his bands clever repurposing of 80s AOR replete with a saxophone played by a man dressed as a mid-80s saxophonist, his flowing locks tousled by the breeze sounds flatly fantastic here.

By contrast, Tame Impala, parachuted into the pre-Adele slot, struggle a little to connect. Theres nothing wrong with their music, which sounds every bit as dense and spectacular as it does on record a polished, individual 21st-century reboot of psychedelia but, with the best will in their world, they are not a band overflowing with charisma on stage.

The announcement of Adele as Saturday-night headliner met with considerable controversy: you dont have to be implacably opposed to her brand of multi-platinum heartbroken balladry to see why. Indeed, she can see it herself: I dont have a lot of upbeat happy songs, which is why I think people were annoyed, she says from the stage. But fuck them, eh?


Charm offensive: swearing and perfect delivery from Adele won over the Saturday-night crowd. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA
She neednt have worried: the crowd she draws is absolutely vast, even by the standards of Saturday-night Pyramid stage headliners, underlining the fact that she is currently the biggest pop star in the world. In the middle of it, a boy sits on a camping chair, doggedly ignoring everything around him in favour of playing Minecraft on his iPad, but everyone else seems almost as delighted to see her as she is to see them: initially, she keeps squawking the words, Fuckin ell, in the middle of songs, as if she cant believe whats happening, later showing a video of her first Glastonbury performance to a tiny audience in a Guardian-sponsored acoustic tent nine years ago as evidence of why she might be feeling flabbergasted. Indeed, theres something pretty winning about the dramatic contrast between Adele the singer a composed, effortless, unshowy vocalist, still capable of injecting real emotion into songs she now must have sung thousands of times and Adele the person who takes to the microphone between songs and asks if anyone in the audience has shit themselves over the course of the weekend. Is there piss in that cup? she enquires of someone in the front row. Dont throw it at me.

Unperturbed by the lack of almost anything you can dance to in her set there are potent versions of Rumour Has It and Rolling in the Deep, but otherwise its ballads all the way the audience lap up her charm offensive, which extends to diving into the crowd and re-emerging wearing a fez, and bringing a 10-year-old girl on stage, asking her what her favourite colour is and taking a selfie with her. You could argue its got a whiff of the end-of-the-pier about it, but, equally, theres something pretty bracing about her absolute refusal to conform to the standard notions of festival headlining cool: perhaps one of the side-effects of selling 50m albums is that you develop a keenly defined sense of self.

She ends with Someone Like You, which is both her biggest hit and an oddly downbeat conclusion. She leaves the stage before it ends: there is no encore. No one seems to mind: they drift off into the night, still singing its chorus en masse.

By Sunday, its hard to avoid the sense that the conditions on site are starting to wear on people a little: even Michael Eavis, a man who you suspect would still find a way of declaring it the best Glastonbury ever if the site were subjected to an outbreak of plague, is paying sombre tribute to the fortitude of anyone who has stuck it out. ELO roll out the hits to an audience whose enthusiasm is impressively undimmed, but there is no mistaking the ripple of hollow laughter that greets the line in Mr Blue Sky about there not being a cloud in sight: the skies are a blanket of slate grey and constant drizzle. It feels bizarrely like being at a festival on overcast afternoon in November.

Elsewhere, PJ Harvey reads out John Donnes Meditation XVII in protest at the Brexit vote in the middle of a really powerful set. It is heavy on both the twisted, doomy blues that powers her most recent album The Hope Six Demolition Project, and the singers knowingly arch, stylised, regal posturing. Meanwhile, its hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of the crowd that Kamasi Washington draws to the West Holts stage. Modern jazz artists who transcend the limited audience for modern jazz tend to do so by popping up their sound, much to the disgust of purists You want to do crossover? Crossover my black ass, as Miles Davis once rasped but Washington seems to have done it without compromising his music at all. His sound is tough and funky, sometimes beautiful, sometimes confrontational, about as far removed from the world of Michael Parkinson-approved jazz-lite as its possible to get.

On the main stage, Beck looks a little bewildered, as a gentleman born, raised and still resident in the sun-kissed loveliness of California is perhaps wont to be when confronted with the sight of what is officially muddiest Glastonbury ever. Nevertheless, his performance cuts a crowd-pleasing, populist swathe through his eclectic back catalogue E-Pro, Loser, a lot of stuff from Odelay. He joins the ranks of artists keen to pay homage to the late David Bowie, encouraging his guitarist to perform China Girl. It might have made for a more heartfelt tribute if he had actually known the words, but the audience seem to decide that its the thought that counts.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Shamelessly corny and hugely effective: Chris Martin of Coldplay. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

What is needed on the Pyramid stage as Glastonbury draws to a close is not a head-spinningly original and challenging exploration of rocks bleeding edge, but something comforting and familiar the musical equivalent of a baked potato. Enter Coldplay, stadium rocks answer to Spudulike, to an accompaniment of fireworks and a tape of a voice saying: You the people have the power. It is tempting to go: yeah, and look where exercising it has got us. But a suitable degree of cynicism is genuinely hard to maintain in light of what follows. Its our favourite place in the world, says Chris Martin as he walks on stage: by the conclusion of Yellow, hes thanking the audience for restoring our faith in the world.

The audience, for their part, start bellowing along and dont really stop for the next hour and a half: through Every Teardrop is a Waterfall, a version of Paradise that now comes with a pounding house coda attached, Viva La Vida and Fix You, the latter a song that always sounds substantially less mawkish when thousands of people are singing along. The trick of distributing thousands of flashing wristbands to the crowd and getting them to wave their arms in time to the music is both shamelessly corny and hugely effective as the night draws in.

They eschew a cover of David Bowies Heroes in favour of paying tribute to Viola Beach, the young band who were killed in car accident earlier this year: showing a video of them playing their debut single, then joining in the song themselves, creating an alternative future for them. They also seem to have noticed that the other Pyramid stage headliners havent done anything particularly out of the ordinary, and that its down to them to, as Martin puts it, pull out all the stops to make it special.

For an encore, they bring out first Barry Gibb to sing To Love Somebody and Staying Alive, then Michael Eavis to sing My Way. People, understandably, go nuts: you can, if youre so minded, mock Coldplays innate musical conservatism, their shameless emotional button-pushing, but youd have a hard time arguing that they dont make perfect sense in a setting such as this. What is the point of Coldplay? is an oft-asked question among more waspish music fans and critics. Tonight, the fairly obvious answer seems to be: well, this.

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