Glastonbury’s Live at Worthy Farm, review: Livestreamed festival was a triumph – despite its technical hitches
Even in the best of years, two Glastonburys exist simultaneously. There is the 900-acre City of Blown Minds that materialises in the vales of Avalon each solstice moon, where 150,000 people lose themselves in the ley lines of experience and, legend has it, certain bands play somewhere beyond Flag Forest. And, for the losers in life’s great booking page refresh, there is the cornucopia of up-close digital delights hiding behind the BBC’s red button, like the Imaginarium of Jo Wiley.
This year, we were all red-buttoners. Glastonbury 2021, cancelled for the second time running due to Covid, mustered online instead for a five-hour bill of old regulars and future headliners live from Worthy Farm. Widespread “invalid code” technical hitches acted as the five-hour queue for the car park. After 90 minutes of online rage from 100,000 locked-out punters, a bloke from Preston kicked down the digital super-fence and posted a contraband stream link on Twitter, forcing the organisers to throw open the gates and declare Glastonbury 2021 a free festival. Spirit of 1995 ensured.
Finally inside, Michael Eavis welcomed us with a quick verse of Tennyson while, in the customary downpour, the acts scattered across the bare bones of the site, there to represent the pilgrimages and experiences of the regular lost Glastonbury weekend. George Ezra held a one-man acoustic singalong beside a gigantic bonfire at Strummerville, embodying the bluesy acoustic troubadour that keeps the campsite up all night, complete with mild yodelling on “Budapest”. The rich psychedelic soul of Michael Kiwanuka – by turns retro funk, emotive balladry and Hendrix-gone-ragga psych rock, dipping into the golden eras to find fresh ways forward – stood in for the sort of wild, trippy party you fall through a hedge into at 2am.
Jorja Smith, a woman seemingly allergic to consonants, transformed a tranquil glade into an exotic eastern cocktail lounge, her by-numbers modern soul the essence of the West Holts Stage vibe. Idels, howling their brutal – yet accessible – barrages of fury, compassion, upended masculinity and class war in Eavis’s secret, red-strobed slaughterhouse full of surreal metalwork monsters (and featuring a besuited, moustachioed guitarist flailing around like a crazed Mike Wozniak) were the punk equivalent of Arcadia’s fire-breathing mecha-spider.
Kae Tempest, George the Poet and PJ Harvey brought the arcane poetry; Kurupt FM played the backstage blaggers trying to dodge the VIP area security. And up on King’s Field, the stone circle acted as a B-stage, where Haim’s beach-ready Californian country and synthetic highway pop defied the drizzle for a few brief moments (“thank you mother earth!” cried face-pulling bassist Este Haim, a living gif) and Wolf Alice arrived swathed in smoke, full of mysticism and menace. With their moments of pixie-light pop, elemental doom rock and airy euphoria, they best captured the Arthurian magic of the setting: “Believe in love!” singer Ellie Rowsell cried like a ceremonial incantation over the elemental rock of “Formidable Cool”, while guitarist Joff Oddie hoiked one foot on a stone like it was Merlin’s own arena monitor. They personified the unpredictable abandon of Glastonbury too, one minute wrenching hearts with lustrous piano ballad “The Last Man on Earth”, the next rolling around in the Sacred Space like the end of a long night on the psychedelic cider.
Glastonbury 2021 let its fireworks off early. At just 9pm, in the centre of a gigantic disc of pulsating colour that filled the entire Pyramid Stage field with individual lights like an alien landscape, Coldplay pulled out all the stops: pyrotechnics, dancing lasers, even their own sampled crowd roars. And hit upon hit upon hit; the Eighties gloss pop of new single “Higher Power” gave way to rain-soaked tearjerker “The Scientist” and a “Viva la Vida” so infectious you didn’t care where the strings were coming from. There was even a “dream sequence” where Chris Martin took a journey inside his own mind to sing an a capella “Human Heart” with LA R&B trio KING. “This is our home and we’re happy to be here,” Martin beamed and, for the first time in Glastonbury’s televised history, the viewing public at home wished they too were standing in a storm in Somerset.
Back at the stone circle, beneath a low-hanging inflatable moon, Damon Albarn chose to follow this phenomenal, effervescent spectacle with 40 minutes of his most obscure, haunted and downbeat material, often drenched in space radar noises. It could have been a disaster, but as a reflection of our national frailty it worked, thanks to some sublime moments: the desolate medieval cabaret of “Apple Carts”; the forlorn hula of The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s “The Poison Tree”; a stripped-bare “On Melancholy Hill”; a lullaby “This Is a Low”. And if you thought Albarn was being self-indulgent, hold Radiohead’s pint.
Most Glastonburys involve racing across site to catch a secret guest slot you’ve heard is going to be Taylor Swift but turns out to be Thom Yorke forcing carrots through a paper shredder, and this one was no exception. Announced with a few hours’ notice, The Smile – aka Yorke, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner – took to the Greenpeace Field’s Hive installation to play a set of unheard songs ranging from math rock to ambient alt-folk, Fall-like post-punk and hypnotic drone pop. Radiohead seem to exist in a gaseous state these days, and this side-project was similarly – albeit pleasantly – formless. Guitar lines peeled from Greenwood’s fretboard in layers, funk basslines got lost on the way to the rhythm, time signatures seemed to have been decided by the Countdown numbers board. “Okay, if you like that kind of thing,” Yorke self-reviewed in the final number.
At which point, Glastonbury 2021 was Kano’s for the stealing, and he didn’t miss his chance. In a blinding white suit, on a video dancefloor, Britain’s most sophisticated rap artist staged a dynamic, dramatic and furious grime tour de force rivalling Stormzy for showmanship and any rapper on earth for lyrical skill. This guy raps soliloquies, delivering incisive, moving and inflamed rhymes over cinematic backing tracks, tackling postcode wars, Black struggle and gang violence with florid brilliance. All the while, brass bands circled, orchestras appeared from nowhere and guest rappers engaged him in rap confrontations worthy of Mercutio and Tybalt. The devastating flourish: the music dropped out midway through a track to real-life audio from the scene of a stabbing while mourners in white gathered for a stirring gospel “Trouble”. Bravo.
As the stream closed with a DJ Honey Dijon set from a rave bus swarming with NYC Downlow dancers Live at Worthy Farm, for all its technical hitches had proved a triumph in emulating the head-spinning vitality and variety of the wildest weekend on earth. So immersive, we almost lost the car.
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