When I drove into the Glastonbury site last Sunday afternoon, the woman on accreditation asked if I knew my way around the site. In theory, yes, but not without its traditional landmarks – over five normal days at the festival, you navigate by stages, food stalls and flags. (“I’m four metres in front and five metres to the left of the Bob Marley flag. You can’t miss me!”) With none of that present during the filming of Live at Worthy Farm this week – a five-hour film of special, one-off performances streaming tonight – I wondered how I would tell one field from the next. Strangely, magically, it all still made sense – the millions of steps I have taken there over the years had clearly left a permanent imprint on my brain.
A smoke machine billows smoke behind a stone at the Stone Circle.
Memorial trees planted in the Stone Circle field.
Perhaps the festival’s most famous sites are its Pyramid stage – which was steadily being dressed with lights ahead of Coldplay filming there on Friday – and the Stone Circle. The latter is not an ancient structure from the age of Stonehenge, as I once drunkenly claimed to some impressed American friends witnessing it for the first time, but dates back to the historical era of … 1992.
Nonetheless, it has accrued its own magic over those three decades, becoming its own pilgrimage (often at sunrise, after a very long night) within the context of the festival – and outside of it. “That stone circle alone can tell millions and millions of stories,” said Emily Eavis, daughter of the festival’s founder, Michael, and its co-organiser. Lots of people ask to visit to propose there or spread loved ones’ ashes. Memorial trees dot the upper reaches of the field – the one with the Chelsea scarf was only planted this year.
Usually, the only music coming from the Stone Circle is a tinny pulse or new age chime from someone’s phone. This week, acts including Wolf Alice, Haim and Damon Albarn performed inside it. Tom Gilding, a site co-ordinator, said it had been the most challenging part of the farm to work with. “It’s very special to a lot of people. And the land is quite steep, it’s high up on the hill. So we have to be very careful to have as minimal impact as possible, and leave it exactly how we found it, ideally.”
Flags that have been sent in by members of the public are laid out to be filmed.
Last month, Glastonbury asked fans of the festival to send in homemade flags to feature in the livestream, suggesting themes of diversity and equality, “a cleaner, greener, fairer world”, love, the rainbow and freedom to protest. (Fabric only – no plastic or glitter.) They received a few hundred said Emily. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but I found it really, really emotional looking through them – they’re these beautiful, handmade, hand-stitched, gorgeous messages of love and earth. It’s so sweet, all this effort.”
For Live at Worthy Farm, they’ll be displayed down the railway line. At future festivals, they’ll become a banner wall. “And then we’ll just keep using them until they have no life left in them because they’re so good. They’re gorgeous.”
Michael Kiwanuka’s performance inside a tent in the Icon field.
Michael Kiwanuka was supposed to perform in an open field until heavy rain on Sunday afternoon prompted the swift build of a tent. It wasn’t the only technical issue: recording was delayed by a few minutes as the crew waited for a noisy JCB to make its comically sluggish exit from the field. Kiwanuka also carried his Converse around until the last minute to protect them from the mud. His set was the first live music I’ve heard since 11 March 2020. Even the sound of his drummer sound checking – a noise I’d usually go out of my way to avoid – felt thrilling, and woke up some very dormant synapses.
Technical production manager Emma Reynolds-Taylor said his set made her emotional. “We were all really taking in the vibe and realising what a privileged position we’re all in – not just the people who work in the industry but British music fans, the fact we’ve got this amazing British talent. It’s a really good chance to celebrate some of that at this livestream.”
A heavy downpour of rain during Michael Kiwanuka’s set.
Emily said they hadn’t had anyone trying to break into the recording (if they had, they wouldn’t have been able to hear much, as most of the music was only audible on the artists’ monitors). But neighbours are generally allowed to walk around the site. I think I spotted two during Kiwanuka’s set, holding two pink-clad babies up over the hedge so they could see the action.
The festival without crowds
During a normal Glastonbury festival, trees are shelter and waymarkers to find friends; the ground is either a welly-swallowing bog or conveniently compacted, dusty and brown. The blank canvas of the farm showcased the nature in its own right.
An early morning view of a field and track on Worthy Farm. This field would be Leftfield, during a typical Glastonbury festival.
Wild garlic in the Block 9 field; Cow Parsley on Muddy Lane on Worthy Farm.
Early morning on the old railway track that spans the Glastonbury festival site from east to west.
A hare runs among the trees where the Glade stage would usually sit.
They staged the event at this time of year, said Emily, because the site is at its most beautiful. They found otters living here recently. The grass is thick and full of dandelions that are usually trampled underfoot. Abundant cow parsley frills the edges of the fields, and there’s a powerful smell of wild garlic. Even the smell of wet grass, usually smothered by the scents from various food stalls, could stop you in your tracks.
Despite growing up on the farm and working here every day, Emily said she still felt a strong sense of the site’s magic. “I feel a slight tingle of excitement and a really familiar feeling that I’ve had my whole life. There’s a slightly wired energy to it: ah! There’s something happening and it’s building and people are going to experience this!”
At the Stone Circle
A drone’s eye view of Wolf Alice playing at the Stone Circle.
Wolf Alice’s last show was at the 2019 Pilton Party, the event that Emily and Michael Eavis throw for locals as a thanks for putting up with the summer madness. “We’re picking up where we left off,” said guitarist and singer Ellie Rowsell on Monday. The band had just arrived at their cabin and whooped at the familiar sight of a fridge stocked with beers.
“It’s an honour,” bassist Theo Ellis said of being asked to play. “Especially when we saw that the lineup is so curated and stripped down. It’s always amazing when you get the email saying they’ve actually asked you to play Glastonbury, regardless, so this context is really special.”
The Mercury prize winners have been sitting on their forthcoming third album, Blue Weekend, for the best part of a year. On Monday evening they play a few songs from it for the first time: How Can I Make It OK? in particular shows off the massively expanded range of Rowsell’s voice, so strong it’s audible unamplified over the quiet monitor mix.
Wolf Alice chatting to the crew.
Director Paul Dugdale said the brief for Wolf Alice’s show was to keep it as stripped back as possible. “There’s a little bit of smoke and fire, but that is literally it. It’s almost like it’s not a recorded performance, it’s just a happening that we’ve stumbled across and we’re capturing it.” The Stone Circle is also known as the Swan Circle, he points out. “And Ellie in white, that just seems so perfect.”
The band played in the round, facing inwards: during soundcheck, Rowsell grinned at her bandmates and said how nice it is to be able to see their faces. At the end of the proper set, Rowsell played her guitar over her head then collapsed on the ground. Ellis joined her on the floor, then guitarist Joff Oddie picked him up, upside down, and carried him off.
Known for their live shows, they were adamant that the government needs to do more to rescue the live music industry, including backing an insurance scheme for festivals. “It’s financially a lifeline for almost every artist and crew,” said Ellis. “We know the situation with streaming is not necessarily balanced.”
Set riggers take a break during Wolf Alice’s set.
Drone pilot Ibrahim Serra-Mohammed (right) and drone camera operator Tom Elliott from Ascension Films wear full camouflage outfits during the filming of Wolf Alice’s set.
“This is the thing though, isn’t it,” said Oddie. “People forget that we’re not just talking about artists, we’re talking about crew, all the infrastructure that goes into it, the people who work at the bar, the cleaners, the doormen. It’s a huge, huge industry and so many people’s livelihoods. The insurance thing is so, so sad.”
“It seems strange that there’s 7,000 people at the FA Cup final,” said Ellis, “and that’s accepted, then there’s all these anxieties around [live music].”
“Maybe it’s years of the music industry badmouthing the Tories,” said Oddie.
Haim at the Stone Circle, shot from a tall monopod.
When I arrived on Sunday, Emily was looking for anoraks to lend Haim, who had played the festival three times previously but somehow never on a wet year. Their set at the Stone Circle was a gamble with the weather – gazebos covered their multiple stages until the last minute, but the rain snuck in anyway, prompting Emily to join the crew in giving the shiny, silver centrepiece one final polish. Fortunately, the rain held off during their performance, and the fantastically moody clouds cleared. For the song Now I’m in It, from their 2020 album Women in Music Part III, they moved to an auxiliary stage and – in true Stone Circle style – Alana Haim had a good go on some bongos.
Staging a significantly smaller event let Emily get more involved with the creative side of the festival than usual. Tackling the King’s Meadow – where the Stone Circle sits – was a particular highlight. “We needed to light it in a really beautiful way and make it really special,” she said.
Emily Eavis helps to dry the stage after rainfall at the Stone Circle, before Haim start their performance.
“The common thread between all the artists that are here,” said Emily, “is that they’ve all had great, different moments of importance over the history of the festival. It’s more than a gig – they’re helping us out as well because we’re not paying them. We feel incredibly lucky to have had the bands that we’ve got, so we’re like, ‘Come in! Have a bath! Share our – whatever, you know? We’re all in it together. It’s lovely. Very humbling.”
Sustainability on site
When Glastonbury’s solar panelling was installed in 2010, it was for a while the biggest privately owned solar farm in the UK. “Solar is totally where it’s at,” said Emily.
Three years ago, they build an anaerobic digester, which converts methane from the dairy farm’s plentiful cow manure into electricity. “It’s been a game-changer, said Emily. Combined, the two renewable sources power the festival’s production. “And then we make so much electricity that we sell it back to the grid.” A few years ago, they also converted the farm’s Land Rovers from diesel to electric: Wolf Alice are filmed riding up to their set in the back of one.
Thirty-six years ago, Joe Rush and the Mutoid Waste Company drove a burned-out truck with a giant skull on the front and a ribcage on the back into Glastonbury and parked it in front of the Pyramid stage. He and Michael Eavis had a huge row in the mud. “I was very arsy in those days so I was being very obnoxious to him and he was being very uppity with me,” said Rush. Then Arabella Churchill, who ran the theatre and children’s areas, said it could go in her field. Peace was made and with it a lifelong creative relationship: Rush went on to found the festival areas Trash City, Arcadia and NYC Downlow (with Block9) and most recently the giant Glastonbury-on-Sea pier. “I often have big arguments with people I end up really friendly with,” said Rush, “and Michael’s one of my best friends now.”
Up at the top of the farm, past the multicoloured barrels, Rush has an on-site warehouse named Carhenge (after one early, self-explanatory festival artwork) that he usually works out of for a few months a year in the run-up to Glastonbury. Later in the week, Bristol punk band Idles will record here – the plan is for singer Joe Talbot to drive one of Rush’s mutated vehicles into the warehouse to kick things off.
Outside, a hairy, lifesize model polar bear swayed its articulated head in the breeze. On the back wall is a giant half-globe, painted by Rush’s father a few months before he died, which hung over the Pyramid stage in 2019. There is a rusted vehicle with a bird-like beak, and ceiling-high racks of classic cars that form the seating of the festival’s Cineramageddon area (and some of which were part of the parade at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony).
A pale blue car has Mavis Staples’ name emblazoned on the side. “I love her and I wanted to talk to her about Martin Luther King,” said Rush. “So I built her this and picked her up at the gate to show some respect. She said, ‘I had this car! This is a ‘57 Cadillac. I did 170,000 miles in it and I wrecked it!’”
Festival bins stacked up near to Carhenge on the outer reaches of the Worthy Farm.
Rush said working with the Eavises always feels optimistic: “Everyone’s trying to work out how to make things happen, whereas you go and work in other places where everyone’s trying to think of why you can’t do something.” (Emily said she encourages the artists who run the festival’s various areas to do their own thing. “We’re like, you want to build a pier? Sure! No one else is mad enough to do it, that’s the unique thing about [Glastonbury].”) He describes his work as “rock’n’roll art – simple, large, easy to take on board, quite humorous” and the festival’s utopian ideals as being like “Asterix De Gaulle’s little village holding out against the Romans with a little fence around us”.
Arts Council funding got Rush through the last year. He said the government has “only just started to twig that entertainment and music and performance arts is one of the biggest industries in this country, but it’s too late: they’ve ruined it.”
Someone from production arrived to say the power had to go off because there was a threat of lightning. I wondered whether the skull car from 85 is still in here anywhere. “No, that’s long gone,” said Rush. “My thing was about mutation. Nothing was sacred, you know?”
Jorja Smith being prepared for her performance in the Icon field.
Guardian photographer David Levene arrived the day before me to shoot Jorja Smith, Honey Dijon and Róisín Murphy. Despite the minimal amount of performances, he said his workload didn’t feel dissimilar to a regular Glastonbury. “It’s always a massive slog for me as a photographer, particularly because you’re trying to have as much fun as possible and do as much work as possible.” Despite the lack of partying this year, he felt as tired as he would usually be. No complaints, though. “It was amazing to be back there and I’ll take any excuse to get back on site.”
Jorja Smith gets her makeup touched up.
Last year, David took his son to the site to photograph it on what would have been the festival’s 50th anniversary – and his boy’s first Glastonbury. “We sat at the Stone Circle and I told him stories and he didn’t quite get them. I was really lucky to go there last year and this year and have my time with the site. I do believe in the Glastonbury magic. As we all know, the Stone Circle is not a real stone circle, but it just feels special every time to spend time there. It has a lot to do with memory recall, wandering around and putting yourself back into places you’ve been in recent years.”
Early on Monday evening, a group of children from a Shepherd’s Bush school walked the 3-metre-tall puppet Little Amal through the Shangri-La field. She is modelled on an unaccompanied Syrian refugee girl: in July, she will “walk” from the Turkey/Syria border across Europe to Manchester to raise awareness of those who undertake that “incredibly perilous journey”, said co-producer Tracey Seaward. Made by the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company (who did War Horse) in conjunction with Good Chance theatre, Amal (which means “hope” in Arabic) will be one of the biggest public artworks ever attempted.
Seaward helped the Eavises bring the Dalai Lama to Glastonbury for his 80th birthday in 2015. It started a friendship with Emily and her husband, Nick Dewey, who supported other campaigns Seaward worked on pertaining to the refugee crisis and the plight of unaccompanied children. She invited them to be part of Amal’s journey, and in turn, they invited her to be part of Live at Worthy Farm.
In each location Amal visits, she will have a different experience. At Glastonbury, three of the children read a poem, No One Knows My Name, written by Good Chance Theatre artistic director Amir Nizar Zuabi, in which Amal describes her memories of the home and family she has left.
Strikingly, said Seaward, the children don’t like to describe Amal as a puppet. “Because she’s a real, living embodiment of a friend to them. In the first workshop, one of the children whispered, ‘I think Amal loves me.’ And everyone wants to hold her hand. When we were filming at the start of the week, all of a sudden we heard them chanting, ‘You can do it, you can do it!’, which came out of nowhere.”
When I talked to director Paul Dugdale on Thursday, he spoke at a speed that suggested a man perilously conscious of time. He had hardly slept all week. The weather had his team “on tenterhooks every day”. Coldplay are the last to record on Friday, then it’s straight into the editing suite, likely delivering the film just a few hours before it premieres, then collapsing with “a bottle of something”.
The best part, he said, was watching a project months in the making emerge from plans on his laptop and endless Zoom calls into real life. “All of the stress and the late nights and the hard work is literally before your eyes turning into something really incredible and very special, and something that I hope will be a record of music at this time.”
The musical performances are connected by various spoken-word contributions from the likes of PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker, Kae Tempest and George the Poet. The idea, said Dugdale, was for them to be “a voice of the festival in a way”. The brief to the artists was to “give a message of hope, a sense of a reset after this year and a move forward”.
Jorja Smith’s monitor engineer Karima.
For Dugdale, there is also a sense of coming full circle. His dad worked at Glastonbury as a cameraman in 1994. Fourteen at the time, he didn’t really understand why his father was so mind-blown by it, and so it became “a source of incredible curiosity – it sounded like such an adventure”.
Two years later, Dugdale made his Glastonbury debut and understood what his dad meant. “I have such enormously fond memories of many, many different years of being here,” he said. “Getting to meet Michael Eavis is like getting to meet David Bowie or something. It’s completely extraordinary to meet somebody so culturally significant. And a thoroughly, thoroughly lovely man.”
Honey Dijon plays a set from a bus inside Block9.
On Saturday night, from a custom bus designed by Block9 – the artistic crew behind the festival’s multi-venue clubbing area (AKA the naughty corner) – Chicago’s Honey Dijon spun remixes of tracks from her forthcoming album, as well as her takes on Lady Gaga, Channel Tres and Gabriels. “Since there hasn’t been a festival in two years, it was about bringing a bit of that New York City Downlow energy back,” she said, referring to the on-site venue styled like a Meatpacking District queer club.
She hands down won the week’s outfit game in a red leather ensemble by R&M Leathers. The matching heels came off until she had safely traversed the mud. “I wasn’t going to ruin my shoes, darling,” she said. “So you know, we had trainers onto the bus.”
Coming out of the pandemic, she wanted to dress up. “We’ve all been sitting in sweat clothes for the last year. And I wanted to feel beautiful and have fun and bring a little bit of Grace Jones, who has always been an inspiration for me.”
She was freezing. “But I didn’t care.”
Professional ravers warm up before Honey Dijon.
For many Glastonbury-goers, the naughty corner is the only time they ever go clubbing, not to mention queer clubbing. Does it ever feel touristy? “No, it’s stayed true to its origins – sex, champagne and hairspray,” said Dijon. “Surprisingly, we haven’t watered anything down. It’s just that culture has caught up.”
Halfway through Dijon’s set, Róisín Murphy popped out of the bus in a billowing lime green look. “Sickest green you’ve ever seen!” she laughed when we spoke a few days later. She discovered Block9 the last time she played the festival when cofounder Gideon Berger invited her to do a surprise performance at NYC Downlow. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “With the car flying into a building and the whole world they build. It was really properly dirty and properly amazing in the club bit.”
Róisín Murphy makes a special appearance during Honey Dijon’s set.
Murphy – a veteran of foundational clubbing scenes in Manchester and Sheffield – should know. “All the geezers that I’ve known through the years in the scene were there. It was a really amazing thing, I had a really good night meeting loads of people that I’d known throughout my life. And I did my impromptu set, and all the drag queens joined me on stage and I had my KLF shirt on. And it was the day they’d voted in Brexit, so can you imagine the energy?”
She’s missed the opportunity to perform the past year, but said the space it’s left has given musicians time to reassess the commercial foundations of their careers. “You can see artists are more or less trying to take the music industry to court at the moment,” she said, referencing the ongoing fight for fair payment at Spotify and for songwriters to receive credit for their work. “It’s fucking tough, but there’s going to be a big shakeup, which – the way I am – I find exciting.”
The sun sets over Glastonbury.
Midweek, Jarvis Cocker recorded his spoken-word part – his attempt to encapsulate the unpredictability of any given day at Glastonbury. The festival means a lot to him, he said: in 1995, Pulp were asked to step in and headline at the last minute after the Stone Roses cancelled. It was such short notice, they had to camp behind the main stage. In 2011, they staged a surprised comeback show here; more recently, Cocker has often DJed at the Stonebridge Bar in the Park stage.
“It’s kind what you would hope society could be like,” he said of the festival. “Suddenly a city appears overnight and there’s a lot of people, and a lot of those people are intoxicated in some way. And there isn’t much of a police presence. So it shows that an unregulated or self-regulated society can work. And the way our country’s going at the moment, that’s quite a good thing to remember.”
• Live at Worthy Farm streams from 8pm tonight. Tickets cost £20 from glastonburylivestream.seetickets.com