It is Sunday afternoon in Somerset, and Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis is darting around her farmhouse looking for coats for Haim to wear. The Los Angeles sisters have just arrived to record their performance for Live at Worthy Farm, a global livestream – premiering tonight online and in cinemas – that will stand in for the real festival after Covid forced Glastonbury to cancel for two years running. Later this week, the likes of Coldplay, Damon Albarn and Kano will visit the farm to record their sets in the festival’s best-known locations.
Having played here three times previously, Haim know wellies are non-negotiable. But somehow, says Eavis as she appears from upstairs – passing a photo of David Bowie outside the family home in 1971 – they’ve never played one of the festival’s infamously wet years, and so didn’t bring anoraks. She delivers them to the festival office next door, now a makeshift changing room.
It’s so long since the last festival that Eavis says her kids – aged five, eight and 10 – had forgotten what preparations were like until this renewed week of activity. Her husband, Nick Dewey, is walking their six-month-old lockdown puppy Clover around the site. “It’s great,” she says of the hustle and bustle. “It feels very much like we’re back in the 70s when Taj Mahal used to sing goodnight lullabies to everyone.”
Out on the farm, it is intermittently chucking it down and furiously windy. The weather is a constant in an otherwise alien landscape: no tents, no crowds, no bassy thud from the stages, no tempting fug of burgers and curry from the food stalls, meaning you can really smell the wild garlic in the hedgerows. The permanent Pyramid stage structure, stripped of its usual cladding, stands spookily skeletal.
Pockets of industry are hidden across the site as livestream director Paul Dugdale and livestream company Driift, along with Glastonbury’s regular crew, assemble the bespoke staging for each act. It is meticulous work: during Haim’s set, a producer asks people to remove hi-vis jackets as they pop too loudly on camera; the drone camera operators are camouflaged with foliage. Building started 10 days ago, says Eavis. “That’s what we’ve loved most – having everyone here working, getting the crew all back, to be using the farm in that way again. It’s like unearthing a giant fossil.”
The weather means they have to be adaptable: a tent is quickly erected as a downpour threatens Michael Kiwanuka’s set – and the box-fresh Converse he carries around to protect from the mud until it’s time to film. The crack of a drum during his soundcheck is the first live music I hear in 15 months: it is electrifying. Up in the famous Stone Circle, Haim’s staging is covered by gazebos until the last possible minute. Still, a brief shower intrudes, and Eavis joins the crew on hands and knees to dry the shiny, silver central platform.
The film will last five hours, the music interspersed with spoken-word pieces from artists including PJ Harvey and Jarvis Cocker, and festival founder Michael Eavis reciting a poem under an oak tree planted by his great-grandfather. The aim, says Dugdale, who speaks at a speed suggesting a man with a perilously tight schedule and little time to sleep, was to “take people on an adventure through the evening so you hopefully experience one wild night at Glastonbury festival”.
The festival’s unpredictability is what makes it unique, says Cocker, who has tried to reflect that spirit in his poem. “I’m impressed that they’ve managed to keep that side of it going because the festival has grown so much over the years. And people have got different times that they think it went wrong – ‘now they’ve got cashpoints, that’s the end of it’ – but whatever happens, it adapts and still keeps some of its character.” What might he get stuck into on site, in between his latter day DJ sets up at the Stonebridge Bar? “Well, maybe a little pottery,” he says drily.
The programming spans the festival’s breadth. On the significantly sunnier Monday, a group of London schoolchildren walk through a field with Little Amal, a three-metre-tall puppet of a young, unaccompanied Syrian refugee girl. In July, she will “walk” from the Turkey/Syria border to Manchester to tell the stories of refugee children. “She reflects the ethos of Glastonbury,” says producer Tracey Seaward. “Activism, small-p politics, performance, poetry, persuasion, spectacle, theatre, dance, art. She has such a strong presence of her own that the moment will be an opportunity for reflection. One of our messages has always been, ‘don’t forget about us’.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the closing performance by DJ Honey Dijon with a guest appearance from Róisín Murphy. Block9, the producers of the festival’s late-night clubbing areas, customised a bus for Dijon, installing a performance side flap and an internal catwalk for her dancers. “We were trying to recreate the energy of the early days of Glastonbury when it was very DIY and the new age travellers were having raves with their buses,” says Chicago-born Dijon.
She says the festival is unique as a mainstream-leaning event that “celebrates the roots of dance music, which is queer, BIPOC people. “It’s really important that Glastonbury can give it that profile and hopefully influence other mainstream festivals around the world to see how important a contribution that queer culture and people make to the arts, to the world and humanity.”
On site, there is the sense not just of Glastonbury returning, but a microcosm of the entire music industry – one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic – springing back to life.
Tom Gilding is a site coordinator responsible for infrastructure. The affable Bristolian lost “six months of work in one go” when events were cancelled last March, he says during a break outside catering. Only self-employed since 2019, he wasn’t eligible for government support. “I’d had quite a good year that year, so it was quite gutting to have all this proof of earnings but that whole tax year wasn’t included.”
The Association of Independent Festivals recently issued a “red alert” after more than 25% of medium-sized UK festivals cancelled their 2021 events because the government refused to back an indemnity scheme. (Of AIF members, 92% say they won’t be able to go ahead without insurance, says CEO Paul Reed.) The potential cultural loss should be taken as seriously as the financial deficits, say British four-piece Wolf Alice – a band clearly back in their element as they whoop at getting backstage, vibrate as PJ Harvey arrives and enjoy speculating on the identity of the mystery guests billed on their cabin as “T&J”.
“One of the most formative experiences of our lives is playing the John Peel stage [in 2014],” says bassist Theo Ellis. “We genuinely were the most nervous we’ve ever been, and that level of exposure was so significant for us. It was such a test of seeing whether you could operate in that environment.”
Outside a production cabin is a familiar poster from the Glastonbury Free Press, the daily onsite newspaper that usually publishes during the festival. “Where will you be watching?” it asks in that instantly recognisable, one-stroke typeface. One of those watching at home will be Manchester artist and Glastonbury obsessive Nathan Carroll, who has painted a bin with an image of the Tor, recreated the giant “GLASTONBURY” signage, made a mini version of the iconic Ribbon Tower, designed a table to resemble a cider bus and decorated his garage to look like one of the festival’s infamous long drop toilets.
Last March, the 29-year-old lost his office job owing to the pandemic. Unable to find work, he leaned into his lifelong love of painting – specialising in detailed depictions of the festival – and now makes a living from it. “It is living the dream,” he says. “I spend all day in my studio painting.”
All being well, come the end of summer, the Eavises will be preparing for a real-life festival: during filming week, they’re granted a licence for a one-day event in September named Equinox. (The first Glastonbury, in 1970, took place on the autumn equinox.) The lineup is booked. At 50,000 capacity – a quarter of the usual festival – they’re working to a smaller site plan last used in 1983. As soon as the government scientists they’ve been liaising with throughout the pandemic give the all clear, says Eavis, they’ll start selling tickets. “I think it’s mid-July we’ll know by.”
Live at Worthy Farm was created in part to plug the £5m losses the festival incurred from cancelling in 2020. (The festival recently got a £900k grant from the Culture Recovery Fund.) Eavis won’t say how many livestream tickets they’ve sold (a large proportion of livestream tickets sell on the day), beyond that they’re “really, really happy”. They won’t know how much the event has cost until it’s wrapped. “It’s expensive, I’m not going to lie.”
September aside, there’s no point looking too far ahead, she says. “Whatever happens next, this will be part of the history of the festival. I had this moment in the office the other day when I was looking at all the posters from the 80s and 90s. There have been so many years where the festival’s right on the brink, and then it comes back or there’s some miracle that ends up swinging in your favour. It’s a bit like that at the moment: it just feels like one of the more dramatic moments of its history.”