Live at Worthy Farm review – beautiful music marred by technical meltdown

Access problems mean this could be remembered as a failure – but the filmed performances, from Coldplay’s twinkling spectacular to Kano’s dynamic theatre, are superb

The worried messages start appearing on social media just before the Glastonbury livestream’s scheduled start time. Passwords given to punters, who have paid £20 for access, are registering on the website as invalid. It becomes increasingly apparent that those who can actually watch it are in the minority: most of the audience are locked out.

The company in charge of the stream – which has since apologised – seems to be the tech equivalent of the cheerful but useless Glastonbury steward who looks at your ticket, and confidently directs you to an entrance gate 26 miles away from the one you’re supposed to go to, a journey you undertake to the faint but distinctive sound of a band you really wanted to see, playing a very long way away.

Nothing happens for more than an hour and a half, except a disconsolate message saying there will be an update “soon”. The only entertainment on offer is watching the mood on social media turn increasingly murderous, a curious experience for the seasoned Glastonbury-goer. On the one hand, you feel sympathy – there are people who have organised parties or taken time off work around the event. On the other, you think: hang on, it’s a livestream not working. I was there the year an effluent truck pressed the wrong switch and pumped the contents of several portaloos into one of the dance tents. One man gamely attempts to get the government involved, @-ing Boris Johnson to his complaint, which, if nothing else, shows an endearingly undented faith in the government’s ability to sort problems out, despite everything.

Eventually, a stream gets sent out that works, but which lops off the first three artists from the bill: tough luck for fans of Wolf Alice, Michael Kiwanuka and George Ezra (though ticketholders who missed out will be able to watch again via timed streams on Sunday, or a streaming link that expires on 30 May).

Joe Talbot of Idles.
Joe Talbot of Idles in the livestream of the Glastonbury event on 22 May. Photograph: Anna Barclay/PA

The first thing you see is Idles frontman Joe Talbot bellowing about suffering anxiety, which at least feels appropriate. The band are playing in what looks like one of Worthy Farm’s cowsheds, converted into a workshop for welding together the kind of steampunk creations that dot the festival site each year. Sparks actually fly around them. There’s a certain weirdness about the silence between songs – it feels more like eavesdropping on a rehearsal that’s going particularly well than watching a gig – but the sound of the band is fantastic.

In fact, the longer the livestream progresses, the bigger a shame the technical issues seem – a vast amount of effort has been put into getting the details right. It’s beautifully shot, and the settings are incredibly well done. As any Glastonbury-goer who has engaged in heated argument about the merits of an artist’s performance with someone who watched it on TV knows, getting the experience of being at Glastonbury via a camera is impossible, but the stagings somehow succeed in giving you more of a flavour than anything previously attempted, despite the absence of crowds.

Augmented by airy sax, Haim’s slick, sun-kissed rock sounds slightly odd emanating from the centre of a very damp-looking stone circle, with what appears to be a biting wind blowing the dry ice hither and yon – when bassist Este Haim whips her coat off midway through their set, you worry she’ll catch her death. But the film captures the slightly creepy atmosphere of that part of the festival site under a glowering sky.

Meanwhile, PJ Harvey wanders around the farm’s tracks in the dark, loudly declaiming quasi-romantic poetry of her own devising, effectively capturing the kind of random Glastonbury character you see on the walk to Block 9 and end up hurrying past as they try to explain the universe to you.

Chris Martin of Coldplay.
Chris Martin of Coldplay. Photograph: Anna Barclay/PA

Coldplay opt for reimagining the full-on headlining experience: fireworks and a set loaded with the hits – Fix You, The Scientist, Viva la Vida – on a tiny illuminated platform in front of the carcass of the Pyramid stage, in the middle of a sea of twinkling lights. It looks spectacular and reminds you what seasoned practitioners Coldplay are at creating the big-hitting, abandon-your-prejudices Glastonbury moment. The weather’s so bad that the rain appears to be falling horizontally. “If there’s a day you didn’t want to be standing in a field, it’s today,” notes Chris Martin – which is another kind of Glastonbury experience.

Back in the stone circle, a mullet-sporting Damon Albarn takes the opposite approach, using the lack of a live audience baying for the big numbers to do something markedly different from what you suspect he would do were he high up on the main stage bill. The sound is fragile and exploratory, heavy on meandering, jazzy electric piano, echoing guitar and off-beam string arrangements. The set switches between songs from a forthcoming solo album delayed by Covid, deep dives into his back catalogue – there’s a gorgeous version of Apple Carts, from his 2011 opera Dr Dee – and hits recast in a different, more oblique light: a shivery take on Blur’s Out of Time, an impossibly melancholy-sounding This Is a Low.

Jorja Smith performs surrounded by softly lit trees. It’s atmospheric, potentiating her smooth, hip-hop-inflected pop-soul. She brings rapper Enny and singer Amia Brave out for a gleeful reunited version of the former’s Peng Black Girls.

Jorja Smith performing at Live at Worthy Farm.
Jorja Smith performing at Live at Worthy Farm. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The festival’s traditional eclectic jumble of styles is pointed up by the contrast with the livestream’s subsequent grand reveal: the Smile, the new trio containing Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood giving their first public performance amid a maze of wooden slats. They sound like a simultaneously more skeletal and knottier version of Radiohead, an intriguingly wholehearted embrace of the prog rock influences their parent band tend to touch gently on, Yorke’s voice keening over wilfully awkward prog rock-y time signatures, complex guitar riffs and, occasionally, hard-driving motorik psychedelia. It’s powerful, but the energy level surges when the live stream switches to Kano.

Watching him, it’s hard not to think that, were this a performance at an actual Glastonbury, it would be overnight career-elevating stuff. Then again, if this were a performance at an actual Glastonbury, you wonder if the sound – particularly the lyrics – would be as clear and powerful, or the staging as impactful were it viewed from a distance.

Kano foregrounds the brass band who have backed his shows for some time now, surrounding him on an illuminated stage. The theatricality is reminiscent of both Beyoncé’s Homecoming Coachella appearance and David Byrne’s acclaimed American Utopia shows, but the rapper’s very particular charisma imprints his own identity on the show. It’s packed with pulse-quickening moments – the interplay between Kano and guest stars D Double E and Ghetts on Class of Deja; a sudden plunge into total darkness while what sounds like a 999 call reporting a stabbing plays in the middle of Trouble; the appearance of a choir, who, among other things, are required to sing “suck your mum, suck your mum” during SYM.

Róisín Murphy performing during Honey Dijon’s DJ set.
Róisín Murphy performing during Honey Dijon’s DJ set. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

It ends with DJ Honey Dijon playing high-quality Chicago house – augmented by a spectacular guest appearance from Roísín Murphy – from inside a vehicle that looks as if it should be selling street food, a neat simulacrum not of the festival’s fabled dance stages, but of the Glastonbury phenomenon whereby a late-night food vendor blaring out four-to-the-floor beats finds their pitch attracting a small crowd of dancers.

You’re left both nodding your head appreciatively and shaking it at the thought that something so theoretically triumphant – conceived and produced with care and thought and hugely impressive attention to detail – could end up overshadowed by a technical cock-up.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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