There are prosaic career benefits to a big Pyramid stage slot at Glastonbury: the crowds of 100,000 people or more contain everyone from sixtysomethings on folding chairs to glitter-strewn millennials and surly teenagers, massively broadening your fanbase. But whether it stems from leylines or macrodosed cider, there’s also an intangible, unquantifiable magic in this setting that can elevate an artist to another plane.
And so it proves for Sam Fender, the Tyneside singer-songwriter who occupies a slot once pencilled in for US rapper Doja Cat, who pulled out due to tonsil surgery. He seizes it so hard the meteorology changes around him: it’s a Glastonbury cliche to say that an artist brought the sun out but Fender really seems to do so, spiriting away squalls of rain to leave the Pyramid stage attractively backlit.
As he starts up, bags of wine are squeezed into mouths, kids are hoisted on shoulders and lads roughly grab each other at the neck in anti-tender expressions of bromance. Fender is a perfect pop star for a Britain given to fumbling, long-repressed emotion: songs are introduced as being about growing up, about hope, about his dad. The problems that the previous generation kicked under the sofa are brought back out into the light with tenderness and honesty.
An opening section characterised by the big-hearted mood of Getting Started, where tough times are cast in a forward-facing, optimistic light, turns sour on Spice and Howdon Aldi Death Queue, a pair of songs with a truly nihilistic bent: punk guitar notes can’t seem to break out of a straight line and Fender is ranting on the mic. But as the sun softens, the temperature warms with Get You Down: still self-lacerating but kinder, not actively beating himself up. The music swells with the oxygenated buoyancy of classic Bruce Springsteen, underlined by Johnny Bluehat’s sax lines, which are so similar in mood to the late Clarence Clemons’s that there’s a risk of pastiche. You could so easily imagine Fender singing those Springsteen details like the “union card and a wedding coat” on The River. But Fender’s Geordie voice is so particular, and the anger so rooted in the particular difficulties of this country, that this pitfall is avoided.
This is never so well proved than by Seventeen Going Under. This is quite simply one of the most powerful performances ever on this stage: a massively populist, high speed song that prompts tens of thousands of people to sing about repressed trauma, the slow-release poison of anger, and the cruelty of our government against the poor it is mandated to care for. “I see my mother / the DWP see a number,” Fender sings as the flags wave euphorically in the sunset: dissonance to make you swoon. He doesn’t want it to end; there are resonances with Radiohead when they performed Karma Police on this stage and Thom Yorke was compelled to sing its final chorus again a cappella. Fender suddenly returns to the “whoa-oh-oh” chorus after the song is over, the whole crowd in communion.
So much 21st-century rock music has traded in this kind of “whoa-oh-oh” chorus, with Arcade Fire’s Wake Up leading to similar mass chants for Kings of Leon, Mumford and Sons, Coldplay and more. These are sometimes very cynically written but Fender’s, however, are some of the simplest and best, and after Seventeen Going Under the final third of this set is essentially one huge singalong. The audience have huge fun reaching the falsetto top notes of Saturday, and the chants of the closing Hypersonic Missiles ring out long after it’s finished, in queues for curry and pizza and beer.
This was the big-hearted post-Covid performance everyone was craving, and had so sorely missed. If the rumours are to be believed, the Boss himself will be appearing during Paul McCartney’s set tomorrow. But Fender lays out a politically biting, emotionally fortified British version of Springsteen’s songcraft that absolutely matches him – and actually, on home turf in the vale of Avalon, outclasses him.