On Saturday afternoon, a Land Rover with Glastonbury’s founder, Michael Eavis, in the passenger seat pulls out of the backstage area, on to a road packed with people that runs between Glastonbury’s Pyramid and Other stages. The crowd don’t just part to let it through: when they realise who’s inside it, they line the sides of the road, not cheering or shouting, but respectfully applauding as it passes.
It’s a sweet and oddly moving scene, and it seems to say something about the first Glastonbury since 2019. Eavis is famous for cropping up in the media towards the end of every festival, loudly proclaiming the preceding days the best Glastonbury ever, an assessment it can be hard to agree with if you have just spent three days watching people’s belongings being washed away, wading through ankle-deep mud or, on one notable occasion, looking on aghast as the operator of an effluent truck presses the wrong button and inadvertently sprays the interior of one of the dance tents with human excrement. You sometimes get the feeling that if a vast sinkhole unexpectedly opened up, swallowing huge sections of the Worthy Farm site, Eavis would stick his head out of it on Sunday afternoon and start waxing lyrical to a reporter about the magical atmosphere and indomitable high spirits in the crowd.
But this year the atmosphere at Glastonbury does feel a little different. If arriving onsite is a slightly discombobulating experience at first – even for a seasoned Glastonbury-goer, the sheer volume of people feels weirdly overwhelming after spending a significant proportion of the past two years locked in your home – you quickly notice a fresh, benign happiness that is presumably rooted in gratitude that the event is happening at all.
Accordingly, the audiences seem more attentive than usual. The Friday night headliner, Billie Eilish, plays a succession of slow, fragile ballads, but rather than leave in search of something more punchy or easier to bellow along to, the crowd stays and listens. Something similar happens on Saturday morning, when the US trio Gabriels play the Park stage. They sound fantastic – their gospel-trained frontman, Jacob Lusk, has an astonishing falsetto voice, tender and eerie; their sound variously touches on 60s soul, disco and jazz-inflected pre-rock’n’roll pop – but while their songs are beautiful, they are also often measured and opaque. They require close attention, which they get: the crowd seems rapt.
Eilish’s presence at the top of Friday night’s bill also seems to indicate a shift in Glastonbury’s musical boundaries. It’s not just that she is the youngest headlining act in the festival’s history; it’s that she is the first mainstream pop star – as in the kind of pop star that 14-year-olds scream at – to headline the festival. A few years back, it’s hard not to think her presence would have caused controversy – some berk would have got up a keep-Glasto-rock petition about it – but in 2022 it seems to pass without comment.
In fact, the bill is studded with mainstream pop stars, including Eilish’s main competitor for tweenage affections, the former Disney starlet Olivia Rodrigo, George Ezra and the Sugababes, who, in a masterly example of what you might call Glastonbury’s idiosyncratic approach to billing, were supposed to appear on the Avalon stage between Nick Mulvey – formerly the master of the steel pan in the left-field jazz act Portico Quartet – and the hoary punk pioneers the Damned.
Even the traditional preposterous Glastonbury rumour about a prospective secret appearance by a huge star seems to have been given a 2022 pop makeover. You quickly lose count of how many people tell you that they have heard it on good authority that Harry Styles is being helicoptered in to make an appearance with Billie Eilish, or Paul McCartney, or possibly with the punishing doom-punk quintet Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs during their set on the Earache Records stage in Shangri-La.
Traditional alternative guitar rock also seems to be having a resurgence at this year’s festival. Wet Leg cause the festival’s first roadblock, early on Friday afternoon at the Park stage. They attract so many people that it’s impossible to see them – the word is that they are on stage, wearing matching white dresses that make them look like extras from Little House on the Prairie, although it’s difficult to verify if that is true, or just another rumour from the Harry-Styles-is-helicoptering-in-to-sing-Radio-Gnome-Invisible-with-Gong school. It is, however, frequently hard to hear Wet Leg over the sound of the audience singing, or in the case of the fabulously deadpan Ur Mum, screaming along.
Over on the Pyramid stage, Wolf Alice – visibly frazzled by a journey to Glastonbury so chaotic it looked at one stage as if they wouldn’t make it – get a similarly ecstatic, and deserved, reception. There is something really impressive about their ability to suddenly shift pace, from the epic, string-bedecked, stadium-ready balladry of Delicious Things to the snarling noise of Play the Greatest Hits (“a song about getting shitfaced,” suggests the frontwoman, Ellie Rowsell, the kind of statement that is guaranteed to get a cheer at Glastonbury). It is touching how overwhelmed Rowsell – usually an imperious presence on stage – seems by the audience’s reaction.
Something similar happens when Sam Fender plays, bumped up the bill from an afternoon slot thanks to the rapper Doja Cat’s emergency tonsil surgery. His Springsteen-inflected sound and socially aware lyrics – incisive and brave whether discussing toxic masculinity, white working-class disillusionment or father-son relations – have clearly touched a nerve. The title track of his second album, Seventeen Going Under, causes something approaching bedlam in the crowd, which refuses to stop singing its wordless refrain when the song ends. Fender returns to the microphone and joins in; for a moment, it looks as if he is going to cry, before he collects himself and launches into The Dying Light. It’s one of those emotionally charged, career-defining Glastonbury moments that people like to talk about.
By contrast, Billie Eilish doesn’t seem overawed at all. Not, one suspects, a regular festivalgoer – “you guys are troupers, with your tents and shit,” she opines at one point – she nevertheless exudes a hugely appealing confidence, performing a set that is essentially a truncated version of the show she has been touring around arenas the past few months.
Occasionally, some of the between-song chat – heavy on stuff about loving yourself and empowerment – feels more suited to a teen-pop audience than a Glastonbury crowd, but the audience go with it: if she asks them to crouch down then jump, they happily oblige. Her big hits – Bury a Friend, You Should See Me in a Crown, Bad Guy – pack an immense bass-heavy punch and the title track of her most recent album, Happier Than Ever, provides a stunning finale, slowly building into a ferociously angry, pyrotechnic-abetted coda. Curiously, Styles doesn’t appear: perhaps he is over at the Storm stage, MCing over LTJ Bukem’s drum’n’bass set.
On Saturday afternoon, Self Esteem’s appearance on the John Peel stage has a similar effect to Wet Leg and Sam Fender – within minutes of her arrival on stage, you can’t get near the tent, let alone into it, without an unfeasible amount of determination. It adds to the sense that her album Prioritise Pleasure has really captured people’s imaginations, and that its emotional cocktail of fury, brutal self-examination and cathartic joy fits the current mood. It also helps that she is a fantastic performer – in front of a backdrop that reads THERE IS NOTHING THAT TERRIFIES A MAN MORE THAN A WOMAN WHO APPEARS COMPLETELY DERANGED, she punctuates high-kicking choreographed routines with self-deprecating wit – and that she has a knack for writing punchy, smart pop songs.
On the Pyramid stage, in the slot vacated by Fender, AJ Tracey opens a set that skilfully marries UK rap with something close to hard rock – clad in a leather jacket, he is backed by a band, complete with a guitarist who looks as if he is moonlighting from a stoner metal outfit. He opens with a lengthy, angry introduction about the Grenfell Tower fire and the “murderers” responsible.
It’s not the afternoon’s only moment of heartfelt politicking. The environmental activist Greta Thunberg makes an appearance on the Pyramid stage just before Haim. Up against stiff competition from the platinum-selling Glass Animals over on the Other stage, she essentially does her greatest hits, including righteous anger, withering scorn for world leaders and dire presentiments of catastrophe. The crowd joins in a chant of “climate justice” at the end.
While Eilish and Phoebe Bridgers both mention the overturning of Roe v Wade on stage, it’s Rodrigo who unexpectedly goes in studs up. Visibly upset – “I’m devastated and terrified; so many girls are going to die” – she lists the supreme court justices responsible by name, then brings on Lily Allen to sing her 2009 single Fuck You, running across the stage with her middle fingers raised when she is not duetting.
It’s a highlight of an unexpectedly triumphant set. Her band offer a noticeably tougher take on the post-punk stylings of her debut album Sour (tellingly, she also covers Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, a song that, terrifyingly, was released before Rodrigo was born). The audience is impressively varied: there are preteen girls on their parents’ shoulders who seem to be word-perfect whenever they are caught on the stage-side screens, but there are also couples old enough to be Rodrigo’s parents singing along to Drivers License.
As the sun begins to set, Burna Boy’s appearance on the Other stage pulls out all the stops, with fireworks, flamethrowers and a confetti cannon during the closer Ye. Larded with Afrobeats horns and a choir, he sounds fantastic. Meanwhile, on the Pyramid stage, effectively warming up for Macca, Noel Gallagher takes an admirably prosaic approach to an audience growing visibly restless at a set toploaded with tracks from his solo albums: “I’m going to play a few more tunes that you don’t give a shit about,” he informs them. “They’re for me. But if you stick around, after that there’s going to be a lot of very happy people in bucket hats.” True to his word, he starts rolling out Oasis singalongs – Half the World Away, Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back in Anger – in due course.
Unexpectedly, it’s a theme that is returned to during Paul McCartney’s set. “When we do a Beatles song, all your phones light up and it’s like a galaxy of stars,” he shrugs. “When we do a new song, it’s like staring into a black hole.”
There is certainly more Wings and solo Macca than you might expect, particularly early on. Sometimes, his choices feel entirely justified – Wings’ Junior’s Farm and Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five are fantastic songs, while their flop 1975 single Letting Go deserves to be rescued from relative obscurity – and sometimes they amount to pushing his luck a bit, not least when he performs Fuh You, a 2018 collaboration with songwriter-for-hire Ryan Tedder that, with the best will in the world, doesn’t really breathe the same rarefied air as, say, Blackbird; the latter’s opening notes are greeted with a lovely collective sigh from the crowd.
But perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing. The occasional lulls in the first half of the set potentiate what happens in the second half, which deals almost entirely in the failsafe: Let It Be, Live and Let Die, Hey Jude, two sizeable chunks of the Abbey Road medley. He brings out Dave Grohl to duet on Band on the Run and I Saw Her Standing There, then Bruce Springsteen, who provides another Glastonbury moment by default. The big screens capture the puppyish elation on Springsteen’s face as he and McCartney trade lines on Glory Days and I Wanna Be Your Man; a seventysomething rock legend momentarily turned back into the obsessive Beatles fan he was in his teens, he looks as if he can scarcely believe his luck.
There’s something similarly moving about the sight of McCartney playing I’ve Got a Feeling as a duet with John Lennon’s isolated vocal from the Get Back TV series. He isn’t the first artist to use technology to reanimate a long-deceased musical partner, but the contrast in their voices – McCartney’s audibly aged and fraying a little at 80 years old, Lennon’s frozen in youth – has a real impact. The audience is still singing the refrain of Hey Jude as they wander off into the night, perhaps in search of Styles, who, rumour has it, has helicoptered in to the Acoustic stage to sing Streets of London with Ralph McTell.