This is a Glastonbury of round numbers. The youngest ever headliner, Billie Eilish, is 20. The oldest, Paul McCartney, is 80. If not for two years of Covid this festival would have been the 50th anniversary. “We’ve been through some shit,” said St Vincent during her extraordinary Friday sunset performance, “but miraculously we’re here”.
McCartney’s delayed return to Glastonbury (he last headlined in 2014) has been stoked even hotter by his birthday celebrations and heroic role in the Get Back documentary. He could have coasted to glory on his reputation and songbook alone, but McCartney doesn’t coast. He is still competitive enough to want to exceed himself.
McCartney looks a decade younger and remains in gutsy voice, a fine advertisement for decades of vegetarianism. He sprinted through a mixture of Beatles, Wings and solo songs with the occasional meandering anecdote for punctuation. If Paul McCartney wants to tell you a story about the 60s, you listen. The only misstep was a newer song, My Valentine. You can play something unfamiliar or you can show scenes from a video starring Johnny Depp – but not both at the same time.
As the set built, the weight of history, memory and absent friends accumulated. The first song the unknown Beatles ever recorded, In Spite of All the Danger, led to their first hit, Love Me Do. McCartney remembered John Lennon on the fragile Here Today, “a letter that I never got to write”, and played Something on George Harrison’s ukulele.
The sheer tonnage of hits in the last hour was frankly ridiculous. One all-timer followed another: a romping Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, a fiery Get Back with a video by Peter Jackson. Dave Grohl became McCartney’s surprise sideman for I Saw Her Standing There and Band on the Run, and was immediately followed by Bruce Springsteen. Even before McCartney got to Let It Be and Hey Jude the whole field was levitating with delight. An unforgettable night.
With the biggest crowd in years, some hot-ticket performances were wildly oversubscribed. Raucous indie-rock sensations Wet Leg barely existed two years ago but their appearance at the Park on Friday afternoon rammed the field. Even if you couldn’t see them, the mass scream in the middle of Ur Mum was a moment of communal hysteria. Charismatic singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers overflowed the John Peel tent and called for a furious chant of “fuck the supreme court” in response to the bad news from America. Over on the Pyramid stage Sam Fender’s brawny, humane rock drew a headliner-sized crowd.
Pop veterans with an arsenal of hits also fared well. R&B survivors TLC caused a logjam at West Holts with a set midway between a block party and an emotional support group, while the reunited Sugababes brought disco euphoria to the usually sedate Avalon tent, and Crowded House benefited from a sudden break in the clouds which flooded the Pyramid stage with sunshine during Weather With You.
“All my life I’ve waited for this,” said frontman Neil Finn, but nobody seemed as genuinely amazed to be here as Wolf Alice, who almost missed their set due to a cancelled flight. “You have no idea,” gasped singer Ellie Rowsell, who has grown into a genuine star. The close shave gave their set a fizzing can-you-believe-it intensity, making The Last Man on Earth a cathartic showstopper.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully conceived spectacle this weekend than St Vincent’s show, an outrageously entertaining funk-rock revue with the theatricality of David Bowie and the virtuosity of Prince. Every song was reinvented and elevated by an artist at the top of her game.
Billie Eilish’s show fed on paradoxes. Haunting, minimal songs become immense; lyrics teeming with angst and menace were framed with solicitous warmth. There were lasers and flames but no surprise guests or festival exclusives. It all came down to the chemistry between Eilish and her two musicians (including her brother and collaborator Finneas) and her outsized charm. She was a versatile performer and generous host with an almost parental concern for the audience’s wellbeing. The volcanic power ballad Happier than Ever, decked with fireworks, completed a winning set and a knockout Friday during which women called all the shots.
This unprecedented gender ratio might be down to conscious effort but it feels like an accurate reflection of the shape of music in 2022. While Skunk Anansie’s Skin made out like a heavy metal Grace Jones on the Other stage on Saturday afternoon, Self Esteem inspired adoration in the John Peel tent with her sharp, defiant dance-pop, crowning one of the most uplifting breakthrough stories of recent years. “I feel like Robbie Williams!” she whooped.
Playing the biggest and best show of her life was Olivia Rodrigo, a pop sensation even younger than Eilish. A joyful version of Avril Lavigne’s Complicated clarified her musical DNA. A duet with Lily Allen on Fuck You, targeted at the five justices who overturned Roe v Wade, displayed righteous wit. “I hate you,” she said crisply.
Over on the Pyramid stage Beatles superfan and former headliner Noel Gallagher was a no-brainer choice to warm up for McCartney. His best songs, too, are etched in stone and suited the sound of tens of thousands of voices beneath the setting sun. This was the apprentice handing over to the master: a joint demonstration of the unmatchable power of songs that everybody knows.