The odds were stacked against this year’s Glastonbury festival, rumored to be the last one held here at Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset. First there was the news from Tuesday night onward of flash floods in the south of England, generating extreme overnight queues along the A road toward the site. Glastonbury’s official channels warned against people yet to embark on their travels to come and celebrate from the gate’s opening moments, the traffic rendering itself beyond manageable. Once finally in, the proper program was due to kick off on Friday morning, and some 180,000 campers woke to the unwelcome news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister had resigned and the economy was in a precarious state, to say the least. The world’s most famous and beloved performing arts festival suddenly lost its spotlight – and subsequently there was little in the way of big news moments to propel it to widespread cultural interest. Aside, of course, from the mud, which had become increasingly gruesome by Saturday night.
In the Glasto spirit of relentless optimism, however, bad news required acts of heroism. You could say that this was the year of the unlikely heroes. In a live music space still dependent on the wheeling-out of reformed heritage acts year-on-year, the theme of 2016’s three-day assault course was: coming-of-age. If this year’s Glastonbury was a book it would read like an Adrian Mole tome, soundtracked by hearty electro pop choruses. From the sinkholes, dark clouds and splattered tents emerged a new generation, many of which were British bands and seasoned outdoor performers, finally capitalizing on a window of opportunity. Of course, some fluffed it. Yannis Philippakis — lead singer of Foals — emerged onstage on Friday with “whatever the politics, the sun is out, this is a big day for you, a big day for us!” Then the band’s sound cut — perhaps an eerie act of cosmic karma. Over on the WOW and Sonic stages, the likes of Skepta, Stormzy and Lady Leshurr brought it home for U.K. grime, during a stand-out year for the near-cross-over genre. A common utterance around the site, from Saturday’s Other Stage opener Shura to that night’s Pyramid stage headliner Adele, was “I don’t know what I’m doing on this stage.”
They came with impostor syndrome, they conquered with career-best highs. Notably, it was the pop acts by and large who inspired tears on an emotionally-wrought weekend. Here were some of the biggest heartstring tuggers:
Shura (Other Stage)
Opening Saturday morning‘s proceedings was breakthrough popstar Shura, reproducing cuts from her debut record, Nothing’s Real, which is due to land in a little under two weeks. Her electro disco beats were met with a warm and sizeable crowd, which included proud family members and Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice, just 90 minutes before her own band’s set. “Hi dad!” shouted Shura. Dad responded: “Hi babe!” From the Fleetwood Mac-like ‘What’s It Gonna Be,” via Chic-y “Nothing’s Real” and onto the downbeat and arresting “Touch,” it was a seamless display of very well-done pop that climaxed with the Mancunian hammering at her keyboard/synth setup with every last drop of mud-laden energy. Last time she was here she played in a tipi tent in the Green Fields. “This is stupid! This is a very, very big stage for a very, very tiny person,” she said, laughing and coincidentally wearing a NASA sweater that reminded of similar sentiments once spoken by some men who landed on the moon. “I’m eating my hair up here, there’s so much wind!” Keeping the crowd entertained between songs, it was a heady mix of lightweight banter and powerful talent, as she swayed over her instruments, making it all look like a breeze. “Hair’s protein, right?” Who knew Shura would be Saturday morning‘s breakfast of champions?
Wolf Alice (Pyramid Stage)
It’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s time for a new British band to prove its mettle after four years playing the living daylights out of every venue and basement pub between here and Timbuktu. Mission accomplished, and yet Ellie Rowsell, in a metallic gold dress, was a completely unaware golden goddess. “Glastonbury, I don’t know what we’re doing here on this massive stage, but let’s have some fun!” she squealed as the fourpiece pummelled into major tunes from debut record My Love Is Cool, released exactly a year ago this week. Rowsell broke mid-set to tell the story of how five years ago she and guitarist Joff Oddie applied for an emerging talent competition for this festival but didn’t get through. It’s Rowsell, Oddie, bassist Theo Ellie and drummer Joel Amey who had the last manic laugh today — and completely minus hubris. Oddie’s hand was bleeding profusely as he played the skin out of his guitar licks, nearing his complete transformation into Blur‘s Graham Coxon circa 1994 (he even had the striped T-shirt on to boot). Like Blur, Wolf Alice has built a stronghold army of fans via four loveable personalities. Ellis, now with slicked-back peroxide blond hair that reminds of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, declared this “my dream come true.” Grunge anthems “Bros” and “Freazy” set hearts ablaze as the crowd sang every word back at them. “Thank you so much for coming, I didn’t expect anyone to show up,” concluded Rowsell, before diving off stage and hugging, shaking and embracing as many front-row fans as she could. A victory lap, if ever there was one.
The 1975 (Other Stage)
The huge double rainbow that formed across the Other Stage during a late Saturday afternoon set from the four emo-funk romanticists from Manchester wasn’t engineered by frontman Matthew Healy, but you know that he’ll be convinced it was once he learns of its presence backstage. It’s not just nature that highlighted how special this set was, it was pure unadulterated ’80s iconography. Healy is the best ’80s pop star there ever was. Strutting on in a white linen flared suit, his permed hair tied back like a Northern Rasta, curls piled atop his crown, he said: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your new favorite band, The 1975.” It was a set that relied mainly on the vast glory of the band’s second record I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It with “Sex” “Chocolate” and “Girls” making it in from that record’s predecessor, the debut album that propelled The 1975 from its DIY roots toward mass popularity, seemingly overnight. The musicianship and artistry on display was proof positive that the rise was more than deserved. And while Healy knew this, he was also impassioned about his genuine exhilaration to be stood here. “This song is about compassion and loving people,” he said, on the cusp of making his big F— Brexit statement while puffing at a cigarette in advance of “Loving Someone.” “I’m a pop star in a suit. I don’t f—ing know anything, but what I feel is this sentiment of anti-compassion. This older generation that voted in a future we don’t f—ing want. Glastonbury stands for f—ing everything that our generation f—ing want. F—ing loving people!” He mused that it’s “hard to say nothing” in this field full of beautiful, liberal souls. He’s perhaps one of the only young’uns here this weekend that delivers something as thought-out and genuinely heartfelt as any political speech-writing pro could muster. As the crowd pogo’d up and down on his rallying instruction to one of 2016’s certifiably biggest bangers “The Sound,” he delivered a vertical boost of public morale. The double rainbow certainly helped, too.
Chvrches (Other Stage)
I’m not going to apologize for all these Saturday set list highlights because each of them was as vital to the future of British music as the last. Chvrches followed The 1975 with a homecoming belter that demonstrated just how far the trio of electro firecrackers from Glasgow, Scotland — led by frontwoman and warrior Lauren Mayberry — had come in a few years. Dressed all in white, with body-eclipsing military platform boots, she boosted and blasted herself all over the stage, while bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty completed the recreation of the band’s signature indietronica pop anthems – each one of them (from “Empty Threat” via “Gun” to “The Mother We Share”) capable of rivaling any Max Martin studio invention. As if Mayberry wasn’t empowering enough, Doherty took to the mic to do his vocals on track “Carry Me Over,” while Mayberry retreated to keys and synths. “We’re performing before New Order,” said a respectful Doherty. “One of the most important electronic bands of all time.” The visible thrill from the crowd (some of whom did have droplets streaming down their faces) would suggest that maybe one day there’ll be a new bunch of hopefuls saying exactly the same thing pre-Chvrches on this here platform.