Review: Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2022.

To paraphrase some perennially rumoured Mancunians, the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts (to employ its official designation) somehow manages to seem at least half, if not a whole world away, no matter how grim our reality. Far removed from the myriad atrocities dotted between one edition and the next, for all of one extended weekend, Worthy Farm becomes an invaluable sanctum to a few hundred thousand, and its return after an enforced fallow period makes this all the more welcome. Inevitably, certain actualities can and do scale the super-fence, infecting the site – from the mortal exit of Michael Jackson in 2009 to the Brexit result in ’16, but such is the verve of the festival itself and the fervour it kindles among its attendees that rarely are these allowed to overshadow or undermine proceedings.

Of course, this year’s festivities are prefaced by the doings – or undoings – of the US Supreme Court, which casts quite the umbra and causes much shade to be very understandably directed stateside from onstage. The topic becomes quite difficult to forego, as it should be, as many festival-goers – myself included – may well have done had they found themselves elsewhere over the course of the weekend. It feels quite fitting, therefore, for many powerful female-led performances to shine brightest on the Friday, and kudos is due Glastonbury’s bookers for bringing about #TheNewNormal without the showboating, hashtags, and so on seen elsewhere.

English Teacher’s studied dissections of post-punk twist and turn, ricocheting in irregular directions repeatedly, prior to the taut R&B schooling a very attentive John Peel Stage. Elsewhere, Wet Leg pack out The Park, kicking off with a giddying Being in Love, before arriving home and hosed with a frenetic take on Chaise Longue. The Isle of Wight duo’s superb breakout hit takes some beating, and the likes of Too Late Now and Wet Dream run it close; Ur Mum, with its larynx-wrecking climax, provides the first so-called ‘Glastonbury moment’ of ’22. Yet somewhat worryingly, more recent material falls a fair way short, with the plodding, simplistic I Want to Be Abducted (By a UFO) failing to lift off and the lullabying Obvious precisely that, lacking in the lyrical quips and musical quirks of much off the eponymous début. But that being said, the successes of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers stem from their close focus on fun – something that has been markedly absent from many of our lives for some while, and they bring this in abundance regardless.

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As do Ellie Rowsell’s Wolf Alice, although that was up in the air – or not – for a little bit. Never did the Delicious Things lyric: “Would you believe I’m in Los Angeles?” ever carry quite the gravity it does today, with the four-piece having been grounded in California 24 hours beforehand. The relief is palpable, and their opener Smile pulsating. The rest of the set leans heavily into last year’s superlative Blue Weekend, with both Lipstick on the Glass and the eternally stirring The Last Man On Earth lent further gravitas by a string ensemble. Although the delirium seen onstage is most clearly mirrored off it by a breathless run of Play the Greatest Hits, Silk and Giant Peach, all of which inspire pandemonium. It makes for a perfectly composed set, delivered in a loveably dishevelled manner, meaning “a shot for the spot at the top” of the Pyramid is surely locked and loaded.

So far, so female-led; and exemplarily so. But it’s only when the Americans come into play that the ramifications of the aforementioned decision are felt as intensely as they should be. Phoebe Bridgers, who’s spoken out previously about abortion rights, strikes a solemn note amid some more uplifting tones before her, as she deems her Glastonbury début the “shittiest day,” and condemns “all these irrelevant, old motherfuckers, trying to tell us what to do with our fucking bodies.” For a foremost exponent of an Americana renaissance, “fuck America” cuts to the quick, her despair writ large. It’s a stark, telling insight from an outside standpoint, and songs from Punisher are no less impassioned. Following on from a comparatively upbeat Motion Sickness, and a rare number subtracted from its predecessor Stranger in the Alps, DVD Menu – lugubrious and ominous in equal measure – rolls on into Garden Song, and Kyoto, and a harrowing title track in loyal keeping with the album’s track listing. But it’s the brilliant Moon Song which elevates the tent, before the bipartite I Know the End (featuring Arlo Parks) tears it to shreds, leaving not a solitary eye dry. It’s so rare for songs of disheartenment to hearten in the way Bridgers’ do, yet hers truly is an inimitable talent, and her voice ever more relevant.

More chameleonic, if no less consummate, is St. Vincent whose set – ‘a brief but beautiful respite from the anguish and disbelief’ of the day, according to a subsequent Instagram post – totters from contoured balladry (New York) to ecstatic club bruisers (Fast Slow Disco) without missing a step. Material taken from her faintly pastiched, funkadelic latest Daddy’s Home makes itself if not an integral part of the furniture, then a comfortable one. And in keeping with the record’s looser sounds, the joints of Annie Clark’s signature robotic stance have been well oiled, resulting in an onstage relish never previously witnessed. Pay Your Way in Pain is the louche highlight, riffing on Nikka Costa’s Like a Feather; which, in turn, rips off George Harrison’s I Dig Love, of course. It’s the grandiosity of Cheerleader which gesticulates more wildly than any other though, and gets a perplexingly sparse (if unsparingly spirited) Other field going in a way few others can quite like Clark.

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Could Billie Eilish reach such heights one day? Maybe, but not tonight with sufficient hits sorely lacking from her discographic arsenal, and those hitting the mark too few, with far between. (Additionally, it’s drastically back-loaded.) All fire and brimstone and bass, the opening bury a friend does so, but it’s then a lengthy spell before a neat segue from bellyache into ocean eyes picks things back up again. Your Power, an acoustic interlude on a “really, really dark day for women in the US,” doesn’t so much nod to, as shake a despondent head westwards across the Atlantic, with she and Finneas sat up front. Which shakes things up nicely. Thereafter, what Getting Older lacks in Damon Albarn it more than makes up for in unanticipated maturity; everything i wanted makes for her most formidable vocal performance; bad guy is fucking great. But it’s ultimately a more entertaining than essential headliner.

Unlike Eilish’s set, the weekend’s programming is quite front-loaded, with Friday far and away the most impressive of its main three. Saturday thus sets off on a fairly leisurely footing, with Holly Humberstone a sure foothold from which to begin the ascent. Firmly in the ascendancy herself, she pulls from what is already an enviable catalogue, and the addition of live drums adds a genuine rigidity to the likes of Overkill and Sleep Tight. Of those songs on which she decelerates the bpm to a plaintive 70-odd, London Is Lonely towers well above several others, but propulsive singles are really the order of the afternoon. Scarlett, with its barbed synth part, is one; Falling Asleep at the Wheel another; The Walls Are Way Too Thin the one. She confesses to feeling nervous, frequently, but she needn’t – we’re all well aboard, particularly for those racier numbers.

Inexplicably playing the Pyramid Stage in spite of the tepid reception to last year’s Flu Game full-length, Ladbroke Grove lad AJ Tracey seemingly neglected to get the proverbial memo, and gets off to a groggier start. The Nightcrawlers-sampling Dinner Guest is the first to have the field stepping, while Little More Love keeps pace. Aitch is wheeled out for Rain; alas, Dave is not during Thiago Silva. Ladbroke Grove remains the most involving from the self-proclaimed “microphone champ”, but this may be a step or two too far at this stage.

There is a sense that, given what’s gone on over the past few years, this summer’s festival is that bit more reliant on British artists than it might’ve otherwise been. Hence some more prominent billings for slightly lesser names, maybe. But mercifully, numerous Americans made the pilgrimage to Pilton, and if anything, Olivia Rodrigo is billed too low for so high-profile a star. The Californian is in scintillating form, flooring it through brutal, before flooring all with drivers license. The proficiency of her band of fluorescent post-adolescents is to be expected; hers is less so, and the Disney alumna flits niftily from acoustic guitar to grand piano with seamless poise. Perhaps more accomplished still is her decrying the Supreme Court and calling out the five justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, before inviting Lily Allen (and not “Billie Eilish”) to the Other Stage to rattle through a rendition of Fuck You. But it’s testament to Rodrigo’s songwriting (as well as that of co-writer Dan Nigro, and Paramore) that this is totally eclipsed by both deja vu and good 4 u, the latter a future pop-punk classic, no question.

Plundering the past to create a sonic pathway which is both nostalgic and novel was once the preserve of The Avalanches, although the Melbourne duo have come to rely less on samples and more on collaboration, without compromising on their most singular of sounds. It makes for alluring contrasts, with their latest – We Will Always Love You – layering the familiar, relatively modern vocals of Wayne Coyne, Rivers Cuomo, Devonté Hynes and Andrew VanWyngarden over timeless musical accompaniment. Live however, quite unlike their last performance on the farm, Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi are firmly lodged behind a bank of decks, et cetera and revert to interpolating tracks by The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, et al. Perfectly staged for a few sundowners up at The Park, and precisely what Saturday night calls for, of course.

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Although the Pyramid is calling, alluring more or less all with a playlist of wall-to-wall you-know-who. Paul McCartney hadn’t topped the bill here since 2004, when he played a celebrated 33-song set. This time, he clocks in at 38 some three hours subsequent, with 16 of those songs crossing over. Not that much has changed then, but nobody – not one solitary bod – cares. Because he’s Paul McCartney; because even at 80, he still looks and sounds the part; because the likes of Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen themselves care enough to fly in to do no more than two songs each. Frankly, it’s the fucking best thing I’ve ever seen, from a real one-off. We get Can’t Buy Me Love and Got to Get You Into My Life; Let Me Roll It and Let ’Em In; a wonderful throwback to the very beginning, and a campfire singsong for tens of thousands in In Spite of All the Danger, and nothing much that’s any newer than NEW. But it’s during the mandolin-led merry jig that is Dance Tonight that I turn to the stranger beside me, and say: “Can I go on your shoulders when he does Blackbird?” He agrees and incidentally, seconds later, I’m sat atop a limitless cloud of faces – most smiling; many sobbing – as McCartney soars on some vast plinth, the evening elevated to legendary realms. Another ‘moment’ as it were.

Get Back, backed by technicolour footage from Peter Jackson’s recent production, has terse bite to it; Band on the Run, featuring Grohl, gambols from one genre to another, decades ahead of its time; Glory Days is far from Bruce’s finest hour, or few minutes, but it’s Springsteen… onstage with McCartney… racking up another huge fine. For fuck’s sake, on nights like tonight, even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da sounds like a classic. Live and Let Die really is mind, and is fired up accordingly with the kinds of pyrotechnics which once charred Roger Moore’s smarmy mien. There are reminiscences of, and aural memorials to, George Harrison and John Lennon (the latter a slightly odd virtual duet of I’ve Got a Feeling), and there is then Hey Jude. Britain is often derided and ridiculed, and rightly so, for its jingoistic tendencies and general flag-waving. But overall, we’re all too quick to dwell on negativity, as opposed to relishing positives. Tonight, both McCartney and Glastonbury cannot be seen as anything but honest national treasures, and monuments to an international significance on a night witnessed and doubtless savoured worldwide.

As all Glastonbury Sundays invariably do, this is the slowest start of all, although AJIMAL is on hand to ease us in. Having reached the final of the Emerging Talent Competition in 2020, Fran O’Hanlon has had to wait his turn interminably, yet his soothing afternoon slot in the pub-like Bread and Roses sees patience repaid. Above All Else, Be Kind remains his most startling, and is recited supremely and deferentially received. A quick hop up the hill to the Acoustic Stage later, and this year’s winner Lewis McLaughlin is finishing up with Summer – an extraordinary piece of music, and an example of contemporarily reconfigured folk music at its finest. That so many entrants can be seen over the weekend’s duration serves as proof of the competition’s increasing quality, and is quite inspiriting to see.

With Herbie Hancock impenetrable by contrast, and Nightmares On Wax implausibly late to West Holts, respite and cider precede what may well be the worst clash of the weekend. For pitched against one another are Diana Ross and Fontaines D.C. The former takes it, for reasons of perceived exclusivity, and starts off well enough with I’m Coming Out preceding a solid run of Supremes revisits. But with her voice strained and suffering from Chain Reaction onwards, and a slew of new ones along with a few covers taking precedence over the likes of It’s My House and My Old Piano, the lukewarm ‘Teatime Legend’ disappoints terribly. Grian Chatten’s vocal is as pitchy as that of Ross, but that’s par for the course when it comes to Fontaines’ live shtick. And from what little I see (Boys in the Better Land and Jackie Down the Line), those who pitched up at the Other Stage had a far better time of it.

Kacey Musgraves has also, when she first rolled into town and was roundly proclaimed ‘conscious’ country’s sparkling crossover hope. Yet as she herself sang, “It is what it is ’til it ain’t any more,” and the Texan is scarcely recognisable from the days of Same Trailer Different Park. It’s a record which is totally neglected tonight, as is the musically comparable Pageant Material, in favour of the more straight-up pop flavours of Golden Hour and star-crossed. It’s fine – she’s totally entitled to “follow [her] arrow wherever it points,” of course – although the days of the Dime Store Cowgirl are very evidently numbered, with the Pageant Material lyric: “I’d rather lose for what I am, than win for what I ain’t” seemingly disremembered altogether. Because so much of the show is just generic, lacking in any kind of real character, with breadwinner the most stale of the lot. There remain glimpses of her bygone self, in High Horse with its Deep Southern subtleties and French house soupçons, or the Sufjan Stevens-evoking Slow Burn, but they’re ephemeral as she barely skirts the fringes of country as she once did. When she’s playing a lachrymose Rainbow, dedicated to those affected by Friday’s ruling, this doesn’t matter so much – it’s an exceptional piece of music, capable of transcending genre confines and with a planetary emotional pull of its own. But unfortunately, it’s a rare moment of gold during her hour.

Sporting newfangled flaxen locks, Lorde may be more regularly linked with more verdant tones, although the New Zealander really coruscates in this final night’s fading sunlight. Performing in front of an oneiric set, and probably the weekend’s most impressive as a thinning ladder swivels on a circular seat-type thing, it perfectly fits with the preternatural feel of The Path. Stoned at the Nail Salon, also lifted from divisive latest Solar Power, features both Clairo and Arlo Parks (who’s seemingly as omnipresent as Chris Martin tends to be), and resonates naturally with the weariness. Perhaps expectedly, it’s songs from said record which best suit the show, and Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All) sees its usual outro replaced by a potent monologue honing in on abortion rights in another visibly indignant moment. In terms of those of a more musical lilt, Green Light and Royals obviously lend greater vitality to what proves an unanticipated high point.

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And then for the finale: Kendrick Lamar. The concept of ‘hip hop’ artists topping the Glastonbury bill remains a relatively new one, beginning with Jay-Z (2008), and continuing with Kanye West (’15) and Stormzy (’19). Having had the privilege of experiencing all four, the shows themselves may trace unpredictable trajectories, but they’ve been reliably brilliant throughout this short history. And tonight is no exception. Kendrick’s is both the best entrance, emerging from a mêlée of impeccable choreography, and the best exit in a mantric blaze: “They judge you, they judge Christ! Godspeed for women’s rights!” It ain’t too bad in-between either, with a largely chronological setlist evidencing the strength of his catalogue.

Subjectively, good kid, m.A.A.d city is still his finest (if not necessarily his defining) oeuvre, meaning the opening is everything: Backseat Freestyle, Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe, Money Trees, and Swimming Pools (Drank) are dispatched early doors with both alacrity and composure. A m.A.A.d introduction, indeed. Similarly electric is his To Pimp a Butterfly segment, with King Kunta and The Blacker the Berry robustly bookending the record’s more socially conscious chapters. With untitled unmastered. untouched, it’s then on to DAMN., songs from which – HUMBLE. notwithstanding – land on shakier ground. But tonight is as much, if not more about the show as a whole than the songs therein, and for so collaborative a recording artist, it’s commendable that he – much like Shawn Carter before him – opts to go this one alone with no guest spots whatsoever. (A trope that is becoming too commonplace at Glastonbury, perhaps.) The dance troupe that swarms him at times, warmly huddles round him at others, and flickers torchlights as though frantically scouring the site for a late-night long drop is as fundamental an element to it all as any. And as they surround him as though figures in the most beautiful fresco, fake blood pouring from his diamond-encrusted crown while he pleas during Savior: “Show me you real, show me that you bleed,” the imitative boundaries separating art from life and life from art dissolve altogether.

So to pilfer a line from Stormzy, on its overdue 50th anniversary, “a happy belated one” to Glastonbury. With its headliners the youngest (Eilish, 20) and the oldest (McCartney, 80), and perhaps the most relevant of any this summer (Duckworth, 35, presenting Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers), the festival incontrovertibly finds itself in a fine bill of health. Whether or not that can be said for those departing come Monday, coughing and spluttering towards Pedestrian Gate A, will be left to the LFTs. We may well be riding another wave of this virus, but for all of a few days, we forget it exists. With everything in its right place, as was three years prior and for umpteen more before then, it’s easy to forget that COVID ever did. For beneath the hum of pylons overhead by day, and amidst the squawking of innumerable gulls squabbling over the previous evening’s detritus come daylight, this truly is the greatest show on Earth, set in the best space on Earth. Until next time…