Review: Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2023.

By my estimations, or by using the metric of my having caught all three Pyramid Stage headliners for the one and only time in twelve outings, the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts 2022 was an exceptional vintage. By contrast, the top-liners for the 2023 edition didn’t quite spark comparable allure, and thus it proved as Friday night found Arctic Monkeys landing in a very uncommon crisis of identity. A case of cognitive dissonance, perhaps: Alex Turner is very much caught between a rock and a hard place; or, more precisely, the increasingly hi-fi indie-rock of yore (which fans of AM, rather than AM per se, want to hear) and the softened baroque-pop of today (which is seemingly, and understandably, what Turner et al. want to play). By way of compromise, a wilful disregard for the wills of their audience: the classics are slowed and delivered off-kilter, if at all, while material lifted from The Car never really ignites much intrigue among those more into lyrics concerning “lairy girls hung out the window of the limousine” instead of time-travelling tanning booths. Which is both a real shame, as There’d Better Be a Mirrorball scintillates while both Body Paint and Perfect Sense easily seduce those who’ve not drifted off, and somewhat inevitable. This is someone who self-referentially croons, “Puncturing your bubble of relatability/ With your horrible new sound” within the first two minutes of tonight, after all. They’re probably better suited to arts centres than stadia these days I suppose, although the step down presumably wouldn’t quite correlate with Turner’s carefully manicured rockstar demeanour either.

If Arctic Monkeys somewhat disregard their audience, then unlike an improbably prompt Axl Rose, Lana Del Rey disrespects hers altogether the following evening, arriving 30 late for what is billed as a 75-minute set. “Fucking up big time,” indeed. It’s so poor – deplorably so – and she’s forced to cut away what few hits she has as her hair has ostensibly “take[n] so long to do.” Or her stylist got delayed. Or she was still in a huff for not topping the Pyramid. Or something… there’s always something with Lana, and will be until the music takes precedence over the surface aesthetic. Her “rush[ed]”, belated and ultimately curtailed time, which goes up in a plume of e-cig vapour, may not be the high drama she is shooting for but turns out to be highly dramatic all the same, and the dissonance between a committed a cappella Video Games and deserved booing rounds Saturday out in surreal fashion. The following evening, meanwhile, witnesses Queens Of The Stone Age fit their billing. “We have been hired to come here on Sunday, and give you all a fucking night you’ll never remember” quips Homme, admittedly more a merely bad arse of a bloke nowadays (with the questionable goatee to confirm it) than the ‘badass’ he’s been seen as for aeons. But they make for a memorable finale in exhuming much from Songs For the Deaf – No One Knows may well be the feel-good hit of this particular summer bash – as they seesaw from the serrated (Song For the Dead) to the smoother, more soothing end of other releases (Make It Wit Chu). Fresher cuts severed from this month’s In Times New Roman… (namely Carnavoyeur and Paper Machete) slot in neatly between these two extremities of the discography, although there remains an enviably liverish volatility to everything they do. A true show from a true showman in all honesty, even if ‘the art’ does need disentangling from ‘the artist’ needless to say.

Elsewhere, would-be and have-been headliners Foo Fighters have very much lost the art of keeping a secret, and turn up as ‘The Churnups’ to rip through the likes of All My Life and Learn to Fly. “You guys fuckin’ knew it was us this whole time,” Dave Grohl yowls and sure enough, a tweet from a few weeks ago extinguished any dimly smouldering hopes for Blur, Pulp, or any other resurrected ‘Britpop’ outfit. As has always been their way, though, they’re at their best when tapping into a more emotive vein, and there are glimmers of shoegaze greats hidden within Show Me How (featuring a star turn from Grohl’s daughter, Violet, in Hope Sandoval mode) while a closing, lachrymose Everlong is dedicated to the departed Taylor Hawkins. Which strikes a resonant [power] chord.

Glastonbury 2023

However, with those heading things up not really bringing a musical heat to match that which hums around Worthy Farm for so much of the weekend, it’s left to others that little bit lower down to hit some higher notes. Few do so as sumptuously as Jacob Lusk, whose Gabriels stitch together strings, classic soul tones, and style – Lusk sports the least-sighted black cloak, kilt, bowtie and waistcoat combo. Comparably black-clad in spite of the sweltering climes are Pale Waves, whose set is bookended by Lies and Jealousy – the pop-punk high points of yesteryear’s superlative Unwanted full-length. More from said release would have been most welcome, although Heather Baron-Gracie’s vocal – equivalent parts Avril Lavigne and Dolores O’Riordan – carries prior singles Eighteen and Kiss consummately.

Polymathic landed gent Fred again.. conversely shoehorns various conversations with acquaintances and sometime associates (such as 070 Shake, The Blessed Madonna, and Delilah Montagu) into his hour in front of an enormous mob, bringing a post-Bicep, pandemic-indebted ‘hype beast’-meets-‘softboi’ vibe to proceedings. His shtick can be a touch one-note though, and while the likes of Delilah (pull me out of this) and Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing) are self-evidently infectious, it’s telling that his biggest of beats comes from Moderat’s seminal canon.

From that of Max Richter, the esteemed composer flicks through The Blue Notebooks (2004), accompanied on The Park Stage by a string quintet and Tilda Swinton in a cloudless Uranian two-piece suit. Partly inspired by Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, and in protestant response to the Iraq War, it was certainly worth setting an alarm for as elegiac keys complement plaintive violins, distant synths drift in and out, and more focal, warbling organs feature. A masterpiece of modern classical music, it’s brought to morning light beautifully, and vivifies more effectively than any coffee (plus associated queueing time) ever could.

Necessarily renamed as a stage and rejuvenated as a general area, ‘Woodsies’ springs to real life on Saturday, as Wunderhorse gallop through a grungy stint with a four-pronged musical proficiency matched by few throughout the weekend. Jacob Slater’s vocal occasionally recalls that of Jimi Goodwin, but their sound harks back more vividly to the time of Sub Sub than Doves, firmly rooted in an American ’90s. It’s Leader of the Pack which Ronseals it, even with the odd note of chicken pickin’ à la Sweet Home Alabama, before a new one named Superman hints at a widening of their sound and expanding of potential scope. A wild ride, but less so than the subsequent Working Men’s Club, as Syd Minsky-Sargeant’s band of sullen allies utterly bludgeon through the mangled acidity of Valleys; the ascending, synthesised maelstroms of 19; the throbbing, grizzled Mark E. Smithery of Teeth. They’re a breath of freshest air on a day of still, close heat; albeit one which was first kicked up and spat out long before Minsky-Sargeant’s d.o.b.

But The Park calls and masses respond, as Jockstrap belt up. I Love You Jennifer B is one of, if not the album of this year thus far, and Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye have little trouble in translating its merits to the stage. Dressed in gold, it’s the former who makes it, floating atop a distorted, trashed drum track on Neon, strapping on an acoustic for a joyous Glasgow, and grabbing a violin – a busman’s holiday of sorts – for the transcendent ending to Concrete Over Water. Her onstage fluidity is their greatest strength, and her voice never better than on Greatest Hits, but Skye’s productional nous – taking cues from PC Music, and transposing these from esoteric curios to eminently accessible, electronically altered pop – is similarly remarkable. A new one, Red Eye, may lean too much into gimmickry, as Skye contorts and warps Ellery’s largely imperceptible lyrics of “plastic dishes” and “four eggs in a big, black frying pan” over rudimentary Aphex Twinned squelching, but it’s a sole misstep before 50/50 brings everybody 100% back on board. A blinding, golden moment.

Glastonbury 2023

Back in the tented shade of Woodsies, shame are having theirs in the proverbial sun too. Charlie Steen is surfing the throng – as is so often his wont – when he clocks a pink acoustic, takes it away with him, and duly obliterates the thing once returned to the photo pit. It’s quite the sight to match the more chaotic Food for Worms, from which Fingers of Steel is the highlight. That same decapitated headstock is later toted like some totemic shrunken head in what little pit there is for a visceral Faster, the Manic Street Preachers mercifully reincorporating chapters and verses from The Holy Bible into their setlist. More surprising still is the return of 1985 from chronically neglected 2004 full-length Lifeblood, a long-overdue reissue of which is, at long bloody last, mooted.

‘Muted’ is certainly not an adjective you’d deploy while discussing Måneskin, although their rendition of Beggin’ is one you’d dial right down to zero given half a chance. But they go full tilt and, for Eurovision and/ or X Factor alumni or otherwise, I’ve got to say they’re immensely entertaining. It may be lyrically vapid, the posturing contrived and the profanities frequent, but they’re visibly not bothered about public opinion. And when taken at face value – not something I would dream of paying away from a festival setting, their 60 minutes seem to evaporate. Additionally, it’s I WANNA BE YOUR SLAVE which I have stuck on repeat in what little is left of my brain on the drive home come Monday. Zitti? Not so much, but buoni? Much more so than anticipated.

As is a seemingly ageless Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who bashes out timeless classics between aptly mumsy patter as a number of her brood watch on proudly from the side of the stage. But it’s her own (or those she was at least involved in) which shine brighter than any sequinned garb or cover version, with Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) – now a vintage 23-year-old disco-gilded Boeing of a thing, showing precious little wear and tear – and a concluding, gyrating Murder On the Dancefloor her enduring finest.

There’s a reassuring constancy to Ellis-Bextor, but the same cannot be said about Black Country, New Road’s path thus far. More turbulent than any whiz on Concorde ever was, they’ve lost Isaac Wood and with that, his quick wit, wry quips and, most importantly, his songs. A radically different band operating under the same moniker therefore, it seems an odd decision to stick with it. Up Song, with its capricious saxophonic motif, appears to reference his departure, as Tyler Hyde opens: “Look at what we did together,” before a reprised choral refrain of “look at what we did together/ BC, NR friends forever” rings out. Musically, it’s slightly ‘Glee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’ with instruments chopped and lead vocalists changed from one song to the next, and ultimately lacks the more erratic timbre of either Ants From Up There or For the First Time. (A compare-and-contrast would of course be completely pointless, were it not for the name.) Ellery also feels underused in light of her golden hour the day before, with her restrained Horses among the better numbers. Hints of sardonic humour do remain, Lewis Evans preceding the uncharacteristically peppy Across the Pond Friend with the witticism: “My name’s Alex from Glasto, and this song’s called Thiago Silva.” But they’re too few, with too far between, even if Nancy Tries to Take the Night – akin to a concertinaed Music for 18 Musicians – implies brighter post-Wood work is still to come.

Given that Slowdive’s perceived heydays were decades ago, kisses – from a forthcoming fifth album, everything is alive – suggests they’ve a whole load still to give. Alas, it’s a lone new one, although the delay-laden Souvlaki Space Station and a driven When the Sun Hits provide astral highs all the same. It may not quite be all-change for Alison Goldfrapp either, but without the otherwise ever-present Will Gregory, début solo album The Love Invention hears her throw it right back to the hyper-polished synth-pop of Black Cherry, Supernature or, more recently, Head First. She doesn’t look to have aged a day in the intervening time, and the 57-year-old is positively immaculate in every sense. She pleases with a few hits sprinkled in (a strictly motorik Ride a White Horse gets us into the groove, while Strict Machine bucks right back and forth), but she needn’t as solo material is (whisper it) among her strongest material to date. Digging Deeper is as well suited to Ibiza as Berlin, and should be played daily and nightly across both for the foreseeable, while a one-two of In Electric Blue and So Hard So Hot goes to show that Goldfrapp is as finely attuned to and in tune with heartfelt balladry as she is foot-stomping pump-and-thrust. A real, and really underrated, national treasure.

The best may be saved for (second to) last though, as Caroline Polachek’s show – played out before a puffing volcanic cut-out, in reference to a magnificent Smoke – is just like perfection, needs no correction, proves absolutely flawless, and so on. Boasting the sort of production that’s rarely seen beyond the Pyramid, it’s a supreme left-of-centre performance: her choreography is iconic, while her voice gymnastically scales the uppermost echelons of the tent effortlessly to extend above and beyond. More importantly, she has the songs to match and much like Jockstrap, eccentric production is repurposed and put to more readily digestible song. (A belting take on I Believe even goes out to the late SOPHIE.) Welcome to My Island is an inevitable fist-thumper; Bunny Is a Rider a pulsating trip, with its propulsive bass part and hip, popping vocal delivery; Sunset the best “football anthem” still to be adopted by terraces or, more relevant to its Hispanic flavour, gradas. Unfortunately neither Dido nor Grimes show up for Fly to You, but Weyes Blood does on a heightened recital of the Glastonbury-appropriately pagan Butterfly Net, before the Holy Trinity (namely Caroline Shut Up, Smoke, and So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings) sees us home. As was with Phoebe Bridgers’ set in this same tent twelve months previously, the prevailing impression is that Polachek’s star is on the cusp of ascending and quickly, with her headlining bow at May’s Wide Awake increasingly obviously the first of many.

As for the festival itself, well, there can be no better party, nor any better place for one… not that that’ll come as news to anyone. And in terms of high-contrast programming, I don’t know of many, if there are any others where you would be able to indulge in both Måneskin and Max Richter on the same day. Four stars out of five therefore, headliners aside.