This is now my ninth Glastonbury Festival and each one is very different. There are the ones with the mud and rain and the ones with the searing heat. There are also very different, memorable acts performing at each.
What will this year be known for many as?
Possibly it was the Rick Astley festival. Where the former 80s popstar wowed the Pyramid Stage, which included him playing drums on ACDC’s Highway to Hell, surprisingly one of his favourite albums. And of course, where he performed the songs of the Smiths with Blossoms, to a packed Woodsies stage crowd.
It was also the year Elton John drew the biggest crowd I can remember in nine years, including for the Rolling Stones, and belted out two hours of sing along gems across his multi-decade career. His set was one of the highlights for me.
It was also the year an entire Pyramid crowd took the festival’s message of kindness to heart to help out Lewis Capaldi during a tricky moment in his set.
Elsewhere it was a very sunny one, with plenty of melting festival goers particularly on the Saturday.
And sadly, it was one with controversy. Not from the artists, the festival, or the crowds…but from the keyboard warriors at home not satisfied with some of the acts.
Worst of all was the abuse Billy No Mates received for her solo show at the Park stage on Friday. Criticism was focused on her lack of band and singing and dancing to a backing tape. As someone who attended I thought she was incredible and, as I’ll explain a little later, put in one of the best performances of the weekend.
Above all it was a festival of enthralling live shows, from the main stages to the tiny tucked away tents. Here I’ll take you through my festival and the acts I saw. Each person’s own version will be different. But that’s the joy of the Glastonbury Festival, there is so much going on, around each corner and field.
The day started sedately on the Other Stage with Ben Howard’s atmospheric folk. I thought at first it was a misstep to have someone so tranquil start the main stage proceedings, given previous acts in this slot have included Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye, the Pretenders and the Libertines. But it worked well in the heat after two days of camping and drinking for many. Perfect hangover music.
Then it picked up with The Hives for one of the best ever Glastonbury sets. It certainly felt like that as you get caught in their world, which is silly, tongue in cheek stadium rock; where all the bands before them are a warm up and all the bands afterwards, well, hard luck them following these Swedish crowd pleasers.
Dressed in matching black suits covered in lightning bolts they owned the stage and the crowd, especially with their key hits Hate To Say I Told You So and Bogus Operandi.
Then over to the Park for Billy No Mates. Haters, kindly look away. She was fantastic and doesn’t need a band. She is the band! Came on with acoustic guitar and smartly dressed in shirt and trousers. She looked like she worked in HR and just off to a busy meeting. Then the guitar was jettisoned, and she danced and sang through the rest of the set.
It was entrancing as she lost herself in the songs, with Blue Bones (Deathwish) a highlight of Glastonbury Festival 2023. I was reminded of the opening of Stop Making Sense, where the action builds up on stage. As she ended the very appreciated audience thought they’d seen something great. How odd to read later that night, of the abuse online. Were the keyboard warriors watching a different act? Thankfully many agree with those present at this wonderful performance.
The great performances kept coming. Off to the Avalon Stage to see the tail end of Jamie Webster, watched by seemingly every Scouser in the Southwest that day.
Then the Lottery Winners, the Mancunian indie band that managed to convince Boy George, Sean Ryder and Frank Turner to guest on their latest album. Fun, doesn’t touch the sides. The banter with the crowd, the stories behind the songs, particularly Letter to Myself was fantastic. Please do go and see them. A gem of a band.
Then it was back to the Park to see the band I’d looked forward to all day – Sparks. Russell and Ron Mael did not disappoint. Armed not only with a great back catalogue, including This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, their new album is among their best yet.
The appearance of Cate Blanchett to recreate her dancing from The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte was a wonderful surprise. Then they got Edgar Wright, who directed their recent documentary, on stage to ‘direct’ their band photo in front of the crowd. Star studded, killer set from the band that continue to excel after five decades.
The Arctic Monkeys ended my night. Like many who dabble in the band, I prefer their first album to the more modern lounge stadium rock. Oddly though, they were another to get abuse from those watching at home as a lacklustre headliner. I thought they suited the role well and for the fans it was a great performance, especially since lead singer Alex Turner had battled through laryngitis days before to attend.
The day started with another stellar performance and another act to court controversy, The Last Dinner Party.
Keyboard warrior conspiracy theorists think they are a fake band, put together by a record label and fuelled by their obvious poshness. But in reality, they probably just have great PR with expertise in promoting a buzz around a band.
Musically they are a cross between Kate Bush and countless other 70s acts from Spiders from Mars era Bowie to Abba and with songs like their single – and only song on Spotify – Nothing Matters, to belters such as the great Godzilla. Away from the conspiracies, a packed Woodsies crowd saw a great set full of dramatic songs. Bigger stages beckon. Could even be a future headliner.
It was a tent day today due to blistering sunshine in Somerset. That’s no bad thing as the tent stages were packed full of great acts. And in between my day of tent stage hopping I stopped to see the array of circus performers and oddities such as car henge at the William’s Green area.
Next up were the Magic Numbers who attracted quite the crowd. I thought it was mainly people escaping the sunshine. But the whole Acoustic Tent erupted in sing along with their notable hits from yesteryear. Clearly still hugely loved by a good range of music fans.
Cabaret tent next for me for some comedy and just in time to see Flo and Joan, aka sisters Rosie and Nicola Dempsey, and their silly songs. Wonderful stuff.
Up next, back to the Acoustic Stage to see some more legends. Richard Thompson was next up to play a mixture of new songs and classics, such as Wall of Death and Valerie. Among many high points was his rendition of Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall.
Then came an even bigger treat. Glenn Tilbrook banging out Squeeze hits, including Is That Love, Slap and Tickle, Goodbye Girl, Take Me I’m Yours and Up the Junction with the bunch of youngsters that form indie funk rock band Beautiful Landing. A great combination, full of energy and Tilbrook’s vocals and guitar playing are still top drawer after all these years.
I was beaming throughout, especially when the band brought out Paul Carrack for a wonderful version of Tempted. Carrack’s effortless vocals are a wonder of the musical world.
Still sunny, but with a slight breeze, so outside gigs were able to be endured. It was over to the West Holts stage to start the day with Beth Orton, complete with great band and engaging chat to perform her songs such as Central Reservation.
The storm clouds started to gather ominously afterwards, but everyone could have done with some rain. Sadly the black clouds passed over swiftly with barely a drop from the sky. Sunshine though was probably more apt for Yusef/Cat Stevens, full of messages of peace and environmentalism as he belted through an astonishing back catalogue from the 1960s until his lengthy hiatus.
Moonshadow, Father And Son, Wild World, Morning Has Broken, The First Cut Is the Deepest…draws breath…. then Matthew and Son, I Love My Dog, Hard Headed Woman and Tea For The Tillerman among others.
Its quite the back catalogue, which the largely young crowd found themselves surprised they knew were by this old bearded bloke on stage. “I love how he’s so…old”, said one millennial near me during his Pyramid Stage set.
Another wonder of the musical world is Robert Fripp’s distinct guitar playing on David Bowie’s Heroes. Over at the Acoustic stage Fripp and wife Toyah were full of fun playing covers from the likes of Metallica, Billy Idol, her own 80s hits and Bowie. To hear the actual guitarist play Heroes was the icing on the cake of a joyous set from Robert and Toyah.
In this day of legends I also dropped back to West Holts to see Jamaican Barrington Levy plough through a catalogue of reggae from the late 1970s onwards. Captivating and backed by a great band. We all felt broader than Broadway by the end.
And then it drew to a close to watch Elton John’s final ever UK show amid the giant crowd. His chronological retrospective was brilliantly done, with the whole crowd singing along, the air thick with the smell of flares and the sky full of pyrotechnics.
John’s favourite artists, including Gabriels’ Jacob Lusk and the Killers Brandon Flowers, joined him as guests as the departing king of pop anointed his successors. All killer (literally) and no filler.
Words and pictures by Joe Lepper