Glitter, grunge and that ol' time religion

The morris dancers were naked, the Rev Al Green's smile was dazzling, the Comedown Queen was upbeat. In fact, the only mud at this year's Glastonbury was the sound of Saturday night's headline act. By Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture
Among the many strange objects that people tried to sell me at Glastonbury this year, one item in particular stood out. It was a noose. For pounds 10 I could have it with no questions asked, said a pair of smiling gentlemen, though for a pound a throw they would hang on request. "Any of your friends irritating you, madam?" asked one. "Perhaps you've had enough of the festival," said the other. Given that I had just arrived, I felt it was a little early to decide and declined with thanks.

In a place where goggle-eyed hippies try and sell you lighters for a tenner and naked morris dancers are ubiquitous, this encounter does not rate as particularly unusual, but it seems an appropriate metaphor for the levels of expectation that accompanied the start of this year's festival.

The past few years have seen the Glastonbury experience transformed into a test of endurance. Veterans of the previous two festivals are held in the kind of regard usually reserved for Everest mountaineers. Indeed, such is the nostalgia for the waterlogged years that the first drops of rain on Saturday afternoon were greeted with outstretched arms and an uproarious cheer.

This kind of pessimism can be the only reason why the Manic Street Preachers were placed at the top of Saturday night's bill. Even with the absence of mud they left me feeling stranded in a sticky swamp of mediocrity. Perhaps it was the sparkling charisma of REM's Michael Stipe the night before that made singer James Dean Bradfield seem as soggy as the chips being flogged next to the stage. He might have been playing at the pub at the end of his road for all the excitement he showed in front of a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see. His trademark strained vocals seemed more laboured than ever, and their anthems weren't in the least bit anthemic.

Guitarist Nicky Wire, the band's only element of glamour, did his best to liven things up with a few boyish scissor-kicks, though you longed for him to just throw in the towel and join Courtney Love's band, Hole.

For out-and-out charisma, we were better off with Black Star Liner, a unruly Leeds band that send up bhangra, rock and dance music with sitars, Bollywood-style strings, overblown rock guitars and hand-in-the-air house rhythms. On first appearances BSL seem more like a cabaret act with frontman Choque Hossein twitching and jerking across the stage, and striking weird contortionist poses that sent children scurrying to their parents in horror.

It was difficult to know how to assess Mr Hossein's singing since he spent most of the time talking like a Dalek through a vocoder and squealing like a crazed hyena. In a rare display of sanity at the end of the show he began listing his own favourite Glastonbury bands, a generous gesture since it was he who stood out as the best performer of the weekend.

Beth Orton was a more calming influence with her ruminative elegies made more affecting by the presence of a string section, though why she is known as `The Comedown Queen" is anybody's guess. Her vocals may suggest someone on the brink of tears, but Ms Orton was in an engagingly buoyant mood, shrieking inappropriately in-between songs and systematically shattering the serene atmosphere she had just worked so hard to create.

Alan McGee's new protege Mishka cut a lonely figure in the middle of the stage with his soulful vocals - a blend of Bob Dylan and Gregory Isaacs - backed for the most part by an acoustic guitar. As legend would have it, Mr McGee spotted him playing guitar on the Caribbean island of Nevis while on holiday in 1997, and promptly signed him up. Mishka proved perfect festival fodder with his sunny, reggae-tinged sound and shamelessly romantic lyrics, though you wondered how the fetid squalor of Glastonbury compared in his eyes to his native Nevis.

Like Tom Jones and Tony Bennett before him, the Rev Al Green was brought in for some old-fashioned showmanship. Or perhaps it is so the kids have something to talk to their parents about when they get home. Either way, he managed to win several thousand new fans.

Fittingly, he delivered his funky sermon on Sunday, resplendent in a white bow tie and dinner jacket and clutching a red rose. Parading a grin that almost outshone the glorious weather, he arrived like soothing balm on our toasted skin with the gloopy tones of the Hammond organ and some mellifluous gospel singers adding to our afternoon repose. "We've come all the way from Memphis just to see you," Green announced.

He took us proudly on a retrospective tour of his work, from the opener "Love" to the celebrated "Let's Stay Together". Grizzled hippies, grungey teenagers and the backstage glitterati were, for once, united in their appreciation of this seasoned soul man.

Sadly, Dogstar's "We've come all the way from LA" didn't have quite the same impact. With Keanu Reeves as their bassist, the other two members of Dogstar were only conspicuous by their anonymity and an earlier press call had seen a load of red-faced journalists struggling to remember their names.

In fact, the sight of Reeves on stage is the only reason to see Dogstar - as hordes of teenage girls had astutely surmised before me - since their hollow brand of American grunge held no allure whatsoever. The Glastonbury crowd responded to them with muted applause, though you got the feeling that if the noose men had reappeared, they would have found themselves doing a lot of business.

Al Green plays the Royal Albert Hall tonight (0171-589 8212), and Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121-212 3333) on Thursday; REM play Manchester Evening News Arena, 17 July and Stirling Castle, 19 and 20 July