Glastonbury: Coldplay and U2 almost spoil the party

The headliners split the crowds, but this year's Glastonbury showed that the Seventies dream lives on at Worthy Farm

This year's Glastonbury Festival was notable for weak headliners, rain, mud, baking sun and a sense that, in its 40th year, this unlikely survivor from days of hippie idealism is still true to itself: a vital, alternative place to escape to, leaving worries and restrictions at the gate.

U2's controversial headlining set on Friday proved the festival's unique requirements and possibilities, by falling so far short of them. The highly publicised protest at the band's decision to base their business in Holland, where it will be virtually untaxed, was invisible and soon forgotten, the campaigners' one inflatable banner quickly, and by some accounts too forcibly, removed.

Bono's struggles to engage in a show he clearly felt to be both important and very far from his stadium-rock comfort zone was far more fascinating. This seasoned star, who has played to far bigger crowds than even the Pyramid Stage, was nervous, his voice strained and weak throughout. On the a capella assault on "Jerusalem" which was his main attempt to reach out for some Glastonbury-shaped version of old Albion, he sounded desperately ragged, a man flailing towards a shore destined to stay out of reach.

Disappointment was universal with everyone I spoke to. But so was the sense that U2's travails weren't of the slightest significance to anyone else's mood. Coldplay went down better on Saturday, though their bland platitudes and second-hand music made me want to retch, while Beyoncé's pumped-up, Hollywood superstar-style Sunday show was the most enjoyable of all; when she adopted her Sasha Fierce alter ego, her pounding drops to her knees and tossing of leonine tresses were mock-ferociously sexy, compensating for the mostly rotten songs.

The absence of a truly historic, heart-wrenching and unrepeatable headline set, such as Blur's reunion in 2009, which made Damon Albarn fall weeping on the floor, or Pulp's career-crowning 1990s performances, made 2011 a less than classic festival. Headliners were established, familiar pros, wheeled in to do a job. But such shows are only one high-profile marker of what happens at Glastonbury and not the most important.

The sense of scale of the 15-mile site, so overwhelming when you first arrive, and the sheer number of stages and performers, allows for drift and discovery. On the way to see Radiohead's "surprise" set at the faraway Park Stage (towards which half of Morrissey's crowd also seemed to be heading, to his apparent disgruntlement), I walked past the tiny Bandstand. Raghu Dixit, a star of Indian independent music almost unknown here, had just started an impromptu solo show. His own band had gone AWOL, it turned out, because they had earlier walked straight past the little, park-style stage, not believing that it could possibly be meant to play it.

The liberated energy of Dixit's performance was grasped by the hundred or so passing festival-goers who paused to listen and soon found themselves leaping and dancing with the irrepressible singer. When I arrived for Radiohead, their relaxed gig, drawn almost entirely from the last two albums, disappointed everyone I spoke to just as much as U2's. But I enjoyed its unpressured, contemplative nature, a million miles from career cares. Dixit and Thom Yorke's men were simultaneously benefiting from Glastonbury's freeing ambience and benign, curious crowds. It is the only rock festival with some of Womad's interest in musical investigation. Most people seemed up for anything good.

Jarvis Cocker wryly summed up the stupidity of attempts by the straighter world outside to interfere in the festival's running. Commenting on a police request to test Glastonbury's sewage for drug content, refused by Michael Eavis, Cocker wondered who exactly would get the job of rooting through the festival's notorious toilets. "And secondly," he said to cheers. "This is a field where people gather to have a good time. Just leave us alone. It's nobody's business."

The relatively tiny number of arrests in a suddenly assembled community of more than 100,000 proves that the fabled spirit of Glastonbury is self-regulating. Though a few utterly zonked drunks were stumbling through the Pyramid Stage's vast grass arena by Sunday's Beyoncé finale, most were being steered by patient friends. The lack of aggression in such a mass of often-inebriated Britons was a sort of miracle – and a tribute to Glastonbury's vast, improvised, successful society.

The weather was, predictably, one of the few restricting elements. Rain on Thursday and Friday, whipped in by the wind at times, left the site a swamp. Sunday's heatwave reduced people's energy in a different way, but the almost magical drying of previously impassable paths opened up the whole site to exploration.

I finally made it to the Fields of Avalon, where The Low Anthem were kicking up a storm of their own, enjoying themselves to an almost fevered extent in front of a small, devoted crowd. Their look of delight was one I saw on many musicians' faces over the weekend. Playing to this audience seems to be as special as being in it. A little further along, children leapt around a stage set aside for the public. I didn't quite get to the apparently debauched, illicit zone of Shangri-La, deeper still into Glastonbury's far borders.

There were times in my first couple of days there when I wondered whether the festival had lost its way; whether it was simply too big, too unmanageable and too resistant to the intimacy that can be had at smaller, more focused festivals such as Dorset's End of the Road. The huge, behind-the-scenes commercial deals (it took four days of diligent investigation to find a cider not brewed by Gaymer's) also mean it isn't quite the pure Utopia it seems superficially. But at its end I looked at the vast, dark fields, emptying with startling speed and carpeted with the debris of a retreating army.

I felt I was crossing the border of a country whose rules I was just starting to learn, which was ceasing to exist, like a stage-set or dream, as I turned my back. Michael Eavis should be knighted; or maybe just thanked.

Points of view: the hits and the misses

HITS



Elbow

When Guy Garvey sang "One Day Like This", the mutual affection with an elevated crowd as they sang along was this year's great Glastonbury moment.



Don McLean

The veteran singer-songwriter's take on "American Pie" on Sunday morning, with multiple extra choruses, was another heartwarming, communal high.



Pulp

The biggest crowd the Park Stage has ever seen, 30,000, turned up for Saturday's "surprise" guests (heavily rumoured all day), who responded with relaxed warmth and great songs.



Eels

Mark Everett's band of backwood, bearded oddballs smuggled profound affection for outsiders and losers into a soulful, funny, crowd-winning show.



The Low Anthem

Their second set of the weekend was at the obscure Avalon Stage, where they finished a long tour with a last exhilarating blast of atmospheric Americana.

MISSES



U2

Bono sang "Jerusalem" (badly), honestly trying to locate the spirit of Glastonbury. But their blustery, slick stadium music left the crowd cold.



Coldplay

Chris Martin and co went down much better as Saturday's headliners. But for me their songs remained too lightweight to truly move.



Janelle Monae

The former Outkast member can be an exhilarating singer-dancer, crossing James Brown, Prince and Fred Astaire. But her absurdly loud set's music signified disappointingly little.



The Wombats

UK indie at its most ordinary: bouncy, perky, eager to please, and utterly disposable – a makeweight in the Glastonbury bill.



Cage the Elephant

The Kentucky rockers really went for it, but singer Matthew Shultz's assiduous study of Jim Morrison's 1960s school of rock theatrics felt forced.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick