Oh, wow, Glastonbury

This year's festival had it all: great bands, an out-of-this-world atmosphere and sunshine. Oh, yes, and the usual quota of hippie-ish fun. Alexia Loundras finds lots of reasons to cheer
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The Independent Culture

"Leave your preconceptions here", orders a sign in red block capitals. This is an essential Glastonbury Festival instruction, but unlike the notice at the festival's entrances asking punters to leave all glass bottles at the threshold, it's buried deep in the 900-acre site: somewhere between the burlesque madness of the Field of Lost Vagueness and the Tipi Field's new age serenity. Thankfully, however, to anyone who's made it this far inside the towering Fort Knox fence, the advice is like suggesting someone open a door before walking through it. Chances are, all 115,000 of this year's lucky punters dumped every one of their Glastonbury preconceptions within five minutes of decanting their Jack Daniel's into a two-litre Coke bottle - that is, the moment they entered the site.

"Leave your preconceptions here", orders a sign in red block capitals. This is an essential Glastonbury Festival instruction, but unlike the notice at the festival's entrances asking punters to leave all glass bottles at the threshold, it's buried deep in the 900-acre site: somewhere between the burlesque madness of the Field of Lost Vagueness and the Tipi Field's new age serenity. Thankfully, however, to anyone who's made it this far inside the towering Fort Knox fence, the advice is like suggesting someone open a door before walking through it. Chances are, all 115,000 of this year's lucky punters dumped every one of their Glastonbury preconceptions within five minutes of decanting their Jack Daniel's into a two-litre Coke bottle - that is, the moment they entered the site.

To call Glastonbury a music festival is like saying a car is somewhere you can sit. The V, Carling and T in the Park music festivals are just that - they're only as good as the acts they book. But Glastonbury is not simply about the bands. And with such top-drawer headliners as this year's Radiohead and REM, that's saying something. As ever, Glastonbury 2003 was a tapas festival. A buffet of bite-size, flavoursome treats - from the multinational, great-value food stalls where just £2.60 bought you the best vegetable pasty ever to the acquired taste of the hit and miss alternative theatre. Planting yourself in front of the main pyramid stage until Moby delivered Sunday night's decidedly lukewarm closing set would have been a terrible waste. Why just watch gigs when you could have witnessed a "marriage" ceremony carried out by a cod vicar and dominatrix nuns in the ramshackle wedding chapel or watched a man in a Jacko mask breakdance in slow motion, a freak swallowing a pink neon bulb or a woman hypnotising whole groups of hash truffle-stoned teens in the hippie Green Fields at dusk with her impromptu twirling fire show?

But whatever the performance, every ounce of effort was thrown into it. Because come rain (a little) or shine (a lot), Glastonbury's sense of occasion, of specialness, rubbed off on everyone - even the seen-it-all rock stars. Saturday night is always the big one of the festival, but, this year, the headline acts on the Pyramid and Other Stage outdid even the fevered expectation. In spite of a Radiohead-depleted audience, Wales's Super Furry Animals tore through an electrified greatest hits set driven by frenetic glaring lights and the tremendous earth-quaking sound similar to that of an approaching tribe of woolly mammoths. By the time two Yeti-like cavemen arrived on stage to pound tribal drums, the electricity pulsing through the crowd was enough to light up Abergavenny. Well almost.

Meanwhile, over on the Pyramid, the dense people blanket lining the vale between the stage and the top of the site for Radiohead was in itself a stunning sight. And when the tens-of-thousands-strong throng softly echoed singer Thom Yorke's cracked, fragile falsetto as he whispered the chorus of "Karma Police", it was enough to snap even Yorke's mouth up into a clumsy smile. Like an albino dwarf ostrich hatch from it's shell, this shy creaking grin is a spectacle so sweet, rare and ever so slightly disturbing that it can only ever be a very good thing.

There were plenty of other musical highlights. Among them The Kings Of Leon - aka the Memphis Strokes - more than lived up to their hype as they ripped through the stormy humidity of the packed New Bands Tent with their wired country-fried garage blues. While a sober, immensely confident and gloriously naked (figuratively that is) Cerys Matthews proved she could do without the raucous band in the relative calm of an overflowing Acoustic Tent.

But forget the bands - they may as well be on a Save The Galapagos Turtle sponsored silence for all the difference it'd make. The essence of Glastonbury has little to do with who's strumming the Strat but is absolutely dependent on the unique, out-of-this-world atmosphere that's lovingly nurtured along with the cows on Mr Eavis's Worthy Farm. Granted, the festival isn't perfect. These days you do have to pay to get in, but with less dodgy folk, crime has fallen (and loo queues are shorter). And although branding isn't exactly in keeping with Glastonbury's hippy ethos, the corporate sponsors do at least offer useful, universally available free services (phone charging, daily Glasto newspaper, event programme) that would cost elsewhere. But love is, as always, free. And, at the risk of sounding like a sun-stroked hippy (and after a weekend of sunshine there's a lot of them about) the festival is still like nowhere else on earth.

Glastonbury is a mini-Utopia where goodwill is as catchy as a Junior Senior tune and the meaning of life boils down to the simple pleasure of watching the sun rise from the Stone Circle at the top end of the Green Field. Life for three days is simple, and there's no escaping the feeling that everything there is done for love, not for money. From the benches laid out over the site and the bizarre art strewn everywhere (an organ of car exhausts, 10ft-tall tree men, a forest of giant flowers) to the storytelling tents in the Kids Field and the free chai in the Tipis, there's an overwhelming niceness about the place that infects everyone within the festival boundaries.

But it's not just the weekend revellers that are bitten by this hippy vibe. Those working there succumb to it too. Seriously. Want proof? A frozen festival-goer was heard asking a stall holder if he sold any hot Ribena. He didn't, but instead he pulled out his personal supply of Glayva whisky, poured a shot into a cup for a warming hot toddy instead. All for the price of a smile. Elsewhere, at 4am, three middle-aged, pinafore-wearing wine bar stallholders forgot all about selling wine and became pogoing DJs as their sound system unleashed Tina Turner's "Simply the Best", sending the 200-strong swarm gathered around the stall into ecstasy.

By Sunday afternoon the giddy excitement of the weekend had turned into the sort of dappled grey melancholy that hangs heavy over the last days of school holidays. On the Other Stage, as the sun slipped unnoticed behind the drizzling clouds, Iceland's avant-post rockers Sigur Ros unleashed their appropriately mournful glacial chords like searing wails over the overwrought crowd. For some the emotion was just too much - just in front of me a girl was openly sobbing. And no one said a word. That's the wonder of Glastonbury. Preconceptions are left by the fence.

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