When Damon Albarn sat down and wept on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage on Sunday 28 June, the festival season reached its early pinnacle. He had just finished singing Blur's greatest song, "This is a Low". Looking out at tens of thousands of people roaring back every word, standing with old bandmates he never thought he would play with again, he was overcome. The Glastonbury crowd, who had already stopped the show by singing "Tender" long after Blur had stopped, had moved him, and were moved themselves by his brief collapse. It was the rock festival as communal, historic and musically meaningful event, impossible without that sheer weight of people, brought together in a West Country field.
Elsewhere, though, 2009 was a year when the point and even the survival of festivals was regularly called into question. Beachdown and Bloom were among the many that cancelled, while others, such as Cornbury, retrenched to ride the summer out. But even at Reading, still an automatic sell-out, Friday headliners Kings of Leon's Nathan Followill's on-stage rant at what he perceived as underwhelming crowd reaction suggested all was not well. Wandering through the site's nondescript field, sampling the cheap and nasty food, I felt little excitement. Saturday headliners Arctic Monkeys also seemed more bemused than thrilled, and even Radiohead on Sunday had to draw deep on decade-old hits to connect. Mutual boredom at the rituals of festival sets was rife. The functional presentation of dozens of over-familiar bands penned together in a field seemed suddenly prehistoric.
Of course, with so much music, some was still superb. Florence and the Machine's Florence Welch climbed the rigging in a bat-winged dress. Soulsavers, with grunge veteran Mark Lanegan standing ramrod straight as he sang in a voice velvet-rich with experience, played heavy music to a rapt crowd in a small tent as the Kings of Leon imploded.
Wireless, like all of London's festivals, struggled for atmosphere in Hyde Park. Its downsizing from a three-day general pop event, which Morrissey headlined last year, to two days of dance and hip-hop, again spoke of straitened times. But as a mostly teenage crowd roamed the dusty site, Kanye West's hubris, playing the misunderstood genius while surrounded by topless women, provided memories. My best day in the capital was at Madstock. Madness carefully chose a bill of friends – Jerry Dammers, The Blockheads, The Pogues – which gave personal and musical context to their bittersweet pop world.
The Isle of Wight, the summer's first major festival, benefits from the island's consistently sunny climate in June. Closing with the Pixies and Neil Young, who treated the stage like a Greenwich Village coffee-house with solo acoustic songs before plugging in his electric guitar with a crackling boom, was a coup. The Zombies' Colin Blunstone's singing in the Sunday morning sun was equally unforgettable, connecting the festival to its 1960s origins. Bestival, with Kraftwerk and Massive Attack, also exploited one of south east England's more beautiful spots.
What I felt, as one festival piled into the next, was a pressing need for purpose beyond a cushy summer income for the bands who play high-paid half-hours at most of them (step forward the Pigeon Detectives and Maximo Park, still good the fourth time I saw them, but really...).
Last weekend's End of the Road Festival was the best I went to partly because the bill wasn't a lazy list of big bored indie bands, but based on the taste of its organisers, Simon Taffe and Sofia Hagberg. This attracted a like-minded crowd to the otherworldly beauty of Dorset's Larmer Tree Gardens, recalling the sense of shared values when Woodstock instigated the festival dream. Hearing Okkervil River's thrilling set of hip narrative rock while finishing a fresh-baked cake amidst magically lit trees was, in its non-conformist pleasure, profoundly rock'n'roll. Latitude tries unconvincingly hard for this quirkiness. Green Man (which pulled in America's best band, Wilco) and Glastonbury are End of the Road's only models. And in a doom-laden year for the "festival industry" (a term telling what's wrong), it sold out and turned a profit.
The twin ends of creative discovery and community always apply at Womad, of course, whose variety of fresh sounds from around the world is still unrivalled. The Black Arm Band's largely aboriginal all-star revue fought Australia and Britain's racial crimes with soulful music and Dylan-esque lyrical resource. Seeing Western Saharan rebel queen Mariem Hassan and Northumberland's The Unthanks cooking dishes in the Taste the World tent was also happily intimate.
A creeping malaise that Womad wasn't immune from was the insistence of older fans on bringing often impassable barricades of furniture to sprawl on. Oxfordshire's Cornbury, aka "Poshstock", was perhaps the worst culprit, but compensated with hit-packed sets from resourceful old-timers The Pretenders and The Damned, a policy also adopted at Cheltenham's Wychwood, with Supergrass and The Beat.
Half the towns I passed through seemed to have a folk festival. "It's not music we'd listen to ever, really," a couple told me of one in their Northamptonshire village that they'd wholly enjoyed. From Moseley to Rochester, towns and villages are using music to revive and define themselves.
Glastonbury retains the festival crown, a sometimes frighteningly vast assembly of people and music which, through the soon-retiring Michael Eavis, retains a sense of broader values, and the possibility of mighty moments like Damon's breakdown, and Blur's apotheosis. For the rest, a sense of place and musical purpose, on a human scale, must be the future: not just bands with guitars in a fenced-in field, there out of habit, not need.Reuse content