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All the fun of the Festival: Glastonbury's generation game

Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young – the headliners were old enough to be their granddads but the fans loved them all the same. Rob Sharp reports from Worthy Farm

If last year's Glastonbury, with its much-maligned headliner Jay-Z, was an attempt to look forward to the future of the festival, then this year's Holy Trinity of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Blur was very much staring back in the other direction. Much of the goings-on at Worthy Farm this year had a heavy dose of nostalgia, kicking off as they did on Thursday evening with the death of a man who peaked 20 years ago. We must also remember that Young released his first solo record in 1968, two years before Jay-Z was born. This year, it was the good old boys who reigned supreme.

This selection of veteran artists seemed bizarre when you looked around the 90-acre site. Most of the people there appeared to be in their early 20s or late teens. Fans' fashions were informed quite clearly by their idols, most of whom were up and coming. The severe fringes and long sides of Serge from Kasabian or the kind of tight dresses and asymmetrical fringes that Beth Ditto might sport seemed to blanket the grassy hillsides. This was in contrast to some of the older fans' mullets, which appeared to get an airing but once a year.

Thankfully, yesterday, the weather held. Revellers awoke in the morning to find rays of sunshine poking through their tent flaps. All in all, things had moved a long way since Thursday, when fans were turned away from the festival's opening act, Maxïmo Park, only to contend with intermittent torrential downpours and the threat of lightning. The intense humidity began then and continued to a certain extent throughout the weekend.

During his set, it seemed as if Young had never been so titanic. Looking more like Meatloaf as the years roll by, he snarled at his microphone as though he blamed it for all the world's ills: climate change, alcoholism, even the death of rock. He burst out on to the stage to perform the number "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", its line "Rock and roll is here to stay" a defensive blast in the face of Glastonbury's recent critics, the lyric "It's better to burn out" quoted in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain. It was almost a history lesson of rock: while fireworks burned overhead Young filled the Pyramid Stage with the kind of feedback that influenced J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr and, in turn, the Nirvana front man. "Spirit Road", one of Young's more recent songs, was a highlight, as was "Oh Mother Earth", which despite its mawkish serenade of environmentalism managed to retain some real gravitas.

Away from the headliners, old was married well with the new. When announcing his line-up's heavy hitters in March, the Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis said the festival was close to "confirming our best ever line-up". And certainly few of the bands hyped by the NME over the past six months failed to make the cut. Punters shovelled out £175 to see the likes of White Lies, Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes, all of whom performed in the run-up to Young's killer set. Also for the kids, on Friday, Lily Allen smirked her way through hits such as "LDN", "The Fear" and "Oh My God", even covering Britney Spears' "Womanizer", while sporting one white glove in tribute to the late, great King of Pop. South London indie icon Jack Peñate, another youngling, played to a packed audience at the John Peel stage. "This is lovely," he said, ever polite. "Thank you very much."

There was a marked international presence, too. Earlier during the day, Mali's Tinariwen, one of the great African success stories of recent years, brought an infectious groove to the Pyramid Stage, though in a bizarre segue was followed by the Californian garage rock band Eagles of Death Metal. Their lead singer, Jesse Hughes, has clearly been studying the rock-star guide to clichéd camp: cue much hip-wiggling and hand devil horns. (He also kept trying to flirt with a girl in the front row while his son looked on in the wings. It was all rather awkward.) Spinal Tap, who played on the same stage an hour later, would have been proud.

Away from the festival's main stage, Metric, one of the seemingly unstoppable decent bands coming out of Canada, played to a packed Other Stage. Dainty front-lady Emily Haines, who also plays with the critically acclaimed Canadian music collective Broken Social Scene, ran through tracks from the band's recently applauded album Fantasies. Highlights included "Help I'm Alive", which was penned by a depressed Haines in Buenos Aires, though when performed live boasts a fresh, disco-like vibrancy.

Michael Jackson tributes were less prevalent than some of the announcements might have you believe. Many of those attending would have known him only as the freak he became in later life, not the Motown-reared superstar beloved of an older generation. Some stallholders sold T-shirts emblazoned with "Michael Jackson, 1958-2009, RIP". DJs in the smaller dance tents played hits from Thriller and Bad back to back.

Back on the beaten path, comedy, circus acts, theatre, political debate and alternative health were all well represented. You could even venture to the odd hippie freak show: Trash City, which was billed as "an apocalyptic dream world straight from the pages of a 2000AD comic", looked more like a freakish, semi-pornographic collection of Cirque du Soleil understudies. Shangri-La was, apparently, a "retro-futuristic citadel, Blade Runner-inspired city of pleasures gone wrong". Instead, it saw a man hospitalised with a throat wound in the early hours of Friday. Some things, it seems, never change.