Sun shines on the true spirit of Glastonbury

Even a dreary set from Gorillaz isn't enough to disappoint festival virgin Hugh Montgomery.
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The Independent Culture

“Queue here to complain festival is not as good as it used to be,” reads the sign above the press information desk.

It's a cheeky acknowledgment that, while anniversaries are a time for reflection, Glastonbury has had quite enough of that already, thank you very much. After all, every passing year seems to inspire ever more laboured soul searching about what Glasto represents, that elusive “spirit”. For the old hippie faithful, it's a repository of Aquarian ideals inextricably tied to the sacred geography of its Vale of Avalon setting. For the musos, an essential barometer of the state of pop where reputations can be made, sealed or broken at the drop of a riff. For nostalgists, a symbol of 21st century cultural rot, its maverick founding ethos trampled over by Peaches Geldof lookalikes and fenced in by 15 foot security walls. And for the sceptics, well, it was never anything more than a drug-addled, counter-cultural charade in the first place.

In any case, such opinion-wrangling seems entirely academic in the blinding light of Friday morning. If last year's festival was set abuzz by the tragedy of a Moonwalker, this year it was all about the blessing of the meteorology. With the blazing heat looking set to continue through the weekend, it seems the weather will be 2010's biggest surprise, short of a Fleetwood Mac secret gig in Bez's Acid House. The result has been an onrush of good vibes, the exchange of umbrellas for parasols, and the sensation of being packed together like sardines being replaced by the sensation of being packed together like sardines which have been uncanned and left out of the fridge for four days. With smiles beginning to look a touch wilted, though, one wonders quite how welcome all this sunshine will be after another whole day of dehydrating hedonism.

Predictably the conditions have left bare torsos/bikini tops accessorised with henna tattoos and patchy sunburn as the defining look of this year's festival, though if there's another one, it appears to be the one I'm currently rocking. Breton top, denim shorts, faux raybans, distressed trilby: everywhere I go, I am reminded that I am the living, breathing embodiment of the Top Shop-conformist, counter-counter-cultural revolution. Rock on, people!

Thankfully, conformist is not a word that can be applied to the inestimably broad church that is the musical line-up these days, this year's jamboree being a far cry from the dark post-Britpop days of the late 1990s when second-tier guitar-rockers ruled ok (remember Skunk Anansie headlining, anyone?). Launching proceedings proper on Friday morning was 80-year-old, wobble-boarding legend Rolf Harris, welcomed with a hip hop-stylee big-up. Glasto can only hope it's in such fine fettle when it reaches its own octogenarian landmark. Amid all the kitsch favourites (Waltzing Matilda, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport), his set found him mixing beat-boxing with vuvuzela-directed jibes and mischievous meta-wisecracks about the mechanics of the encore. When he started explaining some of the finer points of Aussie slang and compelled the crowd to cackle along to “Irish Rover”, he assumed the air of an eccentric schoolmaster leading an overgrown playgroup. Certainly, he could teach some of today's indie young pups a thing or two about stage presence.

From thereon in, it wasn't long before this rookie Glasto-goer was forced to acknowledge the absurdity of his military-style scheduling, which proposed hot-footing it around stages at the rate of Usain Bolt to see an unfathomable amount of bands highlighted on my 79-page line-up print-out according to their “up and coming” or “established” status. A few minutes agonising over whether to see Lissie (classicist country-rock gal) or tUnE-yArDs (experimental laptop gal) was enough to break me, and so the next few hours were spent learning to meander and hitting upon some non-highlighted pleasures. These included Mariachi El Bronx, the crackpot new Mexican-themed incarnation of LA punks The Bronx, and the Green fields, the hippy enclave playing home to gong baths, radical midwives, and a percussion band with one foot in ragtime and another in drum n bass. And then, back on the beaten track, there was the perfectly-calibrated Pyramid stage juxtaposition of Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg. The former's bittersweet Americana induced a mid-afternoon lull of the best kind, before the latter got everyone G-ed up again with the most feelgood set imaginable from a man offering “Fuck that Shit” as a chant-a-long slogan. Hell, he even made up for Bono's absence with a declaration of “we-are-the-world” love. It certainly made 2008's Jay/Z hip-hop palaver seem like the product of a different aeon.

Sadly, not even Snoop could do anything about the deflating experience that was Gorillaz, his appearance coming towards the end of a set that had crowds fleeing in their droves. A wave of anti-Bono sentiment, combined with stonking reviews for the Damon Albarn collective's recent Roundhouse shows, had piled unreasonable expectations upon this U2-replacing gig. Talk suggested they might “do a Pulp”: a reference to Jarvis Cocker and co's star-making performance when they deputised for the Stone Roses in 1995. Which prompted the question: had anyone actually listened to their last album Plastic Beach? Eclectically exceptional it is, but packed with anthemic behemoths akin to “Common People”, it is not. In the end, it was even less compromising then expected, front-loaded with their most melancholy, strung-out grooves, while at times there was so little audience engagement from Damon and co that you wondered if they were performing behind a two way mirror. Madchester mal viveur Shaun Ryder's tribute to recently deceased comedian Frank Sidebottom and the closing one-two punch of “Feel Good Inc” and “Clint Eastwood” induced some communal fine feeling, but the tipping point had already come with a seemingly interminable flute and drums interlude from the Syrian National Orchestra; the best that could be said about it was that it would have gone down a treat at the Royal Festival Hall. As discourteous people around me began to chant Blur songs and as the apocalyptic imagery kept rolling on the background screens, it felt like an upsetting case of wrong place, wrong time for all involved.

If there has been one of those much-vaunted Glastonbury “moments”, it has come from the odd-couple Prince and Princess of Generation Y Pop, aka Florence and Dizzee. On the Other Stage, Florence, the machine, and her howling banshee alter-ego overcame a microphone malfunction to offer the kind of goosebump-raising display that suggested nothing less than a headline slot will do next time round. Starting an hour later on the Pyramid, Dizzee proffered his altogether cheekier brand of pop alchemy, offering an inspired riff on Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” amid the now familiar cavalcade of Bonkers Holiday hits. But it was when the pair joined forces at the climax of Dizzee's set for a reprisal of their BRITS duet “You Got the Dirtee Love” that something epoch-defining occurred: a rapturously-received validation of today's oft-derided pick-and-mix musical culture, less a product of shallow consumerism, perhaps, than of deeply-felt tolerance, where Dizzee's fans are Florence's, and vice versa. The festival isn't what it used to be, maybe, but this performance was a reminder that's exactly as it should be.

Then the buzz shifted towards the Kylie-assisted Scissor Sisters set, transforming the Pyramid into a gay disco like no other. Kylie, who pulled out of her 2005 headline spot when she was diagnosed with cancer, finally made her Glastonbury debut singing with Jake Shears and Ana Matronic.

The crowd swelled further for headliners Muse, whose energetic and anthem-packed set had the audience eating out of singer Matt Bellamy's hand.

Oh, and then there's the little matter of tomorrow's footie, though Glasto-goers seem to have resigned themselves to the worst already, judging by the decidedly half-hearted chanting that greeted The Lightning Seeds' rendition of “Three Lions” on Saturday morning. As for myself, I have now got a stick-on tattoo of a skull on my left bicep and only one shoelace. Find me a Breton-patterned nappy, and the infantile regression will be truly complete. Oh well, whatever that Glastonbury spirit may be, I think it's catching.