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First Night: Glastonbury Festival, Pilton, Somerset

Old-timer starts off at a leisurely pace as the temperature rises

Forty years is a long time in showbusiness. You might lack the edge once defining you among your peers, have grown by a couple of sizes and always play safe with your material, but you still know how to beguile, charm and captivate a crowd.

By Thursday afternoon, anticipation among thousands of revellers coursing into Glastonbury's 1,000-acre site in Pilton, Somerset, was reflected in the film of sweat on people's faces. England's football win, followed by predictions of a mostly rain-free festival, meant almost two-thirds of the 150,000 expected to attend had arrived by 2pm.

Temperatures reached 25C as men swapped England football strips for bare chests, their flesh soon reddened by the sun. Girls opted for bikini tops and hot-pants and the obligatory Hunter wellies. From the back, crowds appeared as a sea of tie-dyed head-scarves, bowler hats and trilbies flowing into endless channels of temporary shops selling fast-food, expensive beer and thrift-store clothing.

Such commercial nous is a far cry from Glastonbury's counter-cultural origins: beginning in 1970 as a gathering of 1,500 travellers fresh from a visit to Stonehenge paying £1 to see Marc Bolan. This year festival-goers stumped up £150 to marvel at headliners Gorillaz, Muse and Stevie Wonder – not exactly cutting-edge material, although Lou Reed may enliven proceedings on Friday, when he is due to share Gorillaz's stage. Whether that energy persists through Sir Ian McKellen and Kylie Minogue's rumoured appearance with Scissor Sisters the following day remains to be seen.

Musically, proceedings trotted off leisurely on Wednesday evening. The Green Fields saw Australian singer-songwriter Andrew Morris evoking David Gray, weaving into his act narratives inspired by his wedding and the story of a client encountered during his work as a criminal lawyer.

That goes for Josh Thorner, appearing on the Avalon stage on Thursday morning. While Thorner bears an enviable likeness to Samuel Preston from The Ordinary Boys, and the range, power and style of his vocals are to be envied, his lyrics – "I didn't come to start a war"; "I can't control how I feel about you" – would benefit from a more vivid imagination. Thankfully Vashti Anna, with her bluesy catharses of relationships and egos, glided in to inject a spot of class.

By mid-afternoon on Thursday, artists strode more surely. My Luminaries' symphonic alternative rock band attracted 2,000 sweltering punters to the Queen's Head stage before Howls, fronted by Stephen Fretwell, inspired restlessness in an audience eager for sunnier musical climes. Fretwell's set was overshadowed by the bouncing masses watching two hotly-tipped outfits, Two Door Cinema Club and Egyptian Hip Hop.

Then East London fivesome Chapel Club made their only festival appearance, marked by the intense vocals of lead singer Lewis Bowman carrying a set that included singles "Oh Maybe I" and "Surfacing".

The appeal of pop shows there is nothing wrong with sticking to what people know – indeed, Michael Eavis is an expert at it. On Wednesday evening, officials ignited one of Glastonbury's many traditions – a "wicker man" effigy next to Worthy Farm's famed Stone Circle. By this point the menhirs were already covered in a thick layer of carousing teenagers, and to the combined cheers of hundreds, smoke pulsed into the dusk.

At some points this humanoid pyre, with one arm held aloft and the other pointing down, resembled a dancer. At others, it could have passed for a celebrating footballer. Given the groaning of those watching England's match against Slovenia earlier that day, they're probably guilty of wishful thinking. Next up: Snoop Dogg, Dizzee Rascal, Gorillaz.