Glastonbury: Sun, mud and a hip-hop triumph

From Jay-Z to Neil Diamond, the festival took some chances this year. But it was a resounding success, says Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

It was a gamble that had Michael Eavis facing losses when ticket sales slowed at 100,000, then biting his nails until Saturday night was over. But the decision to diversify the line-up – and with it, the crowd – at this year's Glastonbury ended in glory.

With the exception of punk-disco-rock band The Gossip, whose singer Beth Ditto was incomparable in "Standing in the Way of Control", Friday's bill was unchallenging. Kate Nash opened and The Fratellis and Editors touted their impressive, radio-friendly anthems, forcing the more discerning fans to head to the Other Stage for math-rock quintet Foals and Vampire Weekend.

Over at the John Peel stage, meanwhile, Brooklyn's synth-pop duo MGMT launched into "Electric Feel", and the crowd erupted. Those who stayed just for this single missed out: next up, "Time To Pretend" turned the space into a dance floor, and "Kids" had the crowd repeating its synth riff long after the band had left the stage. The success seemed to surprise even the band themselves – the duo actually re-emerged from backstage to thank their fans.

In a wildly inventive set to rival one of Björk's, Goldfrapp mirrored Glastonbury's hippie heritage with floral stage decorations and dancers attired as birds and woodland nymphs. Resplendent in a cloak of multi-coloured ribbons, Alison Goldfrapp led the array of musicians, including a harpist, through a set that began with the dreamy electronica and pure vocals of "Utopia", wafted through tracks from recent album Seventh Tree and moved on to the erotically charged dance tracks "Ooh La La" and "Train", in which bikini-clad pole dancers writhed as parents with children on their shoulders looked on.

Saturday's main stage line-up more than made up for Friday's tepid effort. By then, Ray Ban Wayfarers were as common as Wellington boots. Amy Winehouse's appearance, after being diagnosed with early emphysema, was fêted by her fans, but though she looked dazzling in a navy sequinned dress, the screens showed a glazed look in her eyes. Was she with it? Would she hold out? She made it through her set – covers of The Specials and Sam Cooke's reggae song "Cupid" were enjoyable, as was her hit "Rehab", but her constant banter between songs was baffling.

Everything depended on Jay-Z. But the hip-hop star's clever introductory film about his place in the festival line-up, and the ironic "Wonderwall" sing-a-long that followed, put everyone – including Noel Gallagher – in their place. Then came the songs, fast and furious, with a delivery like no other performer at Glastonbury. Beginning with "99 Problems", he juxtaposed samples of pop songs (Rihanna's "Umbrella") and his hits "Hard Knock Life", "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Numb", his collaboration with Linkin Park.

When he announced, "I'm Jay-Z and I'm pretty awesome", and later roared from behind his shades, "They told me you weren't into hip-hop", 100,000 people cheered in a moment that will go down in festival history; the moment when Glastonbury 2008 came up trumps. After the set, every comment was complimentary, though when Jay-Z's new raft of fans boasted about how good it was, their fellow festival-goers simply replied: "Massive Attack were good, too."

By the time the mud had dried, it was easier to trudge between stages – and it was worth doing so for the acts to be found at The Park, the area that Emily Eavis established last year. It's where the most unexpected gems of gigs took place: Pete Doherty's set of Libertines hits, including a tender acoustic version of "Don't Look Back into the Sun", and surprise sets from Franz Ferdinand and the Last Shadow Puppets. Alex Kapranos had flyered the unexpected gig in which they played "Michael" and "Take Me Out", as well as new material that showed a departure from the sound of earlier hits. Last Shadow Puppets may have got to No 1 in the album charts with the songs they played on Saturday night, but you really had to strain to make out any melodies in their ramshackle set. Jack White rolled up from his turn with The Raconteurs on the Pyramid Stage to join them for a guitar solo and Alex Turner beamed as he and Rascal Miles Kane played, but it lacked the energy of Turner's day job. Not that we weren't pleased to see the return of an Arctic Monkey to the festival, but it was a shadow of the band's greatness when they headlined the festival last year.

The festival organisers may have been attempting to attract a younger audience, but the plethora of indie bands was balanced by older legends. Leonard Cohen provided one of the weekend's highlights with "Hallelujah" on the Pyramid Stage, during which the crowd went berserk. It was a rare chance to see the 73-year-old Canadian arch-romantic poet-musician. Another crooner, Neil Diamond, gave us the biggest sing-a-long of the weekend with "I'm a Believer" and "Sweet Caroline" as the crowd locked arms and raised their pints.

If anyone doubted The Verve's suitability as the final headliner, they were proved wrong. They had the catalogue of hits, including "Lucky Man" and "Bittersweet Symphony", to bring the festival to a majestic close.

There are reports that the festival will revert to the traditional guitar band for the Saturday night headline slot; if true, it would be a shame. That is because what made Glastonbury special this year was not just the sun, and certainly not the standard of acts on the main stage on Friday, but watching something different.

And that's what the 170,000 people at this year's Glastonbury will remember.

The best and worst of the weekend

Highs

Jay Z – His grand entrance: the clever video, the ironic rendition of Oasis's "Wonderwall", and the whole explosive set that followed.

MGMT – When the entirety of the John Peel tent sang back the catchy synth riff of "Kids", after the Brooklyn band had finished their set. The anthem of the festival.

Edwyn Collins – On his way to full recovery from a stroke, Glastonbury virgin Collins played Orange Juice favourites "Blue Boy" and "Rip It Up".

Crowded House – When the antipodean group followed up a gloriously sun-kissed "Distant Sun" with "Take the Weather", just as the sun began to shine, producing one of the festival's real feel-good moments.

Duffy – The Welsh soul singer who emerged as a star this year played "Mercy" to an appreciative crowd.

Lows

Amy Winehouse – Not so much for her singing, but for baffling comments about The Specials, about hubbie Blake Fielder-Civil bashing her over the head with a cricket bat and telling the audience members who weren't dancing that she felt sorry for the people who had to have sex with them.

James Blunt – Why? Because the Glastonbury regular was the most boring act of the festival. And there are only about three songs we can warble along to.

Scouting For Girls – Do we really need to hear that song, "She's So Lovely", again?

Pigeon Detectives – One of a plethora of mediocre indie bands who played, Pigeon Detectives failed to detect their faulty speakers, and embarrassingly carried on rocking out in pure silence, while the audience just laughed and slow-clapped.

The Proclaimers – Just one oldie too far. Tired and tedious, they ploughed through their numbers, the only one of which we know is also one we wish we could forget: "(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles".

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