Surprise guests and all the hits: Elton John closes out Glastonbury 2023 with a spectacular farewell show

With guest stars including Rina Sawayama and Stephen Sanchez, Elton John played one of Glastonbury’s greatest headline shows... and concluded one of its most mixed-bag weekends

Roisin O'Connor
Monday 26 June 2023 06:08 BST
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Elton John: All the guest acts invited for bumper Glastonbury set

The sun went down on one of the most memorable Glastonbury performances in living memory: Sir Elton John, Rocket Man, played his final UK show on the Pyramid Stage on Sunday, 25 June.

Taking to the stage in front of one of the biggest Glastonbury crowds since the Rolling Stones headlined in 2013, the 76-year-old pulled out all the stops, with surprise guests and a set crammed full of his greatest hits.

Audience members watching at home and on TV will have found it hard to believe that the set lasted over two hours. Comprising flawless performances of “Bennie and the Jets”, “The Bitch is Back”, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Your Song”, the show flew by.

And while the rumours that Britney Spears and Sir Paul McCartney would make an appearance turned out to be false, John had other surprises in store. He chose instead to champion younger artists such as Rina Sawayama, with whom he duetted on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, and Gabriels singer Jacob Lusk for a gospel-backed rendition of “Are You Ready For Love”. With Stephen Sanchez, John sang a moving cover of the US singer’s Fifties-inspired hit song “Until I Found You”.

Arguably the biggest name to join John on stage was The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers, for a joyful singalong to his 1971 single “Tiny Dancer”.

John was undoubtedly the best-received headliner of the weekend, following performances from Sheffield-formed rock band Arctic Monkeys on Friday (24 June), and Guns N’ Roses on Saturday night (25 June). Amid criticism over the male-dominated lineup, both those sets received mixed reviews from fans and critics, with Mark Beaumont awarding Axl Rose and co a dismal two stars for their efforts.

“By booking Guns N’ Roses, having spent 15 solid years widening the cultural remit of Britain’s most legendary festival, Glastonbury made its biggest backward misstep since Mumford & Sons,” he wrote.

“The festival could have honoured a rich and influential songbook, like those of the Pyramid Stage’s other heritage heroes Paul McCartney, Elton, Bowie or The Rolling Stones. But from the moment GN’R arrive – with uncharacteristic punctuality – to corny, cartoonish visuals of skulls in Slash hats, they represent everything dated, rockist, indulgent and macho that Glastonbury has rejected since its inception.”

Arctic Monkeys headlined after fears for frontman Alex Turner, who was struck down by a bout of acute laryngitis just days before the band’s coveted slot on the main stage. Fortunately for fans, however, he recovered just in time. But while critic Jazz Monroe awarded the band’s performance five stars, others weren’t so convinced. Those tuning in to watch the show on the BBC’s live stream accused the band of meddling with their most-loved songs, to the point that it was near-impossible to sing along. There were reports of restless audience members in the crowd, too, who later expressed their discontent on Twitter.

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(PA)

Of course, as any Glastonbury stalwart knows, it’s not all about the headliners. There was plenty of joy to be found in pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s sun-drenched set on Friday afternoon, ahead of Nigerian artist Wizkid’s headline spot on the Other Stage. Over on West Holts, “Milkshake” singer Kelis brought all the boys (and girls) to the yard with a “chaotic” but “never boring” set that showcased her powerhouse voice.

In the least-surprising surprise of the weekend, mystery band The Churnups turned out to be US rock band the Foo Fighters, who blasted through a string of hits including “Learn to Fly” and “Everlong”. Meanwhile, LA duo Sparks brought some Hollywood dazzle to their stage when Oscar-winning actor Cate Blanchett joined them for their performance on the Park Stage.

Foo Fighters perform a ‘surprise’ set on the Pyramid Stage (Yui Mok/PA)
Foo Fighters perform a ‘surprise’ set on the Pyramid Stage (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

On Saturday, the perfect weather continued for sublime sets from Welsh band The Manic Street Preachers, R&B singer Mahalia, rapper Flohio, Italian rock band Maneskin, and Rick Astley covering the entire catalogue of The Smiths with help from guitarist Johnny Marr. Malian married couple Amadou & Miram soothed hangovers from the previous evening on the Pyramid Stage, ahead of a dazzling “co-headline” spot from US pop star Lizzo.

“As she moves to the front of the stage for a solo, she must be the only performer ever who has serenaded such an enormous crowd with a flute solo as a dancer jiggles her buttocks beside her,” critic Kate Hutchinson observed, noting that it was “baffling” as to why Lizzo hadn’t been booked in her own headline slot.

(AFP via Getty Images)

There was drama, too, as Sawayama played her own set on the Woodsies Stage and called out The 1975 frontman Matty Healy over a controversial podcast episode that aired earlier this year. Speaking before a performance of her song “STFU!”, the 32-year-old referred to a “white man who watches Ghetto Gaggers [an extreme brand of pornography] and mocks Asian people on a podcast”. She also called out Healy for apparently owning the rights to her masters, yelling: “I’ve had enough!”

Earlier, Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi struggled to get through his set on the Pyramid Stage due to vocal issues. Yet despite his profuse apologies for the “s***show”, he was met with rousing applause and praise on social media for his efforts. It was a moment that critic Mark Beaumont praised in his review as one of the most moving of the entire weekend.

Unfortunately, Lana Del Rey had less luck as she failed to catch up after being 30 minutes late to her headline spot on the Other Stage. Appearing to blame her hair for the delay, she promised her audience that she and her band would finish the set – only to be cut off before performing some of her best-loved songs. The devastated US artist was left standing in the dark and without a working mic on the stage, as fans screamed and sobbed. Attempts to perform a cappella failed, and eventually Del Rey was forced to make a rather undignified exit.

All of a sudden, it was the festival’s final day, and artists brought their A game. Yusuf/Cat Stevens regaled fans with his finest folk songs, including touching renditions of “Wild World” and “Father and Son”. He took the time to shout out superfan Ricky Gervais, on his birthday no less, before performing his 1970 song “Tea for the Tillerman”, from his album of the same name.

Performing in the slot before John was hip-hop star Lil Nas X, who pulled no punches in his vivid, colourful and sexually liberated performance on the Pyramid Stage. It was, arguably, the second set of the weekend after Lizzo’s that left fans questioning the headline picks (with the exception of John). But by the time the Rocket Man walked on to the stage in his shimmering gold suit, everything else seemed like a distant memory.

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