Returning to Glastonbury

Boy was it lovely to be back in Pilton.

Despite a mix of family and health issues preventing me from having the usual five-day camping affair at Glastonbury this year, it seemed amiss not to document the festival in some form. In lieu of previous years’ full reviews and opinions, here’s a rundown on some of the more interesting things this time around at Glastonbury Festival 2022.

While no means a chronologic list, it would be remiss not to start with The Libertines who opened the festival’s music proper to a near-capacity Other Stage. The early start time meant that everyone, after two days on site (and three years away from festivals), descended from the campsites around to reduce the field to near standstill with one of the biggest crowds ever seen there.

Festival sets from older bands you once idolised are always strange things, and a less than attentive crowd – more on this later – meant it was a fairly procedural experience, aside from the couple of universally known hits, albeit a thoroughly enjoyable one in the sunshine. 90’s stalwarts Supergrass and Skunk Anansie later proved a similar experience, despite the latter’s frontwoman Skin totally owning the stage, and crowd, as she usually does.

Noel Gallagher takes a different approach after several opening new-ish songs, telling the Pyramid Stage crowd, that “I’m gonna play a few more tunes that you don’t give a f*ck about. Those ones are for me. But if you stick around for a bit, after that there’s gonna be a lot of happy people in bucket hats.”, which goes down better than you’d expect. Even as a moderate fan of his Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds output, it’s certainly a slight chore. Frustratingly still, the lesser known Oasis songs – that would have had his own crowd singing every word – are largely shunned by the Pilton masses. They eventually rise to the ever over-played Wonderwall, and, of course, the recently resurgent Don’t Look Back In Anger, to which the dulcet tones of 100,000 festival-goers would win over the harshest of critics.

It’s a theme that continues throughout this year’s biggest booking, Paul McCartney. The extraordinary setlist could merit its own full review, with an ever-changing pace throughout the nearly three hour runtime. Needless to say, every Beatles song is greeted with utter joy by everyone, even if some of the much trodden anecdotes and solo songs don’t quite hit the same mark.

Having seen McCartney headline at Glastonbury 2004 – arm-in-arm with my mates singing along to a then still cool Hey Jude – this year was always going to have to go some to replicate that almost spiritual experience. But, 18 years later, and now far more of a Beatles, Wings, and McCartney solo connoisseur, this 2022 set is a wonderfully rounded experience, full of treats from the various back catalogues. Completed by a brace of duets from Dave Grohl, and then Bruce Springsteen, and ending with the always magical Abbey Road medley, it’s another truly incredible night that will live long in the memory.

Of course, Glastonbury is so much more than Pyramid Stage headliners. Over a couple of days I’d managed to trek to most parts of the site and seen some acts familiar and new. Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs were a perfect tonic to the mainstream vibe in their usual opening slot on the Avalon Stage, making everyone feel at home and know just how grateful they were to see an audience again after the last couple of years. Many acts reiterated similar sentiments, with rising star Holly Humberstone so nervous to be playing the John Peel Stage that the crowd have to reassure her when she stumbles over her words several times.

While down in that area, it was my first time exploring the revamped Wood, including the beautiful high rope bridge walk through the trees to a viewing platform over Peetas Pond and looking out to Glastonbury Tor in the distance. With no time constraints, a hike up to the Glastonbury Sign also seemed a fitting thing to do, not least as it gave me an excuse to check out Glastonbury-on-Sea (having earlier been drawn in by The Cash Cows on the 1000 Farces Stage), as well as some of Sampa The Great on the Park Stage.

There’s no doubting as I’ve got older that getting off the beaten track and wandering across Worthy Farm has far more appeal than trying to juggle set times of bigger acts at the larger stages. Earlier I’d entered the site via the campervan fields, strolled through an amazing array of Outdoor Circus and Theatre acts, before spending a couple of hours in the south-east areas. Firstly dropping into some talks in Green Futures, and watching a powerful documentary about Devon’s Appledore shipyard, before visiting the excellent Greenpeace area – complete with death slide and skate park, then heading through the rest of the Green Fields.

Interestingly, this whole area was largely deserted, certainly compared to previous years. The Healing Fields, full of massage therapists and other offerings, and the Craft Field saw most experts sitting idle with only a few classes and onlookers. Similarly, the Sacred Space had less than a dozen people: A few still keeping last night’s flame burning in front of a camp fire, a couple of guys doing their morning stretches, and three young lads taking photos in a throne in the beautiful Peace Garden. It’s certainly a long cry from the days of hippies and travellers at the festival, and far different even from my first visit to the Eavis’ event in 2002 after the infamous fence went up.

Unfortunately, this was a trend that followed all weekend: huge crowds for the more mainstream acts and stages, and people very reluctant to venture too far from their comfort zone. Crossing over to Pennard Hill just before The Libertines demonstrated this perfectly, as at exactly 11.20am, ten minutes before their stage time, hundreds upon hundreds flocked down the hill en masse from the exclusive Worthy Farm and Tipi camp sites.

It’s hard to know what to do about the problem, if indeed it is an issue at all. The festival is certainly in a period of transition, as it has found itself many times before. There’s still the essence of the ‘Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts’ as it used to be known, and some of the anarchy, anti-establishment and politics that came with it. For example, the now gigantic late night South-East Corner is an incredible place, even in the day, with giant themed stages, huge sculptures, multiple random arts events and installations, and a true sense of freedom of expression.

As for the political side, the Left Field stage, lead by stalwart Billy Bragg remains – albeit now lost in a thoroughfare, ironically dominated opposite Glastonbury’s one corporate concession of the EE charging tent. The excellent Will Varley’s name caught my attention on the line-up, and it was a nice surprise to catch him in a Radical Roundup session with Bragg and two other singer songwriters. There’s an appearance too from Greta Thunberg on the Pyramid Stage, which despite it’s rushed and forced nature, does at least bring some social conscience to the masses.

Luckily the Cabaret tent, largely home to comedy, still remains true to its simple roots, dispersing big names with circuit performers throughout the day. It’s wonderful then to catch Barbara Nice, first introducing Les Bubb’s mime act, and then followed the always idiosyncratic Paul Foot in the middle of the afternoon. Topped off by a conga line, marriage proposal and subsequent mass dancing celebrations, it’s a lovely way to spend an hour or so.

Despite being a relative Glastonbury veteran it’s not for me to judge where the festival needs to go from here. The awful influencer crowd of the 2010’s certainly seems to have been replaced thankfully, but only by a new wealthier (often corporate-funded) punter, who prefers to stay off-site in more ‘luxury’ surroundings. Other festivals have embraced this, but it does seem to clash with the Eavis’ original ideology, and has certainly pushed out the more weird and wonderful side of the festival.

There’s definitely some planning issues too. While Haim and Sam Fender see huge crowds and more than rise to their high Pyramid Stage billings, it’s heartbreaking to see acts like Joy Crookes, and even Robert Plant & Alison Krauss play to a virtually empty field.

Ironically many online reviews have commented that the site felt busier than ever this year – but personally it seems more down to the new breed of more commercial attendee only wanting well-known mainstream acts (with the odd nostalgia band thrown in, as the ridiculous numbers at Mel C, Sugababes, and McFly confirmed), and shunning the art of creativity, exploration, or self-thought. So while the overall capacity once again increased, it seems to have only served to make those popular areas even busier, and doesn’t help the more obscure areas that made Glastonbury unique.

In the space of an hour one day I’d gone from watching Brass Against’s socially and politically charged covers at West Holts, taken part in a Glasto Latino salsa dancing class, caught a magic show on the Outdoor Cabaret Stage, enjoyed some Rat Pack over at Crooner’s Corner, and ended up at Land Of The Giants at the small Gateway stage.

It’s this kind of freedom and discovery that makes the festival such fun, but a shame less people seem to embrace that ethos as the years go by. That said, there’s no doubting Glastonbury is still the best five days of the year, and my favourite place on earth to be. Perhaps it’s best just to embrace change and enjoy the fun.