Like the loud and brash lead singer of a 70’s rock band, Glastonbury knows it’s the most famous and best; no current festival can touch it for its sheer scope and immense popularity. Because it’s the biggest, the frenzied discussion over what acts will appear in next year’s line-up appears to begin almost immediately after the most recent weekend has concluded. Though I’m still shocked that neither The Stone Roses nor The Smiths seem to ever pop up in discussion over headliners.
That’s not to say the headliners aren’t able to satiate the festival-goers – organiser Michael Eavis manages to attract a couple of stellar stars every time. In recent years, we’ve seen Mick Jagger somehow manically swagger around on the main stage when The Rolling Stones headlined in 2013, and the biggest star in hip hop, Jay Z, produced a spectacular performance in 2008.
After the lights on the Pyramid Stage are switched off and the last drunken reveler staggers away from Worthy Farm for another year, the debate as to the credibility of Glastonbury begins afresh.
So what of 2014’s attempt? Just under a month ago, 175 000 fans turned up to witness one of the most eclectic and controversial editions yet. The sets swung from one extreme to the next: English lad rockers Kasabian one hour; legendary country singer Dolly Parton the next. Perhaps the most derided and discussed booking was that of Metallica, the heavy metal American band. Where most of the flak stemmed from is the perceived fact that Glastonbury is traditionally a rock and guitar-driven event. Having one of thrash metal’s biggest members headline just didn’t fit, it seemed. So, when the group marched on stage on the middle evening, many feared that they would play to a near empty field but these worries were abated as an almost capacity crowd awaited their appearance (hardly surprising when you consider their record sales of 120,000,000 worldwide).
They duly provided a master class in rock artistry – easy for a band used to playing to audiences of this size. Knowing they were representing their much-maligned genre, Lars Ulrich and co. performed with the utmost of conviction, thrashing around wielding their instruments like weapons of destruction. The pounding riffs and almost-too-loud bass never once put off a perpetually jumping eclectic audience: perhaps it was the novelty of the occasion, of seeing a band they’d not normally see up close; or perhaps they were genuine fans, enjoying their idols’ greatest hits set. And while it’s too early to say if Metallica have paved the way for the dawning of a new metal era at Glastonbury, as they swept offstage they could do so safe in the knowledge that they had done the heavier side of music proud.
At the complete opposite end of the music spectrum, the aforementioned Dolly was a less controversial appointment. And quite simply, she charmed the Wellington boots off the audience. There was not one dissenting voice as she danced around the stage in a rhinestone-encrusted suit (what else?!), holding the capacity crowd in the palm of her hand. Her show wasn’t about serious musicianship however; it bordered on the downright ludicrous at times. She devised a rap song just for Glastonbury, followed later on by a hoedown to the Benny Hill theme tune with instruments ranging from the banjo to a rhinestone-encrusted (again) saxophone. Dolly’s performances generally are just as much about her chat with the audience as the music and she didn’t let them down with stage banter aplenty. That’s not to say that there were not tender moments – the ageing star seemed genuinely moved when the crowd sung along to every word of her beautiful hit Jolene. It was corny, it was fun and the queen of country left the festivalgoers with something to warm them on the dour final day. As for the rumours that she mimed, it’s pretty much irrelevant – with Parton, it’s all about the show.
The other 2 main headliners – Arcade Fire and Kasabian – performed equally great and spectacular sets. The former could arguably lay claim to title of the biggest band in the world currently and they are tailor-made for occasions such as Glastonbury. Their performance was full of showmanship and big choruses, with each of their 4 sonically different albums getting their fair share of play. It was all done at a relentless pace, perfectly and professionally as would be expected of the indie-rock darlings.
Kasabian’s more straightforward lad-rock went down just as well on the last night. Playing like a sonically hyper, electronic inclined Oasis, Tom Meighan strutted about, the right blend of cocky and confident. Backed by Sergio Pizzorno’s brilliant guitar wizardry, an explosive set filled with flares and fireworks overshadowed the oft-ridiculous lyrics in their songs; it resembled a band playing out the last minutes of the apocalypse.
Elsewhere, there were standout performances aplenty: Ed Sheeran, the hottest star in the charts right now, was second only to Dolly in his charming crowd-baiting; James Blake presented the perfect chilled alternative to Kasabian on Sunday with a beautiful set; The Pixies played an excellent and somewhat understated comeback show; and newcomers Royal Blood and Fat White Family both performed frenetic and downright dirty sets on the John Peel stage. There were few poor notes to talk of, with only Lana Del Rey and perennially mocked Yoko Ono coming in for criticism.
Glastonbury is generally a success – its eclectic mix of genres means that most are catered to – and 2014 was no exception. The controversy beforehand surrounding Metallica quickly subsided and there were no massive disasters (apart from the weather creating havoc on the Friday). On first reflection, it doesn’t strike me as being a classic year: there was no one performance that immediately struck as being an astounding once-in-a-lifetime set. But only time will tell where it stands in the rank of best Glastonbury festivals, as the debate ever rages on. For now, let the discussion begin over 2015’s Festival – Morrissey and Marr anyone?
Glastonbury 2014 is available to watch on BBC’s Iplayer until the 28th of July