This year I made my Glastonbury debut – from my living room sofa, of course. I experienced the “magic” that Glasto aficionados rave about. It’s real. And if I felt it from the airwaves oscillating out my TV screen, it must be even more transformative in person.
I begin my festival experience in 2011, with a young Ed Sheeran performing “The A Team” on a tiny stage with a woodland forest scene as his backdrop. With no audience visible (or audible) in the footage, it is a poignant performance, reaching levels of intimacy that would now be impossible for him, as one of the world’s best-selling music artists. Yet, it is this humble guy-with-a-guitar persona (and a lot of musical talent) that will propel him to the heights of success and popularity within just a few short years. This is my first revelation: Glastonbury is not just about the headliners. It is a breeding ground for future legends, stumbled upon by festival-goers as they search for a Portaloo.
It must be said, however, that the headliners are sensational. In 2011, Beyoncé struts onto the Pyramid Stage in magnificent gold glitter to bring the weekend to a close. She appears indefatigable as she dances, jumps, shakes, shimmies, stomps and skips around the stage, all in stiletto heels. Her powerful voice runs the gamut of emotion – from determination in “Survivor” (a Destiny’s Child original) to fun defiance in “Single Ladies”. With her all-female band, the entire set is a rallying cry for female-empowerment – and the exhilarated, adoring faces of girls in the crowd, who know every lyric, confirm its success. This is my second Glasto discovery: it is a platform for powerful messages. The grand scale and heightened emotion of a Glastonbury gives it an ability to convey political and philosophical ideas – From Beyoncé’s feminism to David Attenborough’s environmentalism (as memorably conveyed in his appearance during Stormzy’s 2019 headline set) – in succinct, potent fashion. Indeed, Beyoncé pays tribute to the festival’s power with her final song, “Halo”. A montage of smiling campers plays as she falls to her knees and sings “Glastonbury I can feel your halo, pray it won’t fade away”.
Fast-forwarding eight years, I arrive at 2019’s festival eager to experience another Glasto epiphany. This time, I learn that surprises, whether singers or songs, are always around the corner at Worthy Farm. Miley Cyrus opens her set with the uber-cool Mark Ronson, before later bringing on her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Lil Nas X to perform global hit “Old Town Road”. She covers Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and even dons the purple wig of her Black Mirror character Ashley O (from the epode “Rachael, Jack and Ashley Too”) to perform the character’s signature song “On A Roll”. Rapper Dave – one of the fast rising talents in the UK’s hip-hop scene – invites a young fan on stage for the track “Thiago Silva”, whose almost unbelievable confidence and talent will later make him a viral sensation and cause some to claim he must have been a plant. There is something in the air at this festival that produces moments of genuine disbelief, awe, appreciation and togetherness.
Which brings me to the headline act of my Stay At Home Glastonbury 2020. Three days after the EU referendum, in June 2016, the world (or the UK, at least) appears divided. Then Coldplay walk onto the Pyramid Stage, and in a burst of colour, confetti and unbridled energy, Britain’s most comforting band make everything seem alright again. Chris Martin confesses to the 100,000 strong crowd, “We came here today a bit scared about the state of the world, but just seeing the vibe here at Glastonbury makes me feel like people are great and together we can do wonderful, wonderful things”. The crowd are audible in their agreement.
And those “wonderful, wonderful things” are soon on display. The mud bath and rain are soon forgotten as yellow light pours out from the stage across fields of people, their light-up wristbands in perfect coordination, and Coldplay embark on a set of anthem after anthem, which all have the impressive effect of making you want to cry and dance at the same time. During “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”, Martin sings “still I’ll raise the flag” as he drapes himself in one that simply reads “LOVE” and then the crowd join him in some euphoric jumping, absorbing the lead singer’s infectious energy and optimism. Nothing stops Coldplay, even when tuning issues mean Martin is left to perform “Everglow” without the support of the band. If anything, it makes for an even more authentic performance. The set includes a tribute to the young band Viola Beach who died in a tragic accident, a surprise appearance from Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and concludes with festival founder, Michael Eavis joining the band for a cover of Sinatra’s “My Way”.
The celebration of music, love and community I enjoyed over my three-day Glastonbury sofa-thon is, in a time of suffering like this, a reminder why events of its kind will always be important. Chris Martin left the stage describing Glastonbury as “the most special place on earth”. He’s not wrong – and its absence will have made many hearts grow fonder for its return.