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Glastonbury 2013: Rolling Stones, Mumford & Sons Anchor Return

U.K. fest roars back with memorable sets after a year off

Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones perform at Glastonbury.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images
July 1, 2013 10:20 AM ET

It was highly appropriate that Glastonbury Festival 2013 ended with an all-star version of "With a Little Help From My Friends." 

As ever, the festival had no shortage of individual star power. But it was the unifying moments when bands and audiences combined – as on the massive singalong when Vampire Weekend, the Vaccines, the Staves and First Aid Kit joined Mumford & Sons for their festival-closing take on the Beatles' classic – that made Glastonbury's return after a year off such a memorable event.

It is on such magical "Glasto moments" that the festival has built its reputation. The event's gravitational pull is now so great that it can draw even the Rolling Stones into its orbit, while the likes of Liam Gallagher (opening the festival with Beady Eye at the not-very-rock & roll time of 11 a.m.) and Thom Yorke (DJ-ing in the early hours, watched by Prince Harry, no less) required little persuasion to put in surprise appearances. 

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Yet, ironically, the bigger the event gets, the harder it is for it to work its magic. With the vast proliferation of stages and acts splitting audiences, it becomes ever more difficult to recreate the circumstances which have, in the past, provided breakthrough performances from the likes of Coldplay and Radiohead.

Consequently, this year's headliners assumed perhaps more significance than ever before. There was a time when Glastonbury's other, more hedonistic attractions would prove a bigger draw with many than the top-of-the bill acts. This year, however, all three attracted gargantuan crowds as festival FOMO saw almost everyone determined not to miss out on potentially the weekend's defining moment.

Such was the demand to see Arctic Monkeys that the crowd was still pushing into the field a good 30 minutes into their Friday night Pyramid Stage headline slot. The band itself, however, arrived with notably less fuss, simply wandering on and playing moody new single "Do I Wanna Know?" Perhaps mindful of the problems the band endured when last headlining here in 2007, when it was undone by technical problems, Alex Turner and co seemed determined to treat Glastonbury as Just Another Gig.

Fortunately, as Just Another Gigs go, this turned out to be a pretty good one. The band's biggest hits – "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," "Fluorescent Adolescent" – were disposed of with minimal ceremony, but beefed-up songs such as "R U Mine?" and the brand new "Mad Sounds" successfully administered an injection of hard-rock steroids to the Monkey's once skinny indie frame.

Turner's bizarre Sheffield Elvis accent added a layer of irony to a blistering "Fake Tales of San Francisco" but otherwise there was little artifice about the performance until the encore. There, Turner sang a snatch of Coldplay's "Yellow" before leading string-laden versions of "Cornerstone" and "Mardy Bum." He then persuaded the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to his watching mother, conducted the crowd through "When the Sun Goes Down" and ended on an euphoric "505," featuring his Last Shadow Puppets bandmate Miles Kane, before leaving as nonchalantly as he arrived.

Saturday's headliners the Rolling Stones don't do nonchalant, however. So there was a two-hour, anticipation-building break between Primal Scream finishing and the opening blast of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," just in case there was any doubt about who was the main attraction.

But then, if a band celebrating its 50th anniversary can be said to have any challenges left, this was surely it. Glastonbury organizer Michael Eavis has been pursuing the Stones as headliners for years (despite Mick Jagger's jokey assertion that "They finally got 'round to asking us"), but they'd have surely been shunned during the festival's highly political Eighties era, and treated as a nostalgic novelty during the Britpop and dance music-dominated Nineties. 

Only now, with Glastonbury firmly established as a destination for superstars from Paul McCartney to Beyoncé, did the Stones make sense. And with a huge crowd crammed into the Pyramid Stage field – some committed Stones fans, some merely curious, most too young to remember when Mick Taylor (who made one of his now-customary appearances for three songs) was in the band – for once the Stones had to win people over.

They went about it the hard way, too, playing a largely gimmick-free show: Taylor aside, there were no special guest stars, despite furious backstage speculation all weekend. And, disregarding the Pyramid Stage's fire-breathing mechanical phoenix, there were few of the special effects that have become a hallmark of the Stones' biggest shows.

Instead, there was the music: a nod to the festival's psychedelic history with "2000 Light Years From Home" plus a specially rewritten version of "Factory Girl," retitled "Glastonbury Girl" and featuring lyrics about luxury yurts and Primal Scream. And if the extended jams on "Midnight Rambler" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" challenged the attention spans of the crowd's younger elements, the dramatic hit-heavy finale was surely enough to ensure that Jagger's invitation to the newbies ("If this is the first time you've ever seen the band – do come again") won't be short of takers.

But if the Stones were on a rare excursion from their comfort zone, Sunday night headliners Mumford & Sons were surely in their natural habitat. Glastonbury was built on both folk-rock and allowing well-to-do people to get close to nature without judgment and, while the band's privileged background means they enjoy – at best – an uneasy relationship with the British critics, the emotional outpourings both on and off stage proved there is no such issue with the Glastonbury masses.

So there was a warm welcome back for bassist Ted Dwane, fresh from brain surgery; hearty singalongs to "Little Lion Man" and "I Will Wait"; and the realization that not only could Mumford & Sons' earthy folk-rock have comfortably topped the bill at Glastonbury 1970 (or 1870, for that matter), but you wouldn't be surprised if they were back here before any of their fellow headliners.

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But if the main acts left Worthy Farm with their reputations enhanced, elsewhere Glastonbury was a familiar tale of new artists trying to make a name for themselves, and older acts trying to re-establish theirs.

In the former camp, a succession of mid-ranking alternative rockers and hipster dance acts flirted with taking a great leap forward, before usually settling for a few small steps instead.

Making perhaps the biggest strides were Bastille, which pulled a gargantuan crowd to the John Peel Stage on Friday; and Foals, whose Other Stage set the same night was similarly well-attended. Songs such as "Spanish Sahara" and "Inhaler" provided the perfect mix of danceable rhythms and rock power and, while the audience almost dropped frontman Yannis Philippakkis on his head during one of his many crowd-surfing expeditions, his band did anything but fall on its face.

Same goes for Haim, which maintained a constant presence throughout the festival weekend, both backstage and on stage. The three Haim sisters provided guest backing vocals during Primal Scream's Saturday Pyramid Stage set, while diabetic bassist Este Haim hit the headlines when she almost passed out during the band's own Friday show on the same stage. At its Saturday Park Stage show however, it was the audience that was in danger of having its breath taken away, songs such as "Don't Save Me" and "Falling" proving every bit as smart as the sisters' networking skills.

Other winners included Enter Shikari (Other Stage, Friday), whose combination of juddering techno beats and heavy metal intensity prompted a rare outbreak of circle pits at Glastonbury; and Scottish alt-rockers Frightened Rabbit, which caused a huge outbreak of flag-waving Celtic pride with their Friday John Peel Stage set.

But such is the competition for attention at Glastonbury, few bands were able to command whole-set loyalty. The crowds were already drifting away from the Vaccines' Friday Pyramid Stage set before they turned things around by transforming Glastonbury into the world's biggest garage with ramalama hits such as "Norgaard." And Vampire Weekend's Pyramid Stage appearance always seemed a little too perfunctory from what should have been the ideal band for a sunny Somerset Sunday.

Certainly, the bands that grabbed the most attention were those that came up with something special for the occasion. So Alt-J wheeled out a Dr Dre/Kylie Minogue cover version mash-up, "Slow Dre," to enliven their well-attended Friday evening Other Stage slot. Miles Kane hauled Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner onto the John Peel Stage for a version of the Last Shadow Puppets' "Standing Next to Me" on Friday. The same day, Noah and the Whale covered Daft Punk's "Digital Love" on the Other Stage while precocious Irish teens the Strypes enthralled the John Peel Stage simply by playing hermetically-sealed Sixties rock & roll so retro it made the Stones look like bleeding edge dub-steppers. 

None, however, ultimately proved as popular as the Lumineers, whose folk-rock packed the Other Stage field to its muddy Friday fringes, and whose "Ho Hey" hit prompted a singalong to rival anything else heard anywhere else all weekend.

Dance-wise, Disclosure's set on the Sonic Stage on Friday proved so over-subscribed that hundreds of fans were left outside the tent. And while it initially seemed that the similarly vast crowds at Solange (Park Stage, Friday) and Azealia Banks (Other Stage, Saturday) were only there to rubberneck, both eventually persuaded the crowds to also get their groove on, "212" providing the weekend's most profane mass chorus.

eanwhile, Dizzee Rascal brought a big, bright, bouncy party-rap set to Friday's Pyramid Stage, confirming his progress from Boy in da Corner to man in the mainstream, although he still found time to showcase the brutal minimalism of "Fix Up, Look Sharp." 

As overcast Friday gave way to sunny Saturday and Sunday, however, it was the old guard that enjoyed their moments in the sun, both literal and metaphorical.

Elvis Costello was a stalwart of the old, political Glastonbury but few people outside of the Stones (and possibly Chic featuring Nile Rodgers in its Friday night West Holts Stage set) brought a more pre-loved back catalogue to the modern day Worthy Farm. On the Pyramid Stage on Saturday, he mixed uncomplicated singalongs ("Oliver's Army," "Pump It Up") with more thought-provoking political material ("Shipbuilding"). Not afraid to enhance his own song collection with a take on the Stones-penned "Out of Time," he even dared to wheel out controversial anti-Margaret Thatcher anthem "Tramp the Dirt Down," despite her recent death.

"It's not about burying someone in the ground," he stressed. "It's about burying an idea in the ground."

Over on the John Peel Stage, meanwhile, Johnny Marr was digging up the Smiths' greatest hits, thrilling fans with his Morrissey impression on "Bigmouth Strikes Again," "How Soon Is Now?" and a closing "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." His solo material, while less deliriously received, also proved to be a blast.

Less so Primal Scream. The joke beforehand was that the Stones were effectively being preceded by their own tribute act and, while there's much more to Bobby Gillespie's crew than the Stones-y raunch of "Rocks," that was one of the few songs to connect with a crowd more concerned with staking out its place for the headliners than the support act. Not that Gillespie, clad in a hot pink suit, was going to stand for that.
"That was 'Swastika Eyes,'" he drawled. "Fucking amazing wasn't it? So make some fucking noise."

Rather more conscious of his place in proceedings was Kenny Rogers, filling the Pyramid Stage's traditional Sunday afternoon slot reserved for veteran artists from the cheesier end of the spectrum. "Glastonbury, Kenny Rogers, what's wrong with this picture?" he chuckled. "I'm so far out of my comfort zone – I'm really not used to . . . playing to such small audiences."

But if Rogers was your twinkly-eyed granddad enjoying being the life and soul of a family party, John Lydon was your cantankerous uncle ranting at the bar. He gurned and screeched his way through a Public Image Ltd. Other Stage set yesterday that was never as much fun as seeing a Sex Pistol at the home of the hippies should have been. 

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds brought an impressive, if slightly incongruous intensity to yesterday's Pyramid Stage line-up, although he sadly drew a sparser-than-usual crowd. In contrast, Smashing Pumpkins played an unexpected party-rock set on the Other Stage the same evening. Indeed, such was the joyous crowd response to "Disarm," "Today" and a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" that even grumpy old Billy Corgan cracked a smile as wide as one of Glastonbury's legendary ley lines.

Proof, surely, that the magic of Glastonbury gets to everyone in the end.

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