This is a Glastonbury of round numbers. The youngest-ever headliner, Billie Eilish, is 20. The oldest, Paul McCartney, is 80. If not for two years of Covid this festival would have been the 50th anniversary. “We’ve been through some shit,” said St Vincent during her extraordinary Friday sunset performance, “but miraculously we’re here.”
This year’s line-up features more women than ever. That might be down to conscious effort but it feels like an accurate reflection of the shape of music in 2022. While Skunk Anansie’s Skin made out like a heavy metal Grace Jones on the Other stage on Saturday afternoon, Self Esteem inspired adoration in the John Peel tent with her sharp, defiant dance-pop, crowning one of the most uplifting breakthrough stories of recent years. “I feel like Robbie Williams!” she whooped.
With the biggest crowd in years, several hot-ticket performances are wildly oversubscribed. Raucous indie-rock sensations Wet Leg barely existed two years ago but their appearance at the Park on Friday afternoon rammed the field. Even if you can’t see them, the mass scream in the middle of Ur Mum was a moment of communal hysteria. Charismatic singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers overflowed John Peel and called for a furious chant of “Fuck the supreme court” in response to the bad news from America. Over on the Pyramid stage, Sam Fender’s brawny, humane rock drew a headliner-sized crowd.
Pop veterans with an arsenal of hits also fared well. R&B survivors TLC caused a logjam at West Holts with a set midway between a block party and an emotional support group, while the reunited Sugababes brought disco euphoria to the usually sedate Avalon tent and Crowded House benefited from a sudden break in the clouds which flooded the Pyramid stage with sunshine during Weather With You.
“All my life I’ve waited for this,” said delighted frontman Neil Finn, but nobody seemed as genuinely amazed to be here as Wolf Alice, who almost missed their set due to a cancelled flight. “You have no idea,” gasped singer Ellie Rowsell, who has grown into a genuine star. The close shave gave their set a fizzing can-you-believe-it intensity, making The Last Man on Earth a cathartic showstopper. It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully conceived spectacle this weekend than St Vincent’s show, an outrageously entertaining funk-rock revue with the theatricality of David Bowie and the virtuosity of Prince. Every song was reinvented and elevated by an artist at the top of her game.
Billie Eilish’s show fed on paradoxes. Haunting, minimal songs become immense; lyrics teeming with angst and menace are framed with solicitous warmth. There were lasers and flames but no surprise guests or festival exclusives. It all came down to the chemistry between Eilish and her two musicians (including brother and collaborator Finneas) and her outsized charm. From an acoustic version of Your Power, renosed as a comment on the supreme court catastrophe, to You Should See Me in a Crown, which hit like a dubstep Nine Inch Nails, she was a versatile performer and generous host with an almost parental concern for the audience’s wellbeing. The volcanic power ballad Happier than Ever, decked with fireworks, completed a winning set and a knockout Friday during which women called all the shots.