Glastonbury Festival 2023 - The Review

Still the greatest party in the land

By Katharina | Published: Sun 16th Jul 2023

Glastonbury 2023

Wednesday 21st to Sunday 25th June 2023
Worthy Farm, Pilton, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, BA4 4AZ, England MAP
£335 + £5 booking fee - SOLD OUT
Daily capacity: 210,000
Last updated: Fri 23rd Jun 2023

The 38th Glastonbury Festival took place from 21st to 25th June 2023. Yes Wikipedia lists 40, but that includes the two pandemic-related cancellations, so let’s be accurate where we can.

As is the well-established custom (and important part of the local economy), over 200,000 people descended on this normally quiet and remote part of Somerset for a few days of joyful mayhem. I took the train from Paddington (what’s good enough for the Foo Fighters is good enough for me, right?), transfer to the site by shuttle bus was fairly smooth and by Wednesday afternoon the entrance queues had become pleasantly short. The chap who fitted my wristband commented on my comparatively modest amount of luggage, well, the leader of our four piece camping party insists on pitching on Pennards - to make sure of that two of us had to do the overnight journey and queuing thing. Still very pleased I wasn’t one of those two.

It’s a loooong way from gate A to Pennards Hill, but also a good opportunity to get a grasp of the site’s layout. Passing the newly extended Woodsies area, San Remo, Silver Hayes, the edge of the Other stage area and then upwards towards the Park stage... at that very crowded corner, trying to cross the busy railway track path, I collided with a somewhat distracted young man who went on to apologise profusely and offer help with my backpack. But by then I was on the home straight, though the last bit is uphill. So no, thanks, but it’s good to know that the helpful spirit is alive and well.

 

The site often looks and feels very busy on Wednesdays and Thursdays, most people are in constant motion, setting up tents, exploring, running errands, checking out the various bars and - queuing for festival merch. No wonder stocks run low by Friday. But you can always order from the website after the event.

Having found my group, we soon set off to join the (in)famous eFestivals meetup at the Ridge and Furrow bar. What happens at these meetings stays at these meetings – unless you have enough patience and curiosity to read the eFestivals message boards on the topic. Eventually, we wandered off across site in the cooling evening air, aiming to join the crowds watching the opening ceremony on the hill above the Stone Circle. Alas, the hill was heaving with people early on and security blocked our way. So instead we walked across the beautifully decorated Greenfields to the tipi field behind Ancient Futures and watched the fireworks from there, standing around a huge welcoming camp fire. Great view, lovely atmosphere.

Having spent most of Thursday ambling around, admiring the new Car-Henge installation (can’t describe it, but there are some good pics in the photo section) and comparing notes on the best watering holes, at night we all gathered at the Avalon Cafe, to get immersed in RSVP Bhangra Band's attempts to teach us to dance. Bhangra, of course. I defy anyone not to find the sight of that funny. There’s always a good spread of small venues in the Avalon/Green/Healing Fields and surrounding Southern section of the site, they offer live music until very late; so does The Truth Stage in the south east corner, but that can get very busy.

Car Henge - Glastonbury Festival 2023

Come Friday, all the main stages sprang into action around mid-day, and my first date was with The Master Musicians of Joujouka; I like sampling the Pyramid openers each year. And so it happened that I went from listening to some old Moroccan ritual straight into the enormous crowd greeting The Hives on the Other stage, who did what The Hives do best: rock out, jump and swear like troupers, and on to West Holts for ADG7 who deliver K-pop with a traditional Korean folk angle. Some contrasts and all very enjoyable, a breadth of genres that is hard to find anywhere else.

The “ChurnUps” listed on the Pyramid line-up had most speculation on their identity resolved long in advance: Foo Fighters.

“We are not very good at secrets” admits their frontman (ok, there was some earlier speculation that it might be Pulp, I would have been very happy with either). After recent tragedies, the Foos have found a new drummer and churned out a pretty good record (CD? Spotify entry? Whatever), and their special guest here was – Violet, the young Miss Grohl, who sings with them on Show Me How. A massive crowd was rooting and roasting in the afternoon sun for them, probably bigger than for the Friday/Saturday headliner slots. Good atmosphere, good mix of old and new songs, and the drummer has jelled well with the band. Touching tribute to Taylor Hawkins, of course - Everlong.

Foo Fighters (The Churnups) - Glastonbury Festival 2023

No trip to the Pyramid is complete without a stopover at the cider bus, there and then the decision was made to head back to the Park for Sparks. I like the Arctic Monkeys, but having seen them several times and having spent quite enough time at the Pyramid side of the area, they weren’t a priority with so much else to choose from. Glastonbury’s line up is the mother lode of clashes and tough decisions which act to pick, a very nice problem to have, but FOMO and some regret are its inevitable downsides. For the bigger stages, there’s always iplayer once you are back home, the BBC will deliver. Not the same as being in a rapturous crowd, of course.

No regrets about our choice though, Sparks were great. Amazingly good form, considering they go back as far as the 70s, and Cate Blanchet guested on “Girl Crying In Her Latte”, even wearing the outfit used for the (more recent) video of that track.

Sparks and Cate Blanchett - Glastonbury Festival 2023

Another lengthy walk across the whole site wasn’t very appealing, so we headed off to the South East corner, to get in before the big crowds and queues arrived there. And getting in was no problem – because the crowds had arrived before us. Block 9 was rammed well before midnight. So was the Unfair Ground. Not in an unsafe way, but really, really busy. We soon abandoned our mission to reach the Truth stage and passing the Dragon Field (sadly no longer free for camping) headed for the Stone Circle to chill and chat. This would have been a really busy area after dark in the olden days (am I starting to sound a bit nostalgic now?), but it wasn’t very populated when we got there some time after midnight. Things change. There’s so much more night time entertainment now, SE Corner, Arcadia, Silver Hayes and Park for dancing; Greenfields, Strummerville, and the new area amongst the trees near Woodsies for the more contemplative moments. We enjoyed the views across the site, the sea of lights and the mingling of sounds. Friday nights are great, most of the weekend is still ahead of you.

Saturday, we got to sample some of our old favourites, Kanda Bongo Man (West Holts, Congolese dance music) and Amadou & Mariam (Pyramid, famous Afro-Blues from Mali), and then Third World (West Holts, Jamaican), who I’d never seen live yet despite them being around for 50 years. A great set of fusion reggae full of surprises for me, it even included an accomplished delivery of Con te partiro.

Richard Thomson played the Acoustic Tent – this year he really did, after having to cancel 2022 due to Covid problems. The Acoustic stage, tucked away in a field at the top of the circus area, is another oasis for the exhausted and overwhelmed: rarely gets crowded, has a nice bar, unusually neat and clean toilets and a very chilled audience. Tired, thirsty, sunburnt (or rain soaked) and in need of a break from the crowds and drumkits? Get yourself there. Rest, refuel, resume. We did.

 

Ezra Collective delivered some very accessible jazz on West Holts, and back at the tent I could hear The Pretenders doing their thing on the Park Stage, but being knackered from the relentless heat and having seen them recently at Bearded Theory, I didn’t wander over, something I came to regret – they had Johnny Marr on guitars, Dave Grohl guesting in the finale and Paul MacCartney giving them all a thumbs up from the sides – would have been a nice opportunity to see them all together. Ah well. Iplayer.

There was a lot of controversy about what kind of headliner Guns N' Roses would be, so I left Leftfield (heh) early and wandered over to the Pyramid to see for myself. Being neither a big fan nor a big hater, just curious, I’d say – so so. It wasn’t a disaster, nor was it great, and the crowd was middling. Guitars sounded good, but the singer struggled. I left after Sweet Child O' Mine (which I quite liked) as the next one was November Rain (a track I can’t stand even under the best of circumstances). All in all, not for me. Although I’m being told that they finished with a very decent rendition of Paradise City guesting – why, Dave Grohl, of course.

Guns N' Roses - Glastonbury Festival 2023

Meanwhile, the Other Stage headliner was running fashionably late, about 30 minutes, this eventually led to the set being cut short – there’s a curfew to be observed, and the festival’s licence depends on it. Dear artist, assuming that this was not caused by a major health issue (that’s about the only excuse I can think of) – please respect the festival’s regulations, and also the fact that with over 60 stages to chose from, all those people waiting for you could have had a fine old time dancing elsewhere instead of standing there waiting. Crikey, even Guns N' Roses started on time, and their singer used to have a bit of a bad reputation for his antics – if Axl Rose is now behaving more professionally than you, it’s time to have a re-think, perhaps?

Never mind. At the Glade stage, The Steve Hillage Band absolutely hit the spot for me. Psychadelic guitars you can dance to with a great light show back drop, and then to top it off, more of it by The Egg - unmissable festival stalwarts that kept us moving until 3am. Fabulous, and way more dancing space than at the crowded SE corner venues (didn’t really fancy a repeat of that).

The Egg - Glastonbury Festival 2023

Sunday morning was a late and gentle start after all this, Japanese Breakfast, who I’d wanted to see, didn’t make it, so we wandered over to the Acoustic stage for some “Lakeman bingo”, the musical west country Lakeman family having several members gigging around the festival: Seth, Sean, Kathryn Roberts (who’s married into the clan), various offspring. Listening to Kathryn and Sean’s sophisticated folk got us in the right mood for Yusuf/Cat Stevens on the main stage, he covered the “legendary” Sunday afternoon slot and it’s been a few years since I've bothered with these “legends”, but this one, I really wanted to see.

It was, in many ways, the total opposite of the other legend we got to see at the same stage in the evening - simple and restrained, an old man with a guitar in a plain white long line shirt, later with a backing band rolling out his long catalogue of hits from the 60s and 70s, talking about his quest for peace in the world. And in some ways it’s a rather melancholy experience, because a song like Peace Train, written in response to the Vietnam war, has so much poignancy still. There’s been war somewhere in the world ever since, and right now, it’s close to home and we don’t know when and how it will end. Yusuf is full of righteous anger at our politicians, and yet – they are in charge because we, as a country, vote for them. He starts with Moonshadow, weaves a lovely cover of Here Comes the Sun into his own line of hits, and ends, very poignantly, with Wild World and Father to Son. The latter is underlaid with some footage of him performing the same song as a very young man, and that’s very moving. Now, he sings it as the (grand)father.

Yusuf (Cat Stevens) - Glastonbury Festival 2023

The Hu at West Holts are the absolute antidote to melanchonic contemplation. It appears that the heavy metal genre is alive and well, and it has taken up temporary residence in Mongolia! They call it folk metal, and apart from drums and guitars it features throat singing and traditional instruments such as morin khuur and tovshuur (see photo section), and half way through their gig there’s a very active mosh pit forming at the front of the West Holts stage – now that is somewhat unusual! Loved it.
I rushed over to Woodsies to see Editors afterwards, some older favourites of mine, another great set, they are in good form, although I missed the start of their set. The whole area around this tent (formerly New Bands/J Peel) has been revamped and it’s become a lovely place for shade seekers, kids and people who want an evening with twinkling light around a fire, far away from the thumping sounds of SE corner.

War on Drugs played the Other Stage and whilst they’ve been around for a long time I somehow never managed to catch up with them – another great set of soaring guitars and good rarport with the audience.

Now, under most circumstances I would have just stayed there and quite happily made Queens of the Stone Age my final, but, this being my last and only chance saloon to see Elton John live I insisted on the Pyramid. Which, unsurprisingly, was perhaps the busiest I’ve ever seen, literally a sea of people. Finding a gap in the crowd crust wasn’t easy, but we did and ended up in a comfortable middle position.

So, Elton John, then. Great show, large crowd, and despite the illustrious career he can look back on, he seemed genuinely touched by the turn out, and the opportunity to go out on such a high. His back catalogue is packed with sing along famous pop songs, his voice is still good, and whilst he went from one crowd pleaser to another, I was pleasantly surprised that he included Daniel – not one of his biggest hits, but a favourite of mine. His choice of guests was interesting, he likes to feature new talent over old, Rina Sawayama being the one I liked best for her pretty perfect rendition of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me is dedicated to George Michael. And then, with a lot of fireworks and adoring crowd noise, the rocket man blasted off, and I’d at least seen him once before he did so. I enjoyed myself. And yet, if I had to offer a golden oldie crown at this festival, I’d give it to Yusuf, for emotional impact. But that’s just me.

Elton John and Rina Sawayama - Glastonbury Festival 2023

We let the crowd disperse and, with some rehydration breaks, took the slow and scenic route back to the Park, where The Egg were scheduled for another late performance at the Rabbit Hole.

And then it was over. Sigh.

Despite the exhaustion, I woke up very early on Monday (Pennards is a noisy place) and climbed up to the Crow’s Nest bar to have a final look across the site and say goodbye.

Regrets? Well, apparently QOTSA played a blinder and felt egged on by having to go up against that grand old national treasure at the Pyramid (rumour has it that they volunteered to do so - they like a challenge). But hey ho, can’t be in two places at once. And I missed the great Smiths catalogue sing-along led by Rick Astley (of all people) and instrumented by Blossoms, everyone there had great fun. Listening to these songs without having to contemplate the Morrisey conundrum? Bring it on. Also, impressive lack of ego from Blossoms for being someone else’s backing band. And, combining this with a good humoured performance at the Pyramid on Saturday, Rick Astley seems to have won the “nice guy of the festival” award, with some competition from the ubiquitous Dave Grohl, of course.

Rick Astley - Glastonbury Festival 2023

I should have spent some more time in the Theatre and Circus fields, looking at the performers there, always good fun. Chilled in the Green Fields for longer.

So much to do, so little time. Even without the impressive line up.

This not being my first visit to Worthy Farm, I’d come prepared for all weathers, but my wellies just gathered dust all week long, quite a lot of dust as it was relentlessly hot. A lot of time was spent looking for shade and cold drinks, and by Sunday most of us looked sizzled, but I take that over one of the infamous mud years any time.

Crowd control seemed much improved this year, after being a little off at times in 2022, it appears the organisers listened and improved where necessary. Better crowd management often meant longer walks around cordoned off areas in intricate one way systems, but if that’s what it takes, so be it. We don’t want any avoidable injuries.

Like almost everyone everywhere, festival organisers are feeling the pinch and not wanting to raise ticket prices too abruptly - which is admirable, given that this event usually shifts all its tickets in less than half an hour - have looked at ways to reduce costs. That includes consolidating venues; the most notable difference for me was the absence of the Williams Green tent. Though crowd control measures may also have been part and parcel of the considerations here, this tent was usually overrun on Thursday nights as one of the few sites that offered live performances on that evening. It must be frustrating if a re-think does away with one of your favourite venues, although what’s on offer is still enormous and way more than most of us can cover in a couple of days.

Food and drink prices have gone up, the cheap meal option that some stalls offer is now £6 instead of £5, many meals hover around the £12 mark and most pints of booze set you back £6 - £6.50. But tap water refills are free and you can bring a lot of food and drink onto the site, there’s no arena and once you’ve got it to your tent you can take it anywhere, as long as it isn’t in glass containers. The choice of food is fantastic, offering cuisine from all around the world, good old pie, chips & burger fare, but also a great selection of imaginative vegetarian and vegan choices.

Not one to bore on about finances, but anyone interested in some background info, there’s an informative read here.

 

Whilst 2023 felt a bit frenzied at times, following the long involuntary break (that nearly broke the festival’s finances), this year things had mostly found their stride gain. The planning and logistics involved in catering to all the needs of over 200,000 people for a week in an area that is normally a working farm must be truly formidable, but the organisers can now look back at over 5 decades of experience, and that shows. If something isn’t working well (i.e. crowd bottle necks, need for more loos in certain places), it’s usually changed and improved in the following year.

What will the future hold, apart from another mad scramble for tickets in October?

The Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts, to use it’s full title, has turned into a national institution of sorts, it’s come a very long way from being a music fayre with a big chunk of counter culture. Yet for all the big mainstream entertainment it is so famous for, it's still possible to find and be inspired by environmentalists, counter-culture members, free thinkers, people who want to make the world a better place. They can be found in the Green Fields and surrounding areas. Politics has always been a big part of the festival, and the main/recurring themes are: peace, disarmament, addressing inequality & climate change - not necessarily in that order. There is exposure to aims of Greenpeace, WaterAid, the progressive ideas of the legendary Leftfield tent (curated by Billy Bragg), and much more.

What makes this festival different is still there, with huge support from committed volunteers, and it looks like it will stay that way. A considerable share of the events profits supports charities providing international aid, and according to a statement released by the organisers, all of Glastonbury 2023’s power needs were being met by renewable energy and renewable fuels, eliminating the need to rely on fossil fuels for power across the Festival. They do try to practice what they preach wherever they can.

And that’s one of the many things that make Glastonbury so special. This festival can test you at many levels. Things overwhelmed even some more fragile performers, such as Lewis Capaldi, although the crowd was very supportive, I read he’s planning to take a break to rest from performing, that’s very sensible.

If the relationship with your significant other, or best mates, survives sharing a tent for 5 days in searing temperatures (or in cold, ankle deep mud), and you are not snapping at each other by Sunday, you’re doing very well. But don’t be too harsh on them/yourself if not.

It is still the greatest party in the land. The diligent clean up is now under way, it will take a few weeks. All part of the mammoth task.

View our full photo gallery for plenty more images!

Check out a video of some highlights below, courtesy of David McLenachan.


review by: Katharina

photos by: Jason Richardson, Phil Bull, Raph Pour-Hashemi


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