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Elton John at Glastonbury
Photograph: Leon Neal / Getty Images

Glastonbury 2023 review: controversial line-up doesn’t let the sun go down

Fans had bemoaned the all-male headliners and steep ticket prices. But Arctic Monkeys, Elton John et al pulled out all the stops

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

More than 200,000 people descended on Worthy Farm this weekend for one mass sweaty sing-along, packed with plenty of sleaze, sass and surprise guests. As you’d expect from any edition of Glastonbury, there were roaring guitar solos and there were arms-in-the-air ballads. There was twerking, screaming and a heck of a lot of ‘nts nts nts’. And while the festival had got off to a rocky start after being slammed for booking all-male headliners and for upping the ticket price to £340 (not including booking fee), there were smiles all round – as well as plenty of tears.

Glastonbury’s Friday headliners Arctic Monkeys were welcomed with a sigh of relief after they cancelled a Dublin show earlier in the week. In the event, they came, they played and, for the most part, they delivered. The set drifted in and out of their early catalogue, with its fast, jagged riffs and evocative lyrics whipping the crowd into a predictable frenzy, and also dipped into their newer, mellower material – with mixed results.

Friday’s headliners brought all the rock-star glamour and energy levels you yearn for in a headline slot

Alex Turner strutted up and down the Pyramid Stage under a colossal mirrorball, sliding his fingers through slicked-back hair, sometimes stretching out songs into slower, more dissonant versions, much to the frustration of the crowd. Despite that, the set was polished and technically impressive, with all the rock-star glamour and energy levels you yearn for in a headline slot. The audience dutifully shouted back ‘Oh the boy’s a slag!’ during ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and chanted along to the oozing riffs of outro ‘R U Mine?’, ending the first night of Glastonbury 2023 on a high before flocking to the South East Corner to dance to the likes of Four Tet, Faithless and Sherelle

The crowd was on a quite different vibe an hour before at the Other Stage, where electronic music’s hottest star Fred Again.. played a live show of tracks from his three ‘Actual Life’ albums. He played keys, sang and, of course, engaged in plenty of his signature drum-machine-playing. You’ve got to give him credit: he’s cracked the formula for producing a hit – catchy vocal loop, an atmospheric, contemplative build, a big, bassy drop to make the crowd go wild – but by the second half, much of the music started to feel a little same-y. That said, when he called on the crowd to attempt the ‘world record for the most people on shoulders’ during ‘Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)’ – sun setting, moon in the sky, flags flying – it was really quite a beautiful sight. 

Fred Again.. on stage
Photograph: Kate Green / Getty ImagesFred Again..

The real standout from Friday was a soul-fuelled performance by Gabriels, with singer Jacob Lusk belting out robust vocals with ridiculous range, backed by a trio of glamorous singers. Celeste joined in for a cover of Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life’ and when Lusk shed a tear at the end, a good handful of the audience joined him. 

Come Saturday, most of us were hit one or more of: body aches, sunburnt backs, raspy voices. The day started strong with a gorgeous, soulful Pyramid Stage set from Rayebacked by a huge brass band, who surprised us with a revamped bluesy version of her dance track with Jax Jones, ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Sudan Archives held down the stage at West Holts despite her mic not working at the start, giving us shouty, sexy songs overlaid with warped violin strings and synth loops.

Lizzo’s set showcased her wide capabilities as an artist who can basically do it all. It’ll be the 9pm slot next time

Meanwhile, Lizzo showed that she was headline-worthy with a show full of life-affirming lyrics, mesmerising vocals, charismatic rapping and plenty of booty-shaking. Not only was it a proper spectacle, with beautiful back-up dancers all given their own moment and – of course – more than one bizarre flute moment, it also showcased her wide capabilities as an artist who can basically do it all. It’ll be the 9pm slot next time.

Given she very rarely plays in the UK, Lana Del Rey’s headline show at the Other Stage on Saturday was much anticipated. Yet fans were left twiddling their thumbs for half an hour – with many booing and leaving the area completely – before the star eventually arrived on stage. Was it worth the wait? In some ways, yes. Although not an energetic performer, Lana’s stage show was something to behold, boasting ethereal set design, ballet dancers and a video montage of her younger years. Her vocal range, meanwhile, was both wide and accurate.

Lana Del Ray performing on stage
Photograph: Samir Hussein / Getty ImagesLana Del Ray

But it was also short-lived. She sped up ‘Candy Necklace’ and her sound was cut off early when she hit Glastonbury’s strict curfew, eventually being escorted off stage by security after leading an emotional crowd sing-along of ‘Video Games’. The ending was anticlimactic, to say the least. For a star who has had such an influence over modern pop and has such a dedicated, loyal fan base, it was brutally disappointing to see only glimpses of what could have been a very special end to the day. 

Sunday arrived and everyone was pulling out every last ounce of energy to rally on. Sun beating down, Nova Twins kicked off the Other Stage with a bang: looking like a pair of real life Bratz dolls (in the best way possible), they paired heavy riffing with catchy lyrics in a refreshing punky performance.

The singer was escorted off stage by security after leading an emotional crowd sing-along of ‘Video Games’

Blondie are no strangers to Glasto, and when they took to the Pyramid Stage in the late afternoon they reminded us of just how many bangers they have: it was hit after hit after hit. ‘Atomic’ sent energy levels up a notch, while ‘Heart of Glass’ had the whole audience swaying side to side as Debbie Harry dazzled in a mirror embellished cape. At 77, she’s still got it: her charisma was infectious and her vocals, although mellower than in her prime, still hit all the right notes.

From Kate Bush to Britney Spears, plenty of wild rumours had been circulating over who Elton John would bring out as ‘four surprise guests’ at his final ever UK show. His crowd was spectacularly massive: every patch of grass was covered in people of all ages, practically spilling over into the campsite. When John opened with ‘Pinball Wizard’, wearing a shiny gold suit and accompanied by dazzling pyrotechnics, it was positively carnage.

Elton John fans watrhcing singer at Glastonbury
Photograph: Leon Neal / Getty ImagesElton John fans watching singer at Glastonbury

‘I never thought I’d play Glastonbury,’ he said. ‘I really appreciate the outfits.’ Plonking on the keys, pointing at the audience with a glint in his eye, he really seemed to be enjoying himself throughout.

Rumours of surprise guests were soon put to bed, with Jacob Lusk of Gabriels making the first performance, joined with the London Community Gospel Choir for a joyous rendition of ‘Are You Ready for Love’. Twenty-year-old American singer-songwriter Stephen Sanchez performed his track ‘Until I Found You’ – awkwardly, most of the audience only knew the words from the 30-second viral TikTok audio – but it was a touching performance all the same.

Brandon Flowers of The Killers joined him for ‘Tiny Dancer’, and finally there was Rina Sawayama, who belted out ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. No Britney, no Dua Lipa, but no disappointments either.

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