It’s been a funny old year to be a Glastonbury headliner. Perhaps no artist in the festival’s history has been met with the kind of opprobrium Kanye West has, while even trusty old warhorses The Who have been criticised as being another safe heritage-rock booking whose last go-round is too fresh in the memory. Foo Fighters were the only Pyramid Stage headliner everyone seemed truly happy with, but thanks to Dave Grohl’s snapped fibula, they’re not here tonight. Stepping into Grohl’s moon-boot is Florence Welch, making her Glastonbury’s first female British headliner since Skunk Anansie in 1999. Even if it was made under duress, Welch’s promotion is symbolically important: yet another bunch of old, white, males being given the nod over a young, female up-and-comer would have been a rather damning indictment of where the British festival scene is at in 2015. And let’s not forget that last-minute Glastonbury standins – most notably Pulp in 1995 and Gorillaz in 2011 – have a history of acing it, benefitting from lowered expectations and the all-important element of surprise. Can Florence join those ranks?
Short answer: yes. From the moment she takes the stage, barefoot and restless, banging a tambourine throughout ‘What The Water Gave Me’, she seems eager to please: indeed, you often get the sense that you’re watching someone who knows they’re playing the biggest, most important gig of their life, and is determined not to disappoint: “Kiss each other! Touch each other’s faces! Show that you love each other!” she declares at one point. Everything about her set – sounds, colours, movements, emotions – is heightened and amplified, cranked all the way up to 11. It’s total sturm und drang, and through sheer force of will, it works. On ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ she doesn’t seem to sing the song so much as wrest it from the depths of her soul. When ‘What Kind of Man’ reaches its climax, she simply collapses onto the stage, physically and emotionally spent. By the time ‘Dog Days Are Over’ brings proceedings to a close, she’s whipped off her shirt and streaked at her own headline set. You certainly can’t fault her for effort.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that she doesn’t yet have the song – the arm-around-a-stranger’s-shoulder moment, the big, field-unifying piece de resistance – though her cover of ‘Times Like These’ (dedicated, naturally, to “all-round legend” Dave Grohl) goes some way towards filling that particular void. But this set has a rarer quality: at a time when new headliners are at a premium, there’s something special about watching an artist make the jump in this way, particularly when, as she tells the crowd after ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, her first Glastonbury performance “was at 11am in a tea tent.” She’s come a long, long way since then, but no-one could deny that she’s earned this. Sure, Foo Fighters would have killed it. Sure, Kanye will probably be the weekend’s big story. But tonight, Florence + The Machine prove that they’re here on merit, and not just necessity.