In the parallel universe the country absconded from last night, Damon Albarn will have conceived of this performance as a celebration – not only of the start of Glastonbury proper, or of solidarity with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians itself, but of our expected vote in rejection of racism, scapegoating and dog-whistle politics. The only problem is that we didn’t reject those things: the nutters have won, the economy has tanked before lunchtime and Nigel Farage has become an overnight folk hero. The festival went to bed on Thursday night and woke up to Bleak Friday.
“Reasons to be cheerful: it’s not raining,” offers a glum-looking Albarn as he gets the weekend’s festivities underway, confessing to the crowd that, “I have a very heavy heart today. To my mind, democracy has failed us. It’s failed us because it was ill-informed. I want you to know that when you leave here, we can change that decision. It is possible.”
Referendum blues notwithstanding, the sight of this 90-strong group of extraordinary musicians – scattered across the globe by five years of civil war in Syria, then brought back together by Albarn – opening the Pyramid stage is a feel-good tale in itself. Albarn describes their story as a “miraculous journey” from “a very different reality. We’ve been hanging out for a week now, and the positivity that comes out of these people despite everything they’ve been through is truly inspiring.”
Despite his role in bringing the orchestra from Damascus to Worthy Farm, however, the Blur frontman spends much of the set cheerleading his new friends from the wings. When he does take centre stage, it’s for a gorgeously-realised version of ‘Out of Time’, a song whose sombre, despondent tone feels all-too appropriate today. Things liven up when Kano makes a surprise appearance later in the set, and the positivity of the musicians themselves is spirit-lifting and infectious, but it’s that moment – Albarn mournfully singing about “Everything turning the wrong way around” – that lingers after they leave the stage. ‘Bittersweet’ might be the best way to describe it.
“This is a really special thing, to see these guys,” says Damon, who by the end has perked up enough to indulge in a spot of black humour. “You can’t imagine the problems we’ve had with sorting visas for them,” he grins. “Especially now.”