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The 7 most important UK festival sets of the millennium

The musical moments in a field that changed everything

The 7 most important UK festival sets of the millennium
19 May 2017

The problem with importance is that it’s so subjective, isn’t it? Obviously there are things in life that are objectively important: you must be kind; you must get that mole checked; you must never, ever, refer to a drink as a ‘brewski’.  But, when it comes to music, why one person finds something important is down to a dizzying mix of individual factors and natural preconceptions.

So devising a list of the millennium’s most important festival sets is fraught with dithering.  There’s a pretty good argument you could just choose Glastonbury sets, but that wouldn’t be fair to all the other festivals, so I’ve invoked a strict one-set-per-festival rule. I’ve also tried to choose sets that are important and definitive for different reasons, not just ‘This seminal artist is dead now’ or ‘I really love this band’ – though I can’t promise to eradicate these reasonings completely.  Onwards, into festival heaven. 

Beyonce - Glastonbury 2011

Those familiar with Glastonbury folklore could cite persuasive arguments for Paul McCartney in 2004, Jay Z in 2008 and Blur in 2009 (aka ‘the one where Damon cried’). But If we are to put Bey’s Bey-blical setlist aside - she started with ‘Crazy In Love’, bashed out a seven-song Destiny’s Child medley, introduced a bemused Tricky for the weirdest special guest spot ever, then finished with an eight-minute ‘Halo’ that included two spoken monologues – Beyonce 2011 gets the nod because it actually was important.

Pre-Beyonce there had been no solo female headliner of Glastonbury since 1990. In the same period there’d been three black headliners (one of which was her husband, Jay Z). There’d been no out-and-out pop headliner ever. If we are to ever dispel those tired, archaic and quasi-sexist/racist notions about Glastonbury being a white man’s rock ‘n’ roll festival rather than a lightning rod for the planet’s most popular cultural icons, we need people like Bey. She delivered, wearing a gold sequin dress. 

Arctic Monkeys - Reading 2005

They’ve played on vastly bigger festival stages, but this is the ultimate ‘I was there’ festival moment for the arch Monkeys aficionado.

Booked on an afternoon slot in the Carling New Bands tent, the band were six weeks away from the release of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and nearly five months from the still-brilliant debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Yet, thanks to the Beneath The Boardwalk bootleg that fans had been sharing online, the main stage-sized crowd belted back every word of a tight eight-song set. Hindsight is a wonderful thing for the myth-makers and content-creators, but this was the first time the millennium’s most consistent UK indie band showed their hand to a large audience. They were smitten from the start.

Prince - Hop Farm Festival 2011

There’s just something so perfectly Prince-like in the fact his only UK festival performance came in the tiny Kent town of Paddock Wood. I grew up near Paddock Wood and it’s an invisible sort of place. Not rustic and pretty enough to be in the AA Guide, not naff enough to be in Crap Towns. It’s not so much the town where your dreams go to die, they just never really get born.

Surfing in on a purple wave of love, sex and funk came Prince, who played at the Hop Farm Festival, three minutes up the B1260 from Paddock Wood.  He played the hits and, during an hour-long trio of encores, found space for covers including ‘Everyday People’, ‘Come Together' and ‘Play That Funky Music’. Wedding disco magic.

Paddock Wood had never seen anything like it and, tragically, neither again would we. 

Beastie Boys - Bestival 2007

It had been nine years since the Beasties had played a UK festival and their show at Bestival’s Robin Hill Country Park would prove to be their last in this country before Adam Yauch’s death.  It was a landmark, generation-straddling moment that saw these middle-aged Brooklyn dudes bring their ageless rap-punk to the youthful Bestival audience. Here’s what Rob da Bank, Bestival’s co-founder, told me about them:
“The Boys turned up to Bestival with a rider that included local jams and chutneys from the Isle of Wight. They grabbed our Bestival cardigans off us, sped round the site on stolen golf buggies and then performed not just their greatest hits but also an instrumental version of their greatest hits as a second set. It was literally mind blowing!”

So there you go. 

Blur - Hyde Park 2015

Many will point to Blur’s Sunday night at Glastonbury 2009 as the band’s peak, but that’s not possible for two reasons. 1) Beyonce has already taken my Glastonbury pick. 2) The 2015 show for Hyde Park was in support of The Magic Whip, their quietly triumphant comeback album that ensured Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon were bezzies again, and had finally stepped away from Britpop’s shadow of excess.  Whereas the 2009 shows – no matter how jubilant – were always an emotional tup round the hits, Blur 2015 showcased a band that had grown up and didn't give a fuck about Blur vs Oasis anymore.

LCD Soundsystem - Lovebox 2016

When James Murphy announced that LCD Soundsystem were reforming, most fans were giddy that the unshaven poster boy for post-hipster weariness would be back in their lives again. There were a bitter few who took umbrage after the curated drama of their original demise (LCD had a famous Last Goodbye ‘funeral’ gig at Madison Square Garden in 2011) but the attitude at a packed Victoria Park was stoutly in the former camp. 

As the band rattled through the best bits of their three albums, it became clear that they were finally comfortable with being a festival headliner. In their previous incarnation, they had seemed sweetly confused by their success and were prone to chucking out arguably their best songs - ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ and the era-defining ‘All My Friends’ – early in their sets; now they held them back to last, knowing a festival crowd wants their final moments to be the ones where they shout the hardest. It’s been argued that LCD are the most influential indie band of the last decade and, as they rounded the corner to their 40s, they were finally coming of age.

Lily Allen - Secret Garden Party 2006

Bear with me on this one. Music in 2006 was a confused space: People (and by people I mean me) were legitimately into The Fratellis and The Kooks; Stormzy was 13 and grime was in stasis; James Blunt – pre-funny James Blunt, simply a creator of tortuous acoustic ballads – was infeasibly a genuine worldwide star.

Dive bombing into this ocean of beige was a genuine pop star with attitude as big as her earrings. Lily Allen went to number one with her first single ‘Smile’, number two with the album Alright, Still, was the biggest pop star in the country – and she was booked to play Secret Garden Party, which was in essence still a tear-up for organiser Freddie Fellowes’ extended group of mates and their mates.

“We lucked out,” Freddie says. “We booked her a long time before for a very small fee. It’s a testament to her and the agent that she played it. It was a landmark moment for us,” he says, forever grateful that she turned up to play on the stage equivalent of a wooden palette. After this SGP grew into the boutique middle class colossus it is now and influenced all those kooky events like Wilderness which you’re currently considering dropping £500 on. So, in a way, Lily’s set helped change festivals in the UK. See? Important.

(Images: Rex)