Review: Reading Festival

It was not without a measure of trepidation that I made the pilgrimage to the Reading Festival this year. I hadn’t been particularly taken by the headline acts, nor had the extortionately-priced tickets convinced me that the trip would be worth my while; indeed, pitching camp in a boggy quagmire at 8pm on a Wednesday night in the pissing rain did nothing to lift my spirits. Yet, thanks to a (similarly drizzly) Thursday spent in the growing excitement of my friends, a lukewarm flame of anticipation began to flare in my mind, and come Friday had grown into a full-blown restlessness for the start of proceedings.

Half past noon on the opening day brought the unenviable first act, attended by an unusually large crowd on the Festival Republic stage. Our entertainers were the terrible Gaggle, an armour-clad choir of fifteen or twenty warlike women bearing an over-pretentious standard (reading ‘This Is Merely a Distraction from the Inevitable’) and yelling about the mental whirrings of the adolescent fairer sex. Surfer Blood, thankfully, did provide an early-afternoon alleviation from the untenable dross served up by Gaggle, blasting out several memorable tracks from their January debut ‘Astro Coast’, before Girls graced us with gorgeous material from 2009’s simplistically-titled LP, ‘Album’, including their Skeeter Davis cover, ‘The End of the World’. Later in the evening, a furious air-guitar battle ensued during an all-singles set put on by Queens of the Stone Age. Josh Homme, Dean Fertita et al did not disappoint, thrashing out crowd favourites such as ‘No One Knows’ and ‘Go with the Flow’. LCD Soundsystem were similarly upbeat, showcasing James Murphy’s knack for finding a driving dance beat and his Seinfeld-esque talent for witty monologue and lyricism.

The highlight of my Friday, however, was Yeasayer, playing a late-afternoon slot on the NME Stage. A fan of their delightfully experimental second album, ‘Odd Blood’, I was hoping that the danceable New York quintet would keep their audience guessing in a similar manner in their live performances. I wasn’t disappointed – their gig was jam-packed with dreamlike hooks and echoey guitar riffs, one track surreptitiously melting into the next. ‘Wait For The Summer’, from the ‘All Hour Cymbals’ LP, sounded fresh from the Middle East, while the live version of ‘Rome’, with its thumping bass riff, was infectiously funked-up. Of course, the reception for 2010 singles ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘O.N.E.’ were rapturous, the latter’s reverberating riff accompanied by psychedelic visuals.

Everything Everything kicked off Saturday afternoon in disappointing fashion. My hopes that more of their material would resemble ‘MY KZ, UR BF’ were dashed by a lukewarm live performance, compounded by poorly-balanced sound that amplified the usually pleasantly flighty vocals into a piercing puppy’s yelp. In the afternoon, I was similarly unimpressed by Modest Mouse; my pre-festival scouring of their back catalogue had only yielded a couple of songs that I took to, and, perhaps ‘Tiny Cities Made of Ashes’ aside, their set gave me little more to catch hold of, delivered with minimal effort or flair. Succeeding them on the Main Stage, though, were the captivating Maccabees, Orlando Weeks’s personal charm endearing his band to a big audience almost as much as the beautiful ‘Toothpaste Kisses’ and the more upbeat ‘Can You Give It’. So enamoured was Mr. Weeks with his audience that he treated us all to one or two – as yet nameless – new songs in anticipation of the band’s third album.

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Disappointed as I was at substituting the chance to see Villagers for the less poetic (but similarly Mercury-prize nominated) Dizzee Rascal, I was desperate for a decent position to see the ‘official’ reunion show by the Libertines at around half past eight that Saturday evening. The band kicked off – aptly enough, some might say, given the events of the past six years – with a frantic performance of ‘Horrorshow’, and proceeded to storm through such ‘Up the Bracket’ numbers as ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Boys in the Band’. A bleary-eyed, fairly pale but jovial Pete Doherty advised us all to ‘take care of each other out there’ (their set had been briefly stopped at Leeds the night before due to an over-zealous crowd response). Doherty, Barat and co. then followed up a melancholy performance of ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ with crowd-pleaser ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’. Throughout the gig, the band looked revitalised, enthusiastic and happy to be playing together once again. Their set, like its Leeds counterpart the night before, was not without incident – a power outage within ten minutes of the end caused a two- or three-minute disruption – but the band returned to the stage to finish an unforgettable reunion set with ‘What a Waster’ and ‘I Get Along’, after which all four Libertines embraced each other warmly.

Saturday’s headliner was Arcade Fire, who, despite the positive critical acclaim of current album ‘The Suburbs’, seemed genuinely shocked to be headlining such a prestigious festival: ‘We’ve not even had a hit single,’ Win Butler grumbled incredulously to the masses. As if determined to hold their audience’s attention, the abundant members of the band scurried about the stage, capering wildly under a huge screen displaying artistic looped video clips and special effects. Win, dressed in heavy boots and a military jacket, kicked off with a frenetic performance of ‘Ready To Start’ and soon sang lead on ‘No Cars Go’, from 2007’s ‘Neon Bible’. His wife Régine Chassagne, in a silver sequined dress, gave a mesmerising elegy to her homeland with ‘Haïti’. Tracks played from the new album included ‘The Suburbs’, ‘We Used To Wait’ and ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’, before the Montreal-based outfit encored with ‘Month of May’ and 2005 single ‘Wake Up’.

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A series of some of my favourite up-and-coming acts were due to grace the NME Stage from early Sunday afternoon, yet even with the weak sun finally shining over the arena, the final day was to prove largely anticlimactic. My imaginary award for best rock-‘n’-roll moment at the festival was surely won by The Joy Formidable’s Ritzy Bryan, who thought nothing of smashing her sleek yet chronically faulty electric guitar to pieces at ten to one p.m., after merely the first song. Thankfully, epic, arena-built tracks like ‘The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade’ and ‘Austere’ proved the replacement more than worthy of the task. A disappointing Los Campesinos! were succeeded by a spellbinding performance from Wild Beasts – live versions of ‘Hooting and Howling’ and ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ showing off every permutation of Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto. The Drums may have disappointed some fans by not playing ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, but the strength of the rest of the album, combined with their typically camp prancing around, carried the band through. Foals proved to be the final band I watched fully: Yannis Philippakis kept the band’s euphoric fanbase interested via the unconventional means of stage-diving, climbing stage rigging, and daring everyone to sit down. I can’t deny I get an almost irrepressible urge to shout ‘shut up and get on with it’ to pretentious frontmen who demand such logistically challenging acts of their fans; however, I managed to keep my patience with my bearded fellow Oxonian, on the basis of his group’s entrancing recital of the clammy ‘Spanish Sahara’, the buoyant ‘This Orient’ and a nostalgic return to my Year 9 math-rock playlist with ‘Hummer’ and ‘Balloons’.

But despite a very pleasant afternoon, by nine o’clock my evening of live music was effectively over. Equally disinterested by the prospect of headliners Blink-182, Klaxons and British Sea Power, my girlfriend and I found ourselves wandering aimlessly around the arena, before deciding to abort mission back to camp in anticipation of the Sunday night silent disco. And for me, that was the problem with this year’s festival – the dearth of engaging main stage acts. Saturday aside, I approached the prospect of watching the more established bands with apathy. The mix of hugely commercial international acts – premeditated dickheads Guns ‘n’ Roses, kid-rockers Blink with their cringe-worthy live performance, or the overbearing Limp Bizkit and NOFX – with more ‘niche’ but in many cases more talented acts seemed to show a lack of a general direction from the Reading & Leeds organisers and an attempt to please all those who ally themselves under the vague label of ‘rock fan’. Don’t get me wrong, I had an enjoyable experience over the course of the weekend, but next year, a more concerted effort to book a greater variety of main stage acts would be welcome.