Reading Festival is Glastonbury’s kid brother in more ways than one. The Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts is arguably the only UK festival bigger than Richfield Avenue’s offering; what’s more, the average crowd age of each reveals something more. Reading is the 16-year-old’s festival, and this year I was more aware of that fact than ever. As a faithful Reading Festival-goer of many years, I had no excuse for being annoyed at these young pretenders, as I had once been them myself. But I managed it anyway. Reading is my home festival, but it seems I have outgrown it.
But let’s focus on the music for a bit.
This year’s lineup certainly left much to be desired; Festival Republic must be seriously mistaken if they think they can follow 2012’s Friday and Sunday headliners, The Cure and Foo Fighters, with Green Day and Biffy Clyro. The former is a band so far from relevant it makes Rocky Balboa look 21st century, while the latter is a good band with some solid songs, but has a long way to go before it reaches the pedigree necessary to close Reading Festival. My hat is off, however, to the organizers for the inspired move that was bringing Eminem back to Richfield. The man is a true superstar with fans all across the UK, and a range of excellent material that was certain to set the Main Stage alight.
What’s more, the NME Stage really seemed to be set to excel itself this year. When the music began on Friday with a late-announced set by Dry The River, one could tell that Reading’s second stage was going to be the place to be. Even though Deap Vally were a little disappointingly bland, an excellent showing by FIDLAR a short while later showed that their brand of youthful insincerity was exactly what the GCSE/A-Level crowd at Reading needed. Peace were on next, and showed a new maturity alongside their usual joyful exuberance, producing a highly stylized performance on a plain white stage which included a stellar cover of Disclosure’s ‘White Noise’ with a verse from ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ thrown in for good measure.
But it was Bastille who stole the day, with a stunning performance during which Dan Smith’s voice was almost (but not quite!) drowned out by the roar of a crowd who knew every single word to every single track, whether from the album or an earlier mixtape. Sadly, all these bands suffered from a disastrously poor microphone which meant anything they said between tracks was completely unintelligible. Fortunately someone did something about it just before Major Lazer took to the stage, at which point some classic festival misfortune conspired to force me to miss both them and A$AP Rocky, two of the acts I’d been looking forward to the most. From what I can tell watching coverage afterwards, the phone I dropped somewhere in the NME tent had little chance of survival.
But the rest of the day was far from a complete loss. I headed to the Festival Republic Stage, where an enchanting set from CHVRCHES was followed by an exhibition of pure, unbridled and confusing fun when Crystal Fighters took to the stage. Sebastian Pringle, dressed like a disco ball, careered around the stage like a demented satellite on acid as the English/Spanish folktronica band finished the day in style. Billy Joe who?
Saturday produced less excitement in quantity, but made up for it in quality. Early on the Festival Republic Stage, new boys Drenge were magnificent, running through the highlights of their excellent debut album and infecting the whole tent with their barely-contained adolescent rage. Swim Deep were, against all expectations, disappointingly lacklustre; after a second-class debut they really needed to make their hits count, but even ‘King City’ failed to inspire the usual euphoria (though to be fair, the indie kids jumped around anyway).
Soon afterwards, Foals did exactly what everyone has said about them all summer, and stepped up to the plate on the Main Stage. They’ve come a long way since ‘Cassius’ (which they didn’t even play) and Yannis Philippakis looks like he’s finally where he’s always belonged: at the top.
After that it was back to the NME Stage, where Tame Impala were, predictably, their brilliant selves. Using the TV screens for their own psychedelic light show, they produced an atmosphere of hazy, trippy wonder. Finally, it was the moment I’d been waiting for for months. The moment I was missing Eminem for. The band behind my album of 2012: Alt-J.
They were everything I could have hoped for and more, dispelling all rumours of disappointing live shows almost as soon as the opening chord of ‘Intro’ had rung out through the tent. The crowd was spellbound by every song from hit single ‘Breezeblocks’ to ‘Interlude 1’, including an exquisite acapella cover of College and Electric Youth’s ‘A Real Hero’. Keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton was the only member to break the spell, with carefully timed exhortations to the crowd, but lead singer Joe Newman didn’t say a word throughout, preserving the mystery and aloofness of his genius. Instead, his only communication with the crowd came as he was unable to hold back his emotions at the sound of thousands of people singing his songs back at him. The set ended with the show-stopping ‘Taro’, as fake snow was launched into the crowd and Newman hid his face as the crowd roared the chorus for him.
Somewhere in between all of this, Jake Bugg was awful.
Sunday was always going to be an anticlimax after two such amazing days of music, but Alunageorge did their best to buck the trend with a set of true quality on the NME Stage in the early afternoon, including a brilliant cover of Montell Jordan’s ‘This Is How We Do It’. Tribes were surprisingly empty, considering their usual love for festivals, but things perked up later on the Festival Republic Stage, where Spector headlined to an archetypically chaotic crowd with real aplomb. After this, defeated by the weekend’s exertions, I sat down to watch Biffy Clyro from the back. Against my expectations, nostalgia took over, and I even felt a rush of emotion as fireworks launched into the air during ‘Mountains’. If that was the last song I’ll ever hear at Reading Festival, it was a pretty good one. ‘Mon the Biff.