There was a feeling of familiarity as I arrived at Reading on Friday morning. It had been three years since my last visit but organisationally, little seemed to have changed. The site layout of stages and other attractions was much the same apart from the introduction of a large black Samsung edifice in the fairground area. Realistically though, when an event clearly works and sells out every year, why would organisers want to alter things.
Friday’s audience contained the usual high quotient of school and college leavers in what for many seems to have become a rite of passage although there did appear to be a larger number of more seasoned festival goers in attendance than I recalled from previous years. As the afternoon progressed I was struck by how subdued and mellow the atmosphere was; lots of smiling happy faces but a lack of spark and energy. Maybe this was due to the warm weather, or perhaps the impact of too much Thursday night indulgence.
First musical highlight of the day came mid-afternoon on the Festival Republic Stage. The Amazons walked onstage with beaming smiles for their hometown gig and continued to smile throughout their short six song set. The only people possibly failing to enjoy their performance were those unable to see at the back of a crowd which quickly swelled to about twenty deep outside the tent.
On the main stage I caught a really enjoyable portion of Jimmy Eat World who played to a small but enthusiastic crowd while many wandered among the myriad of stalls or sat drinking and eating in the sunshine. Numbers swelled for Two Door Cinema Club who really brought the main stage to life, adding to the party atmosphere by releasing giant balloons, while Bastille maintained the feel good atmosphere with their singalong anthems.
At around 9.30 a large smiling American strolled onto the NME/Radio 1 Stage, greeting the crowd with, “D’ya know who we are?” The band launched into, “No One Knows” quickly followed by “Feel Good Hit of the Summer”. For me, QOTSA’s short, powerful surprise performance was the highlight of the day.
Getting back to the main stage for Kasabian proved a real challenge as vast numbers of festival goers overwhelmed the Dance Stage and the area around it in anticipation of Fatboy Slim. Having eventually fought my way through, for the second time in recent weeks I was left feeling underwhelmed by Kasabian. Once again I had the impression of a band going through the motions. I’m sure those at the front would disagree but the dimly lit stage set seemed to set a downbeat tone and the banal and embarrassing introduction of Noel Fielding for Vlad the Impaler during the encore meant it was time to head to a bar before the masses. Maybe it wasn’t just me; they drew a much smaller crowd than the weekend’s other headliners.
Rising early on Saturday I was fortunate to catch a surprise set from Wolf Alice on the Festival Republic Stage. Playing material mostly drawn from their critically acclaimed, “My Love is Cool” album, they also included some intriguing tasters from their forthcoming release. It was an unexpected but pleasing start to the day.
As the weekend progressed two predominant trends in audience tastes became apparent. The first of these was for British bands delivering guitar based melodic indie pop. Saturday on the main stage could have been christened American day which was not great news for those bands performing during the afternoon.
The Pretty Reckless played their hard edged rock to a sparse crowd and got little response while the more mainstream melodic sounds of PVRIS fared little better. Only Korn, playing later in the day received an enthusiastic response from a somewhat greater audience. Meanwhile, Blaenavon and Frank Carter performed in front of large enthusiastic crowds on the NME stage.
Apart from bands performing to minimal audiences at the beginning of a day, At The Drive In played to the smallest crowd I have ever seen in front of a main stage at a major festival. It was possible to walk right up to the barriers in front of the stage and even here there were people more engaged in playing volleyball with a beach ball than watching the band. Cedric Bixlar may have gained a few pounds over the past twenty years but has lost none of his on stage aggression; speaker stacks, mics and mic stands all fell victim to his frenzy. This was and still is a band not inclined to make compromises and they should be applauded for it. Musical taste is quite rightly personal but for me their performance was the best to grace any stage on Saturday by a long way.
If the weekend’s first trend was the appeal of melodic British guitar bands, the second and most significant was the “Hands up” phenomena. Most of the best audience responses came from those wishing to party. “Hands up” became the rallying cry for a plethora of hip hop, reggae and grime acts of vastly differing quality. Tory Lanez spent most of his thirty minute set surfing his ecstatic audience, urging them with the rallying cry, “Hands up” over 100 times !(I eventually gave up counting.) Musically he was pathetic, but the audience loved the performance and the fact that he was in amongst them. Migos were similarly inept but again played a hugely successful, “Hands up” set. At the opposite end of the spectrum Major Lazer had talent, variety and a big stage production to complement the “Hands up” rallying cry. They drew a huge crowd and were worthy of the great response that they received.
The audience that built for Major Lazer grew even more for Eminem who played for what was easily the largest crowd of the weekend. Performing with an excellent live band and bringing on a choir for some numbers he played a wide ranging set. While some clearly knew the material, there were others who seemed a little perplexed by proceedings, watching and listening but seemingly unsure how to respond. This was hip hop but not the hands up and party variety and many of the socially conscious lyrics seemed lost in the mix. He wore a “Fack Trump” T shirt but attempts to arouse the crowd using the words in call and response drew a fairly muted response: This was not a politically aware audience. Eminem’s wasn’t a bad performance but there was a sense that being there was perhaps more important for many than musical content.
Friday and Saturday had been warm summer days but on Sunday the temperature soared and the afternoon saw many taking shelter from the heat in tents and almost anywhere that shade could be found. For once the queues for iced drinks and smoothies outdid those at the bars! The mellow, fairly bland sounds of Americans, X Ambassadors and Mutemath seemed wholly appropriate for those sheltering in the NME tent in the early afternoon, while Australian psychedelia was added to the mix in an excellent set by Pond.
Rock music was definitely not in vogue at this year’s festival; even QOTSA hadn’t played to a huge audience on Friday night. Anyone looking for something with more edge than indie pop, hip hop or grime needed to go in search on the smaller stages but it was there if one was prepared to look. RavenEve, playing a modern take on classic rock were one of the highlights of the weekend while Norwegian punks Slotface, who followed them on The Pit stage were similarly impressive. Tired Lion, who have apparently won awards for live performances in their native Australia for their brand of raw rock were also noteable.
Back on the main stage, late afternoon on Sunday saw elements of hero worship and male teenage hysteria greet the arrival of Giggs as fans ran wildy toward the stage as his set began; the last hurrah of “Hands up” before the return of English indie guitar bands.
I’ve never seen great merit in Blossoms but for once, in the warm evening sunshine their melodic guitar and vocal sounds actually made sense. They were really enjoyable. It’s interesting how fortunes can change in music. Six years ago I watched Liam Gallagher play a mix of new material and Oasis staples at the Leeds Festival where he struggled to fill a tent. Roll forward to 2017 and he’s still playing the same mix of new and old, still wearing a thick Parka in spite of the searing heat and he’s got a crowd of tens of thousands baying for more.
As the weekend drew to a close we were left with Sunday’s headliners. What can one say about Muse? Over the top vocal histrionics, pyrotechnic indulgence and overblown stage sets; not forgetting sublime guitar playing. Paying homage to rocks heritage there were snippets of Led Zeppelin, Nivana and Rage against the machine. They even brought out Brian Johnson to sing ACDC’s Back in Black. They didn’t fit the majority tastes of this year’s festival but there aren’t many headliners who can come close to their live performances and Reading proved no exception.
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