If Glastonbury is the Mother Of All Festivals, dispensing peace, love and good vibes to all and sundry, then Reading and Leeds is more like the wayward brother who’s home late from the pub again – swaggering, cool, a bit aggressive and ever so slightly scary.
Because, for all its prestige, there’s always been a bit of a strange atmosphere about the Reading and Leeds Festivals.
Whether it be the delightful pastime of glasses of urine being thrown into the crowd, the occasional riots and setting fire to tents on the closing night (in Leeds anyway) or certain bands being bottled offstage, the traditional curtain closer to the festival season is not one for the faint hearted.
After being taken over by the Mean Fiddler organisation at the start of the ’90s, Reading/Leeds became almost family friendly and corporate sponsorship was brought in – so much of it in fact that over the last few years the festival has been known, rather horribly, as the Carling Weekender. That slightly sinister atmosphere still remained, although it was far removed from the notorious reputation that the event garnered in the late ’80s.
All the signs are though that Mean Fiddler see 2008 (the 10th anniversary of the Leeds leg incidentally) as a fresh start. Carling have disappeared, and it’s now known by its traditional name of Reading and Leeds Festival. Which, let’s face it, is what we all called it anyway.
With a music festival every weekend over the summer, it would be easy for Reading/Leeds to struggle to attract the really prestige headliners these days. Yet, year after year, Mean Fiddler pull some gems out of the bag.
Friday (Leeds) /Sunday (Reading)
This is the traditional rock/metal day of the festival, and dominating proceedings are the headliners – the mighty Gods of the genre: Metallica. Expect plenty of old favourites, and a preview of the band’s first album in five years, the Rick Rubin produced Death Magnetic. If you get there to bag a place near the front, you’ll see a real life Hollywood star as well, as Jack Black’s ‘mock rock’ outfit Tenacious D are second on the bill.
There are also the usual reliable rock names on the main stage throughout the day (Slipknot, Feeder and, um, Plain White Ts – guess who’ll be on the receiving end of those bottles this year…), but if you’re not a metalhead, do not despair.
The NME/Radio 1 tent boasts its usual stellar line-up of indie acts, with Wakefield’s The Cribs no doubt receiving a heroes welcome in Leeds on the Friday. Hopefully, they’ll be playing some of the new material that they’ve recently been recording with Johnny Marr. They’re preceded by another local hero in the shape of Alex Turner, not with his Monkeys this time, but warming up his other band Last Shadow Puppets for their Autumn tour.
There’s also a rare chance to see a solo performance by Bright Eyes‘ mainman Conor Oberst, the excellent Lightspeed Champion with his wistful folk and the always entertaining Adam Green – on a commercial roll now, after music by his old band The Moldy Peaches was featured in the film Juno.
For the last few years it’s been known as the Carling Tent, but with the departure of the brewery giant, the ‘third stage’ is now called the Festival Republic tent. As ever, this is a priceless opportunity to catch acts in a more intimate setting before they inevitably go onto greater things.
This year, The Kills have the unenviable task of clashing with Metallica and The Cribs, but with their strongest album yet under their belt, and Jamie Hince’s newfound status as tabloid interest due to his relationship with Kate Moss, a fair size crowd is almost guaranteed.
Earlier in the day, there’s the chance to catch the excellent Emmy The Great, the critically acclaimed arty rock of both Johnny Foreigner and Cage The Elephant, together with Last Shadow Puppet Miles Kane’s other band The Rascals. For many though, the highlight of the night will be Glasvegas – think The Jesus & Mary Chain performing Phil Spector covers. Not forgetting Grime pioneer Wiley, who will no doubt provide one of the festival anthems of the year with Wearing My Rolex.
And that’s not even the end of the attractions – the Dance Arena sees CSS headlining, with the likes of Digitalism, Crystal Castles and Holy Fuck also featuring, while the BBC Unsigned stage has the proverbial ‘stars of tomorrow’ playing to a handful of punters.
Saturday (Leeds)/Friday (Reading)
Today sees many people’s highlight of the festival – nay, the year. One of the most exciting live acts of modern times have reformed and make their Leeds/Reading debut in the shape of Rage Against The Machine. Early word from those who caught the band at T In The Park indicates that this is no cash-in reunion – they’re as vital and incendiary as ever. Thousands of people bouncing up and down screaming “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” while steam rises from the moshpit – there’s your festival memory of 2008, right there.
Josh Homme and his Queens Of The Stone Age make for a pretty awe-inspiring warm-up for RATM, and although they can sometimes be accused of dragging out their set (that’s how many fake endings to No One Knows, Josh?), it’s a fair bet that the atmosphere around the main stage will be memorable. There’s also singalong stadium indie, if you like that sort of thing, with both The Enemy and The Fratellis, although more interest is likely to be provoked by System Of A Down‘s Serj Tankian bringing his unclassifiable brand of slightly mental rock to the main stage in the mid-afternoon.
Despite the appearance of anodyne indie-poppers One Night Only, Saturday is a pretty good day over at the NME stage. Babyshambles are headlining, although as ever with Mr Doherty, this could well be subject to change. It’s the appearance of MGMT and fellow Brooklynites Vampire Weekend that’s likely to generate most excitement – with both releasing excellent albums this year, it’ll be best to get there early to stand any chance of seeing them.
Round the corner at the Festival Republic tent, the wonderfully quirky Florence And The Machine is bound to make a name for herself, while Esser also makes his Leeds/Reading bow. Expect to be hearing a lot of people humming the infectious Headlock on Saturday night. Ida Maria is also likely to run around like a lunatic, maybe butting the odd microphone or two, but headliners Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip are guaranteed to bring the evening to an uplifting close with their classy brand of literate, intelligent electro-pop. It’s just a shame that the vast majority of punters will be worshipping at the altar of Rage at the time…
Sunday (Leeds)/Saturday (Reading)
There’s always a band who raise a bit of an eyebrow when it’s announced they’re headlining the main stage. It was Razorlight last year, Franz Ferdinand the year before, and this year it’s The Killers. As entertaining a live act they can be, it’s debatable whether they’ve got the material to pull off a headlining slot – after all, they’ve only released two albums and a B-side collection so far. Yet, when he’s on form, Brandon Flowers remains one of the more charismatic performers around today, and there’s every chance they could just pull off a surprise.
Just before the Las Vegas quartet come the similarly inconsistent Bloc Party, no doubt showing off their more experimental side which recent single Mercury hinted at. More reliable are Jack White and Brendan Benson, whose Raconteurs take the early evening slot – if the blistering form of the superb Consolers Of The Lonely can be recreated on the main stage, then this should be quite a performance. There are some pretty big names hovering further down the bill, including British Sea Power, Editors, The Subways and Dirty Pretty Things, which indicate that a fair few people could be spending all day camped out by the main stage.
Which would be an insane thing to do, obviously, as it would mean missing the excellent Mystery Jets, plugging one of the great pop albums of the year in Twenty One. You could also decide whether The Ting Tings have the potential to be long-term successes or whether they’re just one-hit wonders and debate whether Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong were right to pull their debut album a couple of weeks before it was due to hit the shops. All of whom will be at the NME/Radio 1 tent, together with gnarled old bluesman Seasick Steve, French dance maestros Justice and the headlining delights of Manic Street Preachers. Have they mellowed, or are we going to have more controversial comments thanks to Nicky Wire? There’s only one way to find out…
Unusually, the Festival Republic tent is a bit of a let-down on this day, with the woeful Elliott Minor headlining and a load of pop/punk/emo types such as You Me At Six, The Audition and All Time Low all featuring. Only the sparkling fizz of the wondrous Black Kids and the Marmite pop of Welsh youngsters Los Campesinos! stand out, with the pleasingly sleazy rock of Louis XIV also providing a highlight. However, if angst-filled, kohl-toting rockers aren’t your bag, it may be best to give the Festival Republic tent a miss on this day.
As ever at Reading and Leeds, it’s not all about the music. The Alternative Stage pays host to two of the doyens of the US alt-rock scene when Henry Rollins and Jeffrey Lewis deliver spoken word sets – Rollins’ spoken word sets in particular are the stuff of legend and really should not be missed. Talking of legends, punk icon John Cooper Clarke also gives a performance on the Alternative Stage, There’s also some of the biggest names on the comedy circuit (well, those who aren’t appearing at the Edinburgh Festival) including Brendon Burns, Mitch Benn, Michael McIntyre and Robin Ince.
Leeds and Reading may not have the media profile of Glastonbury, nor the new cool of events like Bestival and Latitude. It’s also, undeniably, awash with pretty obnoxious teenagers who have had their first taste of beer and dope and can’t wait to tell everything about it. Yet while the line-up stays as strong as this, it’ll be one of the mainstays of the festival season for many years to come.