Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Reading 2011

28 August 2011

The first morning of the August Bank Holiday weekend, when the Reading Festival takes place, is typical British fare: cold, grey and heaving down with rain. It’s utterly miserable. As you walk through to the campsite to the main arena you see a mixture of the utterly downtrodden and the optimistically gleeful.

Once in the arena, most people attempt to find a tent to shelter in. Many end up in the NME/Radio 1 tent for Pulled Apart By Horses who open proceedings with a mixture of debut album smashes and newer songs that sound equally exciting and exuberant in particular, V.E.N.O.M. And Wolf Hand sound like superb extensions of their winning formula.

The Does It Offend You, Yeah? set in the dance tent awkwardly fizzles out thanks to random cameo appearances that don’t really work and a cover of Nirvana‘s Aneurysm that falters. Mount Kimbie follow and are fairly solid but what they do isn’t really made for lunchtime in a tent on a damp farm in Berkshire.

Once the weather improves, The Naked & Famous draw a decent crowd, though they’re not yet quite the festival band others are making them out to be. Patrick Wolf is fine, but his crowd isn’t huge and he’s played more euphoric shows this summer. Metronomy are more successful in obtaining some sort of early evening party atmosphere with Love Underlined and The Bay sounding big and mighty whilst The Offspring are reliable but unspectacular.

From the moment that 30 Seconds To Mars frontman (and sometime actor when he can bothered) Jared Leto rises from the stage looking like a lost Flash Gordon villain it’s all systems go for a rank and loathesome attempt at stadium rock. He spends most of his time barking orders to a somewhat confused crowd (bar the devoted near the front) such as JUMP! JUMP! or You guys stay there so that I can take a photo and put it on Twitter! and stopping his own songs because people aren’t excited enough, getting people onstage purely because he’s never seen anyone go to a gig in fancy dress before and inviting the most carefully-planned stage invasion anyone has ever seen. The songs are also just as terrible and the fact that they get a crowd larger than tonight’s headliner is just plain sad.

That said headliner is My Chemical Romance, who return five years after they were bottled as The Black Parade. This is a far better received performance because it is, quite simply, fun. Whereas any attempt at a singalong by their main stage predecessors would be greeted with silence as lethal as an unfortunate airborne toxic event, the one-two opening of Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na) and I’m Not Okay (I Promise) couldn’t be any louder. Gerard Way is now a formidable frontman and on songs such as Famous Last Words and Destroya shows that he and his band are on in the form of their life. They don’t really need to drag out Brian May for an encore of We Will Rock You and Welcome To The Black Parade but, hey, no one is complaining.

Day 2 begins with nearly every kind of weather imaginable during The Joy Formidables Main Stage opening set rain, wind, sunshine and sometimes all three at the same time. But it doesnt dampen the spirit of the band nor a very large crowd for this time of the day. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes are a hoot and the carnival atmosphere continues with Madness, who are all kinds of good-natured fun and provide a stage invasion of their own out of nowhere that is genuinely surprising. Take that, Leto.

A couple of Festival Republic tent bands manage to impress in-between the ska pop legends. The first is Grouplove, a twee indie pop bunch who are almost certainly for fans of Los Campesinos! and just as brilliant whilst Cloud Control‘s set is one of an assured and self-confident band that have been honing their craft over the past few months. The crowd for The National is ‘intimate’ so to speak at the main stage. Those who ignore them miss another spellbinding set and the raw emotional power of Squalor Victoria, Abel and Terrible Love pack a weighty punch.

The field is full to the brim though for the first of two headline sets tonight. Pulp‘s reunion summer tour has been wheeling out all the hits, and tonight they’re all there in a set that draws largely from Different Class with Jarvis Cocker in top banter form talking about the anniversary of the discovery of petrol and quipping that the rioters were just playing Grand Theft Auto. Occasional live band member Richard Hawley joins them onstage for the first time since their reformation. Common People goes down a storm and ends the best set of the entire weekend to date.

It’s a tough act for The Strokes, tonight’s joint headliner, to follow. They’re just not in the same league. However, they don’t hugely underwhelm in the way that many expected them to, as they also stick to the hits of their most popular album, Is This It. In addition to Reptilia, Juicebox, Under Cover Of Darkness and the rest you realise just how many good songs they have.

Sunday brings the arrival of festival-fatigue, with the end in sight. Luckily, Best Coast‘s breezy pop is just what’s needed for times like this. They are followed by the more riotous Cage The Elephant whose frontman is endlessly bouncing about the stage with hair in his eyes either onstage or into the crowd. It’s loud, brash and certainly not clever but it is a lot of fun. Later Warpaint, one of this festival season’s most successful bands, entice listeners into a hypnotic state.

Then comes a barrage of heavyweights on the main stage. Friendly Fires manage to bring some calypso magic and Hawaiian dancers to a heavily overcast festival site, and Ed Macfarlane’s dancing remains too cool for school. Interpol then take the stage with an audience just as reserved as that for The National’s the day before but it’s a decent and competent set, blessed with a rainbow in the sky. Elbow work hard afterwards but you just get the feeling that, apart from Grounds For Divorce and One Day Like This, no one is really focused on them.

There’s probably a good reason for this: the amount of Muse clothing on display makes this feel more like their own show than a festival headline set. This is handy since the first half of their set is dedicated to playing their 2001 breakthrough, and arguably best record, Origin Of Symmetry and it goes down well, given that the trio are mostly known for songs that are from their more commercially popular records. Their stage show is the normal spectacular shenanigans with their visuals being the closest they’ve been to arty. The ‘hits’ section of the set goes down a little better (well, it is the ‘hits’ after all) and Knights Of Cydonia completes it with a fireworks finale that brings down the lid on this year’s festival.

At Reading there’s still not much to see beyond the musical treats, and in terms of value for money it’s not really in the same league as Glastonbury. It is a ton of fun though, which is what you want in the dying days of summer.

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