The festival season begins with the biggest of them all – Glastonbury of course – and comes to a close with one of the best and most renowned in the UK. Reading, the world’s longest running festival (having been held every year since the 1960s, when it was much smaller and featured mainly jazz acts) once again beckons and brings with it a diverse tapestry of brilliant musicians. Reading has increasingly garnered a reputation as a party central for 16 year olds who have just received their GCSE results (something I wish someone had told me when I was that age) and although I’m only 19, I felt 80 at certain points. As the age of the audience decreases, Reading has clearly recognised the need to produce more acts to appeal to this age group. Case in point is the increase of grime and hip-hop artists year on year. Of course, it’s fair to say there is some pandering going on here (the bookings of Major Lazer, Halsey and Tory Lanez in particular).
And so it begins….
One of Reading’s greatest strengths is the showcasing of young and vibrant talent – no two words could describe Declan McKenna better. It’s a shock to see a performer of only 18 years old who is so confident and at ease on stage. He connects with the audience so well because he is exactly like them – energetic and in awe of the weekend spectacle. Much has been said about how political and socially conscious his lyrics are, and it is great to see him use his platform in such a positive way. His love for androgyny is clear, performing in a dress, glitter, eye-liner and a finish of nail polish. And guess what? The crowd love it. The Kids Don’t Wanna Go Home rings startlingly true, whilst Paracetamol is an heartfelt plea for acceptance for LGBT people. McKenna is one to watch.
Two Door Cinema Club are energetic indie darlings, beloved by the rowdy crowds who go insane for What You Know and strut to the disco funkiness of Bad Decisions, whilst backed by an intriguing labyrinth of mirrors for staging. Many teens camping near me are shocked to discover they are American (they are in fact Irish) but the love is still there. Meanwhile, DnB legend Shy Fx takes us all back to 90s raves and 70s Jamaica at the Radio 1 Dance Stage, and Ratboy plays a secret DJ set consisting of 90s Britpop and big beat tunes.
The sun sets and we are ready for the first headliner of the weekend. Kasabian, fresh off releasing one of their best albums For Crying Out Loud, are here to entertain us with their anarchic fun. They are no newcomers, having previously headlined in 2012 and playing further down on the bill before that, but are invited back again and again as they are perfect for the festival. Kasabian know their audience and hit all the right notes. Only the best songs from their new albums (You’re In Love With a Psycho prompts a beautiful, beer soaked sing-along), old favourites, the odd album track, a Bruce Forsyth shout-out and even surprising covers – Daft Punk’s Around The World works perfectly, whilst All Apologies is an interesting choice but not quite suited to them. And of course, a brilliantly surreal Noel Fielding – “Vlad The Impaler” – subtlety mentions a certain cake show. By the time we reach the dizzy heights of Fire, the crowd are well and truly hyped for the coming days ahead. It’s great to have them back.
I awake not only to a lack of a free Weetabix breakfast drinks (being given out for free before midday in the festival which proved a challenge for those residing in the agonisingly distant White Camp) but also to rumours that Wolf Alice would be playing a secret set at the Festival Republic stage at 12pm. And so they do, whipping the crowd in a frenzy for You’re A Germ, and during Yuk Foo the intensity is raised even further. This is contrasted with calm ethereal moments of Don’t Delete The Kisses, the glistening coming of age tribute to friendship Bros, and the grungy chillness of Lisbon. The set is short and sweet but showcases succinctly why they are one of the best bands in the industry.
From one great established band to one great up-and-coming one, Pale Waves bring back 70s goth culture with catchy 80s era tunes at the BBC Introducing stage. They open with the brilliant pop song There’s A Honey, and include many new promising tracks such as The Cure-sounding luminosity of Heart, and another song described by lead singer Gracie as “being sad on New Year”. Sadness has never sounded so upbeat and catchy. They are produced by members of the 1975 who are clearly very supportive in nurturing the group (Matt Healy is one of the onlookers backstage) and their sound has definitely rubbed off on the group. However, Pale Waves are also very different – don’t expect them to be playing Introducing stages for much longer.
Other highlights of the day include similarly 80s-sounding romantics LANY, and The 1975’s labelmates The Japanese House, who bring some beautifully quiet and hazy shoe-gazing to proceedings. If Saw You In A Dream doesn’t chill you out, then you might have a problem. Meanwhile Loyle Carner, whose laidback and soulful beats (think A Tribe Called Quest) and positive lyrics separate him from much of typical UK rap, is overwhelmed by the crowd’s rapturous response and labels them “his best ever crowd” – with the reaction to “No CD” (a witty song about the joys of buying music) it’s not hard to see why.
Next is the moment we have all been waiting for. Eminem returns to headline for the third time and it’s fair to say there is a high level of anticipation. He has not played any UK shows since Wembley in 2014 – so what should we expect? New songs? A retirement announcement? A new tour? What Eminem delivers is exactly what we should have predicted – a 35 song medley full of hits, fan favourites, guest spots and more. His stamina was unremarkable, still able to deliver these very lively and animated shows, so much so that two people climb the speaker towers in a moment of sheer idiocy.
Eminem, forever outspoken, unveils a “Fack Trump” t-shirt and instructs the crowd when he shouts “f***” to shout “Trump” in his intro to Mosh (one of his angriest songs rallying against George W Bush). We duly oblige. Not Afraid is dedicated to those who have been through a struggle and resonates with the whole audience; the ladies in the crowd are encouraged to sing the chorus of Love The Way You Lie, and there is a joyous rhapsody of the Dido sample from Stan. The audience love it and lap up every moment, not least the still amazing funk-rap of Without Me, The Real Slim Shady, or the jaw-dropping lyrical acrobatics of Rap God. Closing the show is Oscar winner Lose Yourself. The fact he is performing with nothing to plug can’t help but show he is here purely for his love of music. As Eminem himself said “…till I collapse I’m spillin these raps as long as you feel ’em”. We definitely still do.
What normally is the snooze day of a festival actually contains some of its best acts. SG Lewis brings his unique brand of serene house, with the help of Dornik and Col3trane, while Ray Blk shows herself to be one of the most promising and realist UK acts out there. While introducing Doing Me she lambasts a society that encourages perfection and conformity, and she dedicates My Hood (a sincere love letter to hometowns) to London.
Vince Staples, who is currently redefining the boundaries of what the rap sound, is a marvel to watch. He can barely be seen, performing against a bright sunset orange backdrop which only adds to his enigma. It is strange to hear a US rapper using garage, trap and house beats as his foundation – uniting ravers and hip-hop heads alike. It is interesting that some of the best acts of the weekend are urban acts rather than rock, even more intriguing due to recent figures in America which show sales of hip-hop overtaking rock for the first time ever. However, we return to that genre for the last headliners of the weekend – Muse. Their show is a feast for the eyes and elevates other tracks which otherwise might not have translated so brilliantly live.
Performing on the NME stage at the same time, we have Reading returnees HAIM. “Joyous”, “badass”, “fun” sprang to mind as I watched a band whose love for performing radiates from every part of them. They love the crowd – Este squeals an overwhelmed “Love you Reading” at the beginning and end, and also tells a story about how this country will always have a “special place in her heart”. They have a dance off, split the crowd into three with each part having a designated sister to rally behind as they encourage the audience to get on each other shoulders for the effervescent Falling. The Wire prompts one of the best audience reactions of the weekend, Want You Back is a late night 80s summer jam, while Don’t Save Me is a sassy Fleetwood Mac tune. Confetti rains down as the show comes to a close and I’m sad to say goodbye to HAIM and Reading. May it forever continue.