Reading Festival: where the summer comes to stampede itself to death. If there are Polynesian islanders at a loss as to why they suffer an annual earthquake season for three days each August bank holiday, it’s because there are 90,000 teenagers – many body-painted with their sexual preferences and requests, in case of Tinder overload – doing lengths of a field in Berkshire.
They’ve been in training for this world’s biggest game of British Bulldog for years, but that’s not to say there’s nothing here for the overprotective dads. Watching the nation’s excitable youth charging between the east and west main stages, while being barked at by authority figures in shades, gives those of a certain vintage fond flashbacks to Mike Reid’s Seventies kids show, Runaround.
G-g-g-go! The first punters through the gates at midday on Friday rush to the BBC Radio One Dance Tent where Bombay Bicycle Club open proceedings with a secret set of bright, spindly 2011 indie rock. To their credit, they honour their surroundings with some carnival rhythms: “Always Like This” is the closest Reading has come to a Caribbean vibe since mojito happy hour at the urban beach outside the Oracle in 2006. Their audience is sent conga-ing across the site in time for Yard Act.
Despite the early hour, the dynamic Leeds four-piece aren’t taking apathy for an answer. “Scream for life, you f***ing c***s!” bawls singer James Smith, alternating his vocals between a microphone and what sounds like a Lidl tannoy system – when the crowd seem a little ambivalent to the joys-of-living moral of “100% Endurance”. He even breaks Reading’s fourth wall entirely when, midway through one of his trademark street poet diatribes on money, booze and urban struggle, a troupe of dancers in raincoats attack him and carry him to the back of the stage to make way for their synchronised dance routine. A regular, genre-bending new feature, or a comment on Reading and Leeds sidelining rock in favour of alternative pop acts in recent years? Either way, a wake-up call.
Pandering to its Gen Z audience’s consumer preferences, Reading 2023 acts as a living playlist; early-on acts play short sample sets in hope of hooking in a fanbase from the passing herd. Reading veteran Frank Turner (“10 years in a row, it’s a f***ing record, no one else is even close!”) plays this ball to his advantage. Backed by his roaring Sleeping Souls band, he powers through a selection from his embarrassment of anthemic punk pop riches (“1933”, “Get Better”, “Recovery”) and has Reading in the palm of his tatt-heavy fist in minutes. By a euphoric “Polaroid Picture” he’s got them pogoing to order and come “Four Simple Words” he orchestrates a rather wonderful field-wide pirouette.
It's good practice for The Last Dinner Party. With drill chart-topper Tion Wayne drawing the festival’s first monster crowd to Main Stage East, cannier punters take the summer’s first chance to get into a tent to actually see the year’s real critics’ choice band, who arrive in flowing white dresses and launch into a truncated set of galloping romantic rock. Such is their melding of stirring, dramatic bombast and melodic indie hooks that they often sound like Florence Welch and Wet Leg fighting over the same song. But the sprite-like twirls and prances of singer Abigail Morris – plus lyrics about “candle wax melting in my veins” – undoubtedly give them the air of modern Bronte heroines in fits of wild, yet still civil abandon. “Sorry for flashing you,” she slyly shrugs after a particularly skirt-lifting spin through “Sinner”, then cavorts along the crowd barrier, singing “I will f*** you like nothing matters” like every Reading Romeo’s body-paint request come true.
Across the field, a vision of The Last Dinner Party’s future. The previous big critical hype band, Wet Leg, take a prime slot on main stage east, still loving every minute of their rocketing rise and getting more adorable by the gig. Wielding a guitar covered in butterfly stickers and clad in a knitted woollen bonnet and tights reading “GOD’S FAVOURITE” across the thigh, singer Rhian Teasdale flashes a smile now studded with tooth diamonds and unleashes her well-honed barrage of poison-pen revenge songs (“Ur Mum”, “Wet Dream”), deadpan lust (“Chaise Longue”) and tunes about being too stoned to go shopping (“Supermarket”).
Their genius – and genius it is – is in merging grunge-era Blur with Franz Ferdinand’s new-wave nous and coming out with something fresh and unique. This is due in no small part to the slightly snarly charm that Teasdale exudes, making them seem like Beabadoobee’s more damaged and cynical older sisters. Yet, unsurprisingly perhaps for a band whose most graceful and fragile kiss-off tune is entitled “Piece of S***”, they’re a dark-hearted delight. Teasdale turns the “longest, loudest scream”-along segment of “Ur Mum” into a competition with Leeds – with a scream-o-meter measuring the volume from the wings and all of the band howling savagely along, Reading becomes a veritable My Bloody Valentine of larynx-shredding frustration for a couple of minutes. Who knows how many thousands in Gen Z therapy fees are saved. Then Teasdale and her guitar foil Hester Chambers spin on the spot to the glacial guitar chimes of “Angelica”, laughing like playground besties, and steal Reading’s opening day with the crushing riff and withering double entendres of ”Chaise Longue”. What could anyone be doing sitting down?
On one of Reading’s strongest opening days in years, no one drops the ball. Belfast DJ duo Bicep make a fine fist of the classic electro-breakbeat graveyard shift – a rainy early-evening outdoor slot with Supergrass written all over it – while the lounge-friendly retro funk and soul of Loyle Carner makes for a stylish sunset vibe, only slightly marred by the fact that he’s brought half a crap car onstage with him.
Headlining the main stage west, Foals seem to evolve before our very ears. At first they’re a kind of cosmic disco, lacing elemental grooves and future funk with their spidery guitar lines on “Mountain At My Gates”, “2001” and a party-starting “My Number”. Then an insidious element creeps in: from lustrous beginnings “Spanish Sahara” blooms like a ravenous flytrap, while “In Degrees”, initially a tropical New Order, gradually develops a glower as intense as Trump’s mugshot. By the end they’ve metamorphosised into hard-rock beasts, with “Inhaler” as heavy as Hendrix and “What Went Down” virtually Zeppelin in heat and heft. “Have you got that Friday fever?” singer Yannis Philippakis asks, as if he needs to.
One fears for Sam Fender trying to follow that. Given that the breakthrough North Shields rocker cut short last year’s US tour to focus on his mental health, there’s much love and support for him from other acts throughout the day. “We’ve got so much imposter syndrome,” Fender confesses once this “milestone gig” is underway, and not without reason. As the only ostensibly rock act to break into the UK singles chart since the genre was all but banished by streaming, he’s undoubtedly earned his place here, but a Reading headline show is an unforgiving spotlight. And, after taking the stage to a huge blast of rock noise and the gruesome glam of “The Kitchen”, his shortcomings are swiftly exposed.
Besides the presence of a bucket-hatted saxophonist (one Johnny “Bluehat” Davis) in the band, the Springsteen comparisons often ladled on Fender seem even more baffling than usual tonight. The likes of “Getting Started”, if anything, sound like an AI having a go at a Springsteen song having only been given access to the last 10 years of the Irish album chart and Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams. Instead, as “Dead Boys” and “Mantra” roll out like a commercial drivetime hour made flesh, Fender comes across as the result of someone deciding that rock needed its own George Ezra. When he drops a breezy, impromptu “Saturday” from his 2019 debut Hypersonic Missiles into the encore, you might easily mistake it for an Ezra cover.
Sporadically, Fender sure can rock. When “The Borders” toes the canyon rock pedal and swathes him in War on Drugs atmospherics, the scale of the sound suits his pristine voice. “Howdon Aldi Death Queue” is a brilliant thrash-punk rampage of pandemic paranoia. “That Sound” has definitely heard The Cure’s Disintegration. For the most part, though, he wins us over with his vulnerable, singer-songwriterish relatability. With the paternal dislocations of “Spit of You”, the spiralling addictions of “Spice” and the desperate teenage angst of “Seventeen Goes Under”, the crowd is brought alive with some genuinely Bruce-like bombast. “We’ll never forget this,” Fender beams amid “Hypersonic Missiles” confetti and fireworks. But, given the promise on show, he will top it.