Reading Festival 2009 - Little Johns Farm, Richfield Avenue
Tales of fire and brimstone weren't far off, as it happens. Yup, I ignored all the talk of rioting and toilet-burning, dismissing it as hogwash or at least wild exaggerating when, back in March this year, myself and friends purchased our first tickets for the famed August Bank Holiday Reading weekend. Maybe we should have checked our birth certificates, as queuing up in the entrance revealed to us - as the coming weekend would confirm - that 90% of attendees were celebrating either A-Level or GCSE results (and most likely had names like Verity). Still, the line-up was what we came for and, as we set up camp and opened the first cans - underneath gorgeous blue skies and a fearless sun, no less - the anticipation for the sonic surprises of the next few days really began to brew.
What better way to start Day One than with a bit of musical comedy? Too bad everyone thinks piano-playing mischief-maker Tim Minchin is as hilarious as I do; by the time I transplanted myself from tent to the Alternative Stage, people were battling to push into the tent to get a good spot. Being on my lonesome though, I somehow managed to fight up enough pluck to actually get into the tent despite only managing to glimpse a snatch of the comic's ginger mane. Speaking of which, the unfortunate business was made bearable by comedy classics such as Prejudice, with what became the weekend mantra: 'Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger'. Would I have preferred an appearance by Flight of the Conchords? Sure, but Minchin is a close second and should be seen and heard by anyone with a funny bone.
From that point on, my Friday descended into ill-advised revelry that threatened to - and eventually did - eclipse the music. Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to sell sangria at festivals? Death in a plastic bottle. Sipping on my first of four that day, I was still sober enough to enjoy the cute-as-a-button Little Boots playing the NME/Radio 1 stage. La Roux who? Every song in her set was perfectly crafted and performed disco-pop but ending on Stuck On Repeat, this year's best non-single (release it now!), was her best move by far. Shame I didn't follow her example, making the silly decision to down more of the red stuff - in between wine, whiskey and warm lager of course - so that the hours between Little Boots and Florence & the Machine remain pretty much a write-off. Although I recall being impressed (who wouldn't be?) by the vocal prowess of Ms Welch, the tent was so busy that I never actually saw her from my position behind a huge column and, well, was too drunk to even care. Professional reviewing at its best. Mind you, I still say Bat for Lashes is 10,000 times better...
The regrettable daze continued when Flo left after belting out Rabbit Heart, and soon I was sitting on the grass with strangers while the sounds of Friendly Fires spilled out of the tent. Not long after that, I spent an hour walking around campsites, getting more and more lost, until a nice lady pointed me in the right direction of my tent. By the time I arrived at makeshift 'home', the sounds of an unhappy Kings of Leon were leaking onto the Purple campsite. Sobriety was soon achieved with a twilight campfire, which was unfortunately followed by my friend getting £150 nicked from her purse while we were asleep in the tent. Yup, someone actually opened the tent while we were in it and, after swiping the dollar, left the purse intact - one word: scum. Although this was an unpleasant occurence that led to my friend heading home, I now consider it quite a quaint affair following my experiences on Sunday. We'll get to that in time...
With the sun on full power mode, the ugliness of the unexpected thievery soon morphed into excitement at the day ahead. After a trip into town, made complete by squash-pouring Christian zealots' attempts at 'saving' me, it was time for me to accompany my friend to watch Fightstar on the main stage. Although their Americanised power-angst is something I usually veer away from, they were surprisingly impressive and you can't deny that Busted's bushy-eyebrowed one certainly done growed up! Ripping through a set that comprised everything from debut single Palahniuk's Laughter to new hit Mercury Summer, Charlie and co. showed that they've got the intense energy required to make it big in their genre.
Of course, if Fightstar had happened to clash with my next act of the day, my friend would have been alone. Fortunately, Metric's appearance on the NME/Radio 1 stage did not clash with anyone I was even a tenth more excited about seeing than this band. Heading over early and catching the final throes of Brody Dalle's Spinerette set, we muscled our way into the second row and - along with the rest of the surprisingly huge crowd - were soon being entranced by Emily Haines and band. Whether Saturday's second bottle of the dreaded sangria was kicking in or I was giddy from anticipation, I'm unsure but I do know this was undoubtedly one of the best live experiences I've had. From the opening bars of Help I'm Alive, the Canadian band rocked the tent, with Emily Haines - looking the part as ever - leading mass sing(and jump)-alongs of Gimme Sympathy and Sick Muse from new album Fantasies. Of course though, the biggest appreciation was for fan faves Dead Disco and Monster Hospital, both of which were like a shot of joyous adrenalin to my already over-stimulated nervous system, before closer Stadium Love caused a mosh pit and saw the tent tremble to its foundations. World class.
It was 3.15pm, not even halfway in, and I'd already experienced my highlight. Maybe I should have felt a little deflated but that was impossible with the entrance of the inimitable Patrick Wolf. The flamboyant multi-instrumentalist has always had a strong image, but the audience were either laughing, gasping or howling with delight when a pant-suited Wolf entered draped in black feather boa and weird S&M-stylee body armour, topped off by a shock of flowing yellow locks and an inordinate amount of eye makeup. In short, he looked like a cross between cult shock-factor performance artist No Bra and the elfin baddie from Hellboy 2 (and that's before the first costume change). Obviously, none of this flash would matter if his performance was lacking but, within moments, he was doing a Florence and climbing scaffolding while delivering spitting glam anthems like Vulture and Battle. Considering his new album (still sitting alongside Bat for Lashes as my album of the year) is so sombre, the performance here was so OTT rebellious as to be punk, although a gorgeous Damaris did provide a moment of reflection. Again though, the highlight was the longstanding fan fave, as the intro to Madge's Like a Virgin soon transformed into a glorious Magic Position. I doubt anyone left that tent without a stupidly big grin on their face; I know I left having bagged my second crowning moment of the weekend.
On a high, I somehow managed to end up in some farflung corner of the site dancing with smiley happy people to Tiffany and Kim Wilde tunes for half an hour or so. With so much excitement, a quick recharge at the tent preceded a return to the main stage for King Monkey Ian Brown. Although I'm not a huge fan, the Stone Roses have inadvertently soundtracked the last ten years of my life at various indie shindigs and I've always been curious to see him live. Joined by a brass band, highlights from his solo years overcame the limitations of his voice, while Fool's Gold was thrown in for good measure. Ending a charismatic set with a one-two punch of F.E.A.R. and catchy new single Stellify, the Manchester icon was a sound accompaniment to the late afternoon sunshine and sufficiently warmed up the crowd for what came next.
Back in favour with hardcore dance fans and the mainstream, The Prodigy proved one of the weekend's highlights. I never enjoy viewing their festival performances on TV but, after experiencing a snatch of their stonking set at V2008, I was prepared and even equipped with (shake your head here) glowsticks. Melding a set of standards like Smack My Bitch Up and Breathe with newies Omen and Warrior's Dance, the massive crowd were, for want of a better word, ravin'. A closing Out of Space took it to the next stratosphere, with a light show to match, and I can safely denounce that The Prodigy are a band whose mettle is substantiated when - and only when - you're dancing like a crazy person in a field.
And so to my first big headliner. Sigh. After looking forward to them all year, and being one of about thirty people who seem to enjoy Humbug, I was left feeling deflated by Arctic Monkeys' set. And it all started so well, with new material mixed in with a couple of oldies (Dancefloor is dispensed with six songs in) and a devilishly good cover of Red Right Hand. From the second act in though, it all felt a bit flat with a mumbling Alex Turner hiding behind his new mop-do and the heavier new songs adrift in front of a huge crowd who wanted to hear Fluorescent Adolescent. Eventually, the crowd was rewarded with such but it was much too late and, with no Mardy Bum or Teddy Picker to speak of, the progression of the new material didn't mean a whole lot. Yup, we get that you're trying to do 'moody' boys, but try adding a bit of the old spunk in there too next time.
Ah well, I certainly got my money's worth on Day Three. Decidedly cloudier than the brilliant golden haze of the two days previous, Sunday was nevertheless the fullest day of the festival. It could have been a different story; beginning with an enthusiastic blast of Welsh pop-rock from Kids in Glass Houses (verdict: fans only), the day continued with a gloomy set from Noah & the Whale, a band I'm not altogether un-enamoured by but whose morose songs - yup, no Five Years Time, one hit wonder fans - did not perk up a crowd laying under a grey sky. Thank heavens for The XX then, who wowed a healthy number of curious music fans over on the Festival Republic stage. They may look like a younger Glasvegas, looking a bit glum dressed entirely in black, but their smooth, soulful and uncluttered performance was just like honey - a cover of Womack & Womack's Teardrops felt a little unnecessary, but the two-handed boy/girl vocals from leads Oliver and Romy were sooo dreamy that hearts were breaking all over the shop. The missing link between The Cure, Cocteau Twins and Aaliyah? We'll see.
Unluckily for Soulwax-approved Das Pop, their supreme tardiness to the Dance stage - twenty minutes late, meaning they could only play three songs to an expectant crowd - did not sit so well. It didn't help that I wasn't expecting the cheesiness we eventually got, which was akin to Alphabeat on poppers. After this misfire, we headed back to the tent - not before aquiring finger puppets that became our late festival mascots - and fuelled up. This meant we missed Metronomy (boo?), but we were in time to catch the wonky danceable tunes of Passion Pit, who were playing to a hefty crowd in the NME/Radio 1 tent. Although album Manners becomes a blur of similar sounds, here the singer's gratitude was sweet and the signature Skins-approved hit Sleepyhead made all in attendance not care that the Avalanches are still yet to make good on their promise of a return.
Emerging back into the late afternoon, and we were about to enter the home stretch. The calypso pop of Vampire Weekend may have suited the sunnier Friday or Saturday but still managed to raise smiles and, with a couple of new songs showcased, hopes for album number two. Leave it to Karen O to swiftly erase one's memory of any band that came before Yeah Yeah Yeahs, however; dressed in some weird red/white pin-striped cozzy (think Brett and Jemaine in the ep where they do the toothpaste ad), her colourful entrance was soon eclipsed by stage tics that included fellating the mic, wrapping her head in a shroud of material and frequently grinning like a goofy Cheshire Cat. As with Patrick Wolf's earlier showing, this confrontational stage presence was secondary to the music, which ranged from the cooler-than-thou garage rock of yore (a manic Pin, a set-closing Date With the Night) and the new album's sleek electro-infused anthems (Heads Will Roll, Soft Shock). A particular highlight announced itself when Karen announced they would be performing their 'love song' and preceded to deliver, with only Nick Zinner's acoustic as backing, a gorgeously simply version of Maps. All this, and we still got a perfect rendition of their best song Cheated Hearts before Zero's finale saw gigantic inflatable eyeballs launched into the crowd. Sunday's highlight, fo' sure.
While the building buzz for Radiohead was almost palpable, I could relax and enjoy what the night had to offer, sure that the weekend couldn't offer anything better musically than I'd already experienced. Suited to the dusk-into-darkness slot, a gleeful Bloc Party (aren't they meant to be moody and stuff?) opened with a floaty So Here We Are and soon tore through a greatest hits package that, at different times, had the audience pogo-ing around, chanting along and raising glowing wrists in the air. This was the fifth time I've seen them and most definitely the best, with Kele's ever-increasing confidence charming rather than off-putting and their new dance direction suiting them (house-pimped One More Chance is one of many highlights). Although it would have been dreamy to follow such a set with Thom Yorke and his fellow bandmates, none of my mates were into it (fools!) and so I surrendered, albeit knowing that I could catch their set on telly and that I had enjoyed a similar fan-friendly set back at V2006. So, off we went to dance our little socks off to the remaining thuds of a bold but not-quite-brilliant MSTRKRFT before remaining on a dance tip and trying out the silent disco; yup, while the majority of Reading festival-goers were swooning to Karma Police, I was wearing silly headphones and dancing to everything from Lily Allen to the Outthere Brothers. Niceee.
Had my night ended with an uncomfy but peaceful enough attempt at sleep in the tent, I could wrap up this review here and give the whole shebang an 8 (9 at a push) out of 10. Alas, no sleep was had that night. What my friends and I were instead treated to was burning tents, exploding deodorant cans flung on fires, flying mallets and a beyond-childish Purple vs Yellow slanging/slinging match between an assortment of outright scallywags and posh 16-year-olds trying to be scallywags. In a rush, we took down our tent so as not to make it a target for said flying mallets and were even debating spending the night camped up in the train station, but instead we chose to stay put as long as the havoc-wreaking and damage wasn't too close for comfort. Sirens blared all night and toilet doors torn off, with stories of horrific injuries and even rumours of rape making the rounds (unsubstantiated, as far as I know), ensuring me and mine didn't sleep a wink until we got home safe and sound. 'Riot' isn't the word, as there was no overall purpose for the stupid scummy behaviour that dragged down an otherwise fun and well-organised festival. Next year, Melvin Benn should ban fires outright or at least enforce the no-aerosols rule he kept banging on about this year (no-one I was with was checked) or there won't be a festival left, should someone actually be killed. As I say, it's a shame because, for all the slight drawbacks already alluded to, my weekend was pretty amazing and quickly descended into a whirlwind of panic, frustration and downright anger. So much for festivals being the spiritual stomping ground of peaceful hippies...