For the first time in six years Reading Festival found itself under the cosh; its neckline was chaffing, and awkward beads of sweat were beginning to emerge as the 2011 event approached. Oddly despite five years of lightening fast sell out and breathtaking performances, Britain’s grubbiest and most rock’n’roll festival had a real point to prove.
Despite years of success the festival found itself under fire. Reading’s security and safety arrangements had been scrutinized for years, as had its rowdy and petulant atmosphere, but through all the condemnation the festival’s line up and must see nature had never been called in to question: that changed in 2011.
The line up was announced and the tickets went on sale in March but something very unusual happened, an hour went by, and the festival still hadn’t sold out, there wasn’t even a queue on Ticketmaster, curious. Another hour flew by, and then a day, and then a month, and then three, no change. The majority of the day and weekend tickets were eventually snapped up, but the message was ringing out loud and clear; the old adage “say what you like about Reading, it always sells out” no longer holds water.
There were a whole host of theories concocted as to how Reading could have found itself in such a sticky situation, but most commentators simply blamed the most expensive festival in the UK’s failure to sell out on the line up, and no band took more criticism than the festival’s Friday Night headliner.
The last time My Chemical Romance took to the Reading stage they worked their way through a quasi-triumphant set that saw the band surviving a barrage of bottles and denouncing The Daily Mail newspaper. As a show of perseverance it was remarkable, but as statement of intent from a potential headliner it left a lot be desired.
Fast forward five years, and Way is standing, smiling, and basking in admiration as he tells the once spiteful Reading crowd that they “look ravishing”. Their set, which is a genuine triumph this time around, has a distinctive mood, and it’s that of vindication; for the band, for their fans, and for Reading festival, having finally shed, what was, whether we like to admit it or not, a bad reputation.
Musically MCR come out all guns blazing. After a Better Living Industries countdown they explode with a wildly ragged and propulsive performance of “Na Na Na…”. They maintain the momentum by blowing through an equally chaotic reading of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”, and a deliciously buoyant “Planetary (GO!)”. A party atmosphere consumes a noticeably undersold (under-attended) Friday night crowd, but unfortunately the jubilant atmosphere cannot disguise the headliner’s shortcomings.
Gerard Way’s voice doesn’t carry, and while his lightweight vocals aren’t an issue during the band’s big sing-along anthems, the set’s mid section suffers. Leaning heavily on Danger Days… tracks “Destroya”, “Kids Of Yesterday” and “S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W” Way’s voice whimpers rather than booms, and the crowd simply isn’t there to fill the void in the way they were on Black Parade classics “Mama”, “Dead” and “Famous Last Words”.
My Chemical Romance prove weakest on “SING”, which despite the band’s best efforts, struggles to match up to the track’s grandiose ambitions, as “Vampire Money” wild swagger descends into a discordant mess. Nevertheless, what the singer lacks in vocal clarity, he makes up for with enthusiasm, becoming Reading’s official party coordinator leading the crowd in song during “Teenagers” and “Helena”, and dance during “Planetary (GO!)”.
Ultimately the divisive outfit saved the best till last, creating their own “Reading Moment” when Brian May, the legendary Queen guitarist, joined My Chemical Romance on stage for a rousing rendition of “We Will Rock You” and the mind-blowing roar-along set closer “Welcome To The Black Parade”. Ray Toro, MCR’s lead guitarist, was clearly having a whale of time, appearing genuinely moved to be playing along side his guitar hero and historic forefather. The band was left smiling from ear to ear, and so was the main stage crowd, a job thoroughly well done.
There are few tasks are more unenviable in the music industry than following Pulp. Jarvis Cocker and his Sheffield six piece really know how to put on a show, there’s no two ways about it. His on stage banter is second to none, his performance, impeccable, and the tracks, simply majestic. Ranging from huge anthems (“Common People”, “Disco 2000”) to salacious epics (“This Is Hardcore”, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E”) and kitchen sink heartbreak (“Something Changed”, “Babies”) Pulp simply have it all.
The Strokes on the other hand have nothing to offer. No flashy lights, no witty banter, they have a few big anthems but shudder at the mere thought of the words “epic” and “mammoth”. Instead The Strokes play a straight, understated, apathetic rock show…and nothing could be more thrilling.
Playing to a jam-packed field The Strokes open the show by doing what they do best, deflating expectations. “Is This It” drones and chugs it’s way into action, slyly shrugging it’s shoulders and rolling its eyes at the sense of occasion. The message is clear: headlining a historic festival? No big deal, this is a Strokes show, take it or leave it.
From here on in the statuesque New York’s set about stumbling and yawning their way through there biggest hits. “New York City Cops” unleashes hell, “Repitilia” has the crowd roaring their throats roar in unison, and “Under Cover Of Darkness” proves the perfect soundtrack for both regrettable drunken dance moves and throwing your arms around your closest friends.
While lead singer Julian Casblancas rides roughshod vocally hitting and missing notes and cues with predictable spontaneity, the band remain locked in. The drums are crisp and metronomic, positively demanding hand claps at every turn, while Albert Hammond Jnr. and Nick Valensi exchange tight winding solos that evoke wild sways and surges from the baying pit.
It becomes clear that The Strokes represent a perpetual paradox. A tightly controlled almost mechanical act born of fiercely minimalist precision and impeccable style that is simultaneously wild, chaotic, sloppy, distant and rowdy as all hell. Living between the two conflicting extremes The Strokes are simply too cool and apathetic to fully commit to either wild abandon or regimented professionalism.
At times during the set The Strokes appear too detached and robotic, especially when airless newer efforts “Life Is Simple In The Moonlight” and “You’re So Right” begin to dominate the setlist. Thankfully order is obliterated by the fantastically anti-climatic appearance of Jarvis Cocker, which sees the two front men staggering and stammering their way through The Cars’ brilliant 1978 hit “Just What I Needed”.
This bizarre injection of anarchy coincides with the news that the band has hit the festivals’ curfew. Not ones to be dissuaded, and urged on by crowd, The Strokes blow through their biggest anthems in ten of the most thrilling minutes in Reading Festival history.
“Juicebox”, “Last Nite”, “Hard To Explain” and, of course, “Take It Or Leave” force the crowd to expend every last once of exuberance, and before they can finish bellowing the track’s final refrain, The Strokes are gone. There is no encore. They don’t soak in the cheers. They shuffle off in the same unceremonious fashion with which they entered. Entirely underwhelming, fantastically ragged and bizarrely breathtaking: it’s The Strokes and that was it.
Warpaint take the NME Stage not by storm, but through seductive hypnosis. The band is in no hurry as they allow their gorgeous harmonies to migrate softly, slowing melding into one gloriously mellifluous whole. In the meantime the band’s bassist lays down the sickest grooves of the entire weekend slipping from rapid-fire blasts and rib rattling pulses to depressive deluges and these wonderfully malleable and strangely illusive oscillations. Each track floats into the next divinely, in masterfully crafted set highlight by the jaw dropping decision to drop directly the stark chants of “Composure” to the murkily entrancing “Undertow”.
Fucked Up have the unenviable task of playing to a dozy midday crowd still nursing last night’s hangover. They’re more than up to the task and circle pits ignite almost instantly. However, appearances can be misleading, Fucked Up are no mindless punks, and while enigmatic front man Pink Eyes co-ordinates the carnage with wild eyed primal zeal, the band subtly weave together a patchwork of shimmering, and oddly angular, textures.
The National struggle with a small disinterested crowd and a bout of nerves, but managed to regain their composure just in time to reach a foreboding and dislocating climax highlighted by spine tingling rendition of “Terrible Love”.
Madness are this year’s surprise package; drawing a mammoth crowd in the midday sun, the ska-legends get the crowd dancing, singing and moshing in unison. The crowd is perhaps a little too enthusiastic as the sight of 50 sweaty men moshing to “My Girl” is more than a little surreal, but then again, it is Madness.
Underwhelming, limp and lethargic, just some of the words used to describe Interpol’s horrific 2007 set; thankfully the gloomy New Yorkers brought their A-game tonight, blending chilling atmospherics with irrepressible bass lines and affecting hooks they restore credibility and win over skeptical crowd. Elbow on the other hand never disappoint and using all his common as muck everyman charms Guy Garvey leads the Sunday evening crowd in glorious song.
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