Lacking the overexposed hipster elitism of Glastonbury, and more convenient than a cross-country drive to T in the Park, Reading Festival has endured for decades. Despite generations claiming that it’s not as good as it was in “the good old days”, now that Nirvana, Neil Young and Teenage Fanclub have been superseded by DJs, grime rappers and waistcoated types with banjos, never has Reading’s progress and diversity been more evident than in the current year.
Reading 2016 attracted controversy for having dual headliners on Friday and Sunday, with some claiming it was down to a lack of upcoming talent “big” enough to take on the headline slot alone. It’s the first time Reading tried the co-headline approach since Paramore played before Queens of The Stone Age in 2014, and despite both bands putting up a valiant effort, opinion remains divided. With this in mind, Saturday may well have been the standout day for the Berkshire bonanza.
Some 90,000 punters can be expected each day at Reading, and those who weren’t perusing the used-clothing stalls or waiting in line for beer at 1pm could be found in the dustbowl at the Main Stage. Saturday’s lineup may have been as divisive as everything else to be found on the bill, but local indie peddlers Sundara Karma, veteran guitar-slingers Clutch and 2000s nu-metal veterans Skindred, who put in an electrifying set, all did a fine job of heating up a mild day. Australian metal group Parkway Drive, who took to the stage at 3, played a predictably raucous set, though old-school fans turned off by their new, less aggressive edge may have steered clear, along with those who weren’t prepared to try and decipher vocal screams from across the field.
4.10 was the perfect time for Slaves, upstart punk duo who’ve taken the music press by storm, as drummer-singer Isaac Holman paired with guitarist-bassist Laurie Vincent to ensure every late-teen in the crowd got a good excuse to mosh together for about ten seconds at a time. Those unimpressed by head tattoos and three-note riffs may have given the act a wide berth, but for a band who last year played the BBC Radio 1 Stage and this year find themselves on the Main Stage, the energy of a band making a big step up was palpable.
As if “new beginnings” was a theme, the next act on the Main Stage could so easily not have been. California-based rock-n-roll (in every sense of the word) group Eagles of Death Metal (EODM) became the world’s focus last year amidst a horrific terrorist attack in Paris which left scores of their fans killed at a show in Paris. In Eagles’ position, many bands would have understandably been tempted to hang up the trademark pink sunglasses, but it’s clear that frontman Jesse Hughes and co are out in force to play like it could be their last show. A string of hits new and old, “Complexity”, “I Only Want You” and “I Want You So Hard (Boy’s Bad News)” are interspersed with the liveliest stage banter seen since Chuck Berry played Toronto. Having donned a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt and a gold cape, and given his stage-side father a moment in the spotlight, Hughes introduced a tune off their 2015 album Zipper Down by declaring “I don’t love you some of the time, I don’t love you part of the time – I love you all the time!” Judging from the crowd’s reaction, it was clear that Reading loves them right back.
“A string of hits new and old … are interspersed with the liveliest stage banter seen since Chuck Berry played Toronto”
Manchester indie-rock five-piece Courteeners followed at 6.30, playing a string of contemporary classics to a field obscured by multi-coloured flares, while Imagine Dragons proved that no arena is too big for a lengthy guitar solo (courtesy of lead axeman Wayne Sermon) or a cover of Blur’s “Song 2” which did well to keep the momentum going into the evening. The act most had come to see, evidenced by the large number of dedicated t-shirts being worn around the field, was veteran funk-rock globe-trotters the Red Hot Chili Peppers, keen to show converted fans and sceptics alike from 9.30 onwards that new material from 2016 album The Getaway could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with platinum hits from their previous few albums.
The converted disciples among the audience will likely have been won over from the word go, with drummer extraordinaire Chad Smith, bass prodigy Flea and relative newcomer Josh Klinghoffer on guitar kicking off with “Can’t Stop” after an introductory jam, and while tried-and-tested numbers from “Under the Bridge” and “By the Way” to “Scar Tissue” all go down a treat, showcasing 53-year-old Anthony Kiedis’ impressive vocalability, it’s easy to hear some in the crowd are less impressed by recent singles “Dark Necessities” and “Go Robot”, not to mention the lengthy bass solos and songs from their previous album I’m With You. Those who forwent Two Door Cinema Club, or the equally-tempting prospect of an evening with London grime superstar Stormzy, may have failed to gel with a band still, in many eyes, reeling from the loss of guitar-wielding former member John Frusciante who quit the band in 2009 – and whose backing vocal parts are, at times, repeated by the audience louder than the lead vocal.
In spite of the dual-headliner decision and those who object to Reading diversifying into more than just traditional rock, the fact remains that there truly is something for everyone, and with so much new talent being exposed, from the Main Stage to BBC Introducing (where the aforementioned Slaves played an impromptu “secret set” not long after their initial appearance), it’s exciting to think of coming years’ headliners waiting in the wings. For lovers of music, Reading remains the perfect getaway.
Josh Will Eden