And so, on the final day of my time at Reading, I wake up and am thrust straight back into that heady world of mud, alcohol and loud music with my first gig attended with my 20-something compadres, Bryce and James. Feed The Rhino, without a doubt the shoutiest band I saw, was something of a rare experience across the weekend for me, since I had not seen Bryce or James at any of the sets I had been to across the weekend and thought perhaps they might take my patented ‘stand back and watch’ approach which has proved popular with more hardcore bands such as Rhino. As you might be able to imagine, I was wrong. One of my favourite moments of the weekend personally was when James and Bryce stood next to me, nodded to each other, and had each of them put an arm around my shoulders calmly. Without warning, they both lifted up a leg and used me, the unassuming ‘baby’ 16-year-old journalist who turned up to a festival on his own, as a battering ram. A battering ram, I might add, against a large number of dreadlocked, hardcore mosh veterans who looked like they might abide by the old Wookiee technique of ripping your arms out of your sockets. As for Feed The Rhino themselves? They were okay.
Now, I’m not one for bold statements (‘Revolver is the greatest album ever made by anyone ever’ I might allow) but I honestly think that second Sunday act Lonely The Brave performed a set that could be described as ‘history in the making’. I looked at the band and didn’t see a band that had an awesome stage presence that rivalled that of someone like Foo Fighters. I didn’t see a band who played their instruments at a proficiency level similar to that of, say, The National. I didn’t even see a band who had a weird, unexplainable appeal on a stage like, for example, Wolf Alice. I just heard their music being played live to what was a shockingly small audience and that alone was enough to tell me that one day, they would be headlining this joint. As I sang along to ‘Trick of the Light’, a song I didn’t even know I knew so well, I realised where this music was meant to be played. I felt as though I was watching them at almost a childlike stage, a stage where their live reputation isn’t fully fleshed out yet. But I’m certain it will be; if, in five years, there aren’t about a thousand people singing along to ‘Backroads’ during Lonely The Brave’s early evening set on the main stage, I’ll be surprised. Shocked even.
However, I haven’t had such a feeling of immense joy for a while like the one I had all the way through the stellar set delivered by Against Me!, my personal pick for the best punk band around at the moment. They rattled through I don’t know how many songs in however many minutes, including the wonderfully youthful ‘Teenage Antichrist’, crowd sing-along ‘True Trans Soul Rebel’ and, of course, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’, one of my favourite punk songs ever, and they did it with an exuberance and energy that every punk band needs, with an anarchic, anti-establishment attitude that every punk band needs and with the most amazing front woman that every punk band needs. Laura Jane Grace, on a personal note, is an absolute hero. On a journalistic note, she has one of the most unique voices in punk music, both in the physical and metaphorical sense: her actual voice is a sort of brilliant midway point between rich male tenor and angry female punktress. Her lyricism and standpoint is awe-inspiring, but at the same time raw and unhinged, shocking, a direct middle-finger to the poetic sophistication of the great modern lyricists. To be able to say that the band put a huge grin on my face before, during and after every single one of their songs is quite a life-affirming thing for me. Perhaps punk’s not dead after all.
On the other hand, The Gaslight Anthem might as well have been. God they were boring. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, I mean they were a time-filler on my Reading schedule, much like Spector before them but… just, God, they were boring. Brian Fallon was quite frankly a boring frontman and looking at the group I just couldn’t place them; one looked like a guy who would look at home in an Irish mob in The Departed, one looked like someone from Mini Mansions (more later), the drummer looked almost inexplicably like a cross between Tommy Chong in the Cheech and Chong days and John Bonham. The fact that such a strange band of misfits still didn’t interest me when I found none in the music tells me that I need not fret about misjudging the band that day.
I had made it a goal to visit the BBC Introducing Stage at least once that weekend, just so I could scope out a potential future talent (I know, I know, I’m 16 and not an A&R representative or anything) and whether I found a future star is unclear but whether I found a talent is unquestionable. Willie J Healey, a weird looking chap who looks a bit like Alex Turner if Turner had skipped the angst teenager phase and gone straight to James Dean impersonator, delivered an admirable and intriguing set that showed great promise, nimbly jumping between early-60s rock and roll and Danger Mouse-esque indie rock with a youthful energy and a slightly odd stage demeanour: at one point, he offered an audience member a donut, which was graciously accepted. Perhaps one to watch out for.
Mini Mansions’ set was electrifying, a glitter-y rush of fuzz and psych that needed almost no flash or glamour, save for the wonderful suits worn by the three California rockers. I mean, sure, the fact that they didn’t know precisely how much time they had left at the end was a marked change from much of the material we had seen on the other stages in the days (or even hours) previous but when Michael Shuman, during ‘Vertigo’, fills in with an uncanny Alex Turner impression for the singer himself (because why would Turner want to come to Reading for one guest spot?), I can’t help but find myself drawn in to a hidden cheekiness in the band’s material that didn’t truly come through until now. If I had a glass, I would politely raise it.
And here we come to possibly the best act I saw this weekend, certainly one of the best: Jamie XX. All weekend, save for Feed The Rhino’s set earlier that day, I had been alone in a sea of people, most of whom knew at least one other person there with them. At Jamie XX, it felt like the boundaries between the people I was in the tent with were taken away, like we were in a communal space, all brought together by Jamie himself. In Colour, a record which I am absolutely in love with by the way, is a record that, for all its ‘communal music for the individual’ labels that you could throw at it, was meant to be played in an environment like this: here the rich sub-frequencies of numbers like ‘Gosh’ and ‘Sleep Sound’ could physically shake your body and the hidden intricacies in Jamie’s work could be revealed. Aside from having the best light show of the weekend, rivalling even Metallica for that title, Jamie looks absolutely at home on that stage. Free from the monochrome shackles of The xx, he gets the chance to fill the tent with a wave of technicolor and show people how a dance record is supposed to be done. He even decided to treat the crowd to an uptempo version of his party-banger ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’, to which everyone is singing along. In doing so, he affirms his place as the contemporary dance saviour, a man who truly knows how to euthanise the crunching, tinnitus-inducing tripe of his dance contemporaries. And he did it all with a couple of old records and a drum pad. Good times indeed.
Now, I want to try something: remember the riff to ‘Seven Nation Army’? Right, now sing ‘Oh Kendrick Lamar’ to that riff. See? It works, right? Such a genius discovery was also made by the humongous crowd who flocked to see the rap master that evening, and rightly so: Lamar’s performance (and indeed that of his backing band) was nothing short of immaculate. Hearing a record so conflicted and deep as To Pimp A Butterfly, you might expect Lamar to be humble, to be sincere, to be almost solemn. And though his visual show does a good job of hammering home those themes of deprivation, of hopelessness in the face of the institution, he himself is having no funereal vibes tonight, no sir. He’s self-assured and enjoys every second of his set, giving an enlivened performance of a number of hits, ‘i’ and ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ included. And yet, just before Lamar hits us with ‘King Kunta’, given new life by the festival crowd, he asks us all to stop for a moment, and to think and consider where we are and to just feel the moment we are in. I would be as stunned as he was if I had seen the sea of lights that lit up before his eyes when he asked to see how many people were on that field watching him. In a set which showed him to be a tough, fun-loving, self-assured performer who had a whale of a time on that stage, and in which he performed songs from extremely powerful records, that moment of vulnerability was without a doubt the most powerful.
So here we are. The final curtain, the last call, the big push to the finish.
Having been distracted by some newfound friends before the start of the headline act, The Libertines of course, I found myself caught in an endearing love story of two people behind me who had met that night and, by the time The Libs began, had made out several times in front of us all. So with my newfound friends I enjoyed the last act of the weekend, and The Libs, aptly described by Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon as ‘one of the coolest bands on the planet’ were undoubtedly the best headline act of the weekend. However, for a band such as this, renowned for being controversial and outgoing, there was a surprisingly small amount said to the audience by way of playful banter; and yet, I get the feeling that The Libertines are one of just a small number of bands who don’t really need to. I looked up at them performing on the main stage and I saw four incredibly cool people, people who didn’t need to speak to us. Their following was so loyal and dedicated, and their story so inspiring (‘What Became of the Likely Lads’ might be one of the most inspirational song titles I’ve ever heard) that there was no need for audience gratification. There were flaws, as always: their set was too long, not helped by the fact that my back felt like someone had run a truck over it by the end of the set; at certain moments the band threatened to fall under the same ‘bunch of guys playing their instruments’ banner as Metallica. But ultimately they pulled it off; whether this means a new start or a proper ending is unclear at this time but they made a fan out of me that night.
When I look back on that weekend, I always feel surprised that I managed to see that many artists in such a small space of time, but more than that I miss the community. I miss the fact that if you fell in a moshpit, people would help you up. I miss the fact that you could treat going to see your favourite band as just another part of your day. I miss the fact that the pizza at the stalls was absolutely divine. I can live without the showers, for sure. I shudder even thinking about them but in the grand scheme of things, Reading, for a budding young journalist like me, was a good place to start. Perhaps the best thing was the fact that I still feel like there are places to go from here: all of my hopes and dreams for a festival weren’t fulfilled at Reading and that’s a good thing, or else how would I ever hope to escape comparison to it?
No, the best is yet to come, I’m sure. That doesn’t mean Reading was any less amazing.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, that is how you survive a festival on your own. I shan’t be doing it alone again.