Now that the dust has settled on Reading (and I mean that literally, I breathed in half the ground this year, I’m still recovering from a fever), it’s time to look back on the acts that reminded us how brilliant and how important it really is. It’s big enough to attract some wild names and it’s just wild enough to stop it being totally mainstream. Parents don’t take their kids to Reading, you know what I mean?
Nevertheless, upon initial glance at the line-up, it’s clear from the headliners alone that this year’s line-up was more impressive. Give me Foals and the Chilis over Mumford and Metallica anyday. But what about further down the line at the Main Stage? Who was propping up the NME tent? Who broke through in the Xtra stage? All your questions are answered and more in our run down of the 10 best sets we saw at Reading Festival 2016.
10. Slaves’ Secret Set (BBC Introducing)
Slaves owe a lot to BBC Introducing. Even when I first heard about them back in late 2013, I don’t think I would have been made aware of them if it hadn’t been for the BBC’s program. That made their return to the stage, packed as it was, quite special. They played much older tracks, and they clearly wanted to pay tribute to the people who made them famous, but the crowd got on board with it anyway, and it reminded me so much of why I loved them when I saw them last year, as well as revitalising my confidence that they were actually, you know, good, after the Main Stage set left me feeling hugely underwhelmed. But then Drenge did exactly the same last year and I’ve been to see them twice since, both times they smashed it. Go figure.
Anyway, the sweaty claustrophobia of being in that small space, combined with the love I’ve had for the band for a while now, gave me a small sense of pride at them, that they were so huge now that by even being on the stage they were being nostalgic for a time that feels like years ago, before anyone had even whispered the words ‘The Hunter…’
HIGHLIGHT: Their impassioned and still absolutely ace cover of ‘Shutdown’ by Skepta, that proved to me the importance of one genre to the other, particularly with the amount of people shouting the words back at them.
I thought I knew exactly what to expect when I saw Skindred’s gear being set up. Metal band, probably screamers. Simple stuff, really. And then on comes a hipster, a Billy Gibbons look-alike, a Chad Kreuger look-alike with a computer rig, another hipster and a much more metal Stevie Wonder. What the hell is going on?
Skindred know how to play an audience. They know what makes a festival crowd tick, particularly theirs. Which is why they went absolutely ape. Their way of pulling the crowd back and forth to their every whim was just brilliant, and they knew it as well. They were proud of it. They wore it like a badge on their black jackets. Perhaps most brilliantly they never seemed to take it too seriously. Despite how dark and occasionally quite terrifying their music is, they never took themselves too seriously, allowing for so much freedom from their frontman that they could basically do what they wanted. Absolutely riotous.
HIGHLIGHT: I could be sensible and say ‘Sound the Siren’. Or I could tell the truth and say that when they played something ‘more evil’ than Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne and Slipknot, ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber, I absolutely lost it.
8. Cage The Elephant
There’s a fizzy, manic energy to Cage, even when their songs are only at mid-tempo. As frontman Matt Shultz leapt with inimitable energy onto the stage for opener ‘In One Ear’, I knew that these guys had a buzz that nobody could truly replicate. The buzz surrounding them was big enough, with people left and right finding out about the band purely through their live shows. One of the group I went with even lamented at having to sit through Fall Out Boy and miss Cage (I didn’t see the headliners that day; I’m sure you’ll all understand).
Even after 10 years of being together, it’s quite astounding that the years haven’t in any way seemed to affect the group’s sense of fun and their need to have fun performing as well. Shultz spent half the set bounding along the barriers and running past audience members, so much so it’s a wonder he was even able to draw breath for the closing numbers. But then that’s part of the deal: Cage put their absolute all into their performances, and I was so glad to see them hit the big-time here.
HIGHLIGHT: As much as I adore ‘Come A Little Closer’, and was surprised when they played ‘Spiderhead’ to such an inviting crowd, nothing could beat the moment Shultz first entered the stage for ‘In One Ear’.
For brothers Lawrence, festival slots like this must seem like auto-pilot. Past the pleasantries that they inject into probably every set they’ve ever done, it’s easy to see through their saying that we were one of the best crowd’s they’d played, thanking us for making it such a good set. They’ve headlined festivals before, no biggie. But the vibe of their set, and the structure, reminds us of how brilliant so many of their songs still are today, particularly the Settle tracks 3 years later.
Perhaps the only complaint was the disappointing guest turn-out: not only did they just have one guest, but also that guest was not, as many thought, Aluna Francis during ‘White Noise’, despite her being at the festival that very day. Instead they brought out the admirable Brendan Reilly for a fun but forgettable performance on ‘Moving Mountains’, and that was it. Despite that, the set was a triumph, bringing the club to the mainstage and never allowing the group to compromise their roots in dance music. And, to top things off, I had the pleasure of meeting Game of Thrones’ Isaac Hempstead-Wright during the set and became acquaintances with him. Small world.
HIGHLIGHT: Not just because Wright was part of the party during this song, ‘You & Me’ still moves with the same bounce and groove that it first did when it was released in 2013.
It’s easy to look at Chvrches onstage and see a group who are shy, too self-aware or maybe even too self-serious. All those pretences were slowly washed away as the set went on and finally shattered when Martin Doherty took to the mic for ‘Under The Tide’ and said ‘RIP Harambe’. To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, Chvrches just wanna have fun.
Hearing their music on record, it’s easy to see why: their choruses are made for places like this. But their setup, on paper, feels so static and lacks dynamic of any sort. Then they start playing and it’s like they’re piloting a rocket-ship or preaching to the masses. Seeing Lauren Mayberry evolve from this sweet, awkward girl who stays put at the microphone into a rough-and-tumble, invigorating, point-the-finger kind of frontwoman, the kind that will look you right in the eye on the line ‘I will be a gun and it’s you I’m coming for’, is truly magical. Synthpop would normally never have a place here, and yet the edge that these guys bring to it makes it perfect. It’s not jaunty to the point where it’s bittersweet, and the brilliance of the chord they strike makes you wonder how we’ve gone this long without them on the Main Stage.
HIGHLIGHT: ‘Empty Threat’ was made for an audience like this, a huge, fast and zippy pop tune that has a banging chorus. Plus, I can’t give a highlight to Harambe ‘just because’, right?
5. The 1975
The 1975 headlining the NME tent was the perfect way to finish off the festival, even if I did feel half-dead during. The band brought all the fresh-faced sobriety and straight-up brilliant performances that you would expect from a pop group like them. They didn’t even try too hard: no over-the-top physicality’s, no surprise setlists, no particularly out-of-this-world visuals (although the visuals they had were great). Just a solid, no-nonsense brilliant set from the group.
Part of the success of that set in particular was Matt Healy. Healy has managed to evolve from the frontman everyone loved to hate to a frontman who most people don’t even know what to think of anymore. He’s hugely charismatic, annoyingly good at performing and understands when enough is enough. There was no point where I thought to myself ‘Woah, steady on there, Matt’. He let the music speak for itself, as did the other band members. It’s one of the few gigs I’ve been to where the performer can actually get away with that. The sound of the show was undeniably brilliant from a technical standpoint; the songs they chose were immaculate cuts; they are fabulous musicians. They wanted people to feel as though they were at a 1975 show, just like anybody else who’s ever seen them live, and we did.
HIGHLIGHT: Strangely, the sobering rawness of ‘Somebody Else’ struck the biggest chord with me. It’s not the kind of song that should work in a setting as vibrant as this, but it acted almost as a partial comedown for everyone who had just begun to recover from the best weekend of their lives. Laid bare with the performances, it’s easy to feel the emotion that went into that song when heard live.
4. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizzard
Feeling a group’s energy channelled straight into your body is rare nowadays. And yet, the electrifying, angular performance from King Gizzard was show-stopping. First of all, it’s almost insane to see nine people onstage at once, but it’s also quite invigorating. King Gizzard are clearly about chaos: from the moment they step onstage, chaos is the order of the day. They don’t care how they get you moving, they just want to do it. In fact, this is one of the few live shows I could only describe as ‘you really have to see it’, because it’s so crazy and so exciting to see it unfold that you can only really understand why the set is so high if you see it for yourself.
But, of course, it’s my job to write about it so I’ll try: Michael Cavanaugh’s cascading, rip-roaring drums and Lucas Skinner’s fat bass guitar underpin the madness like a freight train plowing through wreckage. The supporting members all gel together beautifully well, and it’s all to service frontman Ambrose Kenny Smith, the mental mind behind the madness. His appearance onstage is almost that of a direct line to the band’s collective consciousness. It’s freaky how he does it, really: that he makes us feel the same thing we can only assume the band feel everytime they play their music. The fact that they do it without any kind of technical wizardry almost at all is proof of how indescribable their live show is. A must-see.
HIGHLIGHT: Honestly, the whole thing felt like one big trip.
3. Boy Better Know
The most popular rap crew possibly in the world took to the Main Stage in the early evening on Friday and good Lord, what followed was carnage. As each flavoursome new member of the group took to the stage to perform on their own, as a duo or as a group, their name flashed behind them in the font of the British numberplate like amateur propaganda posters, a salute to the scrappy urbanised anarchy that they were born out of. Not a single beat was missed, and not a moment was wasted.
It’s only here that we can truly see how far the influence of BBK has stretched in the music landscape: so many of the tracks blasted out by MCs at the top of their game were cried back by hordes of impassioned fans. Whether it be on ‘Shutdown’, ‘Man’, ‘Man Don’t Care’, ‘Feed ‘Em To The Lions’, you name it, the crowd were there for the ride, every second of it. And the energy of the show, my God, the energy. Watching the group performing, whether together or alone, is like watching magic happen, like history being made. In our case, we actually saw that: grime is creating a storm in music, and by the looks of that set, we were at the eye of it.
HIGHLIGHT: It’s so difficult to choose, but ‘Too Many Man’ was probably the most riotous.
It’s a long hard road to the top, and people were sceptical as to whether this would work. Headliners? Foals? Surely not! Well, consider yourself schooled, because Foals headline set was nothing short of triumphant. Opening with pummelling What Went Down cut ‘Snake Oil’, the group’s penchant for never insulting their past whilst also keeping their eye on the future is at its peak. The group powered through a set that takes us on a whistle-stop tour of what makes the band so great: the performances, the dynamics, the versatility.
And it’s not as though they outstayed their welcome, like a certain band of Chilis, instead economising their set to just thirteen songs, three of which were part of an encore, and then trying delve into the deepest corners of some of those tracks, like the extended, dizzying finale of ‘Two Steps Twice’ or the three-time-climax of ‘Inhaler’. But they didn’t neglect the burn-out moments, the ‘Spanish Sahara’s, the ‘Late Night’s. In the end, nobody knows the Foals catalogue better than Foals, and yet they seem to have more control over their own songs and their own shows than most other bands manage to have over their own. Foals get extra marks for making it look so damned easy, like headlining the Main Stage is exactly what they expected to be doing. It’s like they never even needed to prove themselves in the first place.
HIGHLIGHT: The entire encore was a sight to behold, the one-two-three punch of ‘What Went Down’, classic revival ‘Cassius’ and primal jam ‘Two Steps Twice’.
Yeah, I cheated. I don’t care. It’s my list. I saw a lot of people at this festival, and I’ve seen a lot of live performances in my time. But these two were both so life-changing, so awe-inspiring, so perfect in every way, both so deserving of the title of the best live shows I’ve ever been to, that they felt inextricably linked the moment the second of the two finished. At every moment of both these shows I knew I was witnessing something historic.
Anderson.Paak and the Free Nationals:
The Paak set was just one of those shows where all the tiny aspects of the gig just click together perfectly: the artist, the backing band, the sound, the lights, the audience, the performances, the setlist, it was perfect. Paak said several times throughout that the group only had 30 minutes to do what they needed to do. It’s quite clear, looking back, what it was he felt they needed to do: they needed to deliver a set that the people stood at the Xtra stage would remember. He needed to make an impression and I’ll be damned if he didn’t.
It’s hard to define a vibe in a place. But this set had one. Everyone felt homogenous. The tent was so small and so sparsely packed that you had to want to be there. Nobody really wonders into the Xtra tent, not this early in the evening. The people there all knew what was up and I think Paak did as well. Everybody in the tent felt alive the moment Paak’s invigorating presence made itself known in opener ‘Bubblin’ and everybody felt satisfied, more fully than maybe ever before, after ‘Lite Weight’ was finished. Paak brought something different to that tent, and I’m proud to say I was there that day to see him absolutely smash it. I’m hoping that statement carries even more weight to it for Paak in the future.
HIGHLIGHT: The moment ‘Lite Weight’ began, nobody wanted it to end, because we knew then the set would have to end. Nobody wanted that.
Look, I knew they would be good, but this? This was on the same level as some sort of spiritual experience. For a start, this is a band whose bravery in their music has been proved countless times and, by bringing their specific brand of noise to the NME stage, of all places, they basically proved it for the billionth time over. But then to add to that the fact that lead singer Jehnny Beth, a mesmerising presence, musical or not, spent at least half of the set in the crowd, and you have something that feels like something so much more than just music. It’s a reminder of what music does to people.
At one point during ‘When In Love’, when Beth was right in front of me, she looked me right in the eye and sang straight to my face, as if she was trying to read my thoughts, absorb my soul, anything. In that moment, I felt the urge to let the music take me and it did. I danced and moved like a mad thing, like many others around me were. In that moment, I could feel the invigoration of what it means to listen to music. In that moment, I was reminded of what it was like to experience that album you love for the first time, to be introduced to that band again, to see the best show you’ve ever seen in your life. Music has the power to make you feel things you didn’t know anything could make you feel, and the quasi-mystical experience of actually seeing Beth with my own two eyes, let alone make human contact with her (she crowd-surfed around the damn crowd to the other side) is one of those moments that will stay etched in my mind as long as I do this job.
HIGHLIGHT: Is there any doubt what the highlight of this set was?
Both these sets reminded me why I do this job, why I love it and why other people love music. It reminded me that perfect live shows do exist in the last place you expect to look. It’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about being there, in the moment. It’s about feeling the music and being the music just in that point in time. Yeah, we love to talk about it afterwards, and there are some shows that you want to end just so you can talk about how good it was afterwards (Chilis again, sorry guys). But these shows reminded me that the best ones are the ones that take you out of the past or the future and drop you right into what’s happening now. These performances were pretty much perfect, and I will probably type those words maybe once, twice every few years, but twice in one weekend? That’s worth the price of admission.