On the testimony of roughly 70 per cent of Reading’s main stage acts, Richfield Avenue, Berkshire RG1 8EQ is an unrelenting factory of dreams. “We came here when he was 16” beams Baby Queen singer Arabella Latham, pointing at a still fresh-faced bandmate with a familiar story to impart. “I told him one day I’d be up on this stage and he’d be here with me.”
It’s a similar tale of Reading-reveller-turned-main-stage-god that’s already been told by Foals, Sam Fender and countless others this weekend. You can almost picture the entire Saturday bill here, 10 years or so ago, gazing up at Dillinger Escape Plan throwing their poo into the crowd and making plans to follow in their footsteps by writing gentle alt-soul songs, emulating a mumbling Shania Twain or getting their dad in U2 to make some calls.
Slick South African rocker Baby Queen captures the spirit of Readings past better than most. She wanders the Main Stage East with an open bottle of wine at 1pm, albeit as a prop for a song, “Buzzkill”, which warns of the dangers of drinking to forget, as told from the perspective of a perpetual party pooper. She also descends into frantic punk on her manic portrait of unrequited love, “Want Me”, as does self-confessed Deftones fan Arlo Parks on the West stage, thrashing at a guitar to rock up the end of a “dream come true” alt-soul set.
Which all rather shows up Holly Humberstone. In her goth boots and nose ring – and with a kilted guitarist on a podium ensuring that her big screen glory shots are framed with 50ft hairy knees – Humberstone looks like classic Reading’s idea of a picture-perfect prom queen. Yet she mutters her way through half an hour of understated drivetime pop that only musters a modicum of Fender-esque bluster in the final minutes. Breakup ballad “Antichrist” even inadvertently lets on that Satan has his infernal claws buried deep in commercial soul pop. “I’m having the time of my life,” she says, ahead of an underwhelming duet with Parks on a song about the joy of post-pandemic room service. Good for her.
If Inhaler’s Elijah Hewson ever caught a glimpse of Reading as a youth, it was most likely from a helicopter en route to St Tropez, or to check on the family’s offshore investments. Now no doubt Bono’s son is desperate to shed such cheap shots at his birth-right and forefront his music ((and let’s be real, if my offspring ever decided against my better advice to pursue a career in festival reviewing, I wouldn’t hesitate in wangling her a place on the honey train to Standon Calling).
But if Hewson’s to be the next Jeff Buckley or Wilson Pickett, Inhaler urgently need to develop some character of their own. By the third or fourth pleasantly rousing but interchangeable playlist indie anthem – “These Are The Days”, “Cheer Up Baby”, “Are You Absolutely Sure Your Da Didn’t Write This One?” – the suspicion grows that you could throw a stick over the fence into the backstage area of the Festival Republic tent and hit a dozen acts doing more interesting things with alternative music.
We test the theory. Wandering over to Festival Republic we catch Scowl, a hardcore speed grunge band fronted by a green haired cowgirl, and Zand, an electro-metal Lady Gaga from hell clad in half a plastic minidress. Our annual mid-Reading realisation dawns that, in a populist streaming hierarchy driven solely by numbers, the formulaic will forever drown out the unique. Up next on Main Stage West: alternative R&B trio Chase Atlantic. Ever get the feeling you’ve been underestimated?
The afternoon’s UK rap interlude is energising – Kilburn’s Knucks indulges some deep bass grime, while Shepherd’s Bush’s Central Cee and his sizable bike-riding crew rap nimbly about his sexual prowess, demanding to see our best backside abilities. But no forms are revolutionised here either. Reading begins once more to resemble a deep, dark, beauty-filtered mirror, reflecting a music culture sent into stasis by its taste-making means of consumption that relies on flogging “us” (i.e. the lowest common denominator masses) with more of what “we” already like.
Matty Healy of The 1975, though, presents a strong Millennial counter-argument. “The internet is working the way it should do,” he muses, noting the vast number of teenagers down the front still engaged with their self-titled debut album, 10 years after its release. “It feels as relevant as ever,” he says. Or is this, perhaps, a sign that music hasn’t moved on in a decade? Whatever, replacing Lewis Capaldi the year after they stepped in for Rage Against the Machine here, Reading & Leeds’ go-to subs have great fun winding back the clock to those innocent days before Healy’s £2m snog onstage in Malaysia, playing that first album in full beneath the cover’s iconic neon rectangle. “Perhaps we should have rehearsed,” Healy grins, swigging dry his own bottle of wine and reaching for a hip flask. “We’re f***ing winging this, lads”.
It sounds anything but cobbled. Recalling a younger, less fussy band revelling in funk-laced Eighties pop ranging from China Crisis to Luther Vandross, the play-through is a chance to honour a record that’s arguably the origin of what’s now known as alternative pop, Reading’s now dominant sound. It also boasts some of their finest tunes in the gleaming “Chocolate” and a super, soaraway “Sex”, but they throw in a handful of later crowd-pleasers like “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” at the end anyway. For a knockabout one-off, it’s an assured hit.
Closing the night on Main Stage East, The Killers appear to prove Healy’s point about the internet. Drawing a far larger crowd than Sam Fender yesterday, they – and the 20-year-old “Mr Brightside”, celebrating its 376th week on the UK singles chart and currently the highest-earning song on Spotify – have been adopted just as much this generation’s band (and song) as any previous. They celebrate by delivering one of the great Reading headline performances. And yes, I did see Nirvana in 1992.
“They used to call this Reading Rock,” announces singer Brandon Flowers, all Vegas blazer and showman beam. “Well we’re turning back the clock tonight.” And how. Galloping for glory through “My Own Soul’s Warning” and “When You Were Young”, they set out to steal the weekend, the last few years of the festival and, if you’re getting it in shape already, they’ll have next year too. The electro-noir “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”, gargantuan groove rocker “Shot at the Night” and roar-along alien abduction anthem “Spaceman” are absolute powerhouses, while “Somebody Told Me” – showing not a minute of its 20 years – still boasts the thumping intensity of a warzone rave.
Midway through, one moshpit dreamer gets fast-tracked to Reading superstardom. Invited onstage to drum on “For Reasons Unknown”, Ozzy from near Bath receives a hero’s reception, then resoundingly fails the audition when his wonky time-keeping slows the song to a comedic crawl. The band try and fail to gee him up to a tempo that’s “more cocaine, less marijuana”... no matter. By “Runaways”, The Killers are back to full bombastic pelt and slaying harder by the minute.
A monumental “All These Things That I’ve Done” gives way to a cocky disco strut through “The Man” (with fake dollar bills firing over the crowd) and a final, stampeding “Mr Brightside” – played in both Jacques Lu Cont remix and original fashion – that enraptures the Main Stage East of 2023 every bit as much as it did the John Peel Tent of 2004. Earlier, Flowers described the “boys” who wrote their early material as being “swept up in a whirlwind.” And Hurricane Brandon grows more devastating by the hour.