A sprig of roaring power emo with your grime, madam? Side of jazz soul? Dash of playlist indie? The modern Reading Festival is an eclectic beast. For the first 45 or so years since one of the oldest existing popular music festivals settled in Reading, through periods of prog, hard rock, metal and indie dominance, it acted as the place that anyone who wasn’t interested in pop music could make their summer second home. Since around 2018, though, it’s faced an identity crisis. What do you do when your core niche – rock music – no longer sells the tickets you have to shift?
Reading & Leeds’s answer has been an attempt to become all festivals to all people – well, all glitter-smothered students clothed largely in netting. The 2022 festival, as a result, resembles three different festivals for the price of one. Friday is akin to a condensed Wireless, headed by rap and grime but accepting all-comers. Enter Glass Animals, a big hit in America but an odd prospect live. As singer Dave Bayley jerks and grooves around the stage in shocking pink jacket, white vest and Charles Hawtrey glasses beneath visuals of Pac-Man games, he smacks of Timmy Mallett playing at pop stardom, and succeeding. Hence Glass Animals feel like a full-on pastiche of the modern trend for synthpop boybands that Spotify somehow classes as “indie rock”. It’s endearing watching them revel in the adulation, but they’re ultimately flavourless, the Bounty in Reading’s box of Celebrations.
Joy Crookes phones in a set of minimalist jazz soul but Little Simz shows her how it’s done, delivering moments of energised jazz pop and Afrobeat and visceral, confrontational grime with the punch and dynamic of rock music. Later, Megan Thee Stallion takes to the Main Stage West, posing a challenge to the reviewer attempting to keep their report even vaguely “family”. Bear with us; we’ll get through this.
Clearly an ardent champion of female sexual emancipation and body-positive messaging, Megan – clad in her trademark basque – delivers forthright, pounding R&B speedraps with the attitude of a hip-hop Aretha, in which she’s volubly proud of her bodily – and, in particular, vaginal – dimensions. Regularly inviting vigorous lovemaking, she’s forensic in outlining her bedroom requirements during “Freak Nasty”, while on “Plan B” we learn that her pants contain such fine dining they should boast their own Michelin star. “WAP”, with Cardi B’s parts on tape, is effectively an audiobook of YouPorn and this all comes accompanied with arguably the most inventive and extensive buttock work in Reading Festival history, including two heats of an onstage twerking contest. By the end, the big screen cameramen are fully qualified to perform endoscopies. Um, four stars?
Main Stage West headliner Dave provides a more sensitive climax. Before a giant geometric heart, which breaks open during his introspective confessional on the reasoning of the gangland knife carrier, “Heart Attack”, Brixton’s most considered grime star delivers moving street poetry on vital social issues with natural gymnastic flow and a sophisticated artistry. An evocative, cinematic “We’re All Alone” details the lives lost to breadline living as a marching band of drummers lines up across the stage. “Heart Attack” comes adorned with a backlit string section, plaintive Spanish guitar, and snippets of news reports on knife crime. When the pace lifts for “Wanna Know” and “System”, it’s to a light Latin groove, although “Thiago Silva” kicks in with the “Seven Nation Army” riff and peaks with a guest appearance from AJ Tracey. As Stormzy arrives for a frenetic “Clash” (“that Jeremy Corbyn one”), you sense that Dave is the much-loved gentle poet of grime but, in his own emotional way, he’s a showstopper.
Saturday is alt-rock day, representing what would once be a full weekend at Reading crushed into 12 hours. Early afternoon, both The Sherlocks and The Lathums provide ample evidence that Britain’s trade in anthemic canyon-indie northern “The” bands is perhaps the only one not yet decimated by Brexit. Enter Shikari drop a stirring version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” between barrages of melodic electro rap metal and a speech about Tory sewage policy that suffers so many microphone issues you start to suspect that Nadine Dorries is manning the sound desk. And Poppy personifies the modern Reading: a pig-tailed bubblegum pop singer who appears to have stumbled accidentally into a doomcore metal band and never left. Lacing her band’s demonic thrash with catchy pop melodies about ice cream, tea and submarines, she’s the aural equivalent of a magma doughnut.
By evening, Main Stage East becomes a rare oasis of prime contemporary indie rock. Fontaines DC are a storm of volcanic drone punk and monotone yabbering, their set topped with a 16-year-old fan being plucked from the crowd and utterly owning “Boys in the Better Land” on guitar. Wolf Alice – so far and away Britain’s best contemporary alt-rock band that they’re frankly embarrassing the rest of the genre – finally draw the headliner-sized crowd their music has long deserved, and set about bending and contorting all manner of genres (bubblegum metal, grunge pop, space funk, speed punk and more) until they fit on their creaking trophy shelf. Like a clip package of Reading’s best bits past, present and future, they’re proof that anything can still happen in alternative music.
And so, over on Main Stage West, it swiftly transpires. “Make some noise,” demands Bring Me the Horizon singer Oliver Sykes in his most demonic growl, “for Ed Sheeeraaaan.” And here the jocular R&B pop everyman comes, offering up his addiction ditty “Bad Habits” for sacrifice on the Sheffield hardcore rockers’ altar, as he did at the Brits in February. Sheeran comes off far better from the arrangement: revealing how any old mainstream tat can be repurposed as a bestial BMTH roar only really serves to expose the undercurrent of pop cheese simmering beneath a monstrous synth metal noise that, at its most intense, threatens to cave in your rib cage like Optimus Prime landing on a car roof.
The largest crowd in recent Reading memory gathers for the weekend’s big event: the UK return of Arctic Monkeys. Sauntering casually onstage to a laid-back intro tape, the band themselves don’t seem to share much of Reading’s excitable anticipation, but deliver on it in spades. A career overview of one of our least careerist major bands, the set swerves and spins through AM’s numerous left turns. “Do I Wanna Know?” prowls from the speakers like a stalking funk beast; “Brianstorm” is more of a tornado; “Snap Out of It” swings by like a Rat Pack Queens Of The Stone Age. “Crying Lightning” and “Pretty Visitors” represent their macabre haunted carnival moments. Meanwhile, “From the Ritz to the Rubble” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” revive the early era when they took Led Zeppelin riffs joyriding around Sheffield’s less salubrious streets.
Set standout “Cornerstone” sees Turner transformed into a blue-eyed Fifties crooner, hunting an ex around local pubs while guitarist Jamie Cook accompanies his fruitless efforts with a solo that sounds freshly fished from a blue bayou. The band largely settle, though, into the low-slung, surf-flecked funk groove that has dominated recent albums and, if the set’s one new song is anything to go by, their forthcoming LP The Car too. “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” resembles classic Motown soul fed through John Lennon’s bits of The White Album. For the time being at least, Arctic Monkeys will continue to look insouciant on a mirrorballed dancefloor.
Sunday is… well, a bit of a mess frankly. Following an emergency scheduling meeting presumably chaired by a magic eight ball, Charli XCX replaces Eurovision rockers Måneskin, knocking out EDM bangers dressed like an S&M gladiator. And, controversially, The 1975 step in to replace headliners Rage Against The Machine (who pulled out for health reasons) at a fortnight’s notice. “We heard you!” the announcement tweet read, as though the country’s politico punk metal fans had taken to the streets en masse to demand the immediate instigation of a millennial Go West in Rage’s place.
It’s a very telling booking. A bill that originally looked like the most balanced in the festival’s recent history, honouring Reading’s hardcore heritage while building a fresh format, now smacks of a festival happy to discard its rock roots in a blink. Having clearly not got the streaming era’s memo that everybody likes everything now, RATM’s fans demanded refunds in their thousands, and Reading is left with its sparsest crowds of the weekend and one of the most “roadshow” one-day line-ups any major festival in the world has dared to stage in 2022.
Main Stage West has drawn a particularly short straw. DMA’s deliver some thoroughly pleasant indie rock but should be forced by Trading Standards to change their name to Noel Gallagher’s Low Hanging Fruit. And as the atrocious Bastille – the quintessential boyband in cagoules – mash “Rhythm is a Dancer” into “Rhythm of the Night” and play their Lion King pastiche “Pompeii”, it feels like Reading is roasting itself over how cool it used to be.
Over on Main Stage East, glam punk cosplayers Pale Waves are little better – the look is sci-fi Siouxsie, the sound synthpop Alanis. It doesn’t take much for Killer Mike to rightfully declare Reading “Run The Jewels’ house”, as the acclaimed rap duo pinball firebrand raps between them.
Halsey – an arena pop act recently converted to industrial gore metal thanks to Nine Inch Nails producing her 2021 album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – headlines Main Stage West like rock festivals are just the next lucrative market on the spreadsheet to break. Like Pink left in the washing machine with a goth, she laces her bombastic pop hooks with an impressive tech metal bite, sings of vampiric bloodlusts, and fills the screens with torture porn images of bleeding lips and clamped eyeballs. But gradually the stadium synthpop of “Colors” and “Honey” peel away the conceit, and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” marks her out as something of a goth pop goal-hanger.
“We’re not Rage Against The Machine and we’re sorry about that,” says Matty Healy of The 1975 – bless – as they set out to placate a day that, according to reports, is starting to look a bit Woodstock ’99 out in the campsites. And to their credit, they make a fine fist of saving a seemingly unsavable day with what they insist is “officially The 1975 at their very best”.
There’s little sign of the pop subversives they once promised to be; this “greatest hits” overview is so steeped in the spangly, sax-laden Eighties synthpop of Huey Lewis and Mr Mister that it feels like spending 80 minutes in a Top Gun bar scene. Previews of two new tracks suggest, if anything, that they’re going even more Kenny Loggins on forthcoming fifth album Being Funny in a Foreign Language. But turned out in a Reservoir Dogs suit, perfecting a waggle-legged guitar technique and having shots delivered during synth solos, Healy has an easy onstage charisma and The 1975 have infectious choruses to spare. Plus, there is a sly charm to sing of taking “too much racket” on “Paris” while sounding like Wet Wet Wet.
The 1975 are obviously a tone-deaf and punter-mocking stand-in for RATM, but the set itself feels like a slight recovery for a festival that looked to have finally secured its fresh direction, then fumbled it away under pressure. To paraphrase Arctic Monkeys, it was close, but it could have been much closer.