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 the oldest existing popular music festival 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 to attempt to become all festivals to all people (well, all glitter-smothered students clothed largely in netting). The 2022 edition, as a result, resembles three different festivals for the price of one, and originally looked like R&L crystalising its regenerated identity after several confused years in the stylistic wilderness, when it pandered to populist algorithm favourites and viral Tik Tok sensations. A fresh, updated and contemporary model was set. Friday is akin to a condensed Wireless, headed by rap and grime; Saturday is alt-rock day; and Sunday was to provide a satisfying balance to the festival for the first time in years by nodding to R&L’s hardcore heritage. Until, that is, headliners Rage Against the Machine pulled out and were replaced by The 1975, which is a whole other kettle of s***show we’ll address on Day Three.
Reading 2022 won’t end hardcore, then, but it certainly starts hardcore. Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes open the festival with a brutal yet considerate bang – at one point the magnificently inked Carter orders all men out of the pit to make for a “happier” mosh environment; at another, he rocks so hard he splits his trousers. Similarly, the alternative acts dotted around the bills of the two main stages (alternating performances at either end of the site) all stoutly uphold bygone Reading tradition. All Time Low deliver some – to use the ultimate old-school Reading review phrase – blistering anthemic emo. Liverpool’s Circa Waves are the highest quality playlist indie rock, now incorporating touches of Talking Heads into tracks such as “Move to San Francisco” and some Afrobeat swing in “Jacqueline”, and instigating the 2022 World Girlfriend Lifting Championship for the very pertinent “T-Shirt Weather”. And Carter himself is spotted out in the crowd watching Glass Animals, getting – unless Reading fever is setting in already – a selfie with a masked, full-body leather gimp.
The phenomenally successful Glass Animals, a big hit in America and a major Friday draw, are 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 Mallet playing at pop stardom, and succeeding. Hence Glass Animals feel like a full-on pastiche of the Bastilleification of alternative aesthetic; the trend for bands that Spotify and Wikipedia somehow classes as “indie rock” but who play nothing but straight-up boyband synthpop. For a while it’s endearing watching them revel in the adulation, but ultimately they suffer from terminal shallowness. The Bounty in Reading’s box of Celebrations.
The rap, grime and soul pop acts of the day are a mixed bag. Joy Crookes seems a bit miffed that the audience isn’t giving her “some energy”, but since she’s phoning in her set of minimalist (read: half-arsed) jazz soul may we refer her to the eternal wisdom of New Radicals: you only get what you give. Little Simz shows her how it’s done, delivering visceral, confrontational grime with the punch and dynamic of rock music, and moments of energised jazz pop and Afrobeat that fully deserve the energy they get back.
Polo G arrives as another US rap sensation gone platinum by sticking closely to the trap-laced Migos formula. And then 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 rap 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: in “Freak Nasty” we’re given strict instruction on acceptable foreplay techniques, while during “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; by the end, the big screen cameramen are fully qualified to perform endoscopies. In her self-appointed role as “hot girl coach”, she even pulls fans from the crowd and judges two heats of a twerking contest, during which a participant who can only be described as the “sign my tits” girl gets her big moment. Um, four stars?
Main Stage West headliner Dave provides a more sensitive climax. You might argue that, despite numerous Top 10 hits, Brixton’s most considered grime act doesn’t yet have the crossover impact to headline R&L. His set, nudged over an hour by much talk of his journey from “almost failing music” at college to No 1 with 2018’s “Funky Friday” and this year’s “Starlight”, is certainly brief for a top-billing turn. But his impact is more emotional than bombastic. Before a giant geometric heart cage, which breaks open during his introspective confessional on the internal reasoning of the gangland knife carrier “Heart Attack”, he delivers moving street poetry on vital social issues with natural gymnastic flow and a sophisticated artistry.
“We’re All Alone” dissects breadline living and the lives lost to it to the sound of evocative cinematic rap beats and a marching band of drummers lined up across the front of 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.
When Dave is indulging stirring open-diary balladry on “Twenty to One” (introduced with the observation that “the people that are running this country are not good people”) or “Both Sides of a Smile” no-one at Reading is missing a Slash solo. Yet Dave gives us one, in a cloud of confetti, before bringing Stormzy onstage for a frenetic “Clash” (“that Jeremy Corbyn one”) and letting literal credits roll up the screens. You sense that Dave is the much-loved gentle poet of grime, but in his own emotional way, he’s a showstopper.