Reading Festival review, day two: Arctic Monkeys draw huge crowds for swaggering UK return

A cost-of-living crisis has hit Reading Festival. The age of the £15 burrito has dawned, and judging by the cost of the average greasy burger out in the main arena, you’d be within your rights to demand it served wrapped in gold leaf and salted down the forearm of a charlatan. The catering is priced, we’ll assume, to reflect the fact that Saturday represents what would once be a full weekend at Reading crushed into twelve hours. The traditional indie, metal and punk days piled on top of each other to be consumed in quick-fire bites.

On the morning of the festival, organisers Festival Republic are still cramming on suitable acts like expensive and unnecessary burger toppings. Hardcore screamers Wargasm turn up unexpectedly to open Main Stage East and Pendulum announce a secret set in the dance stage. Back on the advertised programme, in 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. The Lathums even drop a hefty dose of retro Americana, à la tonight’s headliners Arctic Monkeys, into their rousing indie gallops. AJ Tracey smashes through half an hour of no-frills grime hits, replacing Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow for whom appearing at the MTV Music Awards trumped some grotty gig in Berkshire. Dance with the commercialist devil, R&L, you’re gonna get gazumped.

Over on the more hardcore Main Stage West, Enter Shikari drop a stirring version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” between barrages of melodic electro 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. She laces the band’s demonic thrash with catchy pop melodies about ice cream, tea and submarines, cooking up the aural equivalent of a magma doughnut. Cue Reading’s first ever skip-pit.

Early evening, Main Stage East becomes a rare oasis of prime contemporary indie rock. Fontaine’s DC are a storm of volcanic drone punk and monotone yabbering, their set topped with a 16-year-old fan called Dexter being plucked from the crowd and utterly owning “Boys in the Better Land” on guitar. Much of singer Grian Chatten’s arch Dubliner poetry is lost in the squall, but that’s for headphone days. Tonight we rock.

As so far and away Britain’s best contemporary alt-rock band that they’re frankly embarrassing the rest of the genre, London’s Wolf Alice have long boasted music worthy of a headline set here. Today, for the first time, they boast the requisite crowd too. Main Stage East is swamped for their spectacular display of stylistic manipulation, bending and contorting all manner of genres until they fit on their creaking trophy shelf. Bubblegum metal (“Smile”), grunge pop (“You’re a Germ”), euphoric acid funk (“Delicious Things”), power pop (“Bros”), pastoral folk (“Safe From Heartbreak (If You Never Fall in Love)”) and screaming speed punk (“Play the Greatest Hits”) are all crafted quintessentially Wolf Alice. As singer Ellie Rowsell yowls on her knees through the mammoth gothic climax of “Moaning Lisa Smile”, pours a bottle of water over her head to cool down then launches straight into stratospheric ballad “The Last Man on Earth”, you can only bask in the astonishing imagination of it all. Like a clip package of Reading’s best bits past, present and future, they’re proof that anything can still happen in alternative music.

AJ Tracey (AP)
AJ Tracey (AP)

And so, 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 their monstrous synth metal noise.

They might modernise the tech metal aesthetic by striking dramatic poses with blood red flares for “Shadow Moses” and framing their set as a “post-human live experience” being conducted by a virtual operator named Eve, who appears on the screens sporadically to instigate circle pits and then scan their diagnostics. They certainly build a brutal sonic attack that threatens to cave in your rib cage like Optimus Prime landing on a car roof. But as “Parasite Eve” creeps in with a Kanye-like menace, Sykes’ earlier cry – enraged by a lacklustre moshpit – of “is this V Festival or Reading f***ing Festival?” seems increasingly pertinent.

Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell (AP)
Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell (AP)

Back at Main Stage East, the largest crowd in recent Reading memory gathers for the weekend’s big event; the UK return of the 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, complete with bizarre cries of “shiver me timbers!” from singer Alex Turner. “Teddy Picker”, “The View From The Afternoon”, “From the Ritz to the Rubble” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” 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 forthcoming LP The Car too, if the set’s one new song is anything to go by. “I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am” resembles classic Motown soul fed through John Lennon’s bits of The White Album. Combined with an encore where Seventies funk and power rock collide (“One Point Perspective”, “Arabella”, “R U Mine?”) we should take it as a sign that, for the time being at least, Arctic Monkeys will continue to look insouciant on a mirrorballed dancefloor.