A variety pack of premier festival attractions…

As one of the country’s longest-standing festivals, it is little surprise that many people look towards the annual Reading Festival – nowadays joined by its Leeds counterpart – with fond eyes.

Events such as Kurt Cobain being rolled onto the stage in a wheelchair has seen this staple of the festival circuit firmly etched as a key player in rock ‘n’ roll folklore. But in 2014, and with a host of other festivals viciously fighting over obtaining the key acts from the booking merry go round, Reading and many others need to diversify – away from rock roots, to both maintain relevance and attract a constant stream of new festival-goers.

This year’s Reading offered a sonic pick ‘n’ mix designed to tickle the taste buds and give a high level of choice across the its eight stages. The range of attractions spanned from the main stage openers Hacktivist, appealing to those wishing to dish out devil-horned hand gestures, to comedy from such performers as Simon Amstell and Bill Bailey.   

The early morning of the opening day saw the worldwide festival debut of former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way as a solo artist. Despondent in a bright blue suit, he delivers a series of clichéd moves soundtracked by a sea of radio-friendly and chorus-heavy light rock.  

As well as world exclusives, there were also little surprises hidden away amongst the schedule. A surprise set by Jamie T in the Festival Republic tent sees a stampede of bodies rush to see the lovable baseball-cap wearing, cockney rhyming merchant lay down a quick-witted set of high-energy stompers.

In the lead up to this year’s Reading, it received criticism for the low number of female performers on the line-up. But day one witnesses both the delicately crafted, hypnotic tones of Warpaint and Blood Red Shoes’ main stage appearance. The latter is a fierce and full-on set that spans the breadth of the band’s four albums, Laura-Mary Carter delivering crunched-out riffs aplenty. Friday night co-headliners Paramore may have been hindered by technical problems, but the first female-fronted Reading headliner in 30 years positively glow through the tribulations, putting a great helping of fun back into proceedings.

Friday also sees Metronomy deliver one of the standout sets of the festival. Musically tight and visually dapper, their laidback pop comes replete with ample charm, Joseph Mount and company navigating their way through a vast back catalogue to pull out underrated modern-day classics as ‘The Bay’ and ‘Heartbreaker’. Mount later offers a firm reminder that it has taken 10 years for them to reach this point – a valuable lesson for today’s emerging acts to remember.

Saturday sees rising rock duo Royal Blood realise their potential in some style. Their bass-heavy groves, expertly showcased on ‘Little Monster’ and ‘Come On Over’, provide ample evidence that while some people decry that the beating heart of rock is slowly fading, there is enough love to kick it back to strength.

Further proof is served by The Hives a little later over on the main stage. As famous for their monochrome aesthetic as they are for songs such as ‘Walk Idiot Walk’ and ‘Tick Tick Boom’, the Scandinavian garage-rockers turn out a tight set of three-minute bursts of frantic energy, amplified further by frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s natural showmanship, loaded with charisma and a slight hint of arrogance.   

If The Hives offer a fairly traditional rock ‘n’ roll show, one of the strangest performances of the weekend occurs not long after they’ve calmed the high-kicks. South African rap crew Die Antwoord are far from your average festival act. Arriving on stage to a tent spilling out with people eager to experience their freaky blend of wicked rhymes and rave beats, it’s a visually arresting performance, dancers flanking MCs Yolandi and Ninja for such songs as ‘Enter The Ninja’ and ‘I Fink U Freeky’. 

For those seeking a cosmic comedown, the electronic burblings of Scottish synth trio CHVRCHES are just what’s required. ‘Recover’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ are contemporary anthems tracing over ’80s motifs, uplifting pop pained with downbeat vocals which offer a return to reality.

Saturday night headliners Arctic Monkeys comfortably draw the largest crowd of the weekend for the conclusion of their ‘AM’ world tour, and from the opening riff of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ the four have the audience firmly in their grip.  

Alex Turner may have become known for sporting an immaculate quiff, but tonight he also shows that he’s a way with a perfect riff. Debut album staples ‘Dancing Shoes’ and ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ are greeted with warmth, showing that while the band has gradually moved away from its Yorkshire roots, those ties remain. It’s a slick, professional showing from a band that’s long been comfortable at this level, and as the guys leave after encore closer ‘R U Mine?’, many thousands here are already eager for their return to such vast stages. The only quibble: the volume could have been cranked up that little bit louder.

That Sunday would be welcomed with many a pained expression on the faces of two-days-in punters is no surprise. But the relaxed sounds offered by many of the day’s musicians helps sore heads disappear. Jungle’s soulful pop is an early triumph, their blend a fascinating one touching on influences past and successes sure to come in the future.

And soul seems to be the order of the day, with a heap of appearing acts feeling it flowing through their creative veins. There’s the Radio 1-friendly Clean Bandit one minute, hot newcomer Kwabs the next, who includes an Arctic Monkeys cover in his 30-minute set.   

The 1Xtra tent plays host to Chi-Town resident and Chance The Rapper collaborator Vic Mensa, who bounds about the stage, alive with energy, airing cuts bubbling with with pop nous – including the recent banger ‘Down On My Luck’. The day also sees performances from such hip-hop luminaries as Danny Brown and Joey Bada$$.

The 1975 return for a second year running to fill the slot beneath second stage headliners Disclosure, performance highs including the funk-flecked grooves of ‘Chocolate’ and the pulsating bass of ‘The City’. Frontman Matt Healy leads the quartet in typical rock-star fashion through a hit-packed set that suggests that, one day, they might be back here as headliners.

Reading can, like its final-night headliners Blink-182, seem like a juvenile weekender – an impression hardly helped by its plethora of drunk teens and crassly sloganed tents (though, the same might be said of many a modern festival). A kind of physical manifesting of Blink’s thematic tendencies, it’s a place of potty-mouthed humour, of teenage tantrums let loose in the wild. But, equally, organisers know their market, and while flawed it’s still an event that can offer several musical attractions simultaneously, with variety enough to satisfy a range of tastes. And if there’s really nothing here for you? Maybe festivals just aren’t your thing.

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Words: Nathan Westley
Photos: Andy Sturmey

Check out our massive photo gallery from Leeds Festival 2014.

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