Radiohead, Deftones, The Joy Formidable, Pulled Apart By Horses, Milk White Teeth - Reading & Leeds reaction part one

James McDonald 07/09/2009

Reading Festival has become so regimented these days. The hordes of yellow jackets reinforced by sniffer dogs at the station, who pluck bemused travelers from the crowd and escort them, arm tightly gripped, to the make-shift Transport Police marquee outside the entrance. The vast police presence on-site, many of whom were on horseback in an apparent bid for intimidation (although, admittedly, they offered to most a decent photo opportunity); and chiefly, the riot squads drafted in to control the ensuing mayhem on the sunday night which has become synonymous with the festival itself. Sub-contracted security firms were hired in and given fluorescent reign and a free license to prowl the campsites, ears pricked and itching for the slightest sign of back-chat and non-compliance. Of course, the reasoning behind all of this is the growing problem of controlling such a vast and often hot-headed amount of revelers, all of whom are drunk, drugged and seemingly separate from the toils of day-to-day life. The price of cigarettes alone is enough to convince one that he is in another world. More than with any other festival I've found Reading has this sense of a separate entity; that different rules apply here and all are happy to exploit. A close friend overheard a conversation between two lads, whose solution to a lack of money was to 'pick-pockets some mugs.' Couple this mentality with the descent into a primal state on the Sunday evening - mass burnings of tents, beating of oil-drum bins, intoxication from chemical fumes, and you have your justification for such a hefty presence of enforcement. However, although I rarely find this imposing (after all, I have no particular need to), I also fail to find encouragement or need in such a heavy handed approach. It's a sad state of affairs which detracts from the festival as a whole.

With regard to the music on offer this year, the line-up is pretty standard. Indie heart-throbs from yesteryear such as the Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party waltz unquestioned into prestigious slots despite no notable releases of merit in 2009. The Lockup stage lists bands from our teens and the NME/Radio 1 tent, newly enforced with a dividing barrier in the crowd, boasts a truly interchangeable entourage. Lets be honest here, there are two aces amidst this rabble, albeit two which trump all others justly. Radiohead for me, as for many others, are a sole reason for attending, and are undisputed champions of the weekend with their compositions still resonating in our ears by monday morning/afternoon. What makes them so unique, so rare in their inspiration, is how effortlessly they harness their trade. We all know the set innately, however its delivery live is nothing short of spell-binding. They prowl onto the stage, take to their instruments and proceed into an opener of Creep, a decision which caught many in attendance off-guard. Yorke sports leathers and unkept hair, echoing Bends-era attire, whilst the band as a whole are reinforced by a worthy light show and disjointed camera angels, allaying the composites of the completed sound. It's impressive. Despite losing my virginity to their live set last year, you can't fully prepare yourself for the majesty of tonight. Countless anthems flow freely, with two or three new offerings (These Are My Twisted Words the only one I can name) standing just as proud. Every second speaks of a lifetime, and two hours later we're still wanting more. They lay the evening to rest in choruses of Everything in its Right Place, itself a mastered decision, and the weekend is over. I don't need to tell you how historic the event was, how the anticipation leading up to it was delivered upon ten-fold, and how the sense of unity between band and fan was unparalleled by all else that proceeded it this weekend. If you were there you know; if you weren't you'd still know. Awe inspiring.

The second prong to this years' 'draw-factor' are a band which excitably protrude from the NME line-up as '!!UN-ANNOUNCED!!'. They are a super group comprising of Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones of Led Zepplin fame, and they (Them Crooked Vultures) have the capacity spilling out from the sizable tent. I catch a glimpse from the tele-screens outside. Although it all sounds relatively tame, it's nice to see Grohl doing what he does best and beating the life out of the snare skin. This spectacle compensates for Homme Jr's lack of a cameo in Eagles of Death Metal earlier on the main stage, with his father instead roped in as the stooge on guitar. Their set highlights my second gripe with Reading as a festival, albeit one with which compromise surely has to be the answer. Given the staggering volume of fans wanting to see bands on the main stage, it has to be of a sizable stature, however it's remarkable how a sudden guest in the prevailing wind can totally wipe the sound clean from the speakers. Consequently songs are disjointed and occasionally flattened, all of which detracts from the means. As I say, we'll have to settle for compromise, but there are far too many people here, there and every-fucking-where. I feel like a hermit in a whore-house.

I allude the problem on the Friday for Deftones' set by immersing myself in the front five rows. The dust kicked up from the circle pits around basks everyone in a rusty glow but it scarcely matters. Chino delivers the screams of Hexogram hunched over the central crush in a cloud of dust, and I feel like a six-year-old who's seen snow for the first time. I ask why Carpenter insists on working his way through the Ibanez spectrum, with a differing vibrant colour for each track, and learn that with each release the band tune down half a step. Consequently I'll be looking forward to their taming of the brown note in 2020. Asking two hardened fans what they though of the set, their answer was spoken with an impeccable beauty; 'It should have been louder and it should have been longer.' I won't attempt to top that.
Other notable performances on the Friday came in the form of Alexisonfire, whose assault on the lock up stage created the kind of intimacy and transferrable energy their earlier slot on the main stage would never have catered for. Of the songs I heard earlier in the day, they gave the impression of another bloated modern American act, a product of the vice seemingly all American bands fall victim to in pushing their status as far as they or intervening labels can manage. I feel this almost always has an adverse effect on musical output (see also Green Day, Kings of Leon, Fall Out Boy), and was disheartened to see Alex slipping into a similar bracket. However their later set was far rawer, mostly probably because you could cross out a few 0's from the cost of the sound rig. There may be hope yet.

One band who hopefully won't be subject to such grotesque manifestation are Leeds' octet Milk White White Teeth, one of the few decent acts on BBC's introducing stage this weekend (visit predecessors Kinch's myspace for an idea of how far those 'in the know' missed the mark). They're a collection of sickeningly talented musicians in fields as varied as cornet and mandolin, melodica and synth, and they harness heavenly harmonies and tracks which offer uncharted adventures, rarely subsiding before the 7 minute mark. Pesky kids. Comparisons to the Arcade Fire would be lazy, however if they'd recorded Neon Bible in, say, Bermuda, you'd get an impression as to what to expect here. I'm instantly smitten with Jon's guitar and choral voice, which is interestingly an octave or so higher than female vocalist Michelle, and the dynamics and variation on stage are a literal cause for celebration. They beam with delight before, during, and after each delivery - visibly pleased to be playing; not necessarily because they're playing here, more that they're playing now. There's an unmittigating sense of rejoice in their music, definitely worth a listen. I just hope they're not religious types.

I chose to close off Friday night with Faith No More, who unsurprisingly nailed the solo in Easy, but more bemusingly persisted in dropping the Eastender's theme tune as a consistent buffer between tracks. Consequently I missed out on the chance to see how Simon Neil's doing these days, and Leon's apparent strop on the main stage. Shrug. We're stood in the crowd near a guy wearing a KOL t-shirt, so I take the opportunity to ask him why he's not at the main stage; 'because I'm watching Faith No More' he grins.

Saturday's a more grandiose affair, with Pulled Apart By Horses opening proceedings in a typically brutish tone. Marshaled by security, James Brown's usual speaker-stack clambering is restricted to impromptu press-ups, while Hudson bellows 'Ultimate power/Maximum noise' on a sea of arms. Easily one of the best live bands around this year, if you didn't already know, working on a worryingly dying ethic that 'this is our stage for the next 30 odd minutes, so fuck you.' Any external criticism surrounds a misconception that they're a one-trick-pony (puns always intended), crafting an epic riff and letting it drop, before building it up and unleashing it again twice as hard. However, they do it so well as to drown out any opposition. Equally 65daysofstatic, surprisingly appearing here for the first time, create an intensity live that really can't be matched on record. I was also grateful for the chance to see Rival Schools, namely 'that song' live, even if they did insist on covering 'Wonderwall' as confirmation of Oasis' demise. And a wholesome day was rounded off with equal measures of Thursday and The Prodigy; the former providing ample nostalgia toward my youth, the latter becoming a necessity as my pupils dilated.

A friend of mine was doing some viral promotion for the band The XX this weekend. He was given a stack of plain black t-shirts with giant white X's on them, and countless stickers and badges in the same vein. Consequently he blanketed the site, and by their set on the Sunday, you'd be hard pressed to travel more than 20 yards without seeing an X. The idea behind this concept is that a logo is easier to sell than a name, a tactic which proved extremely effective during the promotion of Kasabian's debut, and it really worked well here too. Apart from the odd 'straight-edge' remark, I overheard on numerous occasions excitable chatter about what it all means, who put them there, why do I exist etc etc. The culmination of the marketing circle is attaching a name to the logo, which the band did by sporting their own shirts on stage during their set. I was intrigued as to how many people would show up, and how the band themselves would fare (as I missed them earlier this summer), and also by arriving earlier I'd be guaranteed an enviable spot for The Joy Formidable. Win win win. However, on watching The XX live, I was painfully aware that I personally find the way this band are being marketed far more interesting than the musical product itself. Maybe I'm missing the point. Realistically, I think they just need to cheer up a little. I also think they're striving for comparisons with The Cure, which I can't grant because they're pretty far off the mark. I also think I'm slightly bitter because they're running root notes on a Fender Jazz through an Ampeg stack, much like keeping a Ford Mustang in the garage with the exception of the brief school run. Anyway, it didn't really do all too much for me, although I do still have a t-shirt...

Conversely, The Joy Formidable smashed the lowly benchmark with aplomb. They have no right to be this lively, having exhausted their 8 track over the summer stretch, but it's no-holds-barred and it's glitzy and it's a sight to behold and a pleasure to attend. As were Brand New, who are the exception to the bloated-American rule in truly progressing forward with each release. They've allowed their sound to grow remarkably over time, the high-point being The Devil And God... which is still a staggeringly impressive offering. Such progression culminates in a main stage slot today, and consequently all their previous work is undone by the lacklustre sound levels. Nay bother, they still manage to shine, and with respect I'll reserve judgment on the new material on offer until I hear it again through headphones. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs also struggle to fare well on the platform they've been given today, despite a panoply of bright costumes and enthusiastic bleats from miss O. On hearing It's Blitz earlier this year I wondered aloud how the tepid new material would stand up against the heavyweight grime of old. Unfortunately, although rather expectedly, it didn't. Similarly indie playboys Bloc Party aren't received nearly as warmly as on previous appearances (Kele makes the point that they've been invited back for the last 3 consecutive years, stating that 'You must like us', before having to repeat the line again to entice a response). By this point the day is petering somewhat, but given what was to come it was impossible to allow the excitement to dwindle.

And you know what comes next. So insert all superlatives here; tonight Radiohead are flawless and effortless, and justify the ticket price alone without a second thought. I didn't expect myself to be here this year, nor do I see myself attending any future year. It's not that I didn't enjoy myself; I was fortuned at all times by an affluence of great company, conversation and live music. It's more than there's so much more on offer these days within our nation's fine festival heritage, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that Reading/Leeds is becoming the victim of its own demise. Walking through the campsites early Monday morning we see a mighty oak tree ablaze, encouraged by tribal whooping and hollering. Fuck that shit.

Pic: Tom Martin