Thursday, 1 September 2011

Reading Festival 2011 - Report from the front line and playlist

So I'm back. I've bought back a terrible cold with me, and cold sores on both lips, but I'm still in one piece. So I'm going to talk about three bands from each day that I saw entire sets from, and how they defined the festival experience for me.
(All photos taken from the Reading + Leeds Festivals section of the BBC website, more of which can be found here.)

The Antlers
Festival Republic Stage, 17:25
Foster the People played the Festival Republic stage just before the Antlers, the second-smallest stage of the arena, and the influx of people wanting to experience their particular brand of "pumped up kicks" was so great we were forced to turn back. I managed to sneak back here later however, and happily the Antlers' set was one of the most intimate I had at the festival, with an audience of just a few hundred. Opener "Corsicana" unfortunately lost some of its studio sheen, but the closing three songs "I Don't Want Love", "Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out" and "Putting the Dog to Sleep" more than made up the distance. I also saw the start of the new Mercury Music Prize favourite Anna Calvi's set just before I had to leave too. Needless to say, I wish I could have stayed.
Dance Stage, 21:10
Hot new UK producer and masked marvel SBTRKT may have only released his debut album a couple of months ago, but festival organisers made the wise decision to give him second-headline slot on the one-day-only Dance Stage. He began with what can only be described as his remix of Radiohead's "Lotus Flower", that I reported a while ago. Now, I haven't been able to find supporting evidence for this anywhere, so you're going to have to take my word that he debuted it here and I will verify it assuming it sees the light of day soon. He also spun favourites from the likes of Jacques Greene and Hudson Mohawke, all in his signature "post-dubstep" style. The set finished with his signature hit "Wildfire", which surprisingly turned into a modest group sing-a-long, ending on a high. James Lavelle's mysterious UNKLE Sounds project was to follow, however despite being intrigued I left to go and see...
The Horrors
Festival Republic Stage, 22:30
A late-night show of Horrors indeed. Faris Badwan's vocals ached over the hour-or-so set that took cues from all three of the Horrors' albums. Though putting these songs side-by-side may not have quite done the set justice in terms of consistency and continuity, it was nice to hear a retrospect of the band's progress up to this point. Although I can see myself in danger of being biased I do think that the tracks from their most recent  album Skying translated the best into the small Festival Republic tent, the loud shoegazey guitarwork of Joshua Hayward resonated aggressively through "Endless Blue", adventurously through "I Can See Through You", and wistfully through "Still Life". A great way to see one of the most celebrated bands in the UK, and to end the first night of music Reading had to offer.

The National
Main Stage, 18:45
Working our way towards one of the best vantage points of the Main Stage, we started the magnificent Saturday three-band run with the National. Their particularly broody and angsty performance was the necessary polar opposite to the crowd-pleasers earlier in the day like Seasick Steve and Madness. Their set was nicely balanced between their huger cathartic ballads ("Terrible Love", "Bloodbuzz Ohio") and softer, more horn-led tracks ("England", "Fake Empire"), and represented their previous two albums, Boxer and High Violet, especially well. Although not as well-known as the Strokes, the National have been working together for just as long, and their expertise showed as the sun set over the festival arena, ushering in the night of fine indie-based rock music to come.

Main Stage, 20:15
"Are you ready?" read the backdrop screen, and again for what seemed like forever, until finally it read "Do you remember the first time?". Pulp had finally returned, and Jarvis Cocker made it clear to everyone that the gap between their first appearance at the festival in 1994 and 2011 would be bridged. Virtually every song from Different Class was played; but of course "Common People" was left for the grand finale. One of Britain's all-time great live bands were bound to attract the highest of expectations, but Pulp managed to easily meet and exceed what anyone could have expected, just as electrifying and more importantly relevant as the titular "first time". If you've never seen live footage of them before, I implore you to click here.

The Strokes
Main Stage, 22:15
If it wasn't clear before Pulp's set that the Strokes would have the most pressure to deliver their audience into the night, it certainly was afterwards. Julian Casablancas and co. threw as many great songs from their catalogue as quickly as possible to create a turbocharged run that ended with the heartfelt "Someday". Ironically it was down to "the Jarv" to pick the pace back up again, the Pulp frontman joining the stage to perform the Cars' classic "Just What I Needed". It was worth waiting for the encore; Is This It's "Hard to Explain" and "Take it or Leave it" ending just as the band had started, proving worthy headliners and reminding us which side of the Atlantic rock and roll really comes from.

Friendly Fires
Main Stage, 17:20
The image of the bird of paradise which features on the cover of Friendly Fires' recent sophmore LP Pala seemed to be the perfect indicator of what was to come during the band's Main Stage stint. They played as passionately as singer Ed Macfarlane danced, and the audience participation was so much that almost everyone got onto their feet. The crowd size also grew significantly as the set went on. "Hawaiian Air" introduced Hawaiian dancers, and "Kiss of Life" crescendoed into a rapturous grand finale, Macfarlane reminding everyone "This is your last chance to dance". Colourful, inspiring and energetic, Friendly Fires certainly delivered, no less weary after their huge UK festival tour they've already journeyed this summer. This is why they're favourites.

Death From Above 1979
NME/Radio 1 Stage, 19:00
I had to be sure that my most anticipated band of the festival, the one I had been waiting all weekend for, would not disappoint, and they certainly didn't. Death From Above 1979 played an hour-long set featuring every song from their sole album and more, and from the extended "Turn it Out" intro Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler didn't let up once, thrashing monstrously in the same spot I'd seen the equally as energetic Odd Future and Fucked Up perform earlier. One of the highlights of the whole festival was when the newly beach-blonde Grainger jumped up from his drum kit during "Romantic Rights" and grabbed the microphone, and sang screechier then I'd ever heard him before, before returning to send the sucker home. You get the feeling these guys have four balls each.

The Streets
NME/Radio 1 Stage, 20:20
In a choice between Elbow and the Streets, Mike Skinner's long-running garage pop project came out on top. For me they turned out to be the best surprise of the festival. Skinner and the fans became one as they hung onto his every word, as though wishing him well in his new endeavours beyond the soon-to-be terminated Streets. Key singles "Blinded by the Lights", "Dry Your Eyes" and "Going Through Hell" were met with the most joyous singing, and it was hard not to get emotional each time Skinner announced "I die here tonight". Little did I know this was to be the Streets final performance, and I was so enthralled that the next day after returning home I went out and got a copy of Original Pirate Material on CD to find out exactly what I had missed out on. Best of luck in the future, Mike.

Other artists I enjoyed full or partial sets of, but are not mentioned here included Mount Kimbie, Kirk Spencer, Simian Mobile Disco, Seasick Steve, OFWGKTA, Fucked Up, Frank Turner and Muse.

If I were to make a playlist of the festival, it would look something like:

Moumt Kimbie - "Before I Move Off"
The Antlers - "I Don't Want Love"
SBTRKT ft. Little Dragon and Drake - "Wildfire RMX"
The Horrors - "Endless Blue"
Seasick Steve ft. John Paul Jones - "Walkin Man"
Mellowhype - "64"
The National - "Terrible Love"
Pulp - "Do You Remember the First Time?"
The Strokes - "Someday"
Fucked Up - "Queen of Hearts"
Frank Turner - "I Still Believe"
Friendly Fires - "Jump in the Pool"
Death From Above 1979 - "Pull Out"
The Streets - "Dry Your Eyes"
Muse - "New Born"
The Strokes ft. Jarvis Cocker - "Just What I Needed"

Watch clips/festival highlights of many of the artists at Reading Festival over at the Reading + Leeds Festivals section of the BBC website, here.