Following 2003's worst bill ever, consideration was seriously given towards missing out on this year's Fest altogether, particularly when the organisers stunned us by announcing an even worse bill than last year. I mean, the Darkness headlining? Words fail me... However, we decided to get Sunday day tickets, when a clutch of good bands were added to the Big Tent line-up, and so resolved to take our chairs along and sit in the tent all day. Which, essentially, is what we did!
Took the train due to horror parking stories, then hit the site to find a boggy quagmire in the camping areas, despite improving weather. Lots of dishevelled people in wellies (or with binbags gaffer taped around their feet) giving off general airs of weary resignation. This festival was stumbling, nay squelching, towards a sad and sorry end. Nevertheless, arm-banded up, we hit the underfoot-soft but mainly dry arena, in time for Big Tent openers EASTERN LANE. They plied a tinny, occasionally rockabilly style which chuntered along merrily, without the hint of a tune to make anything stick. Their best number recalled the Strokes. Hmmm. THE FUTUREHEADS, next up, were another XTC-alike band, all angular, staccato rhythms and stop-start drumbeats. Again, no hint of a tune here either, so they sounded like a bunch of Baby Ray outtakes!
Nipped over to the little tent as Rachel wanted to check out Kerrang! faves YOUR CODE NAME IS: MILO. They were tuneless shouty emo post-grunge which reminded us both of Finch, without their one good song. So we went for a hog roast afterwards for some substance! Back in the Big Tent as it started raining, so THE FIERY FURNACES had a good audience for their quirky, confrontational pop. They seemed to play 28 or 29 little vignettes - whole songs or just bits? Who knows? - before stopping, and despite being too oblique for my tastes, the Bjork/ PJ Harvey sound-alike vocalist at least had some tunes to sing, a commodity thus far lacking today. DOGS DIE IN HOT CARS, however, brought the tunes - and the sun! A tuneful, bright and breezy upbeat pop set which the kids clapped along to. Eschewing the obvious XTC comparisons of their recorded output (at least until the last few numbers), they actually recalled summery Celtic folk-popsters The Fat Lady Sings, with their thoughtful, memorable song structures, although Rach remarked a cover of XTC's "Generals And Majors" still wouldn't have been out of place!
Moved forward for the entrance of THE STILLS, my favourite new music makers of 2004 and the main reason I'm braving Reading this barren year. They played a superb set of their atmospheric rock, backed up with old fashioned virtues such as passion and conviction. I would have liked more guitar noise to flesh out their haunting, swirling, chiming sound, redolent of the early 80's, but I'm being picky. They were great, and "Lola Stars And Stripes" was a moving Festival anthem. Like a goalie being let out on pitch for the last 5 minutes, the drummer got to sing the Death Cab-like set closer "Tomorrow Never Yesterday", as one by one the band peeled offstage.
And we drifted off too! Off to the loo by the backstage entrance, which unfortunately meant putting up with THE STREETS' appalling - even for rap! - onstage set. Eventually Rach had enough so we shopped instead! Then we headed back to the Big Tent for the anticipated early-running British Sea Power - assumed so because of Deus' last minute withdrawal - only to find out the organisers had decided to stick to the schedule and shut the tent for 1 hour and 20 minutes! Weird! So we suddenly had an opportunity to check out SECRET MACHINES in the tiny tent. They plied a kind of slow-burning moody atmospheric spacerock which really required a certain mood, which I'm afraid I wasn't in, and were hampered by some slappy ham-fisted drumming. Definitely potential there, but currently problematic.
By now it was teatime, so we had noodles and tempura by the now-reopened Big Tent, as a hazy sun decided it was knackered, and set. Rach decided to catch the mainstage set from Placebo, but I stuck around - along with the BSP massive, all sporting camo and branches down the front of the stage, making the tent look like half of Sherwood Forest! - for the arrival, finally, of BRITISH SEA POWER. Coming onstage to the usual Bunnyesque dry ice/ Gregorian chant combination, they kicked off with their usual frantic opener, thereafter becoming an utter revelation. Tense, taut, bass-heavy and dramatic, the previously patchy Bunny-wannabees stepped up a level or two with the best-sounding set of the day. Top marks also for bigging up the crowd for throwing bottles mainstage at the Rasmus! No doubt the setting and the crowd response helped, but for me BSP were the hit of the day.
Met Rach again before heading up front in the Big Tent for our finale - AUF DER MAUR. Ironically late, due to an over-finicky soundcheck which actually succeeded in mucking up the sound (particularly the vocals), the rakishly thin Melissa Auf Der Maur led her band onstage to a German nursery song, and ploughed through a blistering, dynamic set of post-apocalyptic, post-grunge rock which sounded better, once the band bedded in after 2 or 3 numbers. A natural frontwoman - quite why she toiled for 10 years in the shadow of other lesser singers is a mystery - Melissa exuded sincerity as she thanked the crowd for supporting her music, and celebrated her 10th anniversary in the rock strata, recalling her 1994 Reading Festival performance as a raw 22 year old in the car-crash that was the Hole set that year.
The haunting, sweeping atmospherics of the fractured, titanic "Followed The Waves" was the highlight, and was followed by a solo set closer, after which the Queen of Reading took photos of herself in front of the rapturous crowd as she left the stage.
And we left too,as we had the 10.00 train to catch and no interest in the headliners, not any more. A sampled Reading, maybe, but one where faith was partly restored at least. We await 2005...
(NB - of course my "no interest in the headliners" remark came back to bite me on the bum big time, after I heard Green Day's "American Idiot". D'oh!)
Band of the Festival - 1. BRITISH SEA POWER; 2. THE STILLS; 3. AUF DER MAUR.
New Hope - No one really, but SECRET MACHINES by default.
Star of the Show - MELISSA AUF DER MAUR, the Queen of Reading!