A return to Reading Festival for me after a 9 year absence had its’ genesis in gig 850 last June, Biffy Clyro’s surprise trip to the Oasis and my son Evan’s first rock gig proper. He loved it so much, we promised we’d try to get him down when they were playing their next album tour; but couldn’t quite make that work when they toured their excellent “Opposites” album in March this year. However, when I heard they were stepping up to the big time, and headlining the Sunday at Reading Festival, I hatched a plan to take Evan, which came to fruition!
Thus was a gig hiatus of over 2 months (!) ended, as Evan and I caught the train on a dank and drizzly Sunday morning, both apprehensive for different reasons. Evan nervous as he’d never been to a Festival before, and me wondering whether the things that stopped us going back in 2004 (overcrowding, crap facilities, generally unhelpful and occasionally hostile vibe) would still be prevalent 9 years later. Arrival at the new Reading Station saw us heading out on a North entrance; very handy for the Festival site! Our arrival onsite continued a good impression, with easy access/ egress boding well for a quick getaway. Our wristband march took us through lots of barriers which as they were empty was a bit of a pain, but I could see the advantage over the free-for-all of the past. We ran into Andy Fenton immediately after getting our wristbands, which was a great help – during our walk to the back of the arena, he genned us in on the recent changes (apparently the arena itself has been increased by 1/3 over last year, with no more tickets sold – great!). The site itself is now massive, but everything seems better organised and laid out, and ticking along like clockwork.
Found the amply-sized tent housing the Festival Republic stage, where we intended to spend much of the early afternoon. BATTLE LINES kicked off at a frightfully early 11.15; musically they were an ethereal, 2.54 type of band, all swirling keyboards and shimmering guitars, however the female vocalist had too much of the strident, yelping Flozzer-isms for my liking, which made it all a bit jarring. Still, heard worse.
“Please sing along to this next song, it’s about stalking people,” SAN CISCO’s female drummer announced before one of their early numbers. SC brought some Summery jangle-pop to this early lazy Reading vibe, all jaunty and C86-influenced, like an Antipodean North Of Cornwallis, and got a much larger, girlier and more receptive crowd clapping along. Their purple beach ball freebies suited their music, although there were only a few of them bouncing over the crowd…
Took a walk outside into the arena while BURY TOMORROW were burying the ghost of Nu-Metal onstage with really poor shouty date rape rock. The vocalist announced their all-time favourite band as Slipknot. Says it all, really… We were however back in the FR tent for CHINA RATS, a swaggering, confident listen, like the Vaccines channelling early Rolling Stones instead of Buddy Holly. An early t-shirt of the day contender (“Have You Seen This Unicorn?”) was the only distraction from this fine, strident guitar set.
Back into the arena as the sun finally broke through, taking a walk right of the main stage during Poughkeepsie ’s WE ARE THE IN CROWD’s mainstage set of sub-Paramore powerpop punk rock. Very occasionally Cleos-like when they powered down a gear or two, they delivered a likeable and energetic clutch of tuneage, and left a favourable impression, which may or may not have been helped by the bouncy and effervescent female vocalist… Some dead time saw us take a wander around the stalls, passing the biggest tent, the Radio 1 stage, where THE VILLAGERS were peddling some low-key folky country. Then we stumbled upon the tiniest Reading tent ever, the BBC1 Introducing stage, which was basically under an awning! Two-piece TO BE FRANK were kicking off a slow-burning keyboard/ drum machine set, but to be Frank they sounded dull and droney, so we carried on our wander, trying to avoid the mainstage-bound HADOUKEN massive, plus the shouty and incoherent yo-funk crap emanating from the object of their collective affections.
This landed us back in the FR tent for THE FAMILY RAIN, a band of 3 brothers playing a primal and embryonic bluesy howl. A little incoherent,but they drew a decent crowd. I was however more up for the subsequent CALIFORNIA X set; this bunch of reprobates looked like a group of young J Mascis clones (all hair and vintage Wipers t-shirts!) and clearly grew up on a diet of Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Nirvana and early Lemonheads with their proto grunge rock partying like it was still 1992. Noisy, lazy and rather splendid actually, the only disappointing aspect being a lack of set-list for me to swipe from the bassist afterwards! Then back into a sun-drenched and dusty main arena for the mid-afternoon DON BROCO. Billed as the new Biffy Clyro (hey, aren’t they all…), they actually veered between macho but listenable rock and occasionally jarring generic nu/ rap metal, although the vocalist actually reminded me of 80’s funksters Hue And Cry, although that might have been due to his scattergun vocal style and neat haircut. A lot of crowdpleasing sing/ shoutalong antics punctuated an OK, audience participative set.
One quick loo stop later, we headed down the front as far as possible, stage left, whilst ominous dark and threatening skies gathered – a little too early perhaps? Let me explain. I’d mentioned to Evan that EDI TORS would benefit from some dark foreboding clouds during their mid-afternoon set to envelop their brooding rock, and the weather almost arrived on cue, forcing us to don raincoats briefly for the only time today. However, it cleared quickly and a weak but persistent sun accompanied Tom and the boys onstage, for their slow-burn and dramatic opener “Sugar”. Then into the familiar, speedy staccato guitar riff of “ Munich ”, and we were away…
Now a beefed-up 5-piece, Editors were initially rather superb, an angular “End Has A Start” followed by the Bunnymen “Cutter”-isms of the dramatic “Ton Of Love”, the highlight of their current, slightly lower-key CD “The Weight Of Your Love”. However the set mid-section did feel slightly muted, with understated new single “Formaldehyde” being followed by a discordant and slightly jarring “Blood Drool”. It took an immense “Racing Rats” to pull the set back, Tom’s piano lead giving way to a wild, rip-roaring rendition, and a final double-header of “Smokers”, soaring and dramatic, was even capped by a seething and menacing “Papillon”, Tom and the boys lengthening the climax into a thrashy and hectic crescendo. Great stuff overall – follow that, Biffy!
This now took us to 5 pm, so we had noodles and free drinks (!) for tea, eating them in our spot over by the FR tent to the chuntering sounds of FRANKIE AND THE HEARTSTRINGS’ at-times thrashy pop, at times jangly rumpus, but mostly innocuous background noise for us. When the Frankie massive emptied, we wandered in, running into the California X boys for a chat and some pix. Nice guys. They suggested we check out MERCHANDISE, next up, who were on my to-do list anyway; though seemingly not on many other peoples’, as they came on to a surprisingly sparse crowd. Those there were however witness to an intriguing, absorbing and mighty fine set of textured, flowing and slightly 80’s tinged rockist stuff, with each often lengthy number intelligently constructed, usually without the jarring presence of such niceties as choruses to interrupt the flow. This set was difficult to pigeonhole (a Stills guitar shimmer here, a Smiths vocal inflection there), but very very easy to enjoy. “You’re already kicking the shit out of Leeds ,” remarked impressively strident voiced singer Carson Cox after an early number, and honestly Merchandise kicked the shit out of the tent with this, the Best New Band set of the day.
Chilled in the main arena during the arse end of FALLOUT BOY’s set of surprisingly low-key and very forgettable pop. A collapsed drunk girl receiving some medical attention in front of us was actually more memorable and entertaining than the onstage fayre, at least until the end when FOB cranked it up a notch with some punkier singalong stuff. A surprisingly quick trip to a surprisingly clean loo then preceded a wander down the front for NINE INCH NAILS’ set. Bumped into the Merchandise lads in a surprisingly quiet arena (I’m being surprised a lot this evening, aren’t I?) before US alt-rock legend Trent Reznor led the latest NIN incarnation onstage. I’ve never been a fan, really, finding their usual post-grunge funk hard on the ears, however this set started off with some eerie, synth-embellished and libidinous numbers, carrying on in a similar vein, some shards of harsher industrial goth guitar being the exception rather than the rule. Music as swirling as the clouds of dry ice which enveloped the backlit stage, this, and for me a pleasant surprise. A throwaway comment from Reznor midway through the set, “fuck rock’n’roll, by the way,”
encapsulated both his approach to this set, and his frame of mind tonight (we later found out that Mr. Grumpypants Reznor took to Twitter complaining about the promoter and “the band following us – whoever the fuck they are” – ouch!), although the set closed out with some noisier and more full-on gothy rock.
As evening wrapped a darkening shroud around the arena and stage, we took the opportunity of the NIN massive leaving to push forward, Evan enthusiastically leading the way. We’re gonna get squished… A curtain covered the stage as the tell-tale sounds of construction emanated from behind it, as the arena became more crowded and anticipatory. After half a dozen Reading Festival appearances in the last 10 years or so, on various stages at various times, The Biff are headlining the whole damn show – are they ready for it?
Finally the witching hour arrived, and puzzlingly, Sister Sledge’s 70’s cheesy disco classic “We Are Family” cranked out loudly from the stage. Then a hush, as the opening note of “Different People” built from behind the curtain, and Simon Neil of BIFFY CLYRO, bare-chested and guitarred-up, wandered onstage to conduct the crowd in the opening lines of this, the perfect set opener. As it burst into jagged, amphetamine-fuelled life, the curtain dropped to reveal the ornate, elaborate tree/ circulatory system set-up of their tour. Dramatic and eye-catching.
The Biff powered relentlessly through openers “Golden Rule” and “Who’s Got A Match”, fittingly accompanied by bursts of flame from the top of the stage, so close to us in our stage left slot, about 10 rows back, that we could feel the intensity of the heat, matching the onstage performance. An element of nervousness was expected, given their comments that they were, “fucking shitting ourselves!” about headlining the Festival, but these emotions were being suppressed by the commitment of their performance, and the rapturous reaction from the immense crowd, singing along to pretty much everything from note one. All enveloping, all inclusive.
“Reading, it’s a fucking honour to be closing your weekend,” Simon announced before “Sounds Like Balloons,” the huge crashing singalong to its’ chorus causing an barely-suppressed grin to break out across the frontman’s face. He was bloody loving this, and so were we. “This is where the real magic happens,” he remarked as he wandered down their personally-constructed catwalk for a titanic “Biblical”. The white noise and hand-held strobe theatre of “Glitter And Trauma” was a stunning highlight, leading into a brilliant “Bubbles”, a poppy build-up again crashing into a huge stadium rock chorus, resonating through the inky night around the packed arena.
“This song is very dear to me and is for anyone who’s lost someone,” Simon said by way of introduction to a stripped bare, heartbreaking acoustic “Folding Stars”, bringing a lump to the throat and definitely a magnificent set highlight. The hook of the subsequent “Machines”, “take the pieces and build them skyward,” served as testament to their work as a band who’ve paid their dues on smaller stages, smaller slots, to finally crack the big time. This is their time in the light, and they’re taking full advantage of it. Good for you, Biffy!
Back to the rock for the pyro-accompanied “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies”, a soaring “Many Of Horror” climaxed by a ticker tape launch, then more heartfelt but never gushing sincerity from Simon (“Reading, we’ve been looking forward to this weekend all year so thanks for making it special for us”) before set closer “The Captain” saw Simon, Hendrix-like, take a flare and set fire to his guitar in a dramatic burst of punk rock theatre, walking off with rock hands aloft.
A 3 song encore climaxed with a brilliant “Mountains” and a fireworks display, ending the thrilling, rampaging Set Of The Day from a band fully justifying their elevation to the big time. By this time we’d extricated ourselves from the busy but habitable mosh, and on the final note headed off to the station, an easy jog back getting us there well in time for our train. Elated about how easy and well-organised today had been, happy that I could share it with my son (who described the day as, “one of the most intense experiences of my life”), and thrilled at seeing Biffy Clyro, in their pomp, slay the Festival. Only one way to end this report, I believe – Mon The Biff!