By the time State rocks up at the gates early on Sunday, the Reading Festival has been in full swing for two days. What had we missed? Kings of Leon’s petulant bust up with an underwhelmed main stage crowd, and Arctic Monkey’s Saturday headline slot causing a minor, dusty riot down the front for two. The weekend revelers were looking a little worse for wear, but a fresh and feisty State team is ready for action.
Brooklyn’s Bear Hands open the day to several dozen punters on the Festival Republic Stage, but a lack of audience doesn’t deflate their energy. With a hooded, reclusive front man and every member featuring on booming, stage-front percussion at some point, Bear Hands are vibrant, shouty and action packed. Portadown lads In Case Of Fire, meanwhile, come out dressed in matching red t-shirts, and play a set of weighty melodic rock, head banging and lengthy guitar solos that’s only spoiled by a slight sense of arrogance creeping through: they’re strong performers, but In Case Of Fire’s abrasive stage manner grates on the audience, despite their bassist’s utterly insatiable energy.
The heavily hyped XX have the tiny Festival Republic Stage bursting back to the surrounding stalls, and have liberally sprinkled the crowd with black X-shaped boomerangs, stickers and even t-shirts. In fact, the amount of visual support on offer for the Londoners around site seems to outweigh even this set’s attendance, but once again their live show is underwhelming. The band seem to struggle with their instrumental balance on stage, and as well – as being poorly set up – stand stock-still for the majority of the set, leaving large parts of the audience sat chattering at the back. A cover of Womack and Womacks -Teardrops’ brings recognition factor, but XX need to work on their live show; they remain a band best caught on record.
Soon after, Frank Turner‘s folk-pop sing along has a busy NME tent in raptures. With tracks full of everyday references – and the odd obtuse nod to random topics like the Queen, or hospitals – he provides a perfect upbeat, middle of the afternoon piece of pop. We spotted Frank rocking out to Radiohead later in the day: having made his way up the Reading Festival bill for three consecutive years, he can still afford to stroll around festivals in the dark without being mobbed. It’s far from sophisticated, but there’s a hint of early Arctic Monkeys social commentary to Turner, and on this evidence his anonymity will be replaced with catchy, middle of the road yet highly palatable chart popularity shortly.
On our first trip to the massive main stage, State bump into Scots The View, who are dwarfed by the arena and the occasion, coming across as self-conscious and short on ideas, something a disappointingly generic sound does little to solve. Instead we head for the soulful Passion Pit. The Boston lads high-pitched attack on the electro scene seems to be taking them places, and their live show is a kind of mutual love in: Passion Pit provide the disco-influenced dance and relentlessly smiling front man, the crowd throw their arms in the air and move like the floor’s on fire. It doesn’t change the world, but we certainly finish up grinning.
Passion Pit are a difficult crowd to follow, but Crystal Castles pull it off with some style. A dark, brooding take on the nu-rave scene, the two-piece have the NME tent jumping euphorically throughout, glow sticks flying. Their sound is a pacey, pulsing aural barrage, backed by some classic dance-floor-filling melody, and a bit of a musical aside for a rock-heavy festival. Dance acts are increasingly accepted here, though, and when they put in performances like this even the black-clad, heavily-pierced miserablists hanging over the barrier can’t help admitting that there’s something -kinda cool’ about Crystal Castles experimental electro sounds.
Back on the main stage, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O has bought her all-in-one along for the ride – specifically, one that makes her look oddly like a green-hearted prawn, performing in front a big brother all seeing eye banner. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s are all about their front woman’s personality, and – in tracks like ‘Gold Lion’ and ‘Cheated Hearts’ – have the songs to back up the persona. Karen glares and grimaces her way through the set, occasionally retreating below her prawn hood and smiling jackal like at the audience, tongue out. It’s a vibrant performance, topped off by four oversized eyeballs flying across the stage front in the wind. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s sounds great, but it’s sheer personality that carries the day.
Next up are Bloc Party, whose opening tracks lead to a riotous dust storm down the front. As the set goes on, however, there’s a sense that live, Kelly and Co’s tracks are a tad repetitive, and those who don’t know the songs intimately are quickly struggling to distinguish them. Until the lasers come on for Helicopter, for all their thrashing about on stage, State remains surprisingly unsure if Bloc Party’s live show is actually that interesting. An unlikely let down.
Headliners Radiohead are in a suspenseful mood, keeping a crowd tingling with anticipation and chanting at an empty stage of dangling lights for a full 45 minutes. When Thom Yorke appears centre stage with a cry of -wassup’ the arena erupts; when the opening track turns out to be long-lost single ‘Creep’ anticipation becomes uncontrolled ecstasy. ‘National Anthem’, ‘2+2 = 5’ and ‘Street Spirit’ quickly follow in a hit filled set backed up with a seductive light show.
Yorke’s painfully uncool on stage, a geek turned rockstar, who even after all these years look a touch uncomfortable in the limelight. Radiohead prefer to split the side screens into artistic, top-down shots of Yorke’s vocals and the bands increasingly prominent use of looping equipment than show themselves. For all his self consciousness, however, Thom’s a stunning front man, contorting his head around the mic throughout a rampant Just and criminally emotional rendition of ‘Karma Police’, during which the main arena’s crowd are deafening. ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ is lost to most amongst the wind, as is Greenwood’s leery finale to an effects pedal problem, but ‘Bodysnatchers’ and a frenzied ‘You And Who’s Army’ keep the crowd onside.
Not that Radiohead are ever struggling, not for a second. The -greatest hits’ approach goes down a storm, with ‘Lucky’, ‘Idioteque’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ added to the catalogue of old epics. There’s some new stuff thrown in too, like a first performance of new track, -These are My Twisted Words’ a beat driven piece in which Yorke croons -I just can’t stand it, I just can’t handle it’. That just left traditional closer -Everything In It’s Right Place’ to finish, and an utterly enthralled audience stood mesmerized in front of the lights. Reading 2009 had had its ups and downs, but at least it finished in the ascendancy.
Photo Credit: Anthony Grice