Reading and Leeds 2019: How the kids took back the iconic festival

On Saturday afternoon, Billie Eilish may well have drawn one of the biggest ever crowds Reading Festival has ever seen. The US sensation was originally booked to play the BBC Radio 1 Tent before getting bumped up to the Main Stage. It’s a good job, because it looked like every school-leaver in the country had crammed themselves into that field to try a glimpse of the 17-year-old star. Take a look at this simply stunning aerial picture of the incredibly sunburnt crowd…

And now watch them go mental for ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’…

It was a watershed moment for her and for the festival. For many, it was the realisation that we’ve got a future headliner in our midst and that Billiemania is no flash-in-the-pan. But for the festival, it may well have been even bigger. After a difficult decade that saw the Reading and Leeds try to please just about everyone, and often pleasing nobody as as result, 2019’s edition felt like a breakthrough. 

No longer were there divisions between stages and crowds – rock, pop, dance, hip-hop and beyond rubbed shoulders with each other throughout the weekend to make for a line-up that was exciting and forward-thinking, not a retread. After years of moaning from a crowd quickly outgrowing the festival, it proved to be the weekend where the youth reclaimed Reading and Leeds.

At almost every stage, the crowds were young and engaged. Whether it was the headliners (Post Malone, The 1975, Twenty One Pilots) or new acts like No Rome or Sports Team, there were bucket-hat sporting and bum-bag-wearing boys and girls in the pit creating circle pits and pogo-ing like the floor was made of lava.

Why were they so excited for everything? Because it was a line-up that truly reflected their tastes. Nearly all of the headliners – The 1975, Post Malone, Twenty One Pilots and Foo Fighters – were either first-timers or receiving a well-deserved bump up the bill from previous appearance. Post Malone, for example, played the same slot as Billie in 2018 and landed himself a co-headline slot on Saturday as a reward.

On Friday night, the nation’s best band, The 1975, opened their set with the raucous ‘People’ a wake-up call to the political and ecological crisis a new generation is preparing to deal with. The song had been out for barely 24 hours and already was being screamed back by an army of teenagers. Throughout the day, fans had been emblazoning existing 1975 merch with slogans from the new song and praising the initiative for its sustainability.

Meanwhile, face-tat emo-rap monster Post Malone reflected the youth’s desire for a new kind of rockstar. Performing over a backing track and a shit-load of pyrotechnics, the US rapper’s set was brash and playful – no longer do you need to be wielding a guitar to fit the description, though he does smash an acoustic one mid-set, quite clearly laced with symbolism.

Lower down the bill, the attendees got the line-up that reflects their diverse and genre-smashing tastes. There’s emotive lo-fi pop from Clairo on Friday afternoon and by Sunday afternoon, there’s a similarly massive crowd for gobby Doncaster rock/pop-punk hybrid Yungblud.

Grime and punk collide in Slowthai’s thrilling, foul-mouthed Saturday afternoon set and later on in the day, he comes back for a second bite at it during dance prodigy Mura Masa’s headline set on the BBC Radio 1 stage, performing their collaboration ‘Doorman’. 20 years ago, Charli XCX’s brand of boundary-pushing pop might well have ruffled some feathers, but this weekend there was nothing but love in the crowd.

AJ Tracey’s story might embody it the best. Having performed three times at the festival, first on the smaller BBC 1Xtra Stage and now on the Main Stage, he’s a success story of the modern era. By grafting away with earlier shows – and this year’s killer debut album – even he has seen the evolution of the festival during that time. “My mum used to come here when she was younger, and she was telling me that it was predominantly rock,” Tracey told NME backstage this weekend. “Finally, it feels like people are taking British rap more seriously as a genre,” he added, name-checking pals like Dave, Not3s, Mabel and more who have found a home at the festival. So how did his story end? With a rowdy rendition of summer-anthem ‘Ladbroke Grove’ that saw the young crowd go absolutely bananas. 

There are still some issues to be sorted. Over the weekend, there were two reported deaths at the festivals – one confirmed to be of a 17-year-old girl from a drug overdose – and a dangerous crush at the silent disco at Reading on Thursday night. The lineup was still far off a 50/50 gender split too, with men taking all the headline slots.

As with all festivals, there are learning curves and lessons to be learned. New anti-crush barriers at the main stage area at Reading proved to be a workable solution that help protect an excitable crowd. You hope that next year, new initiatives and plans will be in place to educate and protect festival-goers.

But it’s been quite some time since Reading and Leeds felt so vital and in tune to what our nation’s youth crave: great music from across the spectrum. The evolution will certainly not please everyone – there’s already a chunk of the older attendees lamenting the festival’s ‘decline’ – but that’s the beauty of it. Don’t worry grandads, the kids are doing alright.