At the rock festival famous for Nirvana’s incendiary 1992 set, Queens Of The Stone Age’s semi-naked 2001 appearance, The Strokes’ blistering early career headline and riot grrl bad-asses L7 throwing tampons into the crowd, country bumpkins Mumford & Sons are an incongruous choice, not least because rock titans Metallica are their peers this year. While their Friday night bill-topping set may not have caused as much bluster as Kanye at Glastonbury, it’s fair to say that, coming on to the Main Stage, Marcus and co have more to prove than most. But rather than face the baying masses head-on, the group instead prove that they’re a headliner for a new generation of Reading and Leeds Festival punter.
While the other stage headliners (Pendulum offshoot Knife Party on the NME/Radio 1 Stage; Wilkinson on the Dance Stage) may draw more hedonistic crowds, Mumford & Sons attract what would have normally been the “rock” contingent. And though their rock chops extend to a little bit of leather and the occasional cuss word more than balls-out Metallica riffing, their set still stands up – for better or for worse.
Coming on at 9.30pm to a sizeable crowd, their performance veers between the new “heavier” material of current album ‘Wilder Mind’ and the banjo plucking of their old favourites, but it’s the latter that sparks the best reaction. Though much has been made of the band’s new direction justifying their spot, it’s the hoedown stomp of ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘I Will Wait’ that draws everyone in early on. Realistically, the difference between the Londoners’ two angles is less extreme than you may think; there are more atmospheric build ups on new tracks ‘Believe’ and ‘Wilder Mind’, while oldies like ‘The Cave’ are full-on barn dances from the off, but the end result is the same. Tellingly, the large part of their set relies on their older material too: tonight Mumfords are keeping to the tried and tested stuff.
It’s this safety net that’s the let-down. While the crowd’s less tribal allegiances mean that a band such as Mumfords can draw in a good crowd at the start, by midway through the set feels like an extended replay of a few tracks on repeat. It’s a formula that works for 70 percent of the set but slowly dwindles as the audience thins out. By their close at 11.30pm, the crowd drifts away amiably, satisfied but not revved up, into a festival that’s full of kids losing their mind in the other tents. Mumford & Sons may have just about won the battle, but at Reading this year, maybe other stages are winning the war.