There’s something in the air at Reading Festival this evening. No, not the pong rising from the taps-aff mosh pits, or the on-site Nandos, but the whiff that something seismic could be about to happen. No R+L headliner in recent memory has been able to conjure such anticipation as Arctic Monkeys have for tonight’s show. This’ll be their first UK show in nearly four years, and their third time topping the bill. The band’s illustrious history with the festival doesn’t hurt either.
Even though they have done little to fan the flames for this one, they just catch naturally. They’ve played a run of modest and intimate festival sets over the past month across Europe, ramping up to this weekend. Old songs have been “shuffled into the deck” by Alex Turner and co, while new song ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ snuck into the setlist ahead of the recent announcement of new album ‘The Car’. It’s been understated and mysterious, but that’s nothing new for the Steel City rockers.
That anticipation does mean tonight’s set leaves a curious taste. When announced for the two shows late last year – they’ll close out Leeds Festival on Sunday – it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a new record would be released. It’s par the course for Monkeys fans these days: second-guessing, theorising what every choice and decision means in the ultimate long-game. Often, it never comes to fruition, but that’s half the thrill.
But it does everyone a disservice if you lose sight of what tonight’s show ends up being: a band still at the very peak of their powers, teeing up and kicking off the next phase of their career. This ain’t quite Nirvana in 1992, but still cements itself as one of the festival’s biggest and busiest sets in recent memory – a reminder of the band’s cross-generational reach.
That’s felt keenly during ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, pound-for-pound one of the 21st century’s greatest gig openers. As drummer Matt Helders sets a slinking pace and Turner’s hips begin gyrating, the stage’s gargantuan side-screens pan-out to show a breathtaking sea of people (and phones aloft). ‘Brianstorm’ and ‘Crying Lightning’ are similarly rousing both in their scope and execution.
Pleasingly, they pair indie disco hits with some delightfully deep cuts. Although debuted elsewhere at shows earlier this summer, there’s space for ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, ‘Suck It and See’s glorious final song, and one of Turner’s finest lyrical moments; the sleazy ‘Potion Approaching’ nestles up nicely to ‘Cornerstone’ and ‘Do Me A Favour’.
There are hurdles to overcome, mind. Only two songs are aired from 2018’s ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’, a masterpiece that doesn’t always translate at festival headline sets. Turner channels the sunglass-toting The Fly-era Bono for the title track, and ‘One Point Perspective’s swooning guitar solo sounds as peachy as ever. The quiet sound from the main stage speakers often doesn’t do the band justice, despite the impeccable playing.
There’s next to no crowd interaction – no twerking “hotties” invited on stage, a la Megan Thee Stallion last night – but the fuzzy, ‘70s feel of the stage set-up is charmingly low-key compared to the aural and visual assault on the senses elsewhere this weekend. When the facade drops ever so slightly during debut album cut ‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’, Turner wears a shit-eating grin as he belts out his guitar solo. Perhaps he’s reflecting on the band’s unparalleled journey from scrappy kids in Sheffield to the world’s biggest stages; perhaps he’s just having a good time.
Newcomers to the band, particularly those who’ve arrived from the band’s considerable and unlikely TikTok popularity, are satiated, too. Every second of ‘505’s eerie slow-build is captured on the audience’s vertical screens. Likewise with ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Arabella’, which finishes up with a nod to Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’.
From this point, the band are about to embark on their most intriguing period to date. With the shock of ‘Tranquility Base…’ subsiding, our sole glimpse of that upcoming album is a thrilling one. ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ has shades of ‘Young Americans’-era Bowie, a groovy beat and bassline, and is seasoned with shimmering guitar licks: whether this proves representative of ‘The Car’ as a whole is yet to be seen, but it appears the road has now truly opened up for them to make anything they deem fit to.
Whether tonight ranks as one of the band’s definitive sets is still up for debate; the Yorkshire homecoming in Leeds could still take the mantle. But here the band look comfortable in the sweet-spot, one where both chant-along indie classics and more esoteric concoctions can co-exist in each and every setlist. After all, the band have always asked us to look beyond the hype and appreciate them for what they are in that present moment: it’s just that they still happen to be the best in the game.
Arctic Monkeys played:
‘Do I Wanna Know?’
‘Snap Out of It’
‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’
‘The View From the Afternoon’
‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’
‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’
‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’
‘Do Me a Favour’
‘From the Ritz to the Rubble’
‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’
‘One Point Perspective’
‘R U Mine?’
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