Although this isn’t in the first Reading Festival since COVID decimated the global festival scene, it feels like the first real return. Last year’s event still had restrictions upon entry, as well as a general air of relief to be back in the fields, as crowds gathered gingerly and many were masked up. 2022’s edition feels more like the Reading of yesteryear: a chaotic, post-results day bonanza for a generation in need of a celebration. The cheek of old is back: fancy-dress; sun-burnt kids with blue messages scrawled across their chests; home-made signs requesting for a moment on stage.
Even the line-up feels like a blast from the past, with several scenes represented: Dave and Megan The Stallion bringing their bold rap personas; Arctic Monkeys and Bring Me The Horizon repping the guitar heroes; The 1975 and Halsey leading the vanguard who are taking pop to bold new places. As Halsey notes, her and Megan are the festival’s first female headliners since 1995 (not including Paramore’s co-headline slot in 2014). It’s no shock, then, that 2022 makes for some of the most inspired headline booking in its history. And that’s without Rage Against The Machine, who were forced to pull out due to frontman Zack de la Rocha’s recent leg injury.
Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes kicked off the festival on Friday with a typically raucous set: handstanding during a crowd surf, mooning the crowd during an unscheduled costume change, and instigating a female and non-binary-only mosh pit – christened by Carter as “the happiest pit you’ll see this weekend”. It was a mighty fine start. Following on the Main Stage East, Griff cursed herself for missing the festival as a punter as a teenager and made up for lost time: a heady set remixed her smash hit ‘One Night’ with a Whitney Houston classic.
The Dance Tent was rammed with plenty of notice before rising DIY pop star PinkPantheress, providing one of the first opportunities punters have had to see the elusive new artist in the past two years. Her ‘Flowers’-sampling hit ‘Pain’ caused a stir, as did the remainder of her ‘To hell with it’ mixtape. Immediately after, Nia Archives hit the same stage to bring her ‘summer of jungle’ to the dual festivals, utilising the final portion of her set for rowdy renditions of ‘Mash Up The Dance’ and ‘18 & Over’.
Little Simz and Glass Animals used their appearances as victory laps of sorts. The former’s opus ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ is fleshed-out marvellously as she mocks “the doubters” who said she’d never hit the main stage at festivals like this. The Oxford band, meanwhile, can’t believe their luck with the mega-success of ‘Heatwaves’, the US Number One single from third album ‘Dreamland’. Polo G phones in his set soon after, aimlessly stalking the stage and mispronouncing ‘Reading’; with the audience sticking it out for hit single ‘Rapstar’ and quickly scarpering.
Megan Thee Stallion has the opposite effect on her crowd: she’s desperate for “the hotties” to join her on stage, frequently pausing the show to pick fans to throw some shapes. When they make it, one tells Megan about the boy who recently dumped her (boos ensue); another tells the Houston rapper that she’s her idol and to sign her chest. It’s a unique live experience, a body-positive bonanza and the only of the weekend to feature the direction: “Camera man, make sure you’re getting my ass for this one”. Dave‘s set is a miraculous moment of its own, where he became the youngest ever solo headliner of the festival, one that fused soul-baring bars, chart-topping hits and diatribes against a zombie Government.
On Saturday afternoon, Madison Beer takes advantage of the Dance Tent’s perma-business for an early doors set. A one-in, one-out system proves redundant given the audience’s dedication to the show. The trick is repeated during a secret Pendulum set, where Enter Shikari’s Rou Reynolds joins for a remix of his band’s track ‘Sorry You’re Not A Winner’.
Two future headliners go back-to-back on Main Stage East as Fontaines DC and Wolf Alice – titans of the British and Irish rock scene – bring serious drama and sincerity for their sets. The former enlist super-fan Dexter from the crowd to shred the guitar during ‘Boys In The Better Land’, who wears a shit-eating grin when he becomes a temporary member of the Best Band In The World. Over on the Festival Republic stage during punk rappers Ho99o9’s set, a new trend emerges: fans in the pit drop to the floor, nestle up to each other and begin, er, rowing the boat. It’s one repeated at Liverpool band Courting’s set a day later, not long after they launch a hundred tennis balls into the crowd.
No such rowing space existed in the pits during Bring Me The Horizon’s feral headline set on Saturday night. The band’s history with Reading and Leeds has been chequered – they were pelted with bottles during their first appearance in 2008 – so to stage such a theoretical, inclusive and triumphant headline set will have laid to rest any lingering ghosts. An Ed Sheeran cameo for their recent ‘Bad Habits’ remix brings extra star-power, though with songs as seismic as ‘Throne’ and ‘Mantra’, it hardly feels necessary. It’s a hard-won, triumph for a band at the peak of their powers.
Arctic Monkeys’ following set is mellower, but no less intriguing. Boasting one of the festival’s biggest ever crowds, the Sheffield band’s first UK gig in four years was a trip down memory lane – and some roads less well trodden. Amidst ‘AM’s mega-hits (‘Do I Wanna Know?’, ‘Arabella’) there’s deep cuts in the shape of ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ and ‘Potion Approaching’, proof of their versatility and depth of catalogue. A funk-nodding new song ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’, from upcoming album ‘The Car’, will soon join them.
The Sunday struggle is very real as the capacity thins, but there’s still a sizeable portion repping Rage Against The Machine tees, perhaps in the faint hope their cancellation was one big rouse. But there was plenty to feast on regardless: rap heroes in the shape of Denzel Curry and Run The Jewels, the latter of which inspires one young daughter to stand on her dad’s shoulders for a better view, much to the glee of Killer Mike, one half of the Georgia hip-hop duo. Charli XCX’s blast of pop power pulls an energetic crowd and her breakthrough collaboration with Icona Pop ‘I Love It’ sparks a sprint to the main stage from the stragglers hoping to get involved.
Days earlier at Leeds, headliner Halsey was in a bad way, being struck down by food poisoning on the day of the show. And if they’re not quite at 100 per cent just yet, it doesn’t show: their debut Reading headlining set follows in the vein of past collaborators Bring Me The Horizon with horror-inspired visuals and another electrifying performance. When they take a moment to speak to the crowd about the virtues of becoming a mother, a chant of “MILF, MILF, MILF” erupts, much to the singer’s amusement. The guys and gals running around with obscene messages on the chest all weekend – ‘MILF/DILF Hunter’ was a popular one – complete their task, it seems.
“Just. Fucking. Bangers” is how The 1975’s Matty Healy describes their weekend-closing set, and he’s not wrong. With new album ‘Funny In A Foreign Language’ due in October, they use tonight’s last-minute Rage replacement booking as an opportunity to do a “greatest hits set” for their first UK show since the pandemic. Each album is represented in a career-spanning array of pop perfection to close out the weekend, ranging from ‘The Sound’s bounciness, the mournfulness of ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’ and unbridled fury of ‘People’. A fitting finale to a weekend that has run the full gamut of popular music, and provided a smidgen of closure to an emotional and unsettling few years for much of the audience: life, and music, will always win out.
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