From the moment you walk through the gates of Reading Festival, it is startlingly clear that things are not what they once were. The southern sister of the dual-site event seems uncharacteristically courteous as people carefully snake around each other, perhaps a little nervous, or overwhelmed by the excitement and strangeness of it all. A smattering of face masks, plus a COVID-19 vaccine bus, are also cursory reminders of the strange world outside Little John’s Farm, Reading.
But everyone here at this year’s edition sold-out, 100,000 capacity festival has followed so many guidelines to even be here (health questionnaires and multiple lateral flow tests among them) that, as the day progresses, it feels like a collective mission to shake off any pandemic blues and make all of this feel reassuringly, defiantly normal.
By the time Inhaler hit the Main Stage East on Friday afternoon, it all comes rushing back. Practically every artist here has recent material to air for the first time, and it is a real joy to hear the songs from the four-piece’s superb debut ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ live, in a stomper of a performance that leaves hearts and ears pounding. And when Sports Team head up Main Stage West (there are two main stages this year, and acts play within minutes of each other to avoid any major clashes), things are anything but reserved. Indie-rock’s once-underground heroes have suddenly hit the biggest of stages, along with all the silliness and feral moshpits of their typical live show. “After the year we’ve had, this is amazing,” frontman Alex Rice notes.
Over the next few hours, the same sentiment of sheer disbelief and elation is shared between artists and fans. Declan McKenna – who is practically a hero to Reading’s young audience – giddily leaps between amps and carves out a moment of vitality for the teenagers belting out his socially conscious lyrics at his feet. At the other end of the site, Aitch’s swaggering set brings the party funk and manages to distil the weekend’s increasing euphoric energy into his big, wobbly pop-rap hits. “Let’s turn this place upside fucking down!”, he demands. His wish is his rowdy crowd’s command.
Mabel works the stage magnetically with her no-frills pop bangers, yet her hit-stuffed set works as a stark reminder of the disappointingly few female artists booked for the main stage this year. Later, Catfish and The Bottlemen’s casual autopilot of a headline show really grates in its predictability. As they roll through a cycle of sludgy guitar numbers, an aversion to engaging with their audience feels out of touch with the weekend’s increasingly heightened atmosphere.
Leave it to Stormzy and his mates, then, to show ’em how it’s done. Joined by a roll call of guests – including Dave, Tion Wayne and Russ Millions – the rap titan’s 21-song set is a celebration of his seemingly boundless capacity to uplift and inspire. With confetti canons, hype men, fireworks (literal and musical) and a wealth of party-starting hits, he certainly provides for an audience that is in a celebratory mood.
“I just can’t believe that I’m here with you right now,” exclaims a breathless KennyHoopla, clambering for the right words to describe the hyper-surreal it feels to be back at a festival. The hundreds of moshpit worshippers that have crammed themselves into the front section of the Radio 1 Stage on Saturday afternoon clearly understand exactly what the 24-year-old is trying to say; it does feel otherworldly for all of us strangers to be pushing against each other.
When his scrappy pop-punk belters about broken dreams and anxiety invites a level of hero worship, Kenny’s set takes on an even deeper meaning. In the context of the past year, it’s no secret that after a year of live shows were totally wiped out, breaking through as a new artist has never been more difficult – and the Ohio native, amongst other fast-rising acts that came up throughout the pandemic such as Holly Humberstone and Baby Queen – take their first major UK festival appearances in their stride.
Even the indie old guard of Reading Festival rises in full force. Two Door Cinema Club and The Wombats dominate their respective main stage slots and pace through their twitchy, nimble hits, with the latter’s recent TikTok smash ‘Greek Tragedy’ making for one of the strongest singalongs of the weekend. Some kids even attempt to jump the stage-side barriers to try and secure a spot in the already overflowing, pint-lobbing crowd.
There are obvious challenges in booking acts overseas – previously announced headliners Queens Of The Stone Age, plus other transatlantic stars Doja Cat and Machine Gun Kelly were all forced to pull out prior to this weekend – so, on paper, Post Malone’s Saturday night headline slot initially feels monumental. But it doesn’t take long to realise that in the two years since the New York rapper last played Reading, not much has changed. He two-steps his way through the hits – ‘Circles’ sounds typically massive – but with little new music to offer, the set often feels like an action replay of his 2019 performance. Bolstered by a series of stunning visual effects, Disclosure, at least, provide a lesson in how to do a headline slot with real warmth and feeling.
On Sunday, a much-needed let-loose spirit finally comes to the fore across the site. The excitement has lingered along with the weather, and the crowd (sunburnt and heavily hungover, but still glittered-up and grinning) is ready to go wild now that any initial post-pandemic festival anxieties have started to dissipate. Girl In Red‘s future-facing set at the Festival Republic stage leads by fine example; the Norwegian superstar throws herself into the crowd with gleeful abandon, as if the past 18 months never happened.
As the day corrals along with loud, uncompromising sets from the likes of emo kings Neck Deep and Isle of Wight’s Lauran Hibberd, the line-up hews more closely to Reading’s rock roots – despite the stellar offerings of pop, dance and rap that spill from the majority of the stages across the site. The latter is best represented by a secret set from the irrepressible Pa Salieu, who teams up with best pal BackRoad Gee to deliver an incendiary rendition of ‘My Family’ from the BBC Introducing stage to rapturous applause.
Wolf Alice make a bid for future headline status on Main Stage East as they rattle through the heaviest cuts from recent album ‘Blue Weekend’, while Biffy Clyro play their last-minute draft-in slot (replacing the aforementioned QOTSA) like a sweaty basement club show. And when Yungblud tumbles onto the stage in the shadow of a giant red inflatable duck, he rallies against our current reality throughout a set that is devoid of a single dull moment, reworking 2018 hit ‘Machine Gun (F**K NRA)’ into a brawny ‘Machine Gun (F**K COVID)’.
For all of the OTT celebrations of our gradual freedom and normality, the closing set from Liam Gallagher ends the festival with a six-song run through Oasis goldies, dedicating a typically biblical ‘Live Forever’ to the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Much like this weekend’s thrilling – if sometimes reserved – return to festival life, it’s glorious, moving, and means everything.