At one point during tonight’s impassioned set, Geordie hero Sam Fender makes his case for the audience to open two moshpits – though the tone is imploring, far from the confrontational swagger you might anticipate from a denim-clad rock star astride the Main Stage West on the opening night of Reading Festival 2021. “Look after each other,” he insists. “If someone falls down, pick them up.”
Indeed, one of the ensuing pits coincidentally – or perhaps not – forms the shape of a heart. Fender – not nicknamed the Geordie Springsteen for nothing – wears his on the sleeves of a jacket that The Boss would proudly have rocked in his ‘Born To Run’ pomp.
Fender’s brand of emotionally raw pop-rock, which sent blistering 2019 debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ to Number One in the UK charts, was readymade for an event that finding fans festival finally uniting in a very big way after nearly two apart. As he ploughs through ‘Spice’, an early cut from his 2018 ‘Dead Boys’ EP, one young punter wanders through the crowd with a plaster stamped on her arm, presumably from a recent COVID jab, underlining the weird period we’re tentatively emerging from.
And Fender is determined to mark the moment. Aside from a muted version of his already heartbreaking 2018 track ‘Dead Boys’, on which he addressed the male suicide epidemic with a documentarian’s unflinching gaze, tonight he barrels through his more explosive tunes: the thunderous ‘Play God’, the squalling ‘The Borders’ and recent B-side ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’, a tightly wound rager that – like ‘Spice’ – hints at the alt-rock influences he indulges when not consciously courting chart success. He dials down the volume for an a capella opening chorus of ‘Saturday’, the audience joining him in an all-too-appropriate tune about long for the release of a good night out: “And If Saturday don’t come soon / I’m gonna lose my mind.”
The highlight, of course (aside from the general air of his saxophonist, whose long hair and bucket hat makes him the spitting image of Zoot, the sax player from The Muppets) comes in the form of ‘Seventeen Going Under’, the aching, nostalgic first single from his upcoming second album of the same name. “Reading, I can’t fucking tell you how much this means us – it’s such a staple of adolescence,” Fender beams, going onto recalls his first Leeds Festival, when he got lost during Kasabian’s set and made friends with some fellow Geordies.
And that’s Sam Fender: he brings people together, and he doesn’t play it cool; the kind of star who could open a heart-shaped moshpit.
Check back at NME all weekend for more reviews, news, interviews, photos and more from Reading & Leeds 2021.