My Top 5 Reading Festival Performances

Pic courtesy of Tom Downer’s Guitar Lessons Reading. Click the pic for more.

The Reading Festival is over for another year. TLC and I wandered down to Caversham for lunch yesterday, and found it looking like the aftermath of a hipster war. Casualties in wellies and shorts slumped on pavements, muddy, weary but happy.

It was not to be for us this year. There were plenty of individual acts scattered across the bill that we’d have liked to see, but we couldn’t afford weekend tickets and the prospect of nearly £200 for a day when we’d only really want to catch one or two bands just made the choice untenable. After last year’s mind-boggler of a day, it made sense to take a break.

I’ve been going to the Richfield Avenue site since 2005, the year after we moved to Dingtown. I don’t do it every year, but it’s always worthwhile when I do. Here are my top five acts from then till now. These are the memorable ones, the bright moments that always make me smile.

Pixies (2005)

This was my first year in Reading, my first time at the Festival, and due to circumstances beyond my control I was on my own. It was, to put it mildly, a strangely disconcerting experience. I was offered a spliff within half an hour of hitting the arena, and spent the day drifting from tent to main stage in a weird, dislocated haze. The weather was grey and drizzly in the morning, and it took me a while to get my festival head on.

When the sun came out for Elbow’s epic main stage debut, (supporting Leaders Of The Free World) I knew the day was improving significantly. The Queens Of The Stone Age and The Killers both delivered massive sets, but for me it was all about the bunch of slightly paunchy middle-aged Bostonians who ambled on stage without fanfare five minutes before they were supposed to and promptly blew the pointy top off the main stage.

Pixies had been part of my musical makeup since college, and to see them live was doubly amazing after they had split with such acrimony years before. They were affable, jokey, and absolutely at the top of their game. It was a greatest hits set, and one of the most intense 80 minutes I’ve ever seen from a Main Stage headliner. The hug Black Francis gave Kim Deal just before they finished up with the one-two knockout punch of “Hey!” and “Gigantic” still gives me prickles. Who says rock can’t cure all ills?

(bit of a cheat, this: I couldn’t find decent footage of the Pixies gig on the night. This clip from T In The Park gives you an idea of the flavour of the evening.)

Arcade Fire (2005)

The following day, I was joined by a crew which included TLC, Doco Dom, and my dad, who had gotten a ticket from us as a 60th birthday present. It was a full-on day, which included a monster set from Foo Fighters (of which more later), Dinosaur Jr and a Main Stage opener from Biffy Clyro, whose bass response was strong enough to knock Dad’s hat off. But there was one band I knew we had to see, and I made damn sure that Team Rob was together for it.

The Arcade Fire’s set in the NME Tent at Reading 2005 is widely acknowledged as their breakout moment. I can confirm that what we saw that afternoon was a band on the verge of going nuclear. The tent was packed, and the Fire spun through Funeral at a head-dizzying pace. Reportage from me at the time:

This has the feel of a real event, and the Canadians do not disappoint. They launch into “Wake Up”, and everyone, strangers and friends alike, got their hands up and their voices high. The mood is joyous, celebratory. Any immovable object on stage gets used for percussion, including a crash helmet worn by the second guitarist. Mock fights break out on stage. There’s a newie or two, an oldie for the hardcore, and all the best bits of “Funeral”, which is, let’s face it, just about all of it, get fired off with a verve and energy that takes the roof off. Extraordinary. Transcendant. Everyone’s chuffed, and I quietly point out to Clare that this is the album I’ve been playing for months when she asks why she’s never heard of them. Band of the Festival. If they’re not on the main stage next year, a major injustice will have been done.

They weren’t, and I still don’t get why. There are reports of a new album dropping this year. Can’t. Fuffing. Wait.

(again, nothing from 2005 at Reading. This is from the TIM festival. Worth checking out the footage of when the Fire did finally headline in 2010, as well. Start here).

Pearl Jam (2006)

This was the band’s first headlining festival set since nine people had been crushed to death in front of them at the Roskilde festival in 2000. They were, understandably, nervous. Eddie Vedder’s first words to the crowd were to stay safe and look after each other. His trust in us as an audience led to one of the most extraordinary, emotional and uplifting concerts I have ever seen. A vast curfew-busting run through old songs, new favourites and covers from a band that sometimes seemed utterly overwhelmed by the waves of love coming at them from a capacity crowd. It’s often said that live music is a shared experience, a collaboration between band and audience that can lift both to hitherto uncharted places. The 2006 Pearl Jam set was one of those concerts. I feel a little tearful thinking about it even now.

Metallica (2008)

This was one of those happy accidents. I hadn’t planned on going to the festival that year, but was talked into it by my Uncle Doug, who was absolutely desperate to see Metallica. Doug Sampson is, for those of you know know their metal, a man with a place in rock history. He’s Iron Maiden’s first drummer, back when they were playing pubs and clubs in east London. The prospect of seeing Metallica with him was just too good to pass up. I was lucky enough to snag a couple of late tickets, and off we jolly well went.

The rest of the bill was, to be honest, fairly underwhelming. When comedy act Tenacious D end up second on the bill, you have to wonder what went wrong. But Metallica… well, they were a revelation. Tight as a squirrel’s nutsack, loud, precise and giving their all to an adoring closing-night crowd. This was not the band that had fallen apart so messily on screen during the filming of the Some Kind Of Monster documentary. This was a behemoth, a precision-tooled metal delivery system that had us all bouncing and bellowing. Storming stuff. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Foo Fighters (2012)

I’ve already documented our trip to the Reading Festival last year at length, but I would be a liar if I didn’t include their 2012 gig as not just one of the most memorable gigs of my life, but one of the most memorable events full stop. Full back-stage access, clean toilets, free booze–frankly it’s the only way to do a festival.

It was a strong bill, with powerful performances from The Gaslight Anthem, Mark Lanegan and The Joy Formidable. But it’s the Foos I’ll always remember. They’ve always been on top form at Reading, and this was the best I’ve ever seen them. I don’t say that lightly: I’ve caught the Foos at tiny fanclub gigs, at secret acoustic shows. It was on the Main Stage last year that they showed what they were made of. Rock, mostly.

The moment that shines for me was during “The Best Of You”, when the crowd roared the refrain back at them for a full minute. They shut off the kit and just listened. The noise was incredible, a physical thing that hit me in the guts, and brought tears pricking to my eyes. A raucous, celebratory night. The Reading Festival at its absolute best.

(That was shot by Clare. That’s how good a position we were in. Can you blame me for bragging?)


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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