Surprise sunshine makes Reading a Red Hot event
Pop Reading Festival Little John’s Farm *****
The best things in life really are free. Or so it seemed as the three-day Reading Festival got under way in a sea of unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, despite some areas of the site still being unusable after the floods last month. As 80,000 people milled around in the gathering piles of detritus, the only glum faces belonged to the vendors of the stall offering wellies, umbrellas and waterproof clothing.
Conditions were sweltering in the Lock Up tent, as Capdown, the band from Milton Keynes, belted through a set of high-energy ska-punk songs to the raucous delight of a feverishly sweating crowd. Their name is short for Capitalist Downfall, a phenomenon of which there was precious little evidence at this event. There was more sloganeering from the curiously named protest singer, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, whose backdrop addressed the conundrum of global economics with the intriguing legend: “Latte £1.89 Ethiopian Farmer 3p: an outdated equation of poverty & exploitation”. Frankly, the chances of picking up a latte, or even a bottle of water, for as little as £1.89 at Reading were nil, never mind an Ethiopian farmer.
In truth, Reading carries little of the counter-cultural baggage that some other big festivals still cling on to, however tenuously. An end-of-summer knees-up for the kids and a works outing for the London music industry, it is a place where the big, usually American, set-piece rock spectacle is king. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, a classic Reading act, did not disappoint, with a headlining set on Saturday that suffered a few technical hiccups but was otherwise dispatched with an air or righteous conviction. Their songs rolled in like giant waves through the warm night air, and several improvised funk-rock grooves lent weight to the theory that the bass player Flea and the drummer Chad Smith are now the greatest rhythm section in rock’n’roll.
Razorlight attempted to mount a show of similar grandiloquence, but descended instead into a vacuous display of showboating. As yet another song took off on a long, meandering vamp, and the bare-chested singer Johnny Borrell’s vainglorious posturing got ever more ponderous and pompous, the crowd around the edges of the main field quietly haemorrhaged into the night.
Kings of Leon gave a livelier account of themselves with their spiky, southern art-boogie, but what the hell had happened to the singer Caleb Followill’s hair? The shaggy rock god had been turned into a pudding-bowled schoolboy. Arcade Fire suffered no image problems as the sprawling Montreal ensemble, led by the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, cranked out their blend of devotional indie-rock with a fervour that inspired a similarly abandoned reaction from the crowd.
Of the many other colourful performances on the smaller stages special mention must go to the Californian group Mad Caddies for their boisterous combination of ska, regge, New Orleans jazz and English music hall, and to the magnificently grey-haired J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr for an outstanding return to grunge-era guitar heroics. The stunt of the weekend came from Biffy Clyro, whose singer, Simon Neil, ended the Scottish group’s set by setting fire to his guitar. It was good to find the spirit of Jimi Hendrix alive and well after all this time in a sun-drenched field in Reading.