Reading Festival 2012

Alt-J spring a surprise
BBC Introducing, Friday, 14:40

Alt-J turned up early and eager to make their Reading debut three hours ahead of their scheduled slot. The crowd initially seem nonplussed as the a cappella harmonies of ‘Interlude I’ struggle against the earth-shaking noise emanating from the main stage, but the band riding high on their acclaimed debut ‘An Awesome Wave’ soon win them over. When they close their short set with the smooth groove of ‘Matilda’ newly-converted fans form triangles with their fingers and chant for more. A brief introduction, but Alt-J are shaping up for bigger things.

The Cure’s marathon victory
Main Stage, Friday, 21:00

“Thank you, and hello… again,” smiles Robert Smith, cloaked in mist and mystery, as The Cure return to Reading Festival after a third-of-a-century wait. He’d promised that their epic two-and-a-half hour headlining set would be an education for the band’s young fans and they didn’t hold back from delving deep into their back catalogue. Most of the audience weren’t even born the last time The Cure played here, in 1979, but timeless classics like ‘In Between Days’ and ‘The Lovecats’ have every soul in the field twirling and waltzing. At other times, Smith’s kohl-rimmed eyes seem close to tears. ‘Pictures Of You’ is so deeply sad it makes you wonder how he summons the emotional fortitude to sing it show-in, show-out. The sinister ‘Lullaby’ is a work of condensed theatre. He doesn’t talk much or pause long between songs, but Smith still manages to throw in a few flashes of humour. “At least it’s the right day, eh?” he shrugs before the glorious ‘Friday I’m In Love’. The band around him are on imperious form, with ex-Bowie sideman Reeves Gabrels on guitar and bassist Simon Gallup stalking the stage like Paul Simonon in his prime. Gallup’s best moment is ‘The Forest’ which he ends by tearing at his bass like a lumberjack hacking up wood. Inevitably there are times during the sprawling set that the pace slackens and the atmosphere lulls, but it’s never long before the band shake themselves out of it. If the main set is designed to teach and test the fans, the triumphant encore is their reward. ‘The Lovecats’ is so irresistibly danceable that even the most lethargic camper finds their feet moving. Perhaps the band are nodding to their own and the audience’s stamina when they suggest ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, but they still find time for ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ and an ecstatic ‘Boy’s Don’t Cry’. Before that final song, Smith says: “33 years on and still standing here singing…” As he leaves he adds: “See you again!” Hopefully sooner this time.

Enter Shikari smash the ‘System…’
Main Stage, Saturday, 17:30

Rou Reynolds has only been onstage for about 45 seconds when he decides to leap off it. Enter Shikari’s opening double punch of ‘System…’ and ‘…Meltdown’ has just begun and their hyperactive frontman is already throwing himself, still head-banging, from not just the stage but any raised platform in sight. It’s a hell of an entrance, and the assembled masses cheer the band like returning heroes fresh from battle. “We are Enter Shikari. We’ve been abusing musical genres using technology since 2003,” says Rou by way of introduction, “What are you saying, Reading?” What Reading is saying is that they’re as ready as he is to throw themselves around to tunes like ‘Sorry, You’re Not A Winner’ and ‘Destabilise’. The band keep faith with the setlist that’s proved so successful for them across festival shows this summer, and pounding riffs and beats flow into each other seamlessly. The only times Rou ceases his perpetual motion is when he grabs hold of the huge dashboard he has set up on stage to drop the band’s mighty dubstep wobble. It has more knobs and dials to twiddle than the cockpit of a Concorde, and it’s just as likely to smash the sound barrier. Before ‘Juggernauts’ Rou announces: “A few years ago we broke the world record for crowd surfing to this song.” They come close to breaking that record again as hundreds of bodies ride the wave towards the stage. They don’t curb their impassioned rhetoric on the big stage, and while ‘Gandhi Mate, Gandhi’ Rou tells the adoring crowd: “Our lives begin to end the moment we fall silent about the things that matter.” The rain starts to fall but it can’t dampen the spirits of the tightly-packed audience and it soon stops trying. “There are 627,000 hours in an average human lifespan,” Rou informs us before ‘Zzzonked’, “We appreciate so much that you spent one of those hours with us.” Nobody seems to regret their choice. This is the band’s fourth year running playing Reading, and while on ‘Destabilise’ they sing: “We don’t belong here” they can’t be talking about the main stage. Thousands of moshing fans say this is exactly where they belong.

At The Drive-In finally take command
NME Stage, Saturday, 22:15

Cedric Bixler-Zavala arrives onstage pushing a broom. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he asks the audience in mock surprise, “We still have to clean this fucker.” Tidying up after The Cribs hacked apart their instruments isn’t exactly what he would’ve expected from their long-awaited return to the UK, but he’s in high spirits. “I just got in from Vegas and guess whose ass I was taking photos of?” he jokes. The band launch into ‘Arcarsenal’ to open a set mainly drawn from ‘Relationship Of Command’. They admit it’s “kind of funny” to be touring the album 12 years on and it’s nowhere near the biggest crowd the NME stage sees over the weekend, but the adoring faithful never thought they’d see this. The band themselves still seem unsure about their reunion. Guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López spends the entire show looking like he’s stuck with a charmless man at a party he’d rather not be at. Thank God for Cedric, who moves like he’s getting an electric shock every time he touches the floor. The band might not be having the time of their lives, but even Omar’s frown can’t dent the sheer visceral power of closers ‘Catacombs’ and ‘One Armed Scissor’.

Originally published in NME, 29 August 2012.