Disclaimer: This is the editor’s top to bottom overview, in the coming week we will produce in-depth reviews of individual bands from a variety of staff members. So don’t be upset if your favourite band doesn’t get the full treatment first time around.
No matter how fantastic Matt Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme and Dominic Howard have become in the live arena, you couldn’t help but let out a little groan when the name Muse appeared atop the Reading line up.
No one doubts Muse’s callibre, nor their crowd pulling power, but since their ground breaking Radiohead inspired show at Reading 2006 the band simply haven’t gone away. They’ve headlined *deep breath* Isle Of Wight, Wembley Stadium, V Festival, Glastonbury, and Wembley Stadium twice more. To say the band is over exposed is an understatement; Muse had to make tonight’s Reading performance more than “just another Muse show” in the band’s perpetual carrousel of headline dates.
That something came in the form of Origin Of Symmerty, played in full. The mere prospect of performing their ten year old classic clearly had Muse on edge, as the band promptly decided to stop the BBC from showing the set in full, fearing that they’d be “rusty”. After a gloriously crooked and unnerving Tom Waits intro Muse bound on stage showing no signs of rust, as “New Born” rips Reading asunder with uncanny ease.
From then on in a new Muse is revealed, the spiraling solos are still there, but this Muse is leaner, terser, more muscular, and less flabby. Shedding the indulgence of The Resistence, and to a lesser extent Black Holes And Revelations, the band now appear tyrannical. There’s a monolithic totalitarian beauty to “Bliss”, “Citizen Erazed” and “Hyper Music”. Tonight Muse’s music is fulfilling it’s original ambition, it’s surging out into the void, it’s filling every space, conquering each and every new territory with a primal sawing zeal.
The dynamics are crisp and delicious. “Darkshine” and “Meglomania” feel stark and chilling, so meager, and incestuous next to their mammoth counterparts; they creep, they un-settle, and they are accompanied by a myriad of demented head tilting images.
Then faster than you can say “Plug In Baby” Origin Of Symmerty is gone, the foghorns and police sirens shriek, and it’s time for “Uprising” to get the party started. While Muse now appear predictable, running through their hits at a canter, there’s still room for the Devonshire band to show their muscle. “Hysteria” strains every remaining sinew in their audiences bodies before “Stockholm Syndrome” and the brilliant “Helsinki Jam” blow their collective minds.
There are lulls, by this point it becomes entirely apparent that Matt Bellamy’s stage banter is still unsettling similar to that of an anonymous club deejay, while The Resistance efforts “Undisclosed Desires” and “The Resistances” manage to suck the life out of a truly mammoth crowd with their sheer silliness. Thankfully we’re spared the revolving platforms as “Time Is Running Out” and “Knights Of Cyndonia” arrive just in time to shoot the set back into the stratosphere. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a performance for the ages. [4.5/5.0]
Elbow are Reading veterans. When you think Guy Garvey, you might picture a stocky drunkard in a Somerset field, but believe it or not, it’s Reading and Leeds who’ve welcomed Elbow back time and time again. The Manchester band, who are still riding high on the success of both The Seldom Seen Kid and that magical Glastonbury performance, have been enjoying a six year leave of absence from Reading festival, the longest in their history, and come Sunday evening it was about time they made their return.
Had Reading changed in their absence? Were they still a Reading band? Well, yes it had, no they kind of aren’t, but frankly, it didn’t matter in the slightest. Elbow are a great band first and foremost, and no matter how skeptical the crowd, they were here to conquer, and that’s exactly what they did. With a front man as charmingly humble as Guy Garvey it seemed that Elbow could get away with murder, and while the crowd interaction games were fun, it was the scale and callibre of anthems “Grounds For Divorce”, “Neat Little Rows”, “Lippy Kids” and “Open Arms” that really stole the show. By the end of the set victory was so thoroughly assured that “One Day Like This” felt like an afterthought, well almost. [4.0/5.0]
DFA 1979’s return may have been hotly anticipated but the NME tent crowd that greeted them was less than stellar. Nevertheless the bass and drums dou persevered with a wild and entirely ragged set that ended with a brutal reading of “Do It!” [3.5/5.0]
Interpol on the other hand, could hardly expect a heroes welcome after a lackluster main stage outing in 2007, but despite playing to a noticeably smaller crowd the New York gloom merchants rediscovered the form that once made them America’s most exciting prospects. “Lights” monolithic misery fitted perfectly alongside well established fan favourites “Evil” and “C’mere”, while the closing combo of “Slow Hands” and “Obstacle 1” reminded the world that Interpol can be visceral and fun, as well as considered and clever. [3.5/5.0]
And Reading Festival 2011’s award for sticking out like a sore thumb goes to….CocknBullKid. Despite admitting to being more than a little scared of her audience, the pop starlet launches into a blistering set that is nothing short of euphoric. Full of catchy pop hooks, intoxicating beats, easy to copy dance moves, and a central strength of character, the Kid found Reading’s Festival Republic Stage crowd surprisingly responsive. Immediate thrills might be the order of the day, but it’s Anita Blay’s flair for turning gender conventions on their head that steals the show, as she admits to being a bitch and an arsehole on the brilliant “I Deserve It”. [4.0/5.0]
The Reading Main Stage has become notorious for bad sound, particularly on the left hand side (stage right), and no one was worse victimized in 2011 than Friendly Fires. Let’s not over egg the omellette however, we all knew going into this set that the party sounds of Pala would get lost in the open air of the main stage (see The Streets in 2006), but few could have expected a mix this bass heavy or bad.
Surprisingly, far from dampening Friendly Fires and their surprisingly huge audience’s spirits, it seems to spur them on. Lead singer Ed is content to dance his arse off, forcing everyone in attendance to have a good time as the hits just keep on coming. Oddly, while “Skelton Boy” and “Paris” produce the big sing-alongs it’s the club tinged “Haiwain Air”, “Live Those Days Tonight” and “Kiss Of Life” that get the most fervent response, sending the crowd into a state of ambrosia. [3.0/5.0]
Warpaint have no sound issues worry about, as the female four piece groove their way hypnotically through an awe inspiring forty minute set. The melodies have a disenchanted beauty and when the girls harmonize they posses a steely bite, and there’s a distinct drifting aquatic quality to their bass led odysseys. Despite omitting a whole host of fan favourites in favour in newer offerings and extended jams, Warpaint appear peerless on the NME stage.
Their set glides from the dark depths to the glorious heights with a haunting, and entirely organic, composed ease. When Warpaint do unleash the hits they appear unparralled. The decision to drop directly from the straining yearning chimes of “Composure” into the sultry and magnanimous coos of “Undertow” is a masterstroke. Warpaint are an unqualified triumph; the most beautifully elusive set of the entire weekend. [4.5/5.0]
Off! find themselves playing to a tiny and largely confused crowd in the Lock Up tent. So much so that the band are actually mistaken for their own roadies and are forced to sarcastically introduce themselves to bemused masses. Still, while the crowd may have been small the hardcore supergroups sound was massive. “I Don’t Belong” is an urgent anthem whether it’s being played to one or one thousand, and Off! provided one of the festival’s most poignant moments with a loving tribute to “Jeffrey Lee Pierce” proving a mid-set highlight. [3.0/5.0] Meanwhile over on the BBC Introducing stage Rae Morris reaped the rewards of following an Ed Sheeran secret set, pleasing a large crowd with her strained but sadly unispired piano ballads. [2.5/5.0]
Little Comets are an absolute hit on the Festival Republic stage, they might not be the most original act of the weekend, but their beautiful yelp-coo dynamics have a big mid day crowd clapping and dancing like their lives depended on it, to the brilliant “Joanna” and the less intriguing but undeniable enjoyable “Dancing Song”. [3.5/5.0]
Dutch Uncles bring some much-needed bombast to proceedings with their peculiar mix of keys and guitars. At times they judder onwards as if charged by stadium ambitions, and in other moments they are happy to rip it up like a 21st Century Devo. Whatever their true intentions, one thing’s for sure, Dutch Uncles did themselves proud in front of a largely alien audience. [3.0/5.0]
Ambition is an alien concept for Best Coast. They don’t deal in grand gestures, or slick showmanship, instead Beth Cosentino potters onstage, crinkles her nose endearingly, and blows through a series of sun soaked ditties with plenty of growling reverb. “Boyfriend” and “Goodbye” are as irresistible as ever, but it’s the soft sway of “Summer Mood” and “The End” that get the crowd cloudy eyed and clapping. “Each And Every Day” is transformed into a we-don’t-do-epic, epic finale, as the crowd are sent on their way with smiles on their faces and unshakeable melodies on their minds. [3.5/5.0]
Fucked Up were born to play live, and while the gap between audience and lead singer Pink Eyes just feels plain wrong, it doesn’t stop the band from unleashing a vital early morning set. In fact, with the security blanket of wild stage interaction removed, Fucked Up are free to demonstrate the strength of their art, and thankfully, it never falters as early morning circle pits ensue. [3.5/5.0]
Strictly Our Opinion: Sunday topped of a weekend of really good, if not quite great music. There was a pleasing mix between invention, innovation, artistry, and good old fashion pop hits. It wasn’t a blockbuster day, or a blockbuster year, but Reading 2011 delivered on everything it promised and more. Aspirations may have been low, but it’s better to surpass expectation than to underwhelm.
Some will undoubtedly label Reading 2011 tame, and I can appreciate that argument, but for me at least, it was pleasant, engaging, and welcoming, three adjectives that I haven’t ascribed to Reading for the best part of four years. Without doubt, there will be calls for a more stacked line up in 2012, and while I wouldn’t object to the Foo Fighters, Green Days and RHCPs of the world, I hope Reading Festival shuns expectation, and continues to innovate.