Post Malone’s one-man pity party and a low-key Slowthai made this a haphazard Saturday at Reading and Leeds
The time has come for Reading & Leeds to confront its deepest secret. Since the rock, metal and indie tribes dissipated to the point where they could no longer sustain it, this has been the pop festival that dare not speak its name. In other words, it’s the Top Shop Ramones t-shirt of weekends. Not yet ready to come out to its root fanbase and go full Lizzo, it has tended towards hosting pop acts with the outward trappings of alternative culture – green hair, guitars, facial tattoos. But where once there was a dedicated metal day each R&L, come 2021 there is a bill of thinly disguised chart pop on Saturday. Berkshire’s very own Bastille Day.
They ease us in noisily. Manchester’s The Hara, opening Main Stage West, are a bona fide punk metal typhoon of leather miniskirts, blue mohicans and slashes of black nipple tape. And that’s just singer Josh Taylor. He celebrates his first Reading appearance by trying to stage dive into a crowd just five deep, a face-plant which only enhances his dirt-chewing vocals for the rest of the set. Ireland’s fresh-faced The Academic, meanwhile, fit the clean-cut faux-indie formula, while You Me At Six find an inclusive niche equidistant between screamo thrash-rock and boyband balladeering.
The day’s slim rock serving culminates with Beabadoobee, authentically recreating the sound of Reading 1993. Adorable right down to the stick-on tooth sparkles and jelly bear earring – even her in-ear monitor is glittered – she’s out to relive the grunge-pop glory days of Juliana Hatfield, Madder Rose and Hole; refreshing on record and, on this stage, like watching the entire festival have a soft-focus flashback. Even when indulging her crafty Taylor Swift side on “Coffee” (a viral hit thanks to its sampling on lo-fi rapper Powfu’s mega-hit “Coffee for Your Head”) and “Sorry”, she’s never far from an orchestral noise coda of which Smashing Pumpkins would be proud.
Leicester’s Easy Life point Saturday’s compass into less choppy waters. Titles like “Daydreams” and “Life’s a Beach” very much capture their mood: lovely if somnolent R&B jazz-pop that speaks of modern youth concerns like FaceTime and white ciders, but sounds like the work of Barry White’s introverted lodgers. Languid and loose, they’re clearly unprepared for the rigours of Reading; singer Murray Matravers learns the hard way why one should never crowd-surf in baggy pyjama trousers.
Then, mid-afternoon, The Voice graduate Becky Hill strides onto Main Stage West in neon pink spanx; Reading’s rave-pop heart bursts clean out of its vintage cagoule. Between vaguely Ian Brown speeches celebrating the end of social distancing and mask rules (in the middle of wave three, no less), she pumps out by-numbers Ibiza Weekender favourites that go down a storm on the Pepsi Max tower that’s sprung up where the none-more-punk Lock Up tent used to be.
Today that tent is renamed The Pit and repositioned off the main drag, catering to the punk and metal crowd who, bar a handful of diehards, haven’t turned up this year. Nonetheless it provides haven for the hardcore from the coming pop onslaught. Here we find Bobby Vylan, singer of grime-punk duo Bob Vylan (his drumming partner is called Bobbi Vylan), parading the stage draped in a tattered Union flag yelling “this country’s in need of a good f***ing spanking” and “Kill the queen! She killed Diana!” between bursts of pummeling electronic rage-rock tackling nationalism, terrorism and wage slavery. If anything is the anti-Sigrid, it is this.
Not that anyone could really be anti-Sigrid. On a side-of-stage camera pre-gig, the impish Norwegian singer looks painfully wracked with nerves, yet the instant she bounds out she owns the stage as if that very second inheriting the lease. Charm incarnate, she throws herself into sophisticated Scandi pop hits like “Don’t Feel Like Crying” and “Mine Right Now” with such undiluted joy and emotion that you wonder if Norwegian lockdown measures have banned any contact with sunlight since March 2020.
She certainly trumps the glorified Yates’s Wine Lodge DJ set of slick, conveyor belt R&B party rap phoned in by Australian rapper and Juice Wrld associate The Kid Laroi. Notable only as conclusive proof that gunshot effects alone cannot a visceral and dangerous rap performance make, his agonisingly dull 40 minutes are the nadir of the day, if not the festival’s entire 50-year history. And The Darkness headlined in 2004.
Talking of darkness, Slowthai arrives shrouded in it. “I’ve got a dad bod now” the Northampton rapper tells the crowd, flaunting his new lockdown belly. The pandemic seems to have snuffed his chirpy geezer vivacity too. Once prone to prancing around stages wearing nothing but his own branded boxer shorts and a sly grin, today he spends much of his set looking hunched and haunted. The likes of “DEAD” and “CANCELLED” – his response to the online backlash against his inappropriate behaviour at the 2020 NME Awards – are attacked with the anger and intensity of the post-vilification Eminem, circa The Marshall Mathers LP.
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The sense that he’s been broken by events both personal and global is only intensified by his choice of screen visuals. During a furious new track called “Gynaecologist”, the idyllic family homestead on the backdrop burns to the ground. But before we can construct a sign reading “Everything alright at home?”, the toothy smile creeps back, he insists everyone necks any intoxicants they have to hand and the playfulness of old returns for a trash-hop “Doorman” and a charge through his effervescent Gorillaz collaboration “Momentary Bliss”.
With Slowthai conquering his identity crisis with ease, come early evening Reading & Leeds is forced to face up to its own. Scheduling The Wombats and Two Door Cinema Club back-to-back exposes the fundamental flaw at the root of the modern festival. These are the two bands, more than any other, which originated R&L’s current sonic blueprint. They both draw mammoth party crowds with hit-crammed sets and viral TikTok smashes in “Greek Tragedy” and “What You Know” respectively. They’re also both monumental fun live. The Wombats have perfected the balance between infectious indie power-pop, tragi-comic confessional, en vogue EDM grooves and pure novelty – the stage is regularly invaded by marsupials dancing along or shredding guitar solos. Two Door, meanwhile, have fabulously reinvented themselves as a retro-futurist lounge band, singer Alex Trimble now sporting the turtle-neck and moustache of a debonaire Sixties orchestral-pop dandy.
Yet neither have been promoted to the headline slot, as if R&L is still struggling to admit to its guitar-pop past. Instead, following a dazzling Disclosure set featuring drum troupes, brass bands and guests appearing virtually on the cuboid screen for maximum Covid safety, Saturday’s bill is topped by exactly the same guy as at the last event in 2019. Tattoo-heavy LA soul rapper Post Malone may have picked up a billion or so extra streams over lockdown but it hasn’t made him any more dynamic a headline act. His one-man pity party show is unchanged from two years ago, other than, crucially, singing the first song on top of the half-lowered lighting rig. For 80 minutes he meanders the stage necking drinks (cue fireworks!) and muttering to himself about what a great time he’s having. When he gets around to a song, he has two gears: polished, mildly autotuned R&B pop (“Better Now”, “Circles”), and minimalist, impassioned hardship raps that see him bent double over his microphone. It’s as though songs like “Over Now” and “Too Young” are eating their way out of him from the inside.
It’s sporadically entertaining. Ozzy Osbourne makes a guest appearance onscreen for the metal tainted “Take What You Want” and Malone ends “Rockstar” by smashing up a – clearly quite cheap – acoustic guitar in a blaze of pyrotechnic flames. But after 18 months in front of the TV, we’re tired of repeats. Time for R&L to ring the post-pandemic changes.