Headliner Liam Gallagher has ascended to former glory and, since Noel clearly doesn’t want it, claimed Oasis as his own
Without holding a parade of wicker effigies of Meatloaf, Daphne and Celeste and 50 Cent to a ritualistic bottling ceremony, Sunday is about as traditional as Reading 2021 is going to get. Hot Milk are a bracing punk pop wake-up call; The Struts a retro glam blast of Seventies boogie rock’n’roll and AC/DC solos – “I’m a wild child born under a blood red moon!” insists wizard-sleeved singer Luke Spiller, a next-gen Freddie Mercury born in Bristol. Wrexham’s Neck Deep deliver an infectious and hyper emo-rock battery, while Hertfordshire’s The Hunna hammer through 25 minutes of gnarled, chiming grunge rock and leave the stage wearing the remains of their guitar necks as scarves. Despite a smattering of rappers (Russ Millions, Arizona Zervas) and YouTubers (KSI), honey, rock’s home.
The festival outskirts also come alive. On the BBC Introducing Stage, Brighton’s Fur are reviving Fifties prom rock’n’roll (as played by Muse), and the irrepressible Lauren Hibberd is following Beabadoobee’s lead into Nineties alt-pop, high-kicking away her heartbreak on “Boy Bye” and “How am I Still Alive” in a frilly green skirt. You’d call it Glee grunge if it didn’t have such depth and promise. Elsewhere, for one day only, the Festival Republic stage returns, where Sheffield’s Sophie and the Giants imagine what might happen if Florence + The Machine ever went goth disco and a hefty crowd seek refuge from Tom Grennan’s uninspired gospel pop at a secret set of skiffle sway-alongs from Jake Bugg. By “Lightning Bolt” they’re climbing the tent poles, but that may just be in case Tom Grennan comes to get them.
Replacing Machine Gun Kelly, who is stuck in the US, Blossoms are the band for people who yearned for an infinitesimally more dangerous Keane. That their keyboard podium is festooned with the word LOVE signifies the vaguely hippie air of their weightless indie synthpop, and though they try to beef things up on “Between The Eyes” with a slab of corroded noir rock and a coda of New Order’s “Blue Monday” they remain forgettably lovely. Like tiramisu.
Blossoms could learn a thing or two from Wolf Alice – as, indeed, could all contemporary rock acts. These London wonders and Mercury Prize regulars aren’t yet fully recognised as the cultural sea-change act they are, pioneering the art of mastering all genres for rock’s post-tribal age. They open with the coruscating rap punk of “Smile” – singer Ellie Rowsell snarling “you thought I was a puppet on strings?” at anyone incapable of looking past the pink mini-dress to see the most important songwriter of her generation – then drift seamlessly into the dreampop “Bros”, the wiry funk of “Beautifully Unconventional” and the, frankly, Bedouin doom metal of “Formidable Cool”. Rowsell herself is not so much chameleonic as lycanthropic; in a blink she transforms from howling go-go punk queen on “Play The Greatest Hits” to vulnerable romantic for the Haim-like “How Can I Make it OK?” and a euphoric “The Last Man on Earth”. They’re simply sensational: all we need now is for TikTok to pull its finger out and make them megastars.
If Wolf Alice are, pretty inarguably, the best rock act to emerge from the UK in a decade or more, Yungblud is easily the most excitable. If you’re unfamiliar with what a “Yungblud” is, strap in. Imagine a gender fluid, sci-fi Keith Flint character, if it was written by Victoria Wood. In a leather miniskirt and cut-off Cramps t-shirt, the Doncaster punk loudmouth careens across the stage like it’s a 100-foot playpen, spraying water into the film cameras, bawling “f*** Covid!” as if you could scream yourself immune and prompting people to literally somersault across the circle pits. His band tear through an intense mash-up of trash punk, electro lad rock and ska metal as if trying to keep up with him, but there’s inspired method behind his madness. Who else has thought to fuse “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Wonderwall”, as Yungblud does on new song “Fleabag”? And debut it to Liam Gallagher’s audience to boot?
Over on Main Stage East, Gerry Cinnamon acts as official warm-up for Gallagher, his enthusiastic acoustic folk, Merseybeat and rock’n’roll accompanied by Yellow Submarine style visuals. Main Stage West headliners Biffy Clyro, however, have no intention of being so easy for him to follow. Album by album the Scottish rockers have been accumulating one of the most enormous and powerful festival setlists known to man. “Biblical” and “Mountains” review themselves, while the likes of “Black Chandelier” achieve that rare synthesis of emotive subtlety and chantable bombast that marks out the finest hardcore talents. Truncating their set to 75 minutes only concentrates its impact, and all manner of Guggenheim-worthy visuals – chunky pixels, geometric webs, acid effects – emphasise their ambitions to become melodic metal modern art.
There are no pretensions to Liam Gallagher’s headline set, though. He conducts the behind-the-scenes walk to the stage of an ex-championship boxer seeking vindication, and he knows what’s expected of him. “The tunes are still f***ing cool so they have to be done,” he explains of Oasis’s more timeless hits. And he does them – and his celebratory fanbase – justice.
Previous festival sets have been about establishing himself as a solo act, weighted too heavily towards plugging new songs at the expense of a satisfying Oasis-lite experience. Given the full 90 minutes, however, he strikes the right balance. For an opening rush through “Hello”, “Rock’n’Roll Star” and “Morning Glory” he’s granted indulgence for a chunk of material from his two chart-topping solo albums, themselves becoming embedded into the lexicon despite often bearing the reverent, over-considered sheen of Jeff Lynne’s Beatles. “The River” needs a good dredging and “Why Me? Why Not.” is so shamelessly Lennon it even segues into “Come Together”. But “Shockwave” is suitably sleazy and “Once” hits at the heart, despite its moments of millionaire whining about how much happier Gallagher was poor. This, to a crowd that has just had to re-mortgage to buy chips.
Those soon give way to the torrent of Oasis songs that Reading has been gasping for since the band’s last appearance two decades ago. “Supersonic” still sounds like the first shot of a revolution, “Cigarettes & Alcohol” shows no sign of cirrhosis and “Stand By Me” strides out still confident that no one present has ever heard “All the Young Dudes”. Come “Live Forever” (dedicated to the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts) and a second encore of “Wonderwall”, Liam has ascended to former glory and, since Noel clearly doesn’t want it, claimed Oasis as his own. Like all the best comedians, Reading 2021 closes with a killer throwback.