Music Features

Reading Festival 2011

The weekend camping tickets for this year's Reading Festival took more than four months to sell out. By way of contrast, in 2008 and 2009, the weekend tickets sold out in a matter of hours. Speaking to people on- and off-site, the consensus seemed to be that the reason the tickets had taken so long to sell is because the headliners for this year's festival were considerably weaker than they have been in previous years. And they may have a point.

The headliners for this year's festival were My Chemical Romance, The Strokes and Muse. There's no debating that Muse have the experience and the following to justify a headline slot, but do MCR and The Strokes? It's worth noting that at BBC Radio 1's Big Weekend earlier in the year (a free, much smaller festival run by BBC Radio 1), both MCR and The Strokes appeared, but neither headlined the main stage. If a comparatively small (and free) event such as the Big Weekend can land bigger headline acts, then it begs the question - why did Reading choose MCR and the Strokes as headliners? After all, Reading is a well-established, internationally famous festival with a capacity of nearly 90,000 people. And with a weekend ticket costing nearly £200 ($324), it's not cheap.

It's not as if the proceeds from ticket sales go towards a huge number of stages either. In fact, given the cost of a weekend ticket is greater than a ticket to the Latitude festival, the only other Festival Republic festival I have attended, I find it strange that Reading has far fewer stages/arenas and a much narrower choice of activities than Latitude. There was also no music available before Friday, so on the Thursday night, the campers had very little to keep them entertained, other than a campsite fairground and copious amounts of alcohol (be drinkaware, people).

Because there were so few stages, when a popular act was on anything other than the main stage, there was a good chance of being uncomfortably packed in or having people constantly push in from behind. This was especially true when the act on the main stage wasn't popular, which happened several times over the weekend. It was also the case on the Friday for most of the acts on the Dance Stage.

For a festival with a reputation as a rock festival, I was surprised at how frequently the Dance Stage tent filled out so much. This was even the case for acts I considered not to be especially popular, such as Sub Focus (who, incidentally, was fantastic). Festival Republic would do well to expand the capacity of the Dance Stage in future years.

Reading Festival tends to attract a younger crowd than most festivals. However, this doesn't mean that the crowd behave in an unreasonably immature fashion. The crowd features a lot more people pushing and shoving than you would find at your average festival. But the sheer energy in the young crowd makes watching the sets all the more exciting.

And so, to the music. To try and make comments about all the artists I saw over the weekend would make this feature far too long. I'm going to limit my musings to those sets I found most disappointing, and those that blew me away.

I'll start with the negatives, because these were thankfully very few. My Chemical Romance is the first. Drawing the smallest headline crowd I have ever seen at Reading, MCR had a disappointingly dull atmosphere which led me and my friend to abandon the set midway through. The National also drew a small crowd, and made little effort to look as though they were enjoying the gig. In both cases, the songs were performed well, but the sets were largely uninteresting.

I was impressed by so many artists over the course of the weekend, but special mention has to go to the following five.

The first is OFWGKTA, also known as Odd Future or Wolf Gang. The atmosphere in the NME Radio 1 tent (the largest festival tent in Europe), when the hip hop beats started up is almost indescribable. Seeing tens of thousands of people bounce and shout “Wolf Gang” at the top of their lungs is something I never imagined I would enjoy as much as I did. Their set got the crowd riled up and I felt exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure when it had all finished.

I also enjoyed Death From Above 1979. Reading was lucky enough to host one of the retired band's comeback shows this year, and their set at Reading was powerful, heavy and well appreciated by all their fans. On this occasion, the tent was far from full, but the atmosphere was still electric.

My other three choices are, perhaps, more predictable. First off, Elbow. I'd heard that Elbow's live performances were remarkable, but I wasn't convinced that the often dulcet tones and gentle instrumentation of Elbow would translate to a festival environment. Mid-afternoon, maybe, but as a warm-up for the headliners Muse? Needless to say, I was wrong. Guy Garvey's charm, wit and incredible live singing voice made the faultless performance feel like it was taking place in your front room, rather than in front of tens of thousands of people. A joy to watch and a shame the set wasn't longer.

Muse were even more impressive. Unfortunately, in order to catch the train home, I wasn't able to see their whole set but what I did see was more than enough to confirm my belief that Muse are the best live act I've ever seen. Technically and musically brilliant, the band performed 2001's Origin of Symmetry in its entirety before moving onto a greatest hits set. If you haven't seen Muse live, trust me when I say you must.

My final mention is for Pulp. I've never been a fan of Pulp and, indeed, rather disliked Jarvis Cocker when I was younger. But their set at Reading has completely changed my opinion of them. It was absolutely electric. Largely helped by the incredibly enthusiastic crowd, Pulp's performance made it hard to believe they'd been out of the public eye for so long before this year. With their elaborate performance, they put headliners The Strokes to shame.

Reading Festival is very much a music fan's festival. Large enough to attract a lot of decent names to the bill, but smaller than Glastonbury, so it's easier to hop from one stage to another. Hopefully, Reading will learn from the issues surrounding this year's festival and have a stronger line-up next year, including much better acts on the main stage to spread the festival-goers more evenly over the site. They could also use a larger Dance Tent. If they can sort these issues then I know for sure, I'll be back.