This week’s blog is a special edition for two reasons; first, it’s all about the Reading Rock Festival, and second, it’s the last one I’m planning on writing for a while (but more on that later). So without further ado, here are my thoughts on this year’s Reading Fest.
Now if you’ve come here looking for an unbiased, objective account of the 2009 Reading Festival you’re shit out of luck, as I love this fest with every fibre of my being. As well as being the first one I ever attended back in 1992 (when Nirvana and Public Enemy headlined – what a great year to make a debut), it’s also the festival that I’ve been to more than any other (this was my 14th), and the one that I’ll keep going to until I’m physically incapable of doing so. There’s something about the place that’s special to me – it feels like a spiritual home – the majority of the people that go there are music fans rather than scenesters, and the line-up has never failed to excite. But one of the key things I’ve learnt over the years is that the main (outdoor) stage is best avoided wherever possible, as both the sound and atmosphere on the other stages (which are all inside giant tents) is usually vastly superior. Thus even though I was a big fan of all the main stage headliners (Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, and Radiohead), I decided to give them a miss and head for more esoteric fair elsewhere. So with that in mind here are my edited highlights of this years Reading, in no particular order:
Faith No More
The last time I saw Faith No More was back in the mid nineties at the short-lived Phoenix Festival with my mate Daz (who I share a long list of festival memories with), where in a highly inebriated state we ended up shouting ‘play the one we know’ until the suitably titled ‘Epic’ duly arrived. Safe to say, I was a bit more aware of the band’s output this time around, thus it was a no brainer to go and catch them headline the NME Stage on the first night. Having reformed against all expectations (the band apparently hated each other when they split in the late nineties), I was initially impressed by how accomplished these guys were as musicians, fusing elements of hard rock, funk, hip-hop, punk, and even jazz into a cohesive whole, but the show stealer was lead singer Mike Patton, who stalked the stage in a red suit while carrying a cane, his vocal range impressive, his vocal style commanding. The set was fantastic, taking in classic tracks like ‘Be Aggressive’, ‘From Out Of Nowhere’, the aforementioned ‘Epic’, and their faithful cover of Lionel Ritichie’s ‘Easy’, and it was a great way to close out the first night. Minor gripes? No rendition of ‘We Care A Lot’ in the encore, and where the hell was the crowd? But even though the tent was only half full, the atmosphere was still great, and when I heard that KoL’s main stage headlining set had been beset by sound problems, I allowed myself a wry smile.
The Manchester Orchestra
Jumping back in time to earlier that day, the first great band I saw was The Manchester Orchestra, again on the NME Stage. Despite their name, The Manchester Orchestra hail from Atlanta, Georgia, and take their cue from the likes of Nirvana, Weezer, and Foo Fighters, creating a sonic landscape from their multi layered, wall of noise guitar sound. I’d caught them earlier this summer at the Latitude Festival where they’d impressed, but this time around I thought they moved up another level (maybe because of the more receptive crowd, maybe because I recognised some of their songs, maybe a little of both), and I came away vowing to purchase their back catalogue in a hurry.
Canadian punk rock gods Alexisonfire (pronounced ‘Alexis on fire’ rather than ‘Alex is on fire’ – something I’m still trying to come to terms with) played the Lock Up Stage on Friday night. The Lock Up is one of the smaller venues at Reading, and for two of the three days it specialises in punk rock music (on the third it inexplicably morphes into a dance zone). In years gone by I’d been lapse at checking out the bands that were playing there (although I did manage to catch The Gaslight Anthem early afternoon in 2008), largely because I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the acts and there was always enough to keep me busy elsewhere, but this year I was keen to spend more time in what I’d come to realise was one of the tightest, most passionate stages at the Fest. Alexisonfire are a great example of all that I’ve just said. I didn’t know a thing about them going in, but the tent was rammed, and my three compadres (Lisa, Jay, and designer of this very website, Chris) and I quickly discovered that we were the only people present that didn’t know every word to every song. Hell, this band are good – songs that I’d never heard before sounded familiar by the time they were halfway through, the sound was great (loud guitar riffs that cut you to the core, impassioned vocals that soared above the melody), and the dedication of their fanbase made me feel humble to be a in the midst of it. Great stuff – I’m now going to catch them on the Eastpak Antidote tour that’s currently traversing our shores (where support comes from Anti Flag – old school punk rockers that also put on a hell of a show in the Lock Up later that day).
Mariachi El Bronx
So on to Saturday, where the first band up on the main stage was Mariachi El Bronx, but before I talk about them, first a few background words on their alter egos, The Bronx. The Bronx are a punk band from L.A. who absolutely fucking SLAY – hard, heavy, and aggressive, they’ve been making a riotous noise for three albums now, to critical, if not necessarily commercial, acclaim. Coming from LA, they’ve been surrounded by Mexican culture for most of their lives, thus they decided to don some Mariachi suits and record an album of traditional Mexican music – acoustic guitars, horns, strings, the works – how punk rock is that? One (lazy) criticism often levelled at punk bands is their lack of musicianship, something the Bronx have put firmly to bed with this record. In short, it rocks in a Mariachi stylee, and their appearance at Reading was simply perfect for a sun kissed August midday – classic songs, beautifully performed, I doff my sombrero in their direction.
So having now covered their alter egos, where better to go than to The Bronx themselves, who were playing third from top on the Lock Up Stage later that day. This was a set I’d been really looking forward to, having never seen the band live and only recently got into their stuff. The Bronx are full-on, in your face, mile a minute punk rock – hardcore stuff that’s an assault on the eardrums, but never at the expense of melody, the sort of music that grabs you by the throat, shakes you like a rag doll, then throws you down in a corner leaving you battered, bruised, and smiling – fucking fantastic. Highlights of the set were pretty much anything taken from their third album (which is the one I’m most familiar with), but the tracks ‘Knifeman’ and ‘Past Lives’ are worthy of special mention.
After nipping over to catch a great set from Glasvegas on the NME stage after The Bronx (loud, epic, moving, and worthy of more column inches than I’m giving it here) it was back to the Lock Up to catch Saturday night’s punk headliners Rise Against. This band differs from many of their counterparts by being strict vegetarians/vegans and active supporters of animal rights, as well as being political activists and generally socially aware – topics that are covered in many of their songs. But if you’re immediately thinking ‘oh no, another band forcing their opinions on me’ then have no fear, Rise Against rock and they rock hard, and in the final analysis that’s all you need worry about. The tent was packed for their set, so much so we could only squeeze in on one side, and the atmosphere was electric. An hour or so later we’d moshed to prime cuts from their three major studio albums, with tracks like ‘Ready to Fall’, ‘Re-Education…’ and ‘Rumours of My Demise…’ obliterating all before them, and it was during their set I had one of my moments of this or any festival, as I glanced to my right to see my wife headbanging like a maniac with a huge grin on her face – I’m not exactly sure how I managed to find my soulmate in life, but I’m hugely thankful that I did.
So on to Sunday, and first to get a mention are UK punk heavyweights The Gallows who played on the NME Stage. Before their set I knew a few of their songs and liked a couple, but I’d always found them a little too raw for me, particularly the screaming vocal style of frontman Frank Carter, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting great things. How wrong was I. The Gallows were absolutely fantastic live, really impassioned and connected with the crowd, you could tell that this was a band that meant everything they said, and said everything they wanted to. Best songs were ‘Abandon Ship’ and ‘In The Belly of a Shark’, but the best bit was when Frank got his kid brother out to sing, and was visibly moved by the experience. Top bloke, top band, top gig. And a special mention for my mate Moff at this point, who had much the same thoughts about Gallows as me – it was his first ever Reading, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s caught the bug and will be back next year.
The Gaslight Anthem
As anyone who follows this blog will know, I’m a big fan of The Gaslight Anthem, so I was eagerly anticipating their set on the NME Stage on the Sunday, and as per every other time I’ve seen them they didn’t let me down. In the space of just a year they’ve become one of my favourite bands – blue collar rock ‘n’ rollers from New Jersey following in the Springsteen tradition, their two albums are both great, but it’s as a live act that they’re really something special. This is heart on your sleeve music, tell it like it is music, impassioned, moving, soulful stuff that I really connect to – nostalgic tales of dusty boardwalks and old white Lincolns, each song a four minute lesson in the art of narrative storytelling, and the more you listen, the more substance you’ll find. As I sang along to the barnstorming ’59 Sound’ I found myself choking out the chorus, almost moved to tears by the sheer life affirming nature of both that song and their entire set. Magnificent stuff.
Earlier that day on the NME Stage, Frank Turner had stepped out to play to a very big crowd. Man, just writing that sentence puts a smile on my face. When someone like Frank starts to get the success his huge talent indisputably deserves, you know that you can finally score one for the good guys. The first few times I saw him he was always a support act, taking to the stage with just an acoustic guitar for company, and it was obvious from the off that he was pretty special by the way in which he made a crowd sit up and take notice in a hurry. Frank’s music is best described as punk folk – he’s on a quest to make the phrase ‘singer-songwriter’ cool again, to win it back from the worthy, dull hacks that populate the upper reaches of the charts these days. At Reading, half the crowd were belting out the words to most of the songs – amazing tracks like ‘Photosynthesis’, ‘I Knew Prufrock before he Got Famous’, ‘Reasons Not To Be An Idiot’, ‘The Real Damage’, and the show stopping ‘Long Live the Queen’ – a song about the passing of a close friend that somehow manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time – now that’s talent! If I was close to tears during Gaslight, then I was crying like a little girl during ‘Long Live the Queen’. He even invented the circle jig at one point (like a circle pit but more folky). It’s an indisputable fact that if everyone were a Frank Turner fan, the world would be a better place.
Them Crooked Vultures
And finally, I’d like to tell you about the set played by Them Crooked Vultures. Them Crooked Who? I hear a few of you cry – well for any of you that have been living in a music free zone for the last few weeks, let me explain. Mid afternoon on the Saturday at Reading there was an obvious gap in the line up on the NME Stage, suggesting a ‘surprise’ special guest slot (I say ‘surprise’ as anyone that frequents the excellent efestivals.co.uk forums knew who was filling it well in advance). This was the one gig above all others that my friends and I were desperate to see. A once in a lifetime opportunity to see a band of this stature in a tent, and one that also brought back a swell of great memories for me.
Them Crooked Vultures are a supergroup in the true sense of the word, featuring former Led Zep member John Paul Jones on bass (and other assorted instruments – some of which were so outlandish they looked like they’d come from a mad inventors workshop), Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age on vocals and lead guitar, and adopted son of Reading, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters on drums (plus Alain Johannes of QOTSA on guitar). To get the memories comment out of the way first, the last time I saw Dave Grohl perform in a tent was way back in 1995 when he played his first ever UK festival show as a Foo Fighter at – you’ve guessed it – the Reading Festival, in the very same tent that the Vultures were set to play in 2009. Back in 1995, the tent was truly rammed – not just busy rammed, but people climbing the stanchions to get out of the crush, condensation falling like rain from the ceiling, band stopping every few minutes to appeal for calm rammed – the sort of thing that would give a health and safety official an instant heart attack these days. To this day it remains the most exciting gig I’ve ever been to.
But back to the Vultures. These guys were stand up, knockdown awesome. Incredible musicianship from some of the most talented guys to ever share a stage. Heavy riffage and intricate solos from Josh, John Paul Jones turning his hand to so many different instruments I figure he could get a tune out of lump of charcoal, all rounded out by Dave’s trademark powerhouse drumming, the songs (known of which have yet been released – making the crowd’s ecstatic reaction all the more impressive) took their cue from ‘Songs From The Deaf’ era QOTSA, with a definite Led Zep influence thrown in, and even hints of freeform jazz. It was one of those gigs that it was a plain honour to attend – a history in the making type affair, so to sum it all up in one word, I’ll close my Reading 2009 Festival Review with this: Mindblowing.
The Blog Goes On Hiatus
As I mentioned back at the start of this lengthy review, this is going to be the last blog that I post for a while. I kind of feel that it’s run its course for now, and that my time and yours will be better spent engaged in other pursuits. There may be the odd special edition every now and again, but in the meantime keep an eye on the Latest News section of the site for future updates. I hope that I’ve provided you with some entertainment over the last couple of years, and I sincerely thank you for your support.