Reading is traditionally the most hard rock-friendly of the mainstream festivals, and this year’s feels like an all-you-can-eat banquet of heavy riffs, loud guitars and screaming Japanese cheerleaders. But, as ever, the headliners prove a little patchy, while the more exciting acts are tucked away on the smaller stages.
One of the weekend’s biggest talking points is the short, midday set by divisive Japanese novelty sensations Babymetal, whose exhilarating performance raises loud cheers from a large, all-ages crowd, perhaps because their cute-yet-sinister militaristic dance routines come backed by serious guitar shredders who play blistering speed-metal riffs and skull-splitting blast beats. Babymetal are the Melt-Banana Splits, a brilliant cocktail of demento noise-punk with sugar-saturated teen-pop overload. Of course, it is possible to hate these J-metal pranksters for their calculated brashness, in the same way that some people hate the Ramones, or sunshine, or oxygen. Poor, sad, embittered bastards.
After Babymetal comes Daddymetal, in the shape of Saturday headliners Metallica. The black-clad overlords play a reliably slick greatest-hits set, pumped up to Hollywood action blockbuster dimensions with pyrotechnics and huge video screens blasting IMAX-sized close-ups. Lars Ulrich pulls his sex face as he grunts and clobbers away; Rob Trujillo drops into Cossack dancing pose and crab-walks around the stage; “Reading, are you alive?!” screams James Hetfield. “How does it feel it be alive?!”
In other words, essentially the same scripted lines and carved-in-stone set-list that these hard-rocking elder statesmen have been grinding out for a decade, from their Ennio Morricone intro to the climactic Enter Sandman. In fairness, this is great spectacle, just a little low on passion and spontaneity. Healthy, wealthy and contented, Metallica have nothing left to prove. Good for them. But they had more grit and edge when they hated themselves, and each other, and the rest of the human race. I miss those guys sometimes.
Reading is always more of a testosterone-driven sausage-fest than most of the big live summer music events, so it’s refreshing to see some strong rising female stars standing out on such a bloke-heavy bill. Becca MacIntyre, of Yorkshire math-metal rockers Marmozets, is one, marrying punky swagger to melodic post-hardcore muscle. London quartet Wolf Alice also play to a rammed crowd, their songs mostly conventional indie-rock in texture, and their singer Ellie Rowsell commanding a huge crowd effortlessly. There’s a similar scrum to see US trio Pvris, whose singer Lynn Gunn already radiates major-league rock-goddess charisma, even in a sweaty little tent reverberating with synth-metal shudders and juicy pop hooks. Next year all three could easily pull off prominent main-stage slots.
The biggest disappointment of the weekend are the recently reactivated Libertines, who deliver a scrawny, knock-kneed, clapped-out old donkey of a headline show on Sunday. Despite the raggamuffin fantasies playing in their heads, Carl Barat and gormless Rodney Bewes lookalike Pete Doherty were never Mick and Keef, nor Strummer and Jones, nor even Chas And Dave. In fact this ramshackle performance barely qualifies them as an indie-rock Steptoe & Son. They bash out every song at a breakneck clip, like over-excited chimps given guitars by kindly zookeepers to keep them from frantically masturbating in public.
To be fair, The Libs clearly had mystique and magnetism in their heyday. But the intangible generational buzz which catapulted them to infamy 15 years ago has dissipated now, revealing these former boho-rock emperors to be wearing very skimpy clothes. And fucking stupid trilby hats. By midway through their set, the tumescent throng that greeted them has shrunk to half its size, limp and spent. Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? They got complacent, believed their own hype, and somehow forgot to write a single memorable song. Time gentlemen, please.