First Night: Reading Festival. Richfield Avenue, Reading

Festival spirit shines despite Razorlight's dull edge
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The Independent Culture

Razorlight closed the Reading Festival's first night with a merely serviceable set last night. But they could not detract from sunshine that dried out a site which was a swamp only days ago, and left the crowd feeling expectant for the weekend to come.

Earlier, a pair of bands in thrall to the doomy, dark post-punk tradition proved unlikely hits in the sunshine. Newcastle's Maximo Park are classic Northern dreamers, yearning for better things, but reveling in their provincial roots. "What happens when you lose everything?" singer Paul Smith wonders. "You just start again..." Smith is nervous at the huge crowd in front of him, but communicates the sense of something at stake, and possibility of transcendence, that rock 'n' roll needs.

New York's Interpol were pleasant Joy Division copyists when they played a small tent here in 2004. Now, on the main stage and dressed all in black, they look like vampire gunslingers, and play with a clenched swagger. Lyrics of Bowiesque, poetic melodrama add to their allure.

Gogol Bordello's joyous gypsy punk, fresh from guesting with Madonna at Live Earth, proves another success. The Gossip's late-arriving, short set is enlivened by Beth Ditto stripping her not inconsiderable form to bra and knickers. Of the bands just coming up, meanwhile, The Enemy cause the crowd to spill out of their tent, though their unimaginative if violently delivered punk thrash makes it hard to see why.

Glasgow's The 1990s (including the members of Yummy Fur who didn't go on to form Franz Ferdinand) give a set-long tribute to Jonathan Richman and the Velvet Underground, minus the dread and decadence. "My cult status keeps me alive," they sing, and it doesn't seem the worst fate.

As night falls, Kings of Leon stroll on for some well-received Southern boogie, the steel guitar licks underpinned by unexpected touches of crisp 1980s electronica. Cracked, wistful vocals give warmth to a limited act.

Razorlight, a full year into a campaign to conquer the planet, are not the most inspiring headliner. There is little sense of occasion, except for the way the night chill has made Johnny Borrell cover up his trademark white T-shirt. His band play US drive-time radio, soft-rock anthems with a hint of folksy spryness. Their keynote hit, "America", an inevitable rabble-rouser when it comes, makes the Stateside tendency explicit. But though Borrell dreams of being a Dylan or Springsteen, he lacks all of their lyrical fierceness and world-changing vision. He has so little to say that the crowd talk over him during the weaker numbers. A long, vacant song based on Patti Smith's incantatory version of "Gloria" confirms the gap between Borrell's dreams, and his listeners' reality. For a major band, Razorlight are embarrassingly ordinary.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady are among the acts over the next few days, promising that this festival weekend will only get better.