Reading Festival, Little John's Farm, Reading

Jarvis Cocker and his band were among the stars of the 90s making a comeback at Reading, alongside a spectral appearance by Kurt Cobain

In the 25 years that I've been going to the Reading Festival, the one comment I've heard from cynics more than any other is "Well, it isn't Glastonbury..."

In recent years, however, as Glasto has become one enormous BBC-choreographed bourgeois picnic, the tables have quietly turned. Yes, unpretentious, dirty old Reading doesn't have a healing field, giant totem poles or magical crystals. But it does have a site you can traverse without needing to waste half a day, a railway station, shops and hotels within walkable distance. These days, "Well, it isn't Glastonbury..." is Reading's main selling point.

A day of steady drizzle on the Friday, whose news-grabbing moment was Brian May of Queen joining headliners My Chemical Romance for "We Will Rock You", has given the ground underfoot the springy consistency of the safety tarmac on a child's play area. Which, essentially, is what Reading is.

The elasticity of the earth lends itself perfectly to old-skool ska. As soon as I saw the name Madness halfway up the Saturday afternoon bill on the main stage, it had "show-stealers" written all over it, and so it transpires. You can spot the ageing rude boys and rude girls a mile off, mouthing every single word to "Night Boat to Cairo", but even the kids in their Primark tiger-print onesies go berserk for the Nutty Boys.

Over in the NME tent, Everything Everything are the perfect soundtrack for mid-afternoon, hair-of-the-dog hangover heads, with their out-of-phase daydream daze, as a rainbow appears in the east. The same can't be said for The National, a spectacularly strange choice of main stage third-headliner, whose introverted indie causes an exodus.

Everyone's back in time for Pulp, playing the last open-air show of their triumphant comeback ahead of their first indoor gig at Brixton Academy four days later. "They weren't rioting," Jarvis Cocker claims about the London looters. "They were playing Grand Theft Auto outdoors." Upon which they play "Joyriders", a song which might have been written as a response to the maddening media analysis of the 2011 disturbances. The Sheffield legends are on extraordinary form, and Jarvis humping the speakers during "This Is Hardcore" is an unforgettable image. They end, of course, with "Common People", the song I saw them debut on this very stage back in 1994. Then, it immediately felt like an immortal anthem in waiting. Now, we know that it was.

Unintentional comedy moment of the weekend goes to Panic! At the Disco, whose Brendan Urie refers to "a total dick of a hurricane" back home in the States, by way of introducing "Hurricane". The song highlights how their sound has shifted from emo-rock to electro-pop since the days of "I Write Sins, Not Tragedies". The slapstick crown, though, is taken by Mike Skinner, who ends The Streets' emotional farewell show on the British mainland by trashing the drum kit and, having already stripped down to just a pair of jeans, unzipping them too and mooning at us. Dry your arse, mate.

2 Many DJs have come a long way since the vinyl crate spontaneity of the bootleg boom. The dickie-bowed Dewaele brothers now put on a tent-rocking spectacular, involving the hi-tech, animation-assisted mashing up of Metronomy, Metallica, MGMT and Motörhead, along with countless Euro-techno tunes you've never heard of.

Just when you thought text messaging had killed the festival rumour, one takes hold anyway. In this case, it's the wildfire whisper that The Strokes have been detained in New York by Hurricane Irene, and are to be replaced by Suede. If only.

The New Yorkers start with "Is This It?", and by the time they end, the entire crowd is asking the same question. The Strokes' lame, lackadaisical slouch-rock has dated badly over the past 10 years, and their mumbling, Ray-Banned, leather-jacketed leader Julian Casablancas, 33, is the oldest man to portray a feckless youth since Luke Perry in Beverly Hills 90210.

The Strokes are a band with nothing to say about anything whatsoever. The one time they did have something to say, albeit something as banal as "New York City cops/They ain't too smart", they pulled the song in the wake of 9/11 in case it offended anyone. Even a cameo from Jarvis Cocker, on The Cars' "Just What I Needed", can't save them. The Strokes are the anti-Pulp, five rich kids who descended into rock'n'roll from the finest Swiss finishing schools for something to do. They want to sleep with common people like you. They can bugger off.

The second-biggest disappointment of the weekend is the no-show of Jane's Addiction, whose Perry Farrell is suffering a sore throat.

Muse, with their massive tuning forks/American football goalposts, at least bother to put on a show. They perform The Origin of Symmetry in full, the album where it first became clear that they weren't merely callow Radiohead copyists. "New Born" and "Plug-In Baby" sound superb, and so, amid billowing smoke and fireworks, do the encores of "Time Is Running Out" and "Knights of Cydonia". That's how you do it, Casablancas & co.

If there's one thing guaranteed to remind you of your age, it's the sight of a full-to-bursting tent of youngsters gathered to watch Nirvana on the big screen from 1992. It feels very weird to be surrounded by kids who weren't even born at the time, their screams blending with the recorded ones of their parents two decades earlier, as they applaud a man who can't hear them. Because he's not here any more. He's somewhere else.

Next Week:

Simon Price goes to a Dolly Parton concert. What a way to make a livin'

Rock Choice

Bestival winds up the summer with a line-up topped by Bjork and The Cure. It also features such greats as Brian Wilson, PJ Harvey, Robyn and Chromeo (Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight, Thursday to Sunday). Adele launches her UK tour with shows at Plymouth Pavilions (tonight) and Bournemouth International Centre (tomorrow).

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