Reading Festival: Radiohead's modern jazz wrong-foots the crowd
Monday 31 August 2009
In a festival heavy on over-familiar or unimpressive bands, it was left to last night's closing act Radiohead to wrong-foot everyone. The odds on their angst-ridden singer Thom Yorke's first words being "Whassup?" followed by the initial hit song they've all but disowned, "Creep", would have been prohibitively long.
The next hour, in which, on songs such as "All I Need", Radiohead casually become a modern jazz quintet, xylophones, brushed cymbals and a crooning Yorke to the fore, leads to such a thinning of the crowd around me, I could almost walk up to the singer. They gradually relent, with hits including "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", "Lucky" and "Karma Police", averting a challenging and muted end.
Before Radiohead, Sunday offers a crash course in competing schools of American rock, from Vampire Weekend's lilting, African-influenced pop to fellow New Yorkers Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose scratchy art-punk guitars are a back-drop to singer Karen O, who limbo-leans back, suggestively swallowing her mic. I leave an epic song by psychedelic Texans White Denim, which may still be going on now, for Britain's reigning hardcore punks, Gallows. The band are fuller and more complex than they first appear, as is fearsomely tattooed singer Frank Carter. He growls his dystopian lyrics, but doesn't pretend he has a bite to match, inviting his mum on stage.
Another, older punk, Frank Turner, adds a blunt obituary of every group's efforts this weekend: "None of this is going anywhere and pretty soon we'll all be old/ And no one on Earth will even care". His raw-throated songs make the effort seem worth it anyway.
Contrariness and an interest in the ordinary emotions of English life fight against crowd-pleasing festival convention through Saturday, not least in Arctic Monkeys' headline set, from which Alex Turner seems wryly detached. The riff-heavy street-tales of their first album send the pint cups flying. But Turner is more interested in new song "Cornerstone", a perfectly wrought shaggy dog story.
Glasvegas's singer James Allan looks the spit of Joe Strummer in a black biker's jacket. They're sometimes over-slick, but within their booming cavern of sound, you can still hear the pain which inspired it. Newcastle's Maximo Park let the Trojan Horse of their big pop tunes sometimes overwhelm the intellectual interest in hedonism which first made them special. As if aware of this, singer Paul Smith wheels on a brass band, bringing North-east culture to Berkshire.
Ian Brown also enters to a brass fanfare. The morning after Oasis split, the man Liam Gallagher copped his moves from jogs and mumbles absently, his arrogance absurd in a way Liam never dared. The addition of the Stone Roses' great Northern tribal funk single "Fools Gold" lifts a cinematic set.
When darkness falls here, it's so deep you can hardly see the person in front of you, much less those strewn on the ground. The Prodigy, another tired name, nevertheless add an air of menace as the sun sets.
The field is dustier, the crowd more shattered and the weather worse for Radiohead. But they send the last stragglers home happy.
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