Reading Festival, Richfield Avenue, Reading

How do you wow a festival crowd? Robert Smith does it with hit after hit, while Florence just gets stuck in

Fifty-three years old, face the size of the moon, and the coolest man in all of Berkshire, Robert Smith sips a glass of white wine and shuffles back to the microphone stand. He's not in any kind of hurry. When you've seen The Cure, you've really seen The Cure. Last summer's three-hour Bestival show has already passed into legend, and their headlining set at Reading 2012, encompassing 32 songs, is almost as epic.

During my youth as an Eighties goth, there were countless reasons to be sniffy about The Cure. They felt like the Softy Walter option: too cuddly, too winsomely appealing to girls who wanted to take Smith home and mother him. But these objections fade with time, and you're left with a mainly magnificent body of work, performed by a band in the mood to give the public what it wants, whether that be the immaculately romantic swoon of "Just Like Heaven" or the juddering gloom-rock of "One Hundred Years".

Yes, there are long, faith-testing stretches of up to five non-famous songs, during which faint-hearted dilettantes drift away, but patience pays off when the band – the handsomeness of disgustingly well-preserved bassist Simon Gallup balanced by former Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels – eventually strike up "A Forest", and seasoned Cure-watchers reach for their stopwatches. It lasts a modest six minutes; I've seen it go on for 11.

"Now, some encore songs," Smith says to almost tangible relief, and they rattle through the big hits: "The Lovecats", "Let's Go to Bed", "Close to Me", "Why Can't I Be You" and "Boys Don't Cry". Near the end, the statement-shy singer apologises for his diffidence. "It's weird, 'cos even explaining why I don't talk, I find impossible to say. But it's all in here." He taps his head. "I'm thinking it, trust me."

His strongest statement, however, is visible every time he appears on the big screen. The Cure may not be a band given to political slogans, but Smith has something powerful painted on his guitar in this summer of jingoism and jubilees. "2012: Citizens, Not Subjects."

At 11am on Saturday, the main field is eerily empty. In the far corner, however, there's pandemonium. "This has got to be the best worst-kept secret in all the UK," says Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, playing an unscheduled, but widely announced, show in the Radio 1 tent. If anyone hadn't read about this late addition online, word-of-mouth does its work the old-fashioned way, and a human stampede heads towards the marquee, ushered along by extra stewards with bullhorns and specially erected fencing towards what amounts to an authorised flashmob (if that isn't an oxymoron).

I remember interviewing Green Day around the time of their game-changing, genre-defining pop-punk album Dookie, and praising them on what I took to be a sly satire of feckless youths who just want to sit around, drink beer and masturbate. "Satire?" they said, confused. From that moment on, we were never going to see eye to eye, but it's been hard not to admire the way in which they've become steadily more politicised and Clash-like while their hydra-headed spawn have become more banal and Busted-like.

It's also impossible to watch them without conceding that that is how you put on a rock show. During a set dominated by the hits ("American Idiot", "Basket Case", "Longview"), Armstrong and co shamelessly exploit every crowd-pleasing trick in the book. The improbably baby-faced frontman catches a fan-thrown skipper hat and does an exceedingly camp dance with it on, indulges in a bit of pantomime when a bouncer has to drag him offstage to make way for the next band, and operates the best gimmick of the entire festival: a mechanised toilet roll thrower.

Another band I'd never listen to for pleasure, but whose Reading set I have to applaud, are Florence and the Machine. Spirits are beginning to sink into the mud as the rain falls, but Florence Welch delivers a mistressclass in how to turn an unpromising situation around. Posh she may be, but she's no princess. Puddles are forming around her Art Deco mic stand; her floor-length mesh dress is dripping wet, but the foghorn-voiced Elizabeth Siddal lookalike doesn't hide. Declaring that "these ballet pumps aren't doing me any favours", she takes her shoes off and, like her inspiration Kate Bush, throws them in the lake. Almost literally. Welch's willingness to get right stuck in is reciprocated by a crowd that builds human pyramids four people high. And I can now add "ballet dancing in the mosh circle" to the list of things I've never seen before.

The undisputed Song of the Festival is "212" by Azealia Banks. The Harlem 21-year-old's potty-mouthed hip-hop hymn to cunnilingus (and more) is everywhere this year. If it's playing in a clothes stall, it turns into an impromptu party. If it's playing backstage, VIPs actually stop schmoozing and dance. If it plays over the main stage PA between bands, the entire field starts booty-shaking. And when she plays it herself on Saturday evening, the Dance Tent goes ballistic. Hey-oh, hey-oh …

In their top hats and tails, a magnificent new album up their sleeves, The Hives are the surprise hit of the weekend, their garage-rock cabaret packing even more punters into the tent than Green Day. The same can't be said for big-haired post-hardcore berserkers At the Drive-In, who mark their return after a decade's hiatus by wheeling a tea urn to Ride of the Valkyries then, like cleaning ladies, wielding brooms on the stage: literally sweeping the boards clean and starting again. A neat symbolic stunt. Shame hardly anyone sees it.

The most rock'n'roll performance comes from a band who aren't rock'*'roll in the literal sense. Canadian post-electroclashers Crystal Castles are so goth their balloons are black, but there's nothing reserved about purple-haired singer Alice Glass, crowdsurfing or diving to her knees in the photo pit and grabbing handfuls of woodchip. She's half Powerpuff Girl, half Iggy Pop.

The pick of the smaller stages are Turbonegro, a veteran band of Scandinavian bears (in the gay slang sense) wearing sailor caps, bowler hats and pith helmets, playing hard rock songs with titles like "I Got Erection". They're gloriously out of place. As opposed to simply not knowing where you are. Like Santigold, who undoes a fine set of skank-funk with three little words. "Thank you, Leeds!"

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea