The Carling Weekend, Reading

Town vs Country in a great big field
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The Independent Culture

This ain't Glastonbury. There are no hippies and you can get home after the last band. Yes, this is the Carling Weekend at Reading. And what it does offer is a package tour precis of the state of rock, in which you can wander, running order in hand, from tent to tent to see which of the year's Bright New Hypes deserve the attention, which do not, and who might be worth keeping an eye on for the year ahead. Not that the real talents for the future are always represented on a bill which is inevitably affected by horsetrading between promoters and agents.

This ain't Glastonbury. There are no hippies and you can get home after the last band. Yes, this is the Carling Weekend at Reading. And what it does offer is a package tour precis of the state of rock, in which you can wander, running order in hand, from tent to tent to see which of the year's Bright New Hypes deserve the attention, which do not, and who might be worth keeping an eye on for the year ahead. Not that the real talents for the future are always represented on a bill which is inevitably affected by horsetrading between promoters and agents.

For instance, the gonzo rock of The Datsuns feels good at half three with a pint in your hand and the sun in the sky, but you can't help judging the New Zealanders not by who they are, but by who they are not: namely, The Darkness. Last year, I saw The Datsuns throwing the same retro-rock shapes, right down to the piggyback guitar solo, as their less exotic East Anglian counterparts and cursing the music business for ignoring what was under their noses.

This year, the tables are turned. The Darkness have been bumped further and further up the bill as their runaway success escalates. They are, without question, the big unifying hit of the weekend - their T-shirts are everywhere, their words on everyone's lips, and a crowd even gathers when a Herbal Highs stall plays "Permission To Land" on its CD machine.

Following The Darkness, Placebo have a tough job indeed (with weed, and breasts, and all the rest), but make a decent fist of it. But I miss most of it. Cruel fate has, you see, pitched my two favourite bands on earth - The Darkness and Ladytron - against each other, forcing me to miss the former's finale to dash over to the Radio 1 tent just in time to catch the latter playing the sublime "Seventeen".

The sight of the crowd leaving Ladytron points at a seismic subcultural divide between The Town and The Country. On the one hand, the urban Eighties girls in their Oxfam chic, and their skinny-tied male counterparts. On the other, the suburban kiddies with their chainstore "punk" accessories and off-the-peg band hoodies.

This, more than any other, is the year of Nu-Metal and Pop Punk (the bill is groaning with the likes of Sum 41, All American Rejects and Good Charlotte, the appallingly wet Christian pop-punkers). And still they come: the Concrete Jungle stage is full of identical idea-free nu-punk muppets - I happen to catch The Ataris - who pray each day to the gods of commerce in the hope that next year it's them on the main stage.

2003 is also the Year Of The Crack-Up. In the case of The Libertines - who always appeared about to implode onstage - the crack-up has already happened, and what we're witnessing is the ugly, messy aftermath following the booting out of Pete Doherty, one of the two singers. Today, Carl Barat - who is handsome and bare-chested enough to please at least half the crowd - is a stranded figure, bereft of someone to crash into, left boxing his own shadow. He over-compensates, taking their Jam/Smiths/Clash sound into Sham 69 boot-boy territory, but there is an undeniable poignancy to "What A Waster" - the song which berates a "two bob cunt" who "pissed it all up the wall" - and it is not too great a stretch to guess who he is thinking of when, almost in tears, he snarls "I never really liked him anyway." That may be so, but - I'm sorry - no Pete, no Libertines.

As the camera zooms in on Damon Albarn, there's a sickening hush. He's taken a clumsy tumble off the stage, and is now writhing around on his back. We could be looking at a spinal. Luckily, he crawls back up and rejoins Blur, blushingly announcing "We were never cool". He's in an odd mood tonight. "It's good to be back in... what is this?" he rambles. "United Kingdom? Great Britain? Who are we?" Everyone exchanges knowing glances. Heads are shaken. This looks like another Crack-Up. "I remember playing the tent in 1993 when we were playing 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' and ... I know we've just done those five shows at the Astoria, but..." he continues, audibly choked up, "...it's good to be back!"

Blur's moment as the big, unifying act has passed, and - forgetting The Darkness for a moment - the whole concept of a big unifying act also seems dead. No matter. "For Tomorrow", "Out Of Time" and "Badhead" are lovely, but it's only during "Tender" that the reason for Albarn's emotional state becomes clear. "I don't want to be sentimental, but... this song was written by Graham. And I want you all to sing the bits that he would have sung, because... it's a good thing to do."

The Mars Volta are the revelation of the weekend - an afro-headed prog-punk freakshow of falsetto shrieking, hazardous stage antics, drum solos and ten-minute, five-tempo songs. Duty calls me away to catch new Scientologist devotee Beck - also apparently going nuts, doing a straight-faced Timberlake medley before rolling around on his back with an effects box and screaming blue murder - and when I return, I swear the Volta are still playing the same number.

Over in The Smirnoff Dance Tent the overwhelming must-see act are not artists at all, but 2 Many DJs, the turntable aliases of the Dewaele brothers from Belgian indie band Soulwax. The Dewaeles have done more than anyone to bring FUN back to clubland, pioneering the radical idea of hearing songs you actually know and like, making the familiar hip. Tonight, they spin a heroically crowdpleasing session, mashing anthem into anthem with no regard for congruity or continuity. Genius.

Speaking of party animals, The Electric Six tear the roof off the mother with "Danger High Voltage" and "Gay Bar" - the catchphrase of the festival - and end with an audacious "Radio Ga Ga". But the surprise roadblocker of the weekend is Har Mar Superstar, who rams the Carling Stage to bursting with his sexfunk carnival, causing a stage invasionwith his cover of Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke".

Har Mar advises us to skip Metallica and go home after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, because "that Metallica video from 92 just doesn't cut it any more." He has a point. Historically, Metallica signalled the start of the nu, with their crunching no-nonsense riffs. Tonight, they seem hopelessly unreconstructed, and not even entertainingly so. It's time to leave.

I'm home by midnight. You can keep your West Country King Arthurs. That, you see, is civilisation.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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