First in a field of one

Who shone at Reading? A teenage shelf-stacker from Doncaster making his first falsetto attempt at karaoke, says Ryan Gilbey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Suede have pizzazz on tap. They didn't exactly raise the dead on the first night of the Reading Festival, but they woke up the crowd, which amounted to much the same thing. You could even forgive them for having toured this same show for a year now, to the point where it couldn't have been less spontaneous if the band had handed out set-lists. When you've suffered a bill that includes Cast and James, you take what you can get.

That Reading should turn out to be the underachieving, illegitimate outcast eclipsed by its siblings on the festival calendar will come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the splendour of Radiohead at Glastonbury or Bowie at Phoenix. But you couldn't have imagined in your most surreal nightmares that most of the main acts would be outdazzled by the sound of a teenage shelf-stacker from Doncaster attempting his first, faltering falsetto over in the karaoke tent.

You were soon grateful for Suede's ability to weave magic with just a few glam chords, a pint of black hair-dye and some perfectly silly prancing around. It used to be that the singer Brett Anderson was the only member that you could be certain wasn't a mannequin, especially since the arrival of Neil Codling, the keyboard player whose job it is to convey menace through inertia. Not any more. The guitarist Richard Oakes, formerly confined to imitating the moves, grooves and hairdos of his predecessor, Bernard Butler, has taken to galloping around the stage being Pete Townshend at every available opportunity. It almost distracts you from noticing that either Oakes is shrinking or Rickenbackers only come in XL these days.

The biggest surprise that Suede delivered was a duet - actually, more of a screaming match - between Brett and Elastica's singer Justine Frischmann, on a jagged, punky number called "Implement Yeah". Justine was a guitarist in the original Suede; she was also Brett's girlfriend. Then she parted company with both, formed Elastica and moved in with Damon from Blur. More soap opera than rock 'n' roll really. Still, water under the bridge, eh? Brett introduced Justine as "our good friend", they embraced, she jogged along to the music and barked through a loudhailer occasionally. When she'd gone, a spirited "Beautiful Ones" was announced as the last song. Right. So Suede were going to be the only band in history not to plug their latest single? Of course not. They returned to thump out "Film Star", and sent us away feeling like - well, film stars.

It was all something of an antidote to James, who brought conscience- rock to the main stage earlier that evening. They wore cowboy hats and coloured tin-foil shirts; their singer Tim Booth shook a pair of silver pom-poms and for a moment resembled an in-bred cheerleader. He also sported a neck-brace that forced him to tone down his epileptic-stick-insect dance routine. At one point, there were more musicians on stage than you could count. A case of all cooks and no broth.

Even more irritating than the songs, in which the lyrics rarely rise above the banal level of the melodies and arrangements, is Booth's incomparable vanity. "It's nice to play to people who appreciate music," he assured us smugly. If only the song had been written by people who appreciate music, we might be on to something. Instead, we got nursery rhymes for the E generation, pacifying parcels of jaunty disaffection: like "Sit Down" and "Come Home", in which Booth claims, "I've become the kind of man I've always hated." What a coincidence. He's become the kind of man I've always hated too.

It's disappointing to report that Saturday's line-up didn't do much to restore your hope. The Lemonheads delivered a sunny, throwaway set, and Evan Dando's habit of introducing songs by saying "This one is from 1923" was endearing for about five minutes. But The Orb's pulsing, spaced-out and stubbornly cold dance music was neither enigmatic nor intriguing, especially when they slipped into autopilot mode and smuggled in a blast of the Six Million Dollar Man theme, samples from Seventies TV shows being the last resort of the desperate and the opportunistic.

It was left to Manic Street Preachers to end Saturday with a bang, but the most interesting thing about their set was the short film that preceded it, full of the sort of slogans that the group do so well. (You can't help feeling that the Manics would work much better as a line of T-shirts then as a band.) As with Suede, the show felt like a summing-up, a full stop on a long and over-familiar tour, the only shock being that frontman James Dean Bradfield has swollen into a dead ringer for Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. The band have become the Gary Linekers of rock: criticise them and you're in danger of having bricks thrown at you in the street. But I'll risk a split lip just to say that I was left punch drunk by their determination to turn everything into an anthem. Now they're Queen with A-levels.

There was a chance that Sunday's hard rock bill might spread a little happiness. But not a very big chance. And having seen Metallica once already, I felt I had sacrificed quite enough of my life to the gods of heavy metal. Ending a weekend of musical tedium with a day of blood and thunder? Let's not, and say we did n