Review: Reading Festival 2008

An army of music-heads descended on Reading this past weekend, covering the town with a dense mist of colourful flags, tents, caravans, crazy hats and cheap sunglasses

The swarms of excited music fans, no matter what the weather, put the carnival spirit into Reading Festival ‘08, which boasted one of the most anticipated line-ups of recent years. The weekend was dominated by American artists and some of the most revolutionising bands of the last decade, including Rage Against the Machine (RATM), Queens of the Stone Age and Metallica.

The Reunion - Rage Against the Machine

After a smooth, groovy display of blues-enhanced desert rock from Queen’s of the Stone Age, RATM were ready to rock the mud-stained pants off Reading for the first time since the 2000. If there was ever a time for the band to return, it was odds-on to be the year of the US presidential elections.

RATM have never been afraid to speak their minds and their overt social activism has always been integral to their genre-defining music and political identity – it is hard to think of many other bands whose music and ideologies are still relevant and consistent 20 years after they were first released. Back to Reading 2008, a heavy mix of anti-war and anti-Republican vibes – including, an emotive proclamation that President Bush should be tried for war crimes - ran through RATM’s performance from the moment the band took to the stage.

Donned in orange jumpsuits (similar to those worn by inmates in Guantanamo Bay) and black bags covering their heads, the band tore into the opening song, “Bombtrack”. They also played fan-favourites such as, “Know your enemy”, “Sleep now in the fire”, “Born as ghosts”, and “Wake up”. Throughout, their performance was tight, playing with the same appetite and passion that has permanently characterised their explosive live gigs. By the end of the show, Reading’s temporary residence had been turned into one big mass of grooving, sweating and immensely satisfied rockers.

Saturday – indie fever

After all the head-banging of Friday night, Saturday’s list of indie, nu-wave, electro, punk, and more indie, opened the door for boppers to dance wildly to popular acts, such as The Automatic, Bloc Party and We are Scientists. Although, the latter of these acts put on a somewhat lacklustre show in front of many of their young fans and lacked the inspiring stage presence of other bigger acts.

The Killers headlined on Saturday with a performance that also failed to fulfil the hype surrounding their attendance on the main stage. In a wet and windy atmosphere, the Lag Vegas quartet was slow to really get the party started. They were particularly shaky and plain-sounding during their opening songs, and there were plenty of disappointed faces around. Eventually, the rain dispersed, the wind calmed and America’s answer to U2 began to entertain hoards of fans with their catchy pop tunes.

The Killers nervous opening was not helped by recurring technical problems with the main-stage speakers. Indeed, the quietness of the speakers was causing a lot of frustration throughout the weekend and many fans became increasingly frustrated. Along with, ‘Have you seen my tent?’, ‘TURN IT UP!’ was one of the most commonly used phrases to come across. Organisers informed festival-goers that the sound was out of their control and was due to limits set by the council. They also revealed that a new deal will, hopefully, be sorted for next year.

British Spirit and Sunday’s grand finale

The sound quality in the other huge tents was not dogged with the same problems and several performances stood head-and-shoulders above some of the acts given more prominent spots on the main stage. Particularly impressive were The Duke Spirit. A get-up-and-shake-your-hips kind of band serving up a taste of 80’s and early 90’s rock ‘n’ roll grunge, akin to the Pixies and Sonic Youth.

Another British band that struck a popular cord with the Reading crowd was The Music. Combining heavy rock rifts with a funky, high-energy dance beat, The Music produced a unique, dance-rock sound that had this Reading crowd bulging out of the tent and buzzing from head to toe.

Blues-infused music was also high on display at this year’s Reading. The stand-out artist most people were talking about was Seasick Steve. Accompanied by his son and a drummer who flailed wildly with bounds of rhythm, Seasick Steve beat out some old-school, southern American folk blues. The ageing rocker used a variety of intriguingly personalised instruments, including a three-stringed guitar and a piece of wood with one string that one might think only a demon or Jimi Hendrix could play. In fact, Seasick could play it better than both of them – well, he had made it. Such a lively performance of soulful blues gave this crowd a chance to have a real good song and dance at a festival that was dominated by a more abrasive type of rock ‘n’ roll.

After the hugely popular comedy-rock duo, Tenacious D, had played an entertaining set on the final evening of the festival, the abrasive action began once again – in the form of Metallica. The heavyweight American act played a couple of new tracks and gave a solid rendition of their impressive back catalogue, including “One”, “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters”. With fireworks, pyrotechnics and giant flame balls ripping into the Reading skyline, Metallica kicked the heaving crowd into a relentless fury of classic trash-metal head-banging and ended this year’s festival in truly dramatic style.

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