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What it's like to go to Reading Festival for the first time in your twenties

Most artists here confess they relish having such a young audience facing back at them

Matt Murphy
Tuesday 05 September 2017 13:16
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Matt Bellamy of Muse performs on the main stage at this year's Reading Festival
Matt Bellamy of Muse performs on the main stage at this year's Reading Festival

“Three As, four Bs and two Cs, what about you?”

Sat ahead of me on the train are a group of 16-year-olds discussing their GCSEs. Like the ceremonial teenage milestone it has become, they’re off to Reading Festival to celebrate their exam results.

On a delightfully sunny morning, their thoughts are hot set on one thing: getting to the front row for their favourite act (in this case it's Bastille).

I envy their enthusiasm. Born almost a decade before them, I need some caffeine to feel half as alive as they seem to be for this time of day. But I'm still upbeat, looking forward to what was my first real experience of the UK’s mainstream festival circuit.

I may have slipped past the typical age group for Reading and Leeds, but my aim is to find out if I feel completely out of place, and whether it's still worth dragging yourself along for the lineup.

Tom Meighan from Kasabian performs at Reading Festival 2017

The weather is perfect, although the sunshine is a burning reminder that – no matter what age you are – being ginger means there’s a prerequisite of wallpapering yourself in sunscreen if you plan to survive a weekend outdoors.

With an event like this, the significance can’t be underestimated. Prestige is a big factor in why this is such a desirable gig. Up-and-coming acts appreciate the chance to pitch their brand to the next generation and ride the wave of fame into middle age; older acts are doing the same with Reading to remain relevant.

For indie-rock band JUDAS, who open the Main Stage on Friday, this is the biggest highlight of their career so far. And, like me, they’re here for the first time.

“Nothing can actually prepare you for when you’re stood on there, and you look out and you see all those people,” frontman John Clancy says. “It’s why we’re doing it really. It’s amazing to see – our minds are blown.”

“In two years I’ll be headlining this festival,” claims ambitious singer-songwriter Louis Berry, who plays the Festival Republic stage this time round. “I believe that 100 per cent, there is no doubt in my mind.”

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The main difference of choosing an event of this magnitude over a night at your local O2 Academy is the sheer diversity of things on offer.

If you’ve done your homework, which the audience will be used to, the options are virtually limitless. I’ve never found myself so torn between seeing bands from my own youth, and the next.

Even when I grow tired of the music, which can happen when there are 72 hours of it firing at you in all directions, there are some excellent comedians to see, and other minor activities – like shaking your head in disgust at people who actively choose to queue for the roller coasters.

Adjacent to all that are hundreds of food stalls simplistically named so that when drunk enough you might falsely mistake it for acceptable advertising – a truck reading “100 per cent quality food” stood out as the clearest example.

But Joe Donovan and Tom Ogden of Blossoms insist, with utter Northern perfection, to “get one of those massive Yorkshire puddings. It’s f***ing well nice.” So I did. And, after a beer or two, they really are.

Most artists here confess they relish having such a young audience facing back at them. It’s not that they don’t mind it now and again, not at all. They actually look forward to it. And I can see why.

Elation ripples through the crowds from stage to stage as each act starts up, carrying on right throughout. There’s nothing like it. It may be why the likes of Stormzy, Skepta and Drake all choose to each make a surprise appearance across the weekend.

“It’s the energy here, I love it,” says The Amazons’ frontman Matt Thomson, who lives just a 10-minute walk from the festival site. “That’s what rock and roll is all about, losing yourself, losing the inhibitions, not caring about stuff and just having a lot of fun. That’s what Reading’s all about.”

“The youth – they have a big part to play in everything. Having them there, they politically get to have a voice,” explains rapper Loyle Carner, who himself can’t resist starting a Jeremy Corbyn chant as he glides happily off stage.

On a political level, this is no weekend escape from the outside world. From the likes of comedian Jonathan Pie – who I highly recommend – right up to Eminem, acts are happy to tout their feelings on the likes of Donald Trump.

“It’s nice to go out and show kids how important they are,” adds Carner. “When I was 16 I had no idea I had a voice or I had any effect on the world. But there’s actually loads of stuff you can do about it.”

Meanwhile, energy levels may have been more of a problem for two people sat comfortably on a picnic mat just outside the NME tent. Sarah and John Neighbour, aged 49 and 50 respectively, are Glastonbury regulars who picked Reading for a change this year, and are seemingly happy with their choice.

“People must think we’re mad, but we haven’t given up yet,” Sarah laughs.

Stood slightly further away are local brothers Matt and Mark Healy, both in their early forties, who have brought along Mark’s son Henry for the first time. They’re regulars – Matt reckons he’s been more than 20 times – and hope Henry will be back with his friends when he comes of age in a few years to keep the family tradition going.

Come the early hours of the morning, this festival’s entertainment isn’t just limited to the arena. The campsites go through various phases of post-apocalyptic war. Just taking a walk through it all on the final night I see people burning shoes, tents, chairs – even one of the toilets started going up in smoke.

Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley and Joe Seaward know this all too well, having been a number of times in their teens – enough so that they tell me which camps to visit for the best fun.

“Our tents got burned, we saw ice-cream trucks tipped over,” Bayley says. “The only time I saw my friend all weekend, he was naked in a shopping trolley, whizzing by, being pushed by 50 people shouting 'trolley!' It’s so ridiculous.”

The smoke takes its time to clear on Monday morning, while thousands of people trudge towards the exit and back towards reality. It dawns on me then, what an effort it is to tackle an entire weekend like this. The entertainment is likely worth the full camping experience, but you can appreciate why some people bring their own van or book a hotel.

As a young group I saw packing away their tent earlier overtake me on the path to the train station, it acts as a good metaphor for their energy across the event.

This post-GCSE blowout might be tough to keep up with, but you're never too old to join in.

Reading and Leeds 2018 tickets are on sale now.

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