Reading Festival review: Even Kendrick Lamar fails to impress, while Kings of Leon are still sulking about 2009

Kendrick Lamar, Kings of Leon and Fall Out Boy were this year's headliners in what felt like yet another male-dominated festival

Matt Murphy
Monday 27 August 2018 16:51
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Kendrick Lamar performs Swimming Pools at Reading Festival

With Glastonbury taking a leave of absence this year, the crown of biggest British festival rested on Reading’s head. Who better to wear that crown than the reigning king of rap, Kendrick Lamar?

While Reading is historically rock-centric, it has moved with the times, more recently shifting the focus to rap as a top selling point. In 2017, Eminem was handed the Saturday night slot, and this year’s choice of Lamar was a canny move to keep the festival’s mostly young audience interested.

You wouldn’t have needed to look far to see the 31-year-old was the main pull of the weekend. Lamar is a deserved holder of five Grammys, the first ever non-classical winner of a Pulitzer prize, thanks to last year’s album, DAMN, and he curated the Black Panther soundtrack. But all that hype evaporated when the gifted lyricist took to the stage on Saturday night.

Lamar failed to impress. He not only began 15 minutes late, but he also performed for just an hour – the shortest headline set of the weekend – without any special guests. This all seemed off-brand, given both his widely popular catalogue and determined work ethic. His final words as he left the stage were “I will be back”.

On both Friday and Sunday afternoons, unreliable grey skies subdued the jubilant liveliness you might expect from rampant youngsters. It was left for the first night’s headline act Fall Out Boy to pick things up. The Chicago group did just that, building up the atmosphere as the weather dried up. While there was no expense spared on the pyrotechnics – bassist Pete Wentz had a guitar that spouted fire on command – it was unfortunate that they misjudged their setlist, playing their most popular tracks early on. Wentz may have affectionately donned an England top for the encore, but they’d peaked too early.

There were, however, uplifting moments. After an emotional speech during his own set, Mike Shinoda joined Sum 41 on stage in front of a fast-building crowd to play Linkin Park classic “Faint”, which went down a treat. Panic! at the Disco meanwhile gave a stunning rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody’’.

At the BBC Introducing stage, up-and-coming British indie group Stereo Honey were a highlight. Their diverse sound is easy on the ear, both heavy and soft – and combines well with frontman Pete Restrick’s powerful vocals. With only a few singles to their name so far, they’re one to watch.

Still, this year’s line-up raised questions. While festival organisers may be welcoming different ideas, the male-domination of their selection is off-putting. After Festival Republic received criticism in 2017, they launched the ReBalance scheme to encourage support for more female-fronted acts – but have still failed to address that issue this time around.

Kings of Leon were a surprising choice to close the event. The band haven’t released an album in two years, and their career over the last decade has mostly involved living off the success of 2008’s Only By The Night.

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They took to the stage on Sunday night to round things off, following a day plagued with heavy wind and rain. This was the band’s big return to the festival following a much-criticised gloomy performance in 2009, and, despite singer Caleb Followill’s apologies that followed, it carried a strong hangover. Maybe it was the poor turnout – a sign of the young crowd’s lack of connection with their music. Maybe the band weren’t in the right mood. Or maybe they just hadn’t forgotten.

“I think the last time we were here was like 2009 or something,” the frontman said. “We should come back here more often.” It felt like a thinly veiled dig at the quiet response to their lesser known tracks, and a “let’s get this over with” attitude to the final section of their set followed.

Kings of Leon can definitely put on a show, and people stuck around for the obvious crowd-pullers “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire”. But there was no grand finale in sight.

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