Friday, September 04, 2009

Reading Festival 2009

A review of all of the bands seen at this year's festival appears below. Unfortunately, the atrocious sound from the main stage made it impossible to cover many of the acts appearing there, as it was just too painful to listen to them.

As in previous years, start with the first band of the festival - in this case Dananananackroyd - and work upwards.

The Skiver


The history of AFI in this country is littered with missed opportunities. Never quite as popular here as in the USA, they seem to have had chance after chance to stamp their authority on a wider audience, yet missed it.

Seen live, it becomes clear why. However charismatic a frontman Davey Havok may be, AFI have neither the showmanship, the musicianship or the tunes of, say, My Chemical Romance. Which is a shame for them, because the retirement of The Black Parade is precisely that which gives them their latest shot at the British public.

Which makes it disappointing that they turn in such a lacklustre, dispeptic performance tonight. They leave no trick unturned, but there's a sense that they are trying too hard to please, bringing too much aggression and too little subtlety.

A Fire Inside? Tonight, it seems more like indigestion.

The Rumble Strips

The Rumble Strips are another band who have not enjoyed 2009. Their new album was derided by critics, as much for it's Mark Ronson connections as anything else (although, in the case of the execrable 'Douglas', thoroughly deserved criticism) and it is as if everyone forgot how novel their trumpet/sax/guitar sound was back in 2006.

Live, it becomes clear that among those people are The Rumble Strips themselves. Whilst the old material is uplifting and engaging, the new music has lost sight of what made them special, abandoning the horns for more guitars and piano. Unfortunately, none of the material is strong enough to cope with this - in fact, with the exception of recent single 'Not The Only Person', there's nothing very interesting here at all. Which makes it more surprising that so many old songs - such as the sublime 'Oh Creole' - are abandoned in favour of dross such as 'Daniel'.

There is definitely a future for The Rumble Strips, but they need to re-discover who they are first.


Gallows have learned a thing or two over their three successive years of playing Reading. Not least of these is how to shamelessly suck up to the audience. Released from the confines of the Lock-Up Stage for once, they have no compunction about changing the title and words of 'London Is The Reason' to honour their host city.

It is a credit to the strength of their new material that it sits easily with the older songs from 'Company Of Wolves'. Frank Carter himself is in fine form, bouncing across the stage like something demented, pausing only to praise the crowd and slag off the American bands they have just toured with. As close to a homecoming as these Hertfordshire boys are going to get, this is a triumphant one.

The Hot Rats

The Hot Rats, in case you hadn't heard, are Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey from Supergrass, backed in spirit (if not in person) by Radiohead produced Nigel Godrich. Basically, they are a high quality covers band. This is fine when they are attempting to do something different with a song - their cover of The Beastie Boys' '(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)' is very good indeed - but when they stick to a straight run-through (or as straight as they manage in a set bedevilled by technical problems with Goffey's backing-music-providing i-Pod) it is little more entertaining than listening to someone hog the karaoke.

Broken Records

It is hard to know how to categorise Broken Records. There's some traditional folk roots in here, but mixed with elements of country and some indie/punk ethics creeping in, too. It is almost as if someone crossed the Levellers with The Pentangle. Slightly weird, slightly disconcerting, listenable but not entirely entertaining.

Top marks for admitting that they have to go back to their day jobs to raise money to tour again. Sadly, I think they'll find this a recurring theme.

Brand New


The Joy Formidable

YES! At last, early on Sunday afternoon, comes the first act to take Reading by the scruff of the neck, force it over the nearest available crash barrier and thrash it senseless.

Previously regarded as little more than Sundays copyists, the three piece from North Wales treat us to the best bits of debut album 'A Balloon Called Moaning', all performed at high speed and with maximum intensity, culminating in bassist Rhydian thrashing seven bells out of a perfectly innocent dustbin whilst singer/guitarist Ritzy flails her instrument about the stage.

None of which, as Fight Like Apes proved 48 hours earlier, would work without the tunes to back it all up, but The Joy Formidable have these in spades. Single 'Cradle' will be familiar to many already, but the likes of 'Austere', '9669' and 'The Last Drop' are even better. Definitely a band who deserved a higher billing this weekend.

The XX

You have to feel sorry for The XX. At the moment, the music press love them. History tells us that this means they are doomed and that, eventually, every little slight imperfection in what they do will be held up under the cruelest of magnifying glasses and turned against them a thousand times more. Look at The Twang, The View and any number of other former press darlings now written off, to be derided forever, whatever they do.

The XX make coffee shop music, the sort of background noise that you find in Starbucks and their ilk. It is telling that their set only really becomes interesting when the crowd are given large black letter 'x's to throw around, thus providing the extra distraction that the coffee shop brings. You can tell that they have grand ideas, but they lack the level of musicianship that can bring those ideas to fruition. Their imagining of Womack & Womack's 'Teardrops' is wonderfully inventive and yet at the same time woefully flawed. Ideally they need time away from the spotlight to hone their act; sadly, the future seems to hold anything but that.


The problem with a Thursday gig is that it's a bit like going for a meal at a fast food restaurant. You can have your old favourite ('Understanding In A Car Crash'), for the brand new item ('The Suffocation Of A Dead Man'), for something unusual ('The Other Side Of The Crash') or even one of those odd things that are always on the menu but you've never dared try before ('Cross Out The Eyes'), but you keep wishing you had (a) had more and (b) that you'd just had the old favourite over and again.

To put it more simply, Thursday's problem is that, the best part of a decade on, they have never come close to bettering 'Understanding...', and tonight they open with 'Understanding...', meaning that whatever they play for the following 45 minutes, all the crowd really want is 'Understanding...'. Which is more painfully ironic than any band should have to bear.

White Lies

It has been one heck of a twelve months for White Lies. This time last year they just about crept onto the third stage. Since then they've done an NME tour, supported The Cure and had a Top 10 Album.

The change from that Cure support in February is marked. Confidence levels have shot up. So have, to be frank, egos - where once smiles were wan, now they just look smug. There's something very smooth, very competent and yet slightly unloveable.

With no new material on display, this is a live run-through of much of 'To Lose My Life'. It is very good, the crowd sing back with gusto and the band clearly appreciate the affection. It is just a shame that there wasn't more warmth and sincerity flowing from the stage.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Maximo Park

Paul Smith is looking far happier than a frontman on Reading's main stage should. The event's legendarily unreliable sound system seems to be in even worse condition than usual. (The organisers later trot out the standard and predictable 'It's the weather' excuse, which frankly is now even thinner than Gordon Brown's credibility). Smith, however, is unperturbed as he leads his band through a perfectly balanced set, which includes four numbers from new album 'Quicken The Heart', some old favourites and a brass band backed rendition of live rarity 'Acrobat'. Interestingly, and as further evidence that the music press really know very little at all, the two best received songs tonight - 'Books From Boxes' and closer 'Our Velocity' - both come from their critically panned second album. Laughing in the face of adversity and sticking two fingers up at the industry? Could Maximo Park be the first stereotypically Geordie band?

Rival Schools

Welcome back, Rival Schools. You have been missed. Looking younger than the press photos would have you believe, Walter Schreifels and co perform like they have never been away. There's a smattering of new material to go alongside classics such as 'Used For Glue' and 'Good Things', but at the end of the day this is about introducing themselves to a new audience, reconnecting with the old one and having a damn good time whilst doing so.

Them Crooked Vultures

Alain Johannes must wake up every morning and think he's the luckiest man in the world. And then he must remember that he sometimes has to play bass in the same band as John Paul Jones and start screaming.

In fairness, Johannes plays his part to perfection - efficient yet unobtrusive, knowing full well that it is the other three guys on stage that have caused the packed NME tent, extra security precautions and vague hysteria.

TCV's music is almost a perfect blend of Led Zepplin and Queens of the Stone Age. Which is unsurprising, when you consider that the band is effectively 1/4 Zep and 3/4 'Songs For The Deaf' era QOTSA. Heck, even the stage set up reveals this - Johannes and Josh Homme - tonight playing the role of self-effacing frontman - have one amp each; Jones has three stacks of them.

In truth, though, TCV are far, far more about the experience than the music. If you were to view this entirely dispassionately, what you have here are four middle aged men being horrendously self indulgent. Jones somehow manages to squeeze pretty much every instrument he has ever played into a 40 minute set - including what appears to be a 12 string bass. Homme prowls and growls in his usual fashion, pausing only to exhort the crowd to chant the name of Dave Grohl at regular intervals (and, to his credit, causing the drummer no little embarrassment). But the music, well, it's pretty easily forgotten. Eventually, TCV are going to need a trick other than just being TCV.

Patrick Wolf

It is hard to know where to begin with Patrick Wolf. The man appears to be part opera singer, part peacock and part Jimmy Saville. His costumes, on the other hand, are part WWF wrestler, part glam rocker, part explosion in a paint factory. He prances. He preens. He whistles 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' during a costume change. He plays a Flying V, yet also manages the not inconsiderable task of playing violin and singing at the same time. And yet the biggest, screamingest contradiction is the music. Whilst the world's most over the top camp rock show rages around him, Wolf belts out tunes that would not be out of place in a West End musical. Which means that, for all of the pomp and drama, the songs are kind of forgettable. For example, the penultimate song is a new one called 'Hard Times' and all I can remember about it is the title. And I defy anyone to remember more of closer 'Magic Position' than the refrain 'You put me in the magic position'.

In short, incredibly good fun, but there is not a lot of point being a musician if no-one remembers your music.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Remember 'Monster Hospital' from a few years ago? Well, Metric are back and are absolutely determined to prove that they are not one-song wonders. Frontwoman Emily Haines stomps across the stage in a silver dress, whilst the rest of the band finally deliver the sort of performance that 'Monster Hospital' had hinted at, but which had never appeared on this festival stage before.

With much of the set drawn from the recent 'Fantasies' album, it would be understandable if the set lost momentum at times. It is a tribute to the quality of the songwriting and the power of the performance that it never did.


You have to feel sorry for Brodie Dalle. If any woman in music is destined to be defined by her beaus, it is her. Which is tough, because she's far more deserving of success than other serial starfuckers like Courtney Love.

On the other hand, she doesn't always help herself. The Distillers were raw and unfocused, a situation leading only to a massive internal collapse when the music press came beating down their door. This time, however, it is Dalle herself who has been talking up Spinnerette. Which, frankly, is a mistake. There is nothing special about them, you would be hard pressed to remember one song half an hour later and however engaging a frontwoman Brodie is, she's not working with any decent material here.


Another band coming to the festival with a big reputation. Another letdown. Frankly, if you are going to try and rip off New Order, why pick the rubbish 2000s version?

I'm trying really hard to think of something positive to say about this band, but when you've been subjected to half an hour of directionless electronic noodling, it is hard to be charitable.

Faith No More

Oh God, this is so wrong. The red curtains draping the stage give off an aura of 'Murph and the Magictones'. Mike Patton is wearing a matching suit and looks like Huey Morgan's dad. Everyone else is wearing a suit - Roddy Bottum has even adorned his with a carnation.

Then, once you have got over the shock of one of the great rock acts of the 90s suddenly morphing into the band from The Wedding Singer, you are forced to confront the horrible truth that none of FNM's songs have really aged that well, either. In fact, everything bar 'Epic' sounds, well, a bit rubbish. Which is probably why the band feel the need to pad out their headline set with cover versions such as The Commodores' 'Easy' and, bizarrely, the 'Eastenders' theme (twice!). All in all, hard to escape the feeling of a band whose time has passed.

Jamie T

Jamie T is in trouble. He's nowhere near the send of his set and his voice is giving out. He's also got to do it all again in Leeds tomorrow night. Under such circumstances, he could be forgiven for giving up and going home, so - whatever you think of his music - you have to give him credit for soldiering on. 'Sheila' and 'Sticks and Stones' and rattled through at breakneck speed, but at least he tried. Which is more than you can say for a lot of people.

Soulsavers feat. Mark Lanegan

Look at this picture. THAT is how dark it was at this show. Which, in turn, gives you some idea of how the music was. Think 'Nick Cave on Mogadon' and you've got a fair idea - dark, gloomy, slow paced; melodic, yes, but with Lanegan's mournful drone lying over the top of it.

Really, it shouldn't be too hard to predict how an act like this will sound. Soulsavers have been peddling their gloomy tunes for almost a decade now; Lanegan has been around even longer, first as the doom-laden voice of Screaming Trees, later as one of Queens of the Stone Age's many collaborators (he wrote and performed one of their greatest songs 'The Hanging Tree'). The problem is that, however good the songs are, after 20 minutes or so standing about listening to a very tall man dressed all in black stand stock still and sing along to some other people also dressed in black on a darkened stage becomes a little, well, dull. On record, this is a brilliant collaboration. Live, it just doesn't quite work.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Bombay Bicycle Club

Not for the first or last time this weekend, a band confused the entire audience by going straight from their soundcheck into the performance proper without so much as a word. In the case of Bombay Bicycle Club - or BBC to their friends - this enabled them to launch straight into recent album 'I Had The Blues But I Let Them Go' and probably squeeze one extra song into their allotted time - a cunning wheeze if ever there was one.

In truth, there's not a lot of light and shade in a BBC set. Each song trips along happily at its own pace, nothing much happens and yet it is all done rather inoffensively and in the best of humours. I wouldn't say I would go and see BBC again, but they were fun whilst they lasted

Black Lips

OK, the award for the politest band of the festival is won hands down by, surprisingly, Augusta's Black Lips. Given the band's reputation for outrageous stage shows, hearing singer/guitarist Cole Alexander politely ask if he can borrow a plectrum from anyone is slightly disconcerting. Second guitarist Ian Saint Pe then teases the audience by announcing that the show will start in five minutes, only for the other three members of the band to run on and begin anyway.

From then on, it is pretty much plain sailing for these Georgians. Their style of music can best be described as 'absolutelyeverythingthateverhappenedsinceBillHayley' - at times you could close your eyes and believe that you were in the early 1960s, or the late 1970s, or indeed any time but now. Which isn't to say that their sound isn't contemporary, because you couldn't get the Black Lips sound without every other genre of music having happened. There's absolutely none of the tomfoolery that they have indulged in in the past; this is just 45 minutes of pure enjoyment.

Florence &The Machine

Today is Florence Welch's birthday. She has just unwrapped a shiny new megaphone and is using it to good effect. She is also skipping across the stage, climbing the lighting gantry and generally having a whale of a time.

It's just a shame that her material is so patchy. 'Drumming Song' is awesome, threatening to lift the tent from it's moorings. 'Rabbit Heart', on the other hand, falls somewhat flat and it is hard to see young women singing along to the lyric to 'Kiss With A Fist' without feeling a genuine sense of unease as a highly emotive topic, something normally whispered behind closed doors, is sung out in the cavernous NME/Radio 1 tent.

Fight Like Apes

It says something for the awfulness of Jack's Mannequin that Fight Like Apes are not the runaway winners of the 'worst band of the festival' award. Listen to this Irish quartet online and you might get the impression that they are quite a prospect. See them live and you find four people more intent upon farting about with scaffolding poles than putting on a performance. Horribly, horribly disappointing.

A Place To Bury Strangers

Listening to New York's A Place To Bury Strangers is a bit like sniffing at a fine wine: "Mmm, a bit of My Bloody Valentine"; "Yes, definitely some Jesus and Mary Chain there"; "Ahh, the faint whiff of Helmet"; "Mogwai, maybe?"

From this you will gather that APTBS have but one setting - 'ferocious aural assault' - which could in itself be the name of one of the effects pedals that frontman Oliver Ackerman designs for a living. Essentially, the entire stage is his workshop, with every song destruct-tested to the nth degree. Once you've had your ears blistered by the likes of 'To Fix The Gash In Your Head' or 'I Know I'll See You', you'll know that you've been at one of the loudest, most frenetic gigs of your life.

Jack's Mannequin

The Festival Republic tent - Reading's third stage - is packed full of very small teenagers, all jumping up and down on the spot. Unlike with other bands, it would be a huge mistake to read too much into this. These are the teenagers every music lover hates. They know what they like and they will buy it repeatedly. They have no discernment, no critical capacity. In short, they actually know fuck all about music.

There are four girls stood next to me. They are trying to clap in time with the music. They can't even clap in time with one another. That is the kind of musical halfwit that Jack's Mannequin attract.

There are enough Coldplay imitators out there anyway, but rarely can Chris Martin have been ripped off so badly. This isn't a breach of copyright, it is positively defamatory. The music is the kind of tripe you find soundtracking every crappy American teen movie ever made. The guitarist and bass player call themselves 'Raw' and 'Dr J'. They both play Gibson Flying V guitars, thereby making themselves the least credible wielders of such an instrument since Wellington Womble.

I'm going to have to stop here. There just isn't enough vitriol in the world to describe just how bad this band are.

Little Boots

It's been a tough year for Victoria Hesketh. Lauded to the heavens at the start of the year, interest in her music waned as the months wore on and she was overtaken in the public consciousness by the likes of Florence Welch.

However, if the crowd packing the NME tent is anything to go by, critical acclaim is a long way secondary to public acclaim. Little Boots give the music press a collective kicking as they shimmer their way through 'Earthquake', grind through a throbbing 'New In Town' and hammer out 'Mathematics'.

Any yes, I know it was raining. But the rain may have got people into the show, but it had nothing to do with how few people were leaving.