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Reading festival review – vibrant pop takeover leaves rock in the shade

In recent years, Reading festival has struggled to balance its history as a destination for rock fans with the wants of its target market. This weekend, it’s clear that the tides have definitively turned towards pop. The primarily teenage crowd – clad in novelty bucket hats, bikini tops and, bafflingly, “bollocks to Brexit” stickers – is 15 people deep outside the tent during garage-sampling TikTok sensation PinkPantheress’s half hour set, while R&B pop star Madison Beer’s impressive vocals are completely drowned out by the audience singing her mid-tempo hit Selfish back to her. One of the biggest receptions of the weekend, it even seems to surprise Beer herself.

Tellingly, a poised Little Simz grins as she recounts being told that she “would never play the main stage at Reading” as she does just that, to mosh pits for Rollin Stone and fearsome set closer Venom. And rap provides many of the festival’s strongest moments: Megan Thee Stallion incites all the “real hot girls” to hip-swinging, ass-shaking action, although cramming in two tedious audience participation sections is boring for everyone but the Hotties who make it on stage with her to take selfies. Dave’s sophisticated Friday night headline set is punctuated by a dazzling firework display and guest spots by AJ Tracey and Stormzy. Dave soars on crowd favourites such as Funky Friday and Location, but it’s the quiet stillness of Heart Attack, with Dave stood stationary in front of a mic stand, that packs the most powerful punch.

Little Simz performing at Reading festival.
Little Simz performing at Reading festival. Photograph: Jo Hale/Redferns

The rock acts give it their best shot, however. Bring Me the Horizon are joined by Ed Sheeran, who appears towards the end of an incredibly sweaty and energetic performance from frontman Oli Sykes, to play their version of his song Bad Habits. It ends up being one of the weekend’s most delightful moments. Wolf Alice make a gorgeous sunset appearance, anchored by Ellie Rowsell’s soaring voice and effortless cool, while Willow and Beabadoobee make the air fizz with adoration. Halsey too, thankfully recovered from the illness that flattened their performance in Leeds, prowls the stage with the confidence of a performer in complete control of their domain, rattling through the edgier tracks from their discography – the Chainsmokers collaboration Closer is noticeable by its absence.

Unfortunately the energy doesn’t carry over for headliners Arctic Monkeys, who get off to a punchy start on Saturday only for the setlist to sag in the middle to noticeable disinterest from the young crowd. The delivery of album cuts That’s Where You’re Wrong and fan favourite Pretty Visitors is in no way lacking, but they’re unfamiliar tunes to most of these fans and Alex Turner makes no effort to communicate – we don’t hear so much as a “hello Reading!” the entire time they’re on stage. I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor finally rouses the crowd, prompting enthusiastic cheers and a tell-tale raising of phones open to Snapchat and Instagram stories.

The real MVPs are the artists who were drafted in last-minute to fill holes on the bill. AJ Tracey, replacing Jack Harlow, commands the crowd with absolute ease and it’s hard to imagine Harlow competing with Tracey’s finishing run of Rain, West Ten, Ladbroke Grove and Thiago Silva, as lads throw arms around each other and bounce. Charli XCX fills Måneskin’s slot with a set comprising her huge crowdpleasers Boys and 1999 with selections from her new album Crash and the thrillingly arrogant Tiesto collaboration Hot In It. Flanked by two dancers, she throws her entire body into the choreography, buoyed by the rapturous response.

Matt Healy of the 1975 performing at Reading festival.
Matt Healy of the 1975 performing at Reading festival. Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

But it’s closers the 1975, who stepped in after headliners Rage Against the Machine had to pull out due to injury – to no small amount of controversy – who raise the bar. In recent press coverage, Matty Healy has spoken about the advantages of having 20 years’ experience as a band. Those advantages are on full display here. “Oh, it’s just bangers!” he crows three songs into what he will later describe as a “1975 greatest hits set”. Love It If We Made It is as urgent and hopeful as it was five years ago, the frantic thrash of People still explosive and thrilling, while Somebody Else has taken on the glow of a modern classic. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer range they display, rattling through genres and eras at lightspeed.

The crowd is decked out in merchandise from the era of their debut album, they’ve painted “1975” on their faces and hastily assembled “WE HEART MATTY” signs on the back of folded out beer boxes. They never stop singing, and even the previously unheard new single I’m In Love With You has everyone word-perfect by the final chorus. “The mark of a fucking good pop song,” Healy says approvingly, his self-regard tempered by the fact that he is absolutely correct. They end their set on Give Yourself a Try, a letter from Healy to his younger self that becomes immensely poignant in the context of thousands of teenagers raring to meet their futures.

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