Reading 2023: It’s the same as it ever was as Billie Eilish, The Killers and Sam Fender bring singalongs (and fireworks) to the festival

25th - 28th August 2023

Yard Act kick off a weekend that also sees huge sets from Wet Leg and Declan McKenna, plus the return of SOFT PLAY.

For all those cultural commentators who interact with music on a sporadic basis might claim Reading and Leeds has fundamentally changed, there’s ample evidence to suggest it’s exactly the same as it ever was. For all the lightning-quick shifts of 2020s pop culture that surely make scheduling months ahead little more than a lottery, three of this year’s headliners are The Killers, Foals and The 1975, hardly strangers to these fields.

James Smith is on top form as Yard Act open proceedings on Friday afternoon, at one point asking the audience to “scream for life” between blitzing numbers such as as ‘Witness (Can I Get A?)’ and ‘Dead Horse’. The set highlight is reserved for new song ‘The Trench Coat Museum’ which sees a full-on dance routine playing out featuring back-up dancers.

Secret sets are part of Reading folklore. This year, Bombay Bicycle Club open up the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage with a thrilling quickfire set. A raucous countdown splits the hubbub as the group emerge launching straight into the glitchy euphoria of ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)’ followed closely by the jangly classic ‘Shuffle’.

“We weren’t sure anybody was going to come,” frontman Jack Steadman says in a rare pause for breath. “We first came here when we were 17 and this was the first song we played”. ‘They follow-up with early cut ‘Evening/Morning’ which still burns bright with youthful energy. New song ‘My Big Day’ fits snugly alongside the likes of ‘Luna’ and the brass-inflected finale of ‘Always Like This’. It’s all over in a flash but jam-packed with hits. Elsewhere on site, 86TVs - the new group formed by The Maccabees’ brothers Felix and Hugo White - popped up with a surprise set bringing ‘Worn Out Buildings’ and an arsenal of as-yet-unreleased new tunes to the BBC Introducing Stage.

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Wet Leg continue their victory lap of the festival circuit with their catalogue of jangly oddities on Main Stage East. “This is one of about eight shows we have left,” Rhian Teasdale says with a hint of sadness. The pair’s awkward nature in their between-song banter remains charming and endearing - especially as they wire up the crowd to a scream-o-meter to see who screeches loudest out of Reading and Leeds in ‘Ur Mum’. Their manager lifts a thumb to mark he’s recorded the reading as the group join in to reach fever pitch with pure reckless abandon - it’s a fantastic moment of unity. ‘Chaise Longue’ of course closes out proceedings - as its raucous riffs wrap around the innuendos we’ve come to know and love, you can sense the burden of having to follow-up a modern classic like this. No doubt though, this isn’t the last time we’re going to see them play a main stage slot on these hallowed grounds.

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Foals literally burst out on Main Stage West with ‘Wake Me Up’ - the bright colourful stage design which is confettied with floral shapes and shades of pink and white is set starkly against the darkening skies. ‘Mountain At My Gates’ follows quickly with ‘Olympic Airways’ hot on its heels. “Reading, it feels so fucking good to be back,” shouts Yannis Philippakis. “You’ve been with us throughout every step of our career - thank you!”

Among Foals’ diamond-cut indie anthems, their cluster of groove-laden gems - such as ‘In Degrees’ and ‘2001’ - makes for set high points with the former’s snakey bassline wrangling the crowd into moving their feet. The slow-burning ‘Spanish Sahara’ is as emotionally potent as ever before the group lock in on all cylinders for ‘Red Sox Pugie’ and ‘Inhaler’ which finds Yannis pouncing forth to greet the crowd as that monstrous riff descends.

Now elder statesmen and a cornerstone group of the festival, Yannis reaches out to the next generation. “The next headliner is out there somewhere - one of you guys watching, you can do this! This one goes out to our boy Sam Fender,” Yannis proclaims from Main Stage East to West before tearing into ‘Black Bull’, ‘What Went Down’ and ‘Two Steps, Twice’.

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It’s very clear everybody wants Sam Fender to do well, being his first headlining slot at a major festival. The amount of artists who shout him out on stage and the flurry of black and white Newcastle United jerseys dotted across the site are testament to his penmanship which has thrillingly exorcised the damaged soul of a generation. At one point Fender pauses midway through his set to point out “I’ve got the biggest case of imposter syndrome right now”. While it doesn’t make sense to him just yet, it certainly makes sense to the field roaring more-or-less every word back at him.

Opening with a blast of brass which manifests into rarity ‘The Kitchen’, Fender leads his group into the one-two punch of ‘Will We Talk?’ and ‘Getting Started’. “This has been a dream of mine since I was a little lad so this is fucked up!” he acknowledges after observing the swelling crowd beam their appreciation from the off. B-side ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ makes for a set highlight - channeling The Sex Pistols and The Damned, its bold chugging riffs are animated with sparks and explosions - it’s a sound Fender wears well; it’d certainly be interesting see him mine more of its tempo in future.

The likes of ‘Get Me Down’ and ‘Spit Of You’, which investigate and prod the inner-workings of the male psyche, induce lumps in the throat and shivers down the spine, as does the torchlit ‘The Dying Light’. ‘Seventeen Going Under’ and ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ are reserved for the epic coup-de-grace finale which play out beneath a soaring display of fireworks and sparks, marking an undoubtedly major landmark in his career, and leaves an almighty dust to settle on Richfield avenue as the sun sets on Friday night…

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Reading’s Saturday afternoon offering is bigger on moody vibes than it is on big-stage anthems, but for those who overdid it on the Dark Fruits last night, it is probably a balm. Arlo Parks’ mellow offerings glisten in the soft sun over on Main Stage West and she looks more at ease – and is visibly enjoying herself more - than ever before. Nowhere is that more evident than in ‘Devotion’, for which she attacks her guitar in a moment of indie rock star glory that she’s probably been dreaming of when she was “growing up listening to Deftones”.

“I’ve been so nervous all day,” Holly Humberstone titters midway through her midafternoon slot. She’s an endearingly modest, understated performer and she’s maybe not the most roadworn, but her mannerisms couple beautifully with her heart-on-sleeve music, which has the chance to properly blossom with live instrumentation. Elsewhere, Easy Life frontman Murray Matravers is in cantankerous spirits, having been dropped on his back while stage diving three nights ago. He apologises for his lack of energy, but he makes up for it with a slick show of skill, whipping up some clumsy, flailing mosh pits as he does it.

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Over in the Festival Republic tent, something criminal is happening. Californian hardcore bright lights Scowl are storming through an incendiary set that comes alive with crunching guitars and frontwoman Kat Moss’ boundless energy, but there’s a yawning hole in the middle of the tent where more punters ought to be. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop them performing as if the tent is heaving, rather than half full.

As golden hour approaches, Central Cee attracts one of the largest crowds of the day and spits bars surrounded by levels of pyro that might be more typical of a metal gig, his beats sounding seismic from the gargantuan speakers. Speaking of big crowds, the Festival Republic tent is rammed for SOFT PLAY’s return and they sound not just renewed, but suitably feral. They’re ravenously received, with ‘Cheer Up London’ getting a loud, boozy shout-along, and the crowd even start singing the riffs, while they also chorus along to a snotty chant of “FUCK THE HI-HAT!” The duo’s comeback gig has duly lit a fire under this festival’s skinny white arse.

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Wander over to Main Stage West, and you’re walking back in time to 2013 – well, you would be if Matty Healy wasn’t complaining about his bad back. The 1975 are playing their debut self-titled album in full for its tenth anniversary, and they’ve even brought back their black-and-white aesthetic for the occasion. Despite his motormouth getting him in trouble in recent months, Matty seems, we daresay, well-behaved – well, until, he quips “I don’t have a racist joke ready,” before the introduction of ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)’ cuts him off. If that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, the much less problematic KennyHoopla’s energetic showing in the Festival Republic tent is a hugely fun alternative, even if the sound isn’t exactly pristine.

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There’s a megawatt grin plastered across Brandon Flowers’ face as The Killers hit the stage for the sort of Saturday night slot their music was made for, as self-described “purveyors of some of the finest rock ‘n’ roll on planet Earth”. How well some of the newer cuts from ‘Imploding The Mirage’ fit that description is questionable, but in terms of performance alone, the band’s suave musicianship nails that description.

But there’s heart to it too, especially when Ozzy from “just outside of Bath” lives out his rockstar dreams playing drums for ‘For Reasons Unknown’. And, in what should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, the spirited closer ‘Mr Brightside’ is the stuff that capital-M moments at Reading are made of.

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Spirits remain unusually high throughout this Sunday ahead of Billie Eilish’s headline performance. The heavens have reopened by the time MUNA take to Main Stage East, leaving the crowd a little thin, but a couple of songs in and the outfit’s shimmering, breezy pop soundtracks the sun’s return in poetic fashion.

Ethel Cain may have made use of many a religious reference herself in her music thus far but there’s no better word to describe the behaviour of those clamouring towards her inside the Festival Republic tent this afternoon than worship. Hands reach towards the stage as soon as the singer-songwriter appears, her diminutive form and casual jeans-and-t-shirt look a perfect match for her heartland rock, but belieing the height of the pedestal on which those gathered in front have placed her on, a sea of hands stretching out in hope of brief physical contact.

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Back to Main Stage East, and Rina Sawayama’s here to play – but not play around. A perfect pop show that takes in melodrama, pin-sharp choreography, crowd participation, multiple costume changes, and runs almost the entire gamut of Reading and Leeds’ musical focus: even without its segue into Limp Bizkit’s ‘Break Stuff’, this is so clearly the stage ‘STFU!’ was always meant to be performed on. As the final notes of closer ‘This Hell’ ring out over the field, it’s a shame there weren’t more in front to witness it.

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Declan McKenna’s early-evening set amasses not only a crowd that stretches right back to the opposite Main Stage West, but one that barely misses a lyric throughout, recent single ‘Sympathy’ every bit as much of a singalong as the more established opener ‘Why Do You Feel So Down’, or ‘Beautiful Faces’. It’s mega-hit ‘Brazil’ that’s the clear favourite, of course. And if his Elton John-style imagery (and choice of sunnies) at first glance appear a little ambitious a reference, by the time he’s impishly leaping his way into the crowd to ringing screams, it makes complete sense.

It’s a tale of two TikTok stars next: Steve Lacy – whose ‘Bad Habit’ confirmed his shift from cult alternative R&B act to pop behemoth – on Main Stage East, while Mae Stephens – whose ‘If We Ever Broke Up’ went viral in the early days of this year leading to a major label signing battle – on the BBC Introducing stage. Steve’s crowd is huge; he’s barely audible above the din of the crowd as he emerges, and opener ‘Static’ has them in the palm of his immaculately-dressed hand, the masses barely missing a beat. Yet by the time he’s deep in guitar noodling territory – something even the weekend’s rock acts might opt against during a festival set – many have lost patience.

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Billie Eilish’s previous appearance here was swiftly - and smartly - moved from the tented Radio 1 Stage to as high as organisers could muster on the Main Stage back in 2019. With circle pits stretching back far beyond the back screens, it was one of the biggest crowds the stage had ever hosted. Billie was a giddy newcomer, seemingly unaware of quite how huge the reaction would be, eclipsing even her Other Stage appearance at Glastonbury back in June, which had been upgraded in similar fashion.

This time, she’s the returning hero. Touting largely the same set that she’s been touring for a couple of years now, there is however the recent addition of Barbie soundtrack contribution ‘What Was I Made For?’, performed sat at the base of her ramp, the crowd following every syllable like a ready-made choir. Its intimate, emotional climax is then catapulted into a moshpit-heavy ‘Oxytocin’, the star’s penchant for switching styles, tempo and mood on a whim serving well to keep energy - and spirits - up, as tear-strewn faces shout along.

She was only ever going to end on a bang, of course, and it’s the one-two of ‘Bad Guy’, with its throbbing industrial bass, and the decidedly emo ‘Happier Than Ever’ which crown both this headline set and the festival. For the latter, fireworks are timed perfectly with the track’s dual crescendos. And as Finneas’ guitar duels with pummelling drums to reach full intensity as the sky lights up, in full rock fashion, it’s Reading as it ever was.

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