I go to Reading Festival every year, or at least have been for the last twelve. I’ve been to a number of other festivals in this time, although by no means as consistently and certainly never at the expense of Reading.
This is in part laziness. I live in Reading and so do a good deal of close friends. The Festival is on our doorstep and has become something of an essential institution/event for a variety of overlapping social circles – no matter which bands are playing. It is also an excuse to leave outside any sense of care for our livers, self-respect and general sense of good behaviour. We camped for a few years but even then home comforts were never far away and nowadays it is just a fifteen minute commute on foot to the pub in the morning, prior to heading to the site.
Indeed, going to Reading has more often been at the expense of other, usually smaller, niche, festivals which has bothered me increasingly in recent times. This is with particular respect to Green Man and End of the Road – each a week either side of Reading and presenting both financial and logistical challenges as a result. Each though also always had a far more focused (and dare I say in recent years far better) overall line-up. In the same way I am hugely envious when watching (a sunny) Glastonbury on the TV, it’s been gutting to miss Flaming Lips at Green Man or Wilco and Yo La Tengo at End of the Road. Admittedly I’ve made up for it a couple of years with the brilliant Primavera in Barcelona but that’s a whole other story.
This year the decision was made for me. I was definitely doing Reading. At the Drive-In were playing and, well, why wouldn’t I…? Then a reformed Grandaddy were announced for End of the Road on top of the likes of Midlake, John Grant and Jonathan Wilson. Grandaddy? Fuck. I was definitely doing End of the Road.
I had clear expectations of both – the 90,000 strong mess that is Reading, followed by a sensible, mature, muso’s weekend in the rolling Dorset hills. What follows are some thoughts regarding the two, having been to both a week apart, which are not quite the polar extremes I thought they would be. My thoughts on specific bands at both festivals can be found separately on the blog…it is interesting to note though that three bands make my top tens for both festivals.
Reading is, to all intents and purposes, horrible –although this is by no means a bad thing. One simply needs to be comfortable with being drunk, at best fairly grubby (all the way up to plastered in mud with a quite unique odour) and hopeful there will at least be a reasonable amount of music one likes each day. Because there is nothing else to do. You also need a fairly high tolerance of A-level students gone feral (or 30-40 yr olds gone feral, ahem).
Once you are OK with all of that, Reading is awesome. For us it is an occasion where pretty much anything goes (and no-one minds), the music is at the very least sufficient and there is very little trouble for an event of such scale. This is admittedly coming from someone who, along with a number of friends, maybe should have grown out of it all by now. ‘Dress Sunday’ has been sadly absent for a couple of years now but I’m sure will make a return in the near future and in the meantime we will always have Bananaman dry-humping anything he can pin down.
I have grudgingly come to accept over the last five years or so that the Reading line-up is no longer specifically designed for me or my peers, being twice the age of a good deal of other festival goers. The initial line-up announcement is invariably met with derision and upset as the Main Stage “just gets worse every year” (which, for the record, it does). That said, by the time we’ve had the full line-ups for the tents there is always enough of interest – whether known or to be discovered – and when it’s good it’s very good. This year we were treated to some wonderful stuff from the likes of Graham Coxon, Mark Lanegan, At the Drive-In and Toy. In recent years, for every Bombay Bicycle Club there has been a Pearl Jam, for every Passion Pit a Morrissey, for every Yeasayer a Weezer (who gave us potentially the best Reading set ever). Outside of the big names I’ve also discovered some of my favourite ‘new’ bands in this time lower down the bill at Reading – The Joy Formidable, Manchester Orchestra and The Hold Steady amongst them.
Equally it could be said that Reading has lost its identity a little over the years as well. I’m sure this isn’t quite the case, but there is a slight sense that, at the end of the season, Reading loses out on the first pick of artists to the other big festivals earlier in the year – certainly to the likes of Download and Sonisphere. Long gone are the days of ‘Reading Rock’, or even the tradition of an overall heavier day on the Sunday (or indeed anything that is very heavy at all). The concentrations are by and large these days either emo or deck-shoe’d-indie but there are always surprises and standout artists to hold one’s interest. The Lock-Up Tent is curated brilliantly from a punk perspective and retains a fiercely loyal following year after year (I’m sure there are some folks that don’t leave it all weekend) and the other tents retain an eclectic mix of artists away from what is generally a pretty mainstream main stage.
(as a point of interest, as I finish writing this, Gideon Coe is replaying a glorious Mercury Rev set from Reading 2001 – oh for the days)
As noted above, there’s not really a lot else to say about Reading once one is done with music and friends and alcohol. The food is pretty terrible, the beer not much better and both are savagely over-priced. As far as camping goes, it is bearable as one gets further away (no, a long way) from the arena – anywhere central and you will not sleep unless completely comatose, but the kids are OK with that, which I suppose is fair enough. The key point here is that Reading is ALL about music and friends and alcohol – and long may that be the case.
End of the Road
It was always my intention for EOTR to be a far more sober affair than Reading, just a week earlier. This was in part anticipated, and ultimately determined, by the fact Reading turned into five full days of drinking which would take its toll on my physical, intellectual and emotional states. Initially, it was even the case that I was just going on my own, as opposed to with a group of twenty to thirty friends. In the end I went along just with my friends Stephanie and Theresa – an occasionally sober and always entertaining pair (think the Odd Couple but with added Chanel).
The EOTR line-up, for me, always looks brilliant – everything loosely hanging off an Americana core – hence the longstanding frustration of not going. I am convinced even that I will never again get a festival bill constructed as perfectly for me as I did this year. The signs had been especially good this year since Bella Union announced an increased presence of acts by way of their 15th birthday and boy did they deliver. The likes of Midlake, Grandaddy, Jonathan Wilson, John Grant and Patti Smith amongst many other provided for a truly brilliant line-up and the various organisers/bookers should be very proud of what they achieved.
EOTR is much smaller than Reading, in terms of both population and geography – the time it takes to get from any stage to your tent wouldn’t get you out of the arena at Reading – let alone near a campsite. It is also a far more pleasant setting, in the rolling hills of north Dorset. Everything seems so well thought through – nothing is too far away yet it never seems crowded, albeit for a relatively small number of people. Even the scheduling of bands on the day, whether more by luck than judgement I don’t know, seems to work perfectly. One is rarely, if ever, prevented from seeing the acts they want to with each stage emptying almost to nothing after a set and allowing fans of the next performance to take their place.
It is more than just about the music as well, with a variety of quirky activities hidden in amongst the trees to cater for gaps in one’s clashfinder (admittedly I passed on the elvish massage, taking solace in the Rough Trade Record Tent – which was genius, albeit financially damaging). The bars are awesome, with a genuinely wide selection of decent beverages, and the food even better – no bog-standard burger vans or chips with toxic curry sauce to be seen anywhere. All of the food stands were independent artisan affairs and very good quality.
Camping, admittedly in fairly decent weather conditions, was comfortable with reasonable facilities and showers. An unexpected downside to the whole experience though was the inability of families to make use of the ‘family camping’ area – itself equally as big as the main area. This may sound petty, however I think it’s fair to reserve the right not to be woken up in your tent by the screaming toddlers next door at 7.30am. You cannot ever get back to sleep in a tent, let alone with a hangover. I’m sure equally that Mum and Dad weren’t thrilled when we returned to the tent a bit pissed and little bit noisily at 2am each night – however it was their decision to camp there. I’m not sure whether it was a degree of thoughtlessness, defiance or even arrogance that they wouldn’t be resticted to a different area? Thoughtlessness at best… I won’t go on about it, I have no problem at all with children going to festivals but the pushchairs in general were a shock – the fucking things were everywhere – and when the rains did come the poor old Teepee Tent near enough became a crèche/pram park. I didn’t really ever see there being that much enjoyment in the overall situation for either the kids or the parents.
It was a certain level of arrogance that left me with my one overall reservation about the festival. There was an underlying sense of misplaced cool across festival goers of all ages – as if it were the place to be, as determined by The Guardian. Don’t me wrong, the majority of people were lovely, but another section seemed to hold a certain degree of ‘entitlement’ with respect to whatever they were doing or wherever they were. I honestly hesitate to use the phrase, at the risk of accusations of inverse snobbery, but there was a genuine sense of it being a bit of a ‘must-do’ middle class weekend away (I’ve heard similar, and stronger, reports about the likes of Secret Garden Party and Wilderness). It was obvious as well that as good as the line-up was (and yes I am most definitely a music snob), it was apparent that the real qualities and talents of many of the acts was lost on a proportion of the EOTR crowd – to the point one wondered whether they were having that much fun at all.
When mentioning EOTR to folks at Reading, very few knew anything about it. When talking about Reading at EOTR though the invariable reaction was one of either dismissiveness or even disgust – by and large in ignorance. There is no such sense of pretension at Reading, which seems odd to me, given that actually we are all more less going to either festival for the same thing. Overall I know which crowd I felt more comfortable in – End of the Road though won on the music front by a mile.
So there it is. A rushed, wildly subjective, all too personal and probably at times unfair view of two festivals which I’m not sure actually says very much at all. Sorry. I had an amazing time at both for very different reasons but am struck, caveats aside, that they are not so different as I originally thought. Music is the most important thing, food and drink next and the folks at both are an acquired taste.
There’s talk of us (the Reading lot) also doing Glastonbury next year. I’m not sure if that will be a step too far to be honest. I last went as a teenager in 1995. Is it too big now? What is the ratio of pushchairs to adults there? Can we cope with a whole week’s camping anymore? Can we cope with a whole week drunk? What if it rains?
We’ll see…what’s fairly certain is that of course I’ll do Reading and very likely EOTR as well.