After a tortuous six hours drive from Norwich through the ‘Black Friday’ holiday traffic I arrived at Little John’s Farm, the site just a few hundred meters from the town centre holding 50% of what many consider to be the best music festival these shores have to offer; The Reading & Leeds Festival. Three days of the finest rock, indie, grime and dance music not just the UK, but the world has to offer.
Armed with a heavy backpack containing my DSLR and array of lenses I collect my press pass, weekend-access wristband and all important ‘All Other Stages’ green bib. Already mid-afternoon the sun is blazing over the artists/VIP area just behind and to the righthand side of the hulking main stage. It is already buzzing with rock stars, celebrities and hangers on taking a break on the multi-coloured picnic tables. But I’m not concerned with star spotting, even as the crazily dressed rap-rave outfit Die Antwoord and their array of dancers brush past me en-route to play what I hear was a career defining performance on the main stage, my destination is the ‘The Pit’ tent on the north-side of the site bordering the campsite. Dinosaur Pile-Up are due on stage at 16.35. They are a fantastically well named alternative/grunge rock band from Leeds and have just released their third, much darker and more intense third album ‘Eleven Eleven’.
Making my first of what seems like hundreds of journeys through the already heaving site I encounter a plethora of different types of people from groups of face-painted teenage girls and vest topped boys to black clad rockers, neon t-shirted ravers, aged metal-heads and pissed up lads. I haven’t enough time to take photos of the punters yet though, I’m running late and arrive just in time to see the band enter the relatively small, but hugely respected and revered Pit Stage. The crowd roar, the drums bang and the bass and lead guitars kick in. I dump my bag, pull out my camera and 70-300mm telephoto lens, stick in my ear plugs, which being inches away from tens of thousands of watts of speaker stacks is very necessary, and run to join the throng of eager fellow photographers making the most of the three song, ten minute photo window before we’re turfed out by the good natured but strict security team.
Dinosaur Pile-Up do not disappoint with their modern day take on grunge-rock ,albeit reminiscent of the sound of the early 90’s USA west coast, their sound is fresh with front man Matt singing, shouting then screaming briskly through the opening two songs. Already crowd surfers are being pulled over the barriers by security and dispatched to the side of the stage to find their way back into the mix (one guy impressively manages it twice). The roof is dripping with sweat and people are bouncing along with their hands in the air. Reading is kicking off big time already, like always. As I’m showered with (what I hope is) water being flung into the air, my chest pulsating along with the bass-guitar I feel like I’ve arrived home, bang in the middle of the insanity, rowdiness and debauchery of this wonderful festival of music.
Next up in the similar sized Festival Republic tent a mere fifty metres away are Lewis Del Mar, an acoustic duo from New York. A less rowdy, but just as large crowd lap up their melodic and percussion driven sound. Basic lighting and lack of stage antics make them fairly average to shoot so I stay for the mandatory three songs before crossing the site through the ever increasing crowds to the NME/Radio 1 tent for ‘The Internet’. These guys counter the misconception the main stages are under-represented by black artists. Looking at the averages there was a thoroughly decent mix of all races both on and off stages. There was a fantastic vibe throughout the weekend and all different types of people mixed with good nature and no aggro.
They play a mixture of acid jazz and new wave R&B and brought a feel good vibe to the largest of the tents. Although the lead singer Syd Tha Kyd isn’t the most passionate performer, she moves around a fair bit and gives some decent poses to shoot alongside the other band members. I tried to add some interest to the shots by getting the TV cameras into the foreground as they constantly train their sights on her.
However, it’s ok as my impossibly tight schedule takes me all the way back across the site, punctuated by endless requests from punters for photos, back to the Festival Republic Stage for indie band The Sherlocks, a break-through Sheffield band made up, interestingly, by two sets of brothers. It’s no mystery that Huw Stephens, Annie Mac, Steve Lamacq and Greg James have all recently played their new single ‘Heart of Gold’ on Radio 1 because it is great, and there is huge buzz in the crowd as once again I arrive at a tent as the band enter the stage. Barely an hour and a half in this is already my fourth band to shoot and I’m loving every minute. Another large crowd are singing along to the catchy songs and guitar riffs and I understand why these guys were highly recommended to me and have been selling out venues all across the country on their recent tour.
I decide to stick around for the full set, then grab some food for a well-earned rest as I know the next slot back in the tent is Blaenavon.
Wow, what can I say? What a band! They have matured since they formed as teenagers just a few years ago with a wide appealing indie sound of rock-pop riffs and strong vocals. They played to the crowd giving a great, stage covering performance, complete with crowd diving, air kicks, and rock antics. I got some fantastic shots of them, probably the best of the weekend as they struck some great poses. A ram-packed tent jumped and sang along, with plenty of crowd surfing and rowdiness. Definitely in my top five highlights.
I detour to watch Chrvches from a distance play the main stage. They are not an obvious Reading & Leeds Festival type act, with their popular synth-pop sound the opposite of what most bands and acts here are about. However lead singer Lauren Mayberry has an alternative sensibility and is fairly outspoken about some big issues, and she gives a powerful, ballsy performance which seems to go down very well with a decent size crowd during this sunset set. As I head off I snap the sun setting below a perfectly clear sky, little do I know it would be the last time we’d see the sun properly shine that weekend.
Crystal Castles disappoint in the NME/BBC Radio 1 tent and a slightly strange arrangement with the photographers means I do not get any photos, no big loss as they sounded fairly terrible and there is not a huge crowd enjoying it so I break for food and await the arrival of an American band who have broken through massively over the last year with the release of their latest album ‘Blurryface’ and addition of their hit single ‘Heathens’ to the very decent Suicide Squad soundtrack, Twenty One Pilots have become a truly global duo.
I arrive ten minutes early and already there is huge buzz in the tent, it is rammed and I’ve never felt such huge anticipation for a band. The crowd surges and a constant stream of people crushed at the front are being passed over the barriers to escape, some even passed out and in need of medical attention. This part of the festival is organised very well indeed and no serious harm has come to anybody. I look around at the other photographers and can see in their faces they feel the same; this is going to be something special. Eventually the lights dim into near darkness, the crowd erupt into a deafening roar and they enter the stage.
The performance that follows is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, with the first track ‘Heavydirtysoul’ played with only the huge back screen lighted, alongside minimal peripheral lighting and a strobe leaving the duo mainly in the shadows. It means photographing them is pretty challenging, but a couple turn out pretty well. They segway into their monster hit ‘Heathens’, prompting the crowd to sing along and give a very decent performance. After that track they then leave stage for a costume change, with the singer/guitarist ditching his red beany hat and trenchcoat and coming back on stage in a loud, flowery jacket and white shades, whilst playing a ukulele. Fair enough, the young-ish crowd are loving it.
I leg it across the site once more and arrive for Leeds quartet ‘Pulled Apart by Horses’. By this point in the night the camp sites are empty and all stages and tents are packed. The Festival Republic tent in particular seems to be heaving with a highly intoxicated sweaty mixture of a crowd who go absolutely ballistic the second the band enter stage. There’s crowd surfing galore (it is not officially allowed, and big anti crowd surfing signs back this up, but there’s no stopping it!) and giant inflatables being punted around. The singer regularly jumps off the stage to sing amongst the crowd and the guitarists are lively, moving all across the stage giving some great photo opportunities. They are a joy to watch, shouting out their brand of heavy, yet catchy rock to a highly receptive crowd. Once again the ten minute/three song window flies by and we are punted out to enjoy the rest of the set by the side of the tent. I have a good chat with a few of the other photographers who are all fellow music fans and seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Then I remember, it gets better. Boy does it get better. On the main stage in just a few short minutes is who I consider the be the finest band on planet Earth right now, and by far my favourite band whom I’ve not yet seen live. Foals.
I get a great spot in front of the disabled grandstand, pack away my camera (no main stage pass for me, next year hopefully!) and settle in for what turns out to be an incredible performance by a band at the very peak of their power and creativity. Tuneful and heavy indie rock, sung to perfection by Yannis Philippakis, who must surely be one of the best front men of his generation. They sound fantastic and move through a superbly structured set starting with an edgy rendition of ‘Snake Oil’ and into ‘Olympic Airways’ before the sing along favourite ‘My Number’, then ‘Providence both from their ‘Holy Fire’ album. They then lower the tempo and move into one of my favourite tracks ‘Spanish Sahara’, beautifully sung by Yannis. ‘Red Socks Pugie’ follows from their challenging first album ‘Antidotes’ before another low tempo favourite of mine ‘Late Night’.
The set so far is an absolute treat, and when the last track ‘A Knife in the Ocean’ drops from their most recent album ‘What Went Down ‘ I felt that Foals had stamped their authority on the music world. It’s a huge, epic track which sounded incredible and I believe puts them alongside the likes of Muse and Coldplay (I know, they suck, but they’re huge) as the best UK rock bands right now. This will be the first of many major festival headlining sets for the Oxford quintet.
‘Mountain at my Gates’ follows before the humongous ‘Inhaler’ obliterates the crowd. I have to admit to losing my sh*t at that point. It’s my favourite track of the past five years and was played with a huge amount of power (I’m a fan of these guys, can you tell?). They wrap up with a three song encore of ‘What Went Down’, ‘Cassius’ and finish on ‘Two Steps, Twice’. Not the most obvious track to end on, but it worked very well indeed.
Hats off Foals, this was a truly astonishing headlining set.
Highly Suspect were far from it on the NME/Radio 1 stage early Saturday afternoon. The blond, tattooed lead singer looks like he should be in a boy band, but their sound is grungy rock, with a bit of mid-career Kings of Leon thrown in. He has a decent voice and some great lighting from the engineers allowed some excellent shots. There’s a half decent turn out in the tent and although I suspect a few are still nursing headaches in the vast campsites the vibe remains positive.
I dodge the huge queue nearby where the likeable Jack Garrett is signing autographs and wander to the nearby Radio 1 dance tent where a half full tent is dancing to some average sounding broken beat/EDM.I then take a few snaps of interesting punters until Whitney are on the NME/Radio 1 stage at 2.30. The afternoon has slowed and there’s little interest in singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich and his band’s slightly dull performance. I’m in need or perking up which is exactly what I got and much more with the next band across the site at The Pit!
Heck, a band from Nottingham formally known as ‘Baby Godzilla’ tore into the tent, gripped hold of the crowd and proceeded to smash every person squeezed inside to a pulp. Energy poured from all four members during 35 minutes of insanity. Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Jonny Hall screamed through their hardcore punk rock numbers whilst diving into the crowd and creating mayhem (and awesome photos). Various members of the audience held the wireless mic as he sailed above them still playing. Matt Reynolds on lead guitar and secondary vocals then proceeded to do the same whilst also thrashing away, before they both decamped into the middle of a tribal, head banging and moshing crowd. It was a truly brutal, Napalm Death, or Gallows-esque experience.
Meanwhile on stage bassist Paul Shelley, a man who if you saw him off stage in his t-shirt and shorts you’d assume was an accountant, played his instrument like a mad-man, jumping and spinning across the stage with an insane snarl. And obvious comparisons to Animal from The Muppets would do drummer Tom Marsh a disservice. He was twice as crazy.
After I had been caught round the head by Matt’s guitar as he dived into the crowd, he returned to the stage, smashed said guitar into said stage, and all four band members exited while extreme feedback from the various instruments and pedals threatened to blow the speaker stacks, and leaving every single person in the tent wanting more. This was just over half an hour of madness you wouldn’t believe unless you were there, and sporting the scars from it.
Blossoms were a much needed antidote next across site (again!) in the NME/Radio 1 tent. Obviously huge buzz surrounded this slot with the band riding high on a sold out UK tour, number one album, and recent support slot with The Stone Roses. They are straight down the middle, indie-pop, supplying synthesised hooks, bright uplifting vocals and crowd friendly choruses, such as the highly hummable ‘Charlemagne’. Unless you have been living in a cave you would have heard it on the radio (almost any channel), blaring out of every other car, and off every scaffolding structure in Great Britain.
A very young crowd lapped it up and sang along loudly. And why not. It’s decent quality pop music and I’d rather have this type on the radio than anything by he who shall not be mentioned beginning with a ‘B’.
Slaves tore up the main stage not long after with their much harder, and just left of main stream catchy pop-punk sound, with just enough edge, rebelliousness, and anti-establishment ethos to get away with it. Isaac Holman is a very likeable frontman/drummer, and his best mate Laurie Vincent an excellent guitarist who’s great on the backup vocals. They’ve made the step up from tiny gigs across the country just a couple of years ago, to the lower order at last years festivals, right through to main stage this year. And they deserve it. Their album ‘Are You Satisfied’ is a snarling indictment of modern society, such as a proper punk album should be, which also happens to be catchy as f*@k.
Later in the afternoon I caught wind of their secret set on the BBC Introducing Stage and witnessed one of the weekends highlights (plus got some great photos).
More punk rock action followed with ‘Milk Teeth’ at The Pit. They are a highly likeable quintet from Stroud in Gloucestershire with teeny tiny, yet kick ass vocalist Becky Blomfield leading the line and co-vocalist Josh Bannister backing her up whilst thrashing the lead guitar. There was plenty of energy in the crowd, as there was over the road in the Festival Republic tent with ‘Vant’, a band making a big name for themselves currently touring with the indie behemoths ‘You, Me at Six. Their style is less raucous, but high on quality with a very decent array of songs which the majority of the crowd seemed to know and sing along to. Most of the rock antics were supplied by lead guitarist Henry Eastham who owned the stage and played well to the crowd. But it is clearly Mattie Vant’s band and he is a strong frontman. I expect them to do well in the near future.
The afternoon was now whizzing by, full of quality. I saw snippets of ‘Eagles of Death Metal’ and ‘The Courteeners’ on the main stage, but without that main stage pass my cameras focus was on the other stages, and over to the NME/Radio 1 stage I once again went, on increasingly tired legs!
Jack Garrett entered the stage to rapturous applause and seemed genuinely humbled by the love directed towards him. He’s a very likeable guy, and supremely talented as a one man show smashing into the drums, keyboards, samplers and other various machines surrounding him.
Now here is where I have to mention the bass. I’ve been to thousands or raves, clubs and gigs in my time and enjoyed the finest sound systems the world has to offer, most pounding out incredible quality and bass. Jack Garrett managed to notch things up and doled out the heaviest dubstep bass I’ve ever heard which literally rattled my ribs and probably rearranged my internal organs (I suppose I was five metres away from the bass bins designed to blow the socks off the largest tent in the country). It was bloody fantastic, even if I couldn’t eat for a couple of hours.
Nobody cared that he f*@ked up the start to a track in the chaos. Like a true pro he smiled, held his hands up and started again, and the crowd erupted in pure joy. Top marks.
Australian psych rockers ‘King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’ had already won the best name of the weekend award, and then proceeded to try to win best performance too. Front man Stu Mackenzie is a proper nutcase with a style all of his own, gurning through his set like a loon. Their style is hard to define with their unusual time signatures, dark sounds and shifting rhythms, but I’d recommend anybody to check them out or see them live. Rolling Stone magazine dubbed them “one of the most compelling collectives of art rock experimentalists in recent years”. I struggled to capture this with the camera due to odd lighting by the engineers but I left the photography pit pretty happy and sat down to enjoy the rest of the set, and of course rest my weary legs.
Enter Red Hot Chili Peppers. With their thirty year back catalogue of fantastic funk-rock, the biggest festival crowd I’ve ever witnessed amassed for their 9.30 main stage headline slot. The anticipation was intense, almost palpable and chili pepper t-shirts could be seen everywhere. This band are not just loved, they are adored.
However. And this is a big however. As much as I love them too I have never seen them in person but I’ve heard their live albums, and they ain’t great. They are an album band and need the likes of Rick Rubin to tie them together. Flea is an awesome bassist and entertainer but Chad Smith is not a great drummer, Anthony Kiedis’ voice was never the best and the only great guitarist they ever had John Frusciante left some time ago. It was him who made their first huge album ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ a great record, and after leaving he came back to make ‘Californication’ and ‘By the Way’ great too (not so much ‘Stadium Arcadium’, sorry). In my humble opinion they have not released anything great, or even good since 2002 and have been sliding in quality since.
I was prepared to ignore all this and hope Josh Klinghoffer did the business on lead guitar and that this would be an awesome show. But it wasn’t. Just like you should never meet your idols, you shouldn’t see the Chili Peppers live. It pains me to say it as the three albums I mentioned have been solidly played over my various music devices and sound systems for years. I truly love those albums and the fantastic hits contained within.
Their performance wasn’t a cacophony exactly, just sub-par compared to the other bands over the weekend, and by a band long past their best. Still it could have been worse, it could have been the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury in 2013. Yikes!
Sunday soon rolled round and my first port of call was Waterparks in the tent previously labelled ‘The Pit’, but for Sunday only labelled the ‘Lock Up Stage’. They are a pop-punk trio from Texas in the US of A with their most recent album ‘Cluster’ co-produced by Benji Madden of Good Charlotte fame. And you can hear why given their upbeat, tuneful sound and catchy choruses. It helps the lead singer and guitarist Awsten Knight is a good looking lad who gave probably the best between-song crowd interaction and chat of the weekend. The front row comprising of adoring, misty eyed teenage girls loved every second of it and never let him leave their gaze.
Geek rockers the Magic Gang followed not long after on the Festival Republic Stage next door, funnily enough also performing in the adoring gaze of a front row comprised of teenage girls. Singer/guitarist is a confident guy who gives a strong, smiley performance with the band as a whole playing their hearts out. Their sound is wide spanning indie rock with a pop sensibility which pulled in a healthy crowd considering the 3.15 slot.
Beach Slang then took over the reigns on The Lock Up Stage. They were a band I took a gamble on, and won big time with. The American pop-punk act were hugely entertaining and great to shoot. Front man Alex James draws easy comparisons to Jack Black and has plenty of experience in this game formerly fronting Pennsylvanian punk outfit ‘Weston’. The lead song ‘Punks in a Disco Bar’ from their new album ‘A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings’ is well worth checking out.
I enjoyed twenty minutes of their set before making the now familiar short journey again to catch Ezra Furman next door on the Festival Republic Stage. His accompanying band ‘The Boy Friends’ are great to watch complete with saxophonist Tim Sandusky. Ezra is an interesting stage presence, dressed as he is in full drag, he’s very reserved and speaks in between songs about not being comfortable with the attention, before smashing out the next lively track and then telling the crowd he’s having a great time and thanking for coming. It’s a strange contradiction. Either way viewing his tour schedule things are looking good for George, he’s playing all over the world in decent sized venues seemingly selling them out.
Back to The Lock Up Stage for ‘Roam’ who take the prize for most energetic band of the weekend. The look, quite frankly, like a badly dressed Westlife clone, but then quickly redeem themselves with good quality punk-pop whilst literally jumping all over the stage, onto speaker stacks, then off the speaker stacks and in front of the crowd, then into the crowd before ending up back on the stage, then repeat. It was exhausting enough keeping up with them through the camera lens, and I had to have a very quick shutter speed to stop the photos blurring, but it was worth it. I liked their sound, and it turns out they’ve just completed a headline tour of Europe followed by supporting ‘Sum 41’ on the gigantic Kerrang! tour.
Then yet another switch to The Festival Republic Stage for ‘Gnash’, a rapper/singer from Los Angeles who served up a kind of chilled out, r&b, poppy, rap mixture over some admittedly decent beats. He was a bit over confident for my tastes, but the crowd seemed keen so fair enough. I made a sharp exit and crossed the site to the NME/Radio 1 Stage to catch the rising star of the moment ‘Ratboy’. He’s all over Radio 1 at the moment and has been signed to Parlophone Records. Unfortunately he takes my award for worst performance of the weekend. Not only because his music is weak, but the stage antics he no doubt thought were rebellious or cool, were actually pretty stupid, the main point being in between songs telling the crowd they ‘weren’t allowed to part’, and very definitely should not do that, before they inevitably did that much to the clear annoyance of the stretched security and stage management team. If you don’t know ‘parting the crowd’ is where the crowd separate before the next song kicks in and the two sides smash into each other much like a giant, vicious rugby scrum. It is truly a dangerous thing and even the most hardcore metal bands know not to encourage it. Especially following the many, many sick, injured and unconscious people I’d seen rushed out over the barriers this weekend in this particular tent. The keyboardist then proceeded to climb the stage structure before being shouted down by said stage management whilst slicing his hand open on the way down. What a rebel. The least funny thing is it looks like they are all from well off families in normal suburban homes, which I read are in Chelmsford. It wouldn’t surprise me if their mothers had all fed them pre-performance quinoa salads before wiping their noses and wishing them good luck for their ‘big show’.
I made another sharp exit and aimed to the main stage for a tribute to Viola Beach. Fifteen minutes put aside following the deaths of that talented up and coming band and their manager earlier this year. It was very emotional to hear the kind words spoken, and see the VT featuring interviews and live sessions of the band, followed by a complete recording of their posthumous hit ‘Boys That Sing’. The most tragic thing is it is a bloody fantastic tune. So positive and feel-good and it sounded right at home pouring from the giant Funktion 1 speaker towers to a receptive crowd.
I had to ignore one of my favourite bands ‘The Vaccines’ on the main stage as at exactly the same time a new band to me ‘Savages’ were due on the NME/Radio 1 Stage. I’d heard they were worth checking out from several sources. Man were they correct. Check them out when they tour continue their UK this year, they are very dark and intense and fill the stage with brooding menace and attitude. Lead singer Jehnny Beth is a magnetic force centre stage with Fay Milton playing the tightest set of drums of the weekend, and bassist Aye Hassan thrashing the speakers to within an inch of their lives. I stayed for the whole set and was rewarded by being the only photographer present for her crowd surf. It was epic and took her several meters out and gave me several great shots with the telephoto lens on maximum extension.
‘Cage the Elephant’ took over the stage a mere thirty minutes later and gave a great, exhausting performance to a huge crowd. Front man Matt Shultz must be sick of comparisons to a young Mick Jagger, but he was lapping up the attention and must know half his moves were stolen from a 1960’s Rolling Stones in their verve.
And so my biggest dilemma of the weekend. Do I shoot The Wombats or The King Blues both entering different stages on opposite ends of the site at exactly nine thirty?! I plumped for the latter in respect to the wonderful ‘The Lock Up Stage’ and was rewarded with one of my very favourite performances not just of the weekend, but ever. These guys are technically fantastic, play a great fusion of punk-rock, ska and folk and are just extremely positive in every way, whilst being humble and honest in their gratitude to the crowd for putting them where they are. Maximum points to them for this attitude and my award for track and performance of the weekend must go to their rendition of ‘I Got Love’. If you take one thing from this rambling, ramshackle write up make sure you listen to this track, then buy it, then buy their album, and then every album they have ever released.
Maybe you had to be there to understand, and no doubt you’ve seen it elsewhere at other gigs, but sometimes a crowd and a band come together for one track or one moment and become one, and in one perfect moment in time you all realise together life is great, and no matter what awfulness continues to happen in the world as long as you keep the love everything is going to be ok. It’s making me well up again just thinking about it!
I could write more about the Sunday main stage headliners Biffy Clyro who were great and proved themselves worthy of playing any stage on the planet and rocking it, but I won’t. We all know this.
My duty led me back to The Lock Up Stage for one final band; American pop-punk band ‘Good Charlotte’ playing the tent’s headline set at 10.30. It was beyond capacity with many forced to watch from outside, so once again I thanked my good fortune by having a pit pass on joined in the mayhem just feet from the action. The crowd were rapturous, singing along to every word and in the highest of spirits. As a band they may not be everybody’s cup of tea but I thought they were great and lead singer Joel Madden had the crowd in the palm of his hand. As well he should after twenty years of doing this. It was a great way to sign off for the weekend before a blissful late night, cruise controlled journey through zero traffic all the way to Norwich.
However I’ll leave you with ‘The King Blues’. I urge you to catch them live next time you get the opportunity. Or indeed just check out this wonderful, humongous, rowdy and insane festival of music at Little John’s Farm, or its sister festival in Leeds in 2017. My legs ached for a week after, and it’s taken me ten days to get my head round it all and write it all up. But I’m left with nothing but positive feeling from another great weekend. Roll on next year.