The return of Reading & Leeds post-pandemic feels rather different than previous years, for mainly obvious reasons. The lineup is a bit more scaled back and the density of the stages has been lessened considerably, but the inclusion of two Main Stages feels like a compensation effort on its own, to double down on the draws and the big names the festival prides itself on. Of course, it’s also a means of reinforcing the mainstream angle that Reading & Leeds have been trending in for the last few years, but that’s not to say there’s a lack of quality here, or a lack of diversity encompassing all scenes and genres. The focus on pop and hip-hop might take precedence this year, but there’s still plenty for everyone, as we break down this year’s lineup and highlight what’s going on at Reading & Leeds 2021.
Main Stage East
As mentioned earlier, the splitting of the Main Stage into two separate stages has allowed for a greater number of bigger names to take to the stage; the festival has prided itself this year on having six headliners, something which the lack of gender diversity initially caused some controversy around, but it’s ambitious nonetheless. And on the Main Stage East especially, the headlining choice feels like a clear indication of where the onus of these festivals lies most deeply—Liam Gallagher serves as both a legacy choice but also a key name in placating the indie crowd these grounds might be most traditionally associated with, but Stormzy and Post Malone are the forward-thinking leap into a hip-hop and mainstream space. Yes, Post Malone coming back after headlining in 2019 screams of a choice far down the priority list, but Stormzy feels like an artist with considerably more pull, one of, if the biggest name in UK hip-hop right now, and putting them both together signifies the tone for a good portion of what this stage has to offer. The homegrown hitmakers come in the form of AJ Tracey, MoStack and KSI, all of whom fit a hip-hop niche that’s prime for huge stages like this, as well as Mabel, who’s become something of a festival favourite given a successful appearance in 2019, and similarly being imported from the ill-fated 2020 lineup; running parallel, there’s also the guaranteed pop euphoria of Sigrid, plus The Kid LAROI, who’s more in the Post Malone camp of genre-agnostic chart-topper, but one whose clout right now really can’t be overstated. Really though, in terms of names on the poster, it’s indie that dominates here, where big names like Gerry Cinnamon, Wolf Alice and Two Door Cinema Club are the reliable draws; Tom Grennan, Declan McKenna, Beabadoobee and The Hunna take their place as the genre’s more contemporary stars, staking their claims as Main Stage names; and The Struts, Inhaler, easy life, The Academic and (most interestingly) Demob Happy feel like rightful new additions to round things out.
Main Stage West
By comparison to its eastern counterpart, the Main Stage West does feel a bit more rock-centric, albeit having that balanced out by a similar indie presence, and rounded out by the customary pop and hip-hop inclusions. The most notable of those are headliners Disclosure, whose nocturnal, tactile drum ‘n’ bass, especially in its modern permutations is perfectly suited to huge nighttime crowds. Joining them are the effervescent dance-pop of Becky Hill; the looser, festival-ready hip-hop of slowthai; the globe-conquering drill of Russ Millions, still riding high off his worldwide smash Body; the ever-popular UK rap of Aitch; and a bizarrely placed Arizona Zervas, whose status as a one-hit wonder with Roxanne is yet to be moved, but maybe there are some plans on the horizon to justify a slot in the upper half of a festival Main Stage. In terms of rock and indie though, you’ll find most of the big names congregating around here, led by Biffy Clyro who serve as last-minute replacements for Queens Of The Stone Age, but have a perfectly capable CV when it comes to headlining this very festival, as well as the stage presence, production and collection of towering alt-rock anthems to take it on with no worries. Elsewhere in the rock camp the ever-vaunted pairing of Yungblud and Machine Gun Kelly, who—despite some individual thoughts about both of them—have the modern rock and pop-punk scenes in the palms of their hands, and as frequent collaborators and larger-than-life presences in the own right, are sure to bring bodies to their sets. On a similar note, the pop-punk of Neck Deep and the assertive, ever-growing pop-rock of Hot Milk serves as just as much of a draw, while I Don’t Know How But They Found Me’s alt-pop, Fever 333’s snarling post-hardcore and The Hara’s sneering pop-rock feels like a huge step in establishing the future dominators of stages like this. Finally, there’s the indie contingent, which features a number of familiar names, but ones that are certainly bound to prove popular—Catfish And The Bottlemen finally take their long-coveted headline slot at these festivals, while The Wombats always prove to be reliable winners, and the tear through post-punk that Sports Team are on will work in their favour, rounded out by Nothing But Thieves, Sam Fender and Sea Girls.
BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage
It’s rather telling that one of the only major stages to hold its three-day residence is the Dance Stage, perhaps a further indication of the festival’s shifting demographic and the importance that having this particular tentpole in place represents. Nevertheless, for the electronically-minded, there’s a lot to like here, headed up by headliners in the all-encompassing drum ‘n’ bass presence of Crucast, the ever-popular house of veteran MK, and the similarly dominating house—albeit of a different strain—from Solardo. Elsewhere, there’s plenty to choose from with Nathan Dawe, Bad Boy Chiller Crew, Niko B and Noizu all putting their names behind some huge hits in the past couple of years, and Shy FX, Hannah Wants, Dom Dolla, Danny Howard and James Organ all standing as reliable stalwarts of electronic music for years now, with profiles that are by no means shrinking any time soon. Finally, there’s what’s always most interesting part of the Dance stage—the names that seem to be haphazardly thrown on despite having no correlation with the mood of anyone else, but stand out so much more for it. This time, those names feature the chart-bothering TikTok-pop of Mimi Webb; the bracing pop-punk of KennyHoopla; the likable indie-pop of Allie Templeman; and the indie-rap-rock of NOISY.
BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage
As with the Dance Stage, the 1Xtra Stage remaining at a weekend-long run feels telling about just how high priority hip-hop and rap are within the Reading & Leeds landscape, and how much the festivals are looking to foster that in terms of big names, both homegrown and from across the Atlantic. But even then, that doesn’t really explain some unorthodox headline choices here; sure, Jack Harlow makes sense given that he’s on a real tear at the moment, but OFB are by no means the biggest in UK drill, and Tyga just doesn’t seem like the most natural fit (especially given that he’s honestly a bit past his prime). In any case, looking across this lineup acts like a who’s who of the buzziest artists the UK scene has to offer primarily, given the chart presence that’s already been obtained by Tion Wayne, Digga D, Central Cee, M1llionz, Darkoo, Abra Cadabra and S1mba. Joining that list is grime stalwart Ghetts and fast risers like Swarmz, Ivorian Doll and M24, as well as artists on the cusp of hitting that chart ubiquity like French The Kid and Tia Carys. The new names really do feel like the biggest presence on this stage, though there’s still room for influential figureheads in the UK scene like DJ Target and Kenny Allstar.
The Lock-Up / The Pit
This year, The Lock-Up and The Pit occupy a single day each, which simultaneously feels like a result of restrictions limiting the sort of acts that can play, but also the shift in focus that’s been mentioned a lot here, where the heavier side of the lineup is not exactly an obligation to fill, but doesn’t feel quite as important as the indie or hip-hop sides. Perhaps that’s why, even here, a lot of the heavier hip-hop focus that’s dominated alternative music recently has more presence; Bob Vylan and jxdn are both convincingly rock artists at the same time (one more so than the other…), but as for the SoundCloud rap of Ashnikko, Dana Dentata, Jazmin Bean and Macca Wiles, and the trap-metal of City Morgue, there’s definitely been a conscious decision made to portray that movement with the same visceral energy as pervades within rock music as a whole. That’s by no means a bad thing, but it’s just noteworthy when considering the more ‘standard’ rock fare that these stages are offering do seem to be following suit at picking out the most exciting acts around. As headliners, obviously Fever 333 doing their second set of the weekend fit that bill, but Creeper’s punk theatrics always go down a treat, as do the pounding post-hardcore of Boston Manor, and the dense but enormous metal of Loathe. There’s a good amount of scene representation too, both for the homegrown noisemakers with Yonaka, Nova Twins, Wargasm and Bad Nerves, and the ostensible American equivalent in scrappier, more alternative hard rock from Badflower and Dead Poet Society. Rounding everything out, there’s the ever-likable grunge of Dinosaur Pile-Up; the towering alt-rocks of Holding Absence; the bracing indie-punk of Gender Roles; the stylish, savvy garage-rock of Grace McKagan; the gritty post-hardcore of Chapter And Verse; and the rather self-explanatory Punkband.
Festival Republic Stage
It’s strange seeing the Festival Republic Stage stripped down to just a single day, as what’s usually the hub of upcoming indie talent ready to make a leap up the lineup in years to come feels as though there’s a lot less weight to it here. Though saying that, it also could be down to a denser list of acts this year, topped by bedroom-pop wunderkind girl in red, for whom a Main Stage set doesn’t seem too out of the question for, even this year. That’s true of a lot of these acts who do already have a considerable profile, like Bloxx with their infectious indie-pop, or the genre-blending indie-rap of Bakar, or the homespun alt-pop of Mae Muller and Holly Humberstone. For most of them though, it’s really only a matter of time, and the springboard that this stage offers will only benefit them hugely in the next year or so. It helps that there’s already buzz behind them all to make this lineup even more exciting for those looking for the next big thing—the same goes for about-to-blow indie-pop from Baby Queen, LYRA and Sophie And The Lights, and the heartfelt pop from newcome Lucy Blue.
BBC Introducing Stage
Even in a drastically slimmed-down lineup, there’s still plenty of new talent being fostered on the BBC Introducing Stage, a lot of which has the usual promise this stage tends to yield within the independent confines. There’s Calva Louise who are probably the most out-there with their clashing electro-punk, but that’s not to say there isn’t good stuff breaking through within the more conventional realms. Fellow headliners Josie Mann and Low Hummer accomplish that within alt-pop and garage-rock respectively, while Lauran Hibberd’s grungy alt-rock and Yard Act’s post-punk have already been making waves. Elsewhere, BERWYN and Downtown Kayoto occupy a soulful R&B angle, while Master Peace blends off-kilter pop, rock and soul, and Alfie Indra carves out his own niche in pop.
Words by Luke Nuttall
Reading & Leeds Festival takes place from 27th-29th August at Richfield Avenue, Reading and Bramham Park, Leeds. More information can be found at https://www.readingandleedsfestival.com