Main Stage East
Top of the agenda when it comes to discussing this stage in particular is to address the headlining situation. Yes, it’s very unfortunate that Rage Against The Machine had to pull out, and have subsequently been replaced by The 1975 in a decision that no one’s been up in arms about and definitely hasn’t been controversial in the slightest… Facetiousness aside, both sides of the argument can be seen; for a band who come around as seldom as Rage Against The Machine (not to mention the kind of band they are musically), this is in no way an equivalent booking. At the same time, the turnaround when it comes to nabbing one of the UK’s biggest indie bands for a headline set only two weeks before the festival itself is an impressive feat by any metric.
At least it puts them closer in line with Arctic Monkeys, in representing two different generations of indie being covered at the top slot, and ultimately acting as a more cohesive umbrella for much of this stage. In the former camp, there are fellow Dirty Hit signees Wolf Alice and Pale Waves, both among the heaviest hitters among UK alternative, as well as Dayglow in an more Americanised adjacent field that still fits in terms of gauzy tone and atmosphere.
As for the more traditional stuff, Circa Waves have been ploughing forward with commercial yet appealing indie-rock for a while now, and it’s about right that a big main stage slot like this is theirs. It’s not hard to see similar results yielded for The Sherlocks and The Lathums either when they rack up some more road miles, as the sort of bands that tend to feel right at home in a big festival setting to counterbalance some lack of real intrigue to them. At least Black Honey have a bit more going for them in that regard; it’s not a ton, but they’re among the indie bands for whom a real, tangible explosion could be on the cards for, as opposed to a quiet buildup in the background.
Of course, the real exciting stuff is outside of indie entirely, spearheaded by Dave in bringing forward an emphasis on hip-hop that’s been around for a few years, but seems to really be taking flight now. Dave himself is an obvious choice, as one of the more celebrated UK rappers around with a reputation for thought-provoking work and a killer live show, with Little Simz behind him to fill in a similar slot as one of Britain’s absolute finest. There’s also Run The Jewels, sadly no longer flanking Rage Against The Machine as they have been all summer, but still bringing hip-hop firepower that’s gone unparalleled across their last handful of albums. Finally, Polo G and AJ Tracey continue to stand as two of mainstream rap’s stalwart names, and Denzel Curry is really having a moment right now, as the sort of chameleonic rapper that’s more than equipped for a stage this size.
Rounding off is the pop and rock experiencing similar waves of hype, notably in the case of the former as another upped presence on this higher level. In this camp, there’s a recently-added appearance from Charli XCX who continues to maintain her spot on the hyperpop throne; Griff as a singer-songwriter looking to add more credits to the banner couple of years she’s been having; one of the key voices (and pleasant surprises) of the pop-punk revolution from WILLOW; and genre-bending alt-pop from Mallrat. Finally for rock, it’s not as wholly represented as it once was, but there’s no doubting the magnitude of Fontaines D.C.’s quaking post-punk or Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes’ agitated, acerbic garage-punk.
Main Stage West
Main Stage West proves a bit more difficult to group into clean delineations than its Eastern counterpart. For one, the distinction between the rock and indie side of things is less cleanly laid out, mainly due to a lack of an indie headliner that would at least hold that together. That’s not to say that Bring Me The Horizon are unworthy of their top billing though; quite the opposite, as they’ve long been one of the most forward-thinking rock bands the UK has to offer, always skulking around a full-blown festival headline slot, and now it finally comes to fruition. Enter Shikari fill a similar niche as both a truly unique entity in British rock and festival lifers practically guaranteed high slots for the rest of time; similarly, All Time Low’s pop-rock has always proven popular, and Poppy makes a sizable leap up to give her pop-tinged nu-metal even more leverage than its critical acclaim has already awarded it.
Beyond that within the alternative space, the direction is a bit more nebulous overall, though that’s not a bad thing. DE’WAYNE could probably fit among the previous camp in a crossover vein that his rap-rock offers, but his presence highlights the genre-bending that’s very much become the norm going forward. It explains why Glass Animals have been given the significant billing they have, with Heat Waves becoming a legitimate mega-hit and launching their hazy alt-pop further than it’s even gotten before. Beyond that, indie proves a bit more straight-laced, with the Britpop throwbacks of DMA’s, the ludicrously popular bedroom-indie of Wallows, and the amalgam of every possible indie permutation between the ‘80s and 2000s that comprises the sound of newcomers The K’s.
Again though, it’s the infiltration of the mainstream that’s the biggest draw, a fact that isn’t supposed to sound as negative as it can be read. After all, it’s not like Halsey doesn’t deserve a headline slot as one of the key unifiers of pop and alternative cliques, who’s only sought to explore both avenues further than ever before across recent output. The same can be said for Megan Thee Stallion, the undisputed queen of trap who’s shaping the genre to her will, to where her rocketing in prominence to this stage already shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
Between them, they’re bringing up the acts that, in past years, would never have even been given a look at these festivals. Perhaps to some that’s the death knell of a festival caving in to pop machinations and relinquishing its alternative cred (a statement which, let’s be honest, is emphatically not true when talking about one of the biggest events in the country), but it’s more colourful and diverse for it. Bastille at least serve as some form of anchor to that past indie halcyon, but with the omnipresent UK hip-hop of D-Block Europe; the freewheeling drum ‘n’ bass fusions of Bad Boy Chiller Crew and Bru-C; the sophisticated soul-pop of Joy Crookes; and the deeply online alt-rap of bbno$, the direction Reading & Leeds are heading in at least excels in unpredictability.
Radio 1 Dance Stage
Remaining consistent across incarnations of Reading & Leeds is the Dance Stage, the festival’s home of electronic music and more, to boast a commendable variety of acts even outside of those presumed parameters. Not necessarily true at the stage’s headlining level, mind, though there’s still variety there among modern house and drum ‘n’ bass, courtesy of Hybrid Minds’ more liquid fare, the jungle leanings of Wilkinson and the garage and deep house touches of Gorgon City. Even despite the most interesting names on offer steering further from more ‘traditional’ dance bracketing, there’s still a healthy number of names within there to pinpoint—Sigma with their big-hearted drum ‘n’ bass tailored for festival stages; vibrant flavours of house courtesy of Biscits and Meg Ward; pounding jungle from Kanine; ethereal, evocative house from Tommy Farrow; and a difference-splitter between throwback drum ‘n’ bass and thoroughly contemporary TikTok-pop from piri & tommy.
The latter probably serve as the best segue into what else the Dance Stage has, coming heavily from modern channels and creatives for whom genre is really of little concern. Thus, there’s a whole bunch of artists in the intersection of pop, electronic, indie and whatever else is up for grabs, for one of the Dance Stage’s most sonically verdant lineups, perhaps ever. Chief among them is 100 gecs, the hyperpop wunderkinds who’ve been uniting online music communities like no one’s business with their swordlike blend of über-modern pop and 2000s emo sensibility, as well as Pinkpantheress, as the sort of bedroom-pop / drum ‘n’ bass trailblazer whose name might as well be already etched much further up these lineups in years to come.
Beyond that though, the breadth covered is pretty surprising, honestly; the links to ‘dance’ appear more tangential than anything. You get mainstream pop from Madison Beer—plus Gayle and her integration of of-the-moment pop-rock into her big breakthrough—as well as Ashnikko’s online-dominating pop-rap where the crossover potential is evident. Meanwhile, diverse flavours of indie-pop come from Tai Verdes, Gus Dapperton and Dylan, with a further genre-flowing spin from Bakar, Everyone You Know, Sad Night Dynamite and Police Car Collective.
Festival Republic Stage
Undergoing possibly the biggest change this year is the Festival Republic Stage, now folding in what would’ve been The Pit and the Lock-Up Stage across two days, while giving its usually remit—a lot of new indie acts mixed with the buzziest risers those scene have—just one. Still, there’s a lot packed in there, with a headline set from Beabadoobee fitting the aforementioned criteria pretty much to a T, and bolstered by a new album that’s propelling her higher than ever before. It’s not hard to see a lot of similar groundswell elsewhere, from Chloe Moriondo’s more insular take on pop-punk; Crawlers’ big-hearted indie-rock that’s seen them firmly planted in the ‘ones to watch’ camp; street-level punk from Stone and garage-rock from The Blinders; and different varieties of bedroom-pop from Role Model and Daisy Brain.
The emphasis on hyped risers and newcomers definitely takes precedence over what’s sometimes includes a mix of legacy acts; this year, there’s really only Barns Courtney that fits that bill, and even then, there’s enough about his indie-rock style that’s a natural fit anyway. Ultimately, it’s about fostering those newer names to a greater standing, all of whom certainly seem fit for it. It’s not hard to see where the potential lies in wide-angle pop-rock from The Native; Gen Z pop from Abby Roberts; magnetic indie-soul from Brooke Combe; and swirling, folk-flecked indie-rock from CVC.
As for the carryovers from those rock- and punk-oriented days, not much has changed in terms of the approach to curation. They’re still operating on providing a cross-section of where rock and alternative culture is right now, notably in how much of the nu-gen and crossover side is represented here. Ho99o9 act as the most established flag-bearers as these grounds in particular, in their feral combination of industrial rigour with hip-hop and metal fervour. There’s quite the cast joining them too; Cassyette and Kid Brunswick continue their tear with dense, punk-informed snarls; CarolesDaughter brings a brand of pop coated in metal and heady atmosphere; Sueco represents the rappers-turned-pop-punks crowd; and Scene Queen’s mashup of deathcore riffing with bratty millennial pop has really been set in motion lately. As divisive as this whole wave may be, it’s undeniably popular and has become instrumental in shaping alternative music as of late. At the time of writing, there’s still a headliner to be announced, so don’t be that surprised if they too fit this mould.
Elsewhere though, it’s all more standardly rock. Fever 333 act as a very natural headlining choice, filling something of a void in Rage Against The Machine’s absence as far as rabble-rousing and incendiary rap-rock goes. Beneath them is an overall solid lineup that seems to hit the main touchstones of where rock and heavier music are going currently. There’s a lean towards the more ferocious wave of British post-hardcore from Static Dress and Witch Fever, and the newer waves of hard rock from cleopatrick and Taipei Houston (might as well throw in the throwback-adjacent stylings of The Skinner Brothers and the bluesy garage-rock of Tigercub, too). The variety does contribute a lot given the slimmed lineup when there’s not much obvious overlap, and that opens things up to a pretty healthy batch of acts, all things considered. As It Is are established favourites with their anthemic pop-punk / post-hardcore, while Kid Kapichi’s snarky post-punk already has a lot of steam about it, and there’s plenty of promise to be awarded to The Scratch’s heavier take on folk-rock, Thumper’s raucous alt-rock, and Beauty School Dropout’s sharpened alt-pop.
BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage
The ubiquity of hip-hop at Reading & Leeds is once again shored by the BBC 1Xtra Stage, curated to include some of the brightest rising stars and established names among the genre’s many sides, and mainly skewing in a British direction. Not exclusively of course, and the inclusion of both Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA feels like a conscious decision to bag some of the most forward-thinking Stateside names possible, but it’s rather impressive how stacked with current heavy hitters this bill is. Right at the top are ArrDee and Pa Salieu, artists occupying different spaces on the UK hip-hop spectrum but with plenty of groundswell beneath them regardless, as well as Krept & Konan, whose heyday may have passed but hasn’t dulled their profile within the British scenes.
Past that—and in rather customary fashion—the 1Xtra Stage’s bill can generally be divided among noted charting presences and those for whom that isn’t too far away. In the former camp, Potter Payper, A1 x J1, Unknown T, Knucks, Morrisson, Fumez The Engineer, Hazey and Wes Nelson (Love Island’s own) have all established themselves as proven hitmakers within the diverse UK hip-hop climate. Similarly, the buzz around French The Kid, Snow and Country Dons would imply that they aren’t far behind.
BBC Introducing Stage
Home of the newest talent curated from across the UK is the BBC Introducing Stage, a mainstay at UK festivals that can sometimes feel overlooked compared to its bigger siblings elsewhere in the field. These are ultimately some of the acts that’ll be heading up there in the coming years, some of whom already are broken in for it. In the case of Courting, they’ve been tapped as the name to know among the next wave of jittery post-punk; it’s a similar case with LICE in their lairier, noise-rock-trending take. As for Panic Shack’s indie-punk and Uninvited’s jugular-grabbing alt-rock, the waves they’ve been making this year are definitely noteworthy for them going forward.
But the brand new stuff is still here, even right up at the top. Perhaps ‘headliners’ is a bit of a misleading case in this situation, when all of these acts are on pretty much equal footing, but Alissic really does stand out for slick pop touched with elements of rock to really capitalise on its momentum (aside from being married to one Oli Sykes of Bring Me The Horizon, that is). Joining her are Miso Extra’s wonky experimental pop and Dan D’Lion’s low-key bedroom-indie, the sort of sounds that feel right at home among this current incarnation of Reading & Leeds. The applies to much of what’s on offer here, among the finely-produced pop of Claudia Valentina; the grazed garage-rock of Bilk; the warped, small-scale soul of Joesef and Jazmin Flowers; and the detailled indie-pop of flowerovlove.
Reading & Leeds takes place on 26th-28th August at Richfield Avenue, Reading and Bramham Park, Leeds. For more information, visit http://www.readingandleedsfestival.com.
Words by Luke Nuttall