It’s no secret that Reading & Leeds have changed drastically from what they once were, and so they should. It’s all well and good to share past lineups with Blur or Stereophonics right at the top of the bill, and bemoan what things have become, but it needs to be realised that mainstream festival such as this needs to evolve with the times. We’re unable to vouch for Reading, but certainly at Leeds, a not-insignificant amount of its contingent is the bucket-hatted, shorts-and-shirtless crowd more likely to frequent the Dance Stage, and thus from a business perspective, it’s worth catering to them.
At the same time though, there’s still a degree of indie cred to be maintained alongside that, and so booking an artist like Mallrat for a Main Stage opening slot feels designed as a happy medium. Her songs are clearly pop-leaning, but with the introspection that forms a lot of the Gen Z perception of ‘alternative’, doing a pretty alright job at balancing the two. The conspicuous emptiness of the stage is a factor against her—it’s just her with a backing track, and there’s a natural awkwardness in how that comes across—but she’s confident and collected, never outright exploding but also remaining fairly level. The guitar chugs that pepper closer Rockstar are the only properly memorable part though; overall, Mallrat makes a valiant attempt at breaking through, but doesn’t quite reach it.
At a time of day when crowds don’t tend to turn up en masse, full credit to WILLOW for amassing a decent number of baying onlookers. That’s doubly so when you consider how brief her time as a bigger artist has been within the scope of her overall musical career, and if proof is still needed that she’s far past whipping her hair back and forth—like, by a factor of parsecs—this is it. Fully melded into her rock-leaning ways and with an ear for creativity that sets her apart from practically all of peers in pop-punk’s current class, it’s a great showcase of her jack-of-all-trades-ness. She’s got a real magnetic presence onstage, and that translates into how t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l roars into life as the kickoff, or how the lilting shout-along of Meet Me At Our Spot feels so comfortable on a summer’s day like this. Even if WILLOW’s own guitar playing leaves a bit to be desired (when she’s trading off with her own guitarist and bassist, the more stilted presentation is rather blatant), there’s a lot of really promising work here that paves a bright future to come.
Having Denzel Curry rolling out a big Main Stage set honestly makes all the sense in the world. He’s one of hip-hop’s most in-demand names, able to weave between hard-hitting lyricism and kerb-stomping rap bangers, in what’s probably one of the cleanest meshes of the festival’s old and new ethos you can find. There’s a reason that the rock media has gotten onboard so fervently—perhaps just as much as hip-hop outlets, if not more so—exemplified perfectly by how ridiculously hard RICKY and Ultimate go, or how layered and alluring Walkin and CLOUT COBAIN can be. As for Curry himself, he’s everything you’d want in a performer, blessed with a versatility that hits every stratum of intensity with precision (the closing run of Ultimate is particularly phenomenal in this regard), and coming to bat with a charisma, energy and showmanship that’s a total marvel. From front to back, it’s just as good as it gets.
Although it’s technically correct, there’s something that just feels inherently wrong about placing 100 gecs on the Dance Stage. That’s not to say that there isn’t always a fast-and-loose logic to some of the acts that get placed on here, but especially now, this comes across as a case of assigning a place through technicality than much else. Because sure, by the most liberal definition, this is ‘dance music’; it’s electronic music played through a laptop, where the spectacle of the performers is the utmost focus. But between how the duo physically stand out (shout out especially to Dylan Brady and his star-spangled wizard costume) and clanking, shrieking nature of their hyperpop that strains an already strained subgenre even further, it’s far more interesting than No-Name Producer Duo #36.
The fact they’re able to wring out so much from their meagre means is pretty spectacular, mostly because it’s reliant on how fun this music can be. When there’s elements of Eurodance and 2000s emo smashed together as knowingly gracelessly as possible, it opens up 100 gecs’ weird, gonzo creative streak that they’ve fully embraced. There’s charm to the way the AutoTune heavily bleeds onto Laura Les’ voice even outside their songs, or the incredibly on-the-nose lead-ins to I Got My Tooth Removed and hand crushed by a mallet. Boosted by an astonishingly dedicated crowd who are fully game to bend with the genre rubric, 100 gecs continue to strike sharp and fast, entirely by their own means and in their own distinct way. And for the Dance Stage regulars not happy with it? Well, Bad Boy Chiller Crew are playing right over there…
The festival environment is where Pale Waves thrive, no question about it. Over the last couple of years’ worth of middling albums that have struggled to find the optimum pop-rock base, they’ve instead established a really solid set of Main Stage-ready cuts, and bolstered by their recent work that’s their best to date, it all pans out easily. Like their music itself, depth and grandeur takes a backseat to how sticky those hooks are, something that’s been isolated down even further for a lean, punchy, filler-free set. It’s good to see how well the likes of Lies and Jealousy have assimilated with their catalogue, which does take on a spirit more akin to their current pop-punk guise. That’s fielded even further by Heather Baron-Gracie, who’s given a crystal-clear vocal mix and dives into it with real keenness. It’s perhaps the most clean-cut evidence that Pale Waves are moving away from their oft-defining shakiness, and into something much more palatable on a wider scale. Big-hearted, far-reaching pop-rock is a comfortable stage for them, and they own it with aplomb.
If there’s one band for whom the capacity to be idolised to a borderline obsessive degree is already firmly on the table, it would be Crawlers. It just has to be; the My Chemical Romance seal of approval is a powerful thing, and while it’s certainly not the only reason they’ve drawn such a considerable crowd, it’ll definitely have helped. Of course, that’s not to minimise what’s turning out to be a pretty strong band in their own right. A slightly unbalanced mix is barely a hindrance when Crawlers already carry themselves with a gusto and theatricality befitting of pop-rock’s hottest-tipped risers. They’ve got the songs too, as I Can’t Drive and Come Over (Again) already feel pretty massive even in a relatively small tent, and Holly Minto already has the frontperson charisma to burn. As a taster for a far bigger ride to come down the line, this is exactly the watertight display that have seen Crawlers rocket to the levels the have. They’ll be hitting all the main stages before you know it, no worries.
The soreness of Rage Against The Machine’s rather unceremonious dropout has dissipated somewhat, if not entirely completely, though there’s a good amount of solace to be taken in their longtime tour-mates Run The Jewels making the journey over. As Killer Mike proclaims, they’re “the greatest rap group in the motherfucking world,” a statement that’s difficult to argue with when they’re clearly bringing their A-game with zero room for concessions. Sure, it’s tempting to wonder what could’ve been when Zack de la Rocha’s verse is lopped off Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) (as well as a tease of Ju$t that’s never actually aired in full), but otherwise, this is the pinnacle of what hard-hitting, relevant hip-hop can bring to an ostensibly rock setting. Denzel Curry may have the outward aggro, but there’s a pinpoint firepower to Run The Jewels that’s never unchecked.
It helps that there’s such a natural camaraderie between Killer Mike and El-P, the former with a beaming smile painted on his face that mirrors the perpetual energy their set gives out. The bangers come thick and fast—Legend Has It; yankee and the brave (ep. 4); ooh la la; all mixed with precision by Trackstar The DJ in a way that’s constantly sounding fresh and crisp, even on a notoriously temperamental festival stage. And as the pair trade bars with effortless professional and crack jokes with just as sharp a wit, there’s a fun baked in, even among how hard they continue to go. It’s never one or the other; there’s a perfect balance that Run The Jewels have mastered, as a few words for the firing squad (radiation) snarls and charges its way to the finish line, while also carrying an unprecedented factor of excitement. As always, the flag is flying high in Run The Jewels’ hands, and they just keep raising it more and more.
Would it be accurate to call Bastille ‘favourites’ here? They’ve played enough to where that’s probably true on technicality alone, but they never seem to be on the receiving end of any ravings or best ofs. Tonight though, on a clear early evening that’s like the backdrop of an indie-pop movie, they’ve hit their stride in spectacular fashion. Well, to an extent anyway; they’ve got some kind of visual ‘narrative’ about the metaverse going on, and it amounts to nothing at all. Beyond that, there’s a cache of sure-fire festival winners thrown out in quick succession, and they speak for themselves at deafening volumes. The greatest hits catalogue that Bastille have amassed isn’t something to scoff at, not when the bracing percussion of Things We Lost In The Fire leads into poptastic fave Good Grief, later on with raucous crowd-pleaser Of The Night, and finally Pompeii as the enormo-closer it was always destined to be.
It feels as though Bastille have settled into the expanse they’ve been given, too. Dan Smith, for as limited as a technical singer as he might be, has a real gift at leading these singalongs, flanked by a cadre of soulful backing vocalists to punch up some already tight compositions even further. It’s all the result of no big ceiling to crack or milestone to hit; Bastille do have a new album out and they make that known, but largely, they’re embracing the fun that their band has always been capable of delivering. When the bring out fellow indie-poppers The Native for Shut Off The Lights, seemingly just to share the stage, it’s the perfect microcosm for a set that’s all about enjoying the highs for what they are. For Bastille, those have seldom been higher.
You’d never guess that Charli XCX was a late edition to this lineup. You could argue that, with a bit more time, the stage setup would’ve been a bit more elaborate than the one we get (a couple of Grecian columns with a ramp between them), but everything else screams at how malleable and adaptable of a popstar Charli is. She’s in full popstar mode today as well, as her Icona Pop collaboration I Love It as only the second song indicates, and that’s arguably where the most mileage comes from. Traces of her current hyperpop guise are really all that’s there, instead cast aside for sharp, club-ready glassiness on Baby or Hot In It to feel like a big pop show. It goes down an absolute storm, only right for an artist whose name has been reverberating around the site all day. It has the feel of an important moment, even though if it actually is can be doubtful, but nevertheless, it’s understandable. The song choices are on point for the most part (Boom Clap can be left off in future, mind); the choreography between Charli and her dancers is pretty much faultless; and the careening, kinetic pace only makes it go down even more smoothly. Great stuff.
It’s not wrong to be skeptical of a headline performance from Halsey. Of the six acts topping the bill this weekend, theirs is the profile that seems the least stable within a purely mainstream space, and though the turnout would suggest otherwise, that can make for a bit of hard sell. Compounded with the fact that If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power has predictably felt more lukewarm in impact for such a radical genre shift, and the unpredictability is possibly the highest barrier to entry for a set like this. That is, until Halsey actually begins; Nightmare kicks off, roaring and rocked-up as a full-band affair, flanked by blasts of pyro, and said barrier to entry comes crumbling down as if it were sand. Not only is this an impressive showing, or even a defiant one, but it might just be one for the books.
A lot of that can be traced to Halsey themself, who pulls off the silhouette of a powerhouse arena-rocker with greater force than anyone could’ve reasonably predicted. Even when battling through a bout of food poisoning—which causes them to cut Honey off mid-song to deal with it (false alarm, fortunately)—there’s a meanness coming through that’s excellent at every turn. You can really tell how passionate they are about newer, heavier material when it contributes a larger chunk of the set, as it’s where the animalistic side comes out most on the weighty swing of The Lighthouse, or the legitimate metalcore screams on Experiment On Me. It swiftly negates so many of the issues of artifice that held their earlier material back; never has Halsey felt as true to their own vision as on this stage, and it’s not even close.
But they’re also a populist, and though the hint of begrudgement can be felt when introducing them as ‘pop songs’ (it also says a lot that posters promoting their new single So Good are in wide rotation around the site, yet they never play it), they’re the best incarnations of them by a mile. Bad At Love and Without Me are far more alive and suited to the grandeur they’re offered, while already strong cuts like 3am and You Should Be Sad are made even better with some additional pop-rock beef. But out of everything, it’s the cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill that cements everything truly great about this set; spinning that particular song now is nothing revolutionary in the slightest (though it’s probably the only good cover of it…), but it’s the move of an artist who knows how high they can soar, and how totally, unreservedly massive the product of that can be. Truly, as good as it gets.
“Sorry we’re not Rage Against The Machine,” says Matty Healy, “but who’s Rage Against The Machine?” As if enough hadn’t already been done to spurn an audience to their mere presence here, it’s hardly unlike The 1975’s frontman to see how far he can go, consequences be damned. To be fair, he does then call them the greatest rock band of the last generation, as if that’s enough damage control for them filling a slot that vast numbers of punters had bought tickets exclusively for. And yet, while The 1975 make it oh-so easy to rip them to shreds, this isn’t a wasted slot by any means. Quite the contrary; it’s probably the best thing they could deliver, in mowing down the acres of chaff within their catalogue and leaving, as Healy cries out before Chocolate, “all bangers”.
And bangers, they certainly are, rolling through an opening run of sophistipop smashes If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know), Love Me and Chocolate with all the tightness and polish that make all assertions ever made about this band being the future of British pop sound totally believable. They come with such a sparkle that makes all the differences, especially the colour from splashes of saxophone that’s borderline omnipresent but never unwelcome. Furthermore, you can tell how much an egotist like Healy is lapping every second up, though that’s no bad thing when it brings out his best as a performer. Cigarette in hand and Blues Brothers cosplay adorned, he’s got the strut and rubber-hipped shake that the crowd clearly want to see, such is feverish reaction at basically any motion or utterance that he makes.
But for a band like The 1975, the cult of personality is the norm, and at least they’re using it to their advantage. The means of really going for it are at their disposal, and it’s good to see when the aforementioned bangers seldom let up. Barring People as the not-very-good punk outlier it’s always been, the flow is definitely impressive, as new song I’m In Love With You fits snugly like an old favourite, among the actual old favourites like Sex, dressed in crystalline sheen. Even with a cynical mind towards anything that The 1975 does, this is genuinely great stuff, a headline set that delivers exactly what it needs to under the circumstances in which it comes from. There’s no doubt that Rage Against The Machine would’ve felt more important and momentous, but let’s give The 1975 their dues where they’re earned—they smashed it.
Words by Luke Nuttall
Photos by Matt Eachus, Alex Piper, Linda Borscika, Emily Marcovecchio, Sam McMahon and Georgina Hurdsfield