Main Stage East
Reading & Leeds are back once again to tie off another festival season, and boasting another pretty diverse lineup where—as truly as it’s been for a good number of years—there really is at least something for everyone. That’s less true of its Main Stages, though that always seems the case, as the vehicle with which to shoulder the most mainstream attention and bring out the heaviest hitters of today and tomorrow. As always, the headliners are firmly entrenched in the former camp—Billie Eilish mightn’t be the all-conquering behemoth of a pop star she was just a few years ago, but to deny her impact even today is selling short one of the most distinctive artists in the upper brackets of the mainstream. Meanwhile, Sam Fender’s status as an indie darling goes effectively undisputed (especially when Seventeen Going Under has the much-vaunted TikTok boost that these festivals’ naturally younger crowd will gravitate towards), and The Killers are responsible for one of the most robust collections of hits in mainstream rock and indie. They’ve been tried-and-true headliners for years, and for good reason.
They’re joined by an undercard that’s definitely trending more towards the pop and alt-pop side of things this year, that still manages to produce some highlights. Maybe the longevity of Steve Lacy was overestimated considering that, post-Bad Habit, he’s not done a lot that really warrants a sub-headline slot, but there’s at least intrigue there to see what his brand of alt-neo-soul can offer. Much more nailed-on, though, is Rina Sawayama, with a boundary-testing alchemy of pop, rock, metal, electronica and all kinds of other swerves, contained in a package of great songs and reportedly even better stage presence. To wrap up the alt-pop end of the spectrum, MUNA are one of current synthpop’s greatest finds, particularly off the back of their last album, while Bakar is once again riding Hell N Back to fresh, new heights, but there’s at least a charm to his genre-agnostic alt-rap that belies that crossover appeal.
As far as more straightforward pop goes, Mimi Webb has been having a terrifically successful couple of years, and though even by the standards of what Reading & Leeds have become, she feels a little out of place, these sorts of bookings have been wildly successful in the past. Meanwhile, Holly Humberstone and Baby Queen are both primed for some real explosions in the very near future, the former on the wavelength of Beabadoobee and similar indie-leaning pop, and the latter through a very tight, incisive brand of pop balancing enormous potential appeal with homespun scale and personality.
Finally, there’s the indie and hip-hop to fill out the rest, albeit without really going above and beyond in the same way. That’s not to say there isn’t quality here, or a real capturing of the zeitgeist that Reading & Leeds typically thrive on. Of course Wet Leg stand out as one of the most in-demand acts of the last few years, with indie-rock and post-punk that’s taken them to some pretty enormous heights (especially when their sound can be as brittle and no-frills as it is), and Yard Act’s own wry, writerly post-punk isn’t far removed. They’re joined by a pretty reliable crop—Declan McKenna; Nothing But Thieves; Inhaler; The Amazons; all slot neatly into the festival-indie box and present some expectedly great possibilities to pull in a crowd. As for hip-hop, Central Cee’s enormous sub-headline billing boasts exactly why he’s among the UK’s biggest names, while Loyle Carner on the same level offers something more layered and diverse, though no less exciting on that mainstream grade, and Tion Wayne’s status as an established hitmaker (first drill Number One in the UK, let’s not forget) put him in good stead for a big show.
Main Stage West
As an extension of the cues set by its sister stage, the Main Stage West plays to the same wide-appealing beats in terms of genre breakdown and name recognition. That’s to be expected, of course—the whole point of the ‘two main stage’ setup has been to justify a slew of much bigger names across the board—even if the headlining suite perhaps isn’t quite as strong. Foals certainly present no issue there, given that they’ve grown into beefy rock mainstays with the catalogue to boot, but maybe the stadium-courting robo-pop of Imagine Dragons is a bit past its prime to warrant a headlining debut in 2023. But the neon-draped elephant in the room is The 1975, topping the stage not only for a second consecutive year, but also once again as fill-ins. And sure, they’re likely to cross over with Lewis Capaldi’s prospective crowd more than they did with Rage Against The Machine’s last year, but it’s more than a bit questionable to have them back so soon, in how that seemingly defies any notion of imagination, or variety in headliners that Reading & Leeds have been so good at in recent years. Still, they are good live, and the prospect of playing their debut album in full for its 10th anniversary is at least a different spin to base this one.
The rock side of things is a bit more fleshed out here, albeit in a way that fits neatly within the festivals’ branding. Obviously You Me At Six and Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls are reliable names who’ve treaded the boards of big stages countless times each (you could say the same for Don Broco too, actually), with a very listenable, approachable sound that just screams ‘festival ready’. And hey, that’s no bad thing; they’ve all proven themselves in the past, and with Hot Milk added among those ranks this year as one of pop-rock’s most dynamic and glittering current names, it’s good to see things haven’t been kept too staid. As for the more indie-oriented end of things, you’ve got Sea Girls, The Snuts and easy life, all of whom bear a similar reliability in their field. Arlo Parks and Jamie Webster, however, do a lot more to intrigue within the singer-songwriter mould; both have a pretty good couple of years, building crowds organically through what have been extremely fruitful methods of differentiating themselves—indie-R&B and soul for the former, and rough-edged, heavily Scouse folk from the latter.
Moving on to pop and hip-hop, it’s baffling to see Chase Atlantic placed this far up, but when you think about it, their cloudy, dense alt-trap could feel right at home on a big festival stage like this. It’s the same rough logic behind Lil Tjay, who mightn’t be the biggest of trap’s melodic players by any means, but has enough crossover appeal to stand steadily. Knucks, on the other hand, might be a bit out of his depth on a co-headline slot (he’s replacing Slowthai, for full context of how wide the gulf in size appears to be), but like a lot of UK rappers, there’s an audience, and the impact of a massive, chart-bothering single or two can’t be ignored. In the case of Trippie Redd, there’s potential for him to be the tribe-uniting successor to Post Malone, with rock cred mixed with huge presence within rage and trap that could make for something interesting, certainly. His huge success in the US hasn’t necessarily translated over the pond in terms of chart presence, so this might be one to watch just to see what exactly plays out.
Becky Hill, on the other hand, has been one of the most inescapable names in the mainstream with a bevy of house-pop hits at here disposal, while the odd appearance of Bicep feels very noteworthy, if only for how only a handful of straight-ahead techno and house acts tend to get a Main Stage billing of this size. Coupled with the fact that every Bicep fan seems to be borderline obsessed (go to any university in the UK, and you’ll find out there’s no such thing as a ‘casual listener’), the chance that this will be one of the most talked-about sets of the weekend is pretty high.
BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage
If there’s one thing you’ll notice about this year’s Dance Stage lineup, it’s this—there’s a lot of drum ‘n’ bass. It makes sense when the genre is undergoing quite a major resurgence at the minute, and it’s certainly handy that, among the go-to headliners, some can fit into that rather well. Andy C is often referenced as a pioneer of the sound, and a back-to-back set from Sub Focus and Dimension gives a bit of a spit-shine to what could otherwise be seen as ‘more of the same’. MK drifts away from that into primarily deep house, but that sprinkle of variety is still important when drum ‘n’ bass dominates overall. Shy FX, Friction, Metrik, Hedex and Venbee are all noteworthy among the dominating onslaught, and while it can seem a bit much, there are distinctions there that’ll likely keep the junkies well-served over three days. And besides, it’s not an exclusive presence either, with some glittery, soulful house fare from LF System and Eliza Rose; big-room slammers from Gryffin; and a variety of sounds and textures that have given Girls Don’t Sync and Jaguar some useful legs up already.
Plus, as has become tradition, there’s a whole slew of acts who, purely on the basis of genre classification, shouldn’t really be on this stage. There’s definitely a gap-bridger in Georgia and her house-inflected indie-pop, but that’s not to immediately dismiss how incongruous some of these are with the notion of ‘dance’. At least there’s some appealing stuff among them, like The Murder Capital’s heaving, quaking post-punk; Caity Baser’s streetwise pop; or NOISY’s rambunctious, rowdy indietronica. The rest also make a mark by spanning a fairly wide breadth—there’s quintessentially Gen Z pop from Nessa Barrett, Joesef, Nieve Ella and Wallice; sprawling indie-pop from Mother Mother and Somebody’s Child; layered, textured hip-hop from Frankie Stew & Harvey Gunn; and the genre Wild West of Fousheé, spanning soul, rock, hip-hop, folk and more.
Festival Republic Stage
Once again, the Festival Republic Stage arrives to split the difference between its own indie-centric incarnation of the past, and what was formerly The Pit, as a collection of alternative and heavier music’s most exciting names. That’s definitely where the bulk of the action lies this year, although maybe not at the very top. Yung Lean’s fairly ahead-of-its-time cloud-rap is certainly popular, and Palaye Royale have the rock theatrics to make this a worthwhile slot, but there’s just better to go on overall below them. What will likely draw most attention is how much play hardcore and metal are getting after some dwindling representation overall. Sleep Token are a frankly enormous get as prog-metal’s undisputed band of the year in terms of popularity, but Graphic Nature’s nu-metal brutality and hardcore’s top livewires in Knocked Loose and Scowl feel as though an edge has been brought back that was sorely missed.
Granted, they’re still a minority, but they do fit with what’s elsewhere overall. That’s mostly in relation to some of the grittier, underground-focused stuff that continues to blow up routinely in these spaces. ZAND and Mothica are leading the charge within nu-gen and flagrantly individualistic alt-pop; melodic, soul-wrenching punk comes courtesy of High Vis; Joey Valence & Brae are currently in the middle of a huge wave with their high-energy Beastie Boys impressions; Ekkstacy’s combination of hip-hop with darker indie-rock swell is certainly ear-catching; and the swell of rising pop-punk as a whole is well fed here, led by KennyHoopla, and flanked by Magnolia Park, Pinkshift and Games We Play.
As for the rest…well, big, anthemic rock finds itself brought by Yonaka and Normandie, who, for the most straightforward fare on show, are by far the standouts. The rest show what feels like some bleed between the indie stylings of the stage’s single day, particularly in the case of The Last Dinner Party, the indie darlings whose name has become synonymous with fast-risers with little material to their name, which would fit a lot better among some of its own kind stylistically. The same is true of indie-alt-pop from Lauran Hibberd and Jesse Jo Stark; indie-rock stomp from Himalayas; and genre-clashing indie-punk from BILK and Fat Dog. None are necessarily bad, but they can serve as a somewhat awkward halfway house on a stage that, for the entirety of its post-pandemic lifetime, is still trying to decide what it wants to be.
At least on that side that sticks firmly to the stage’s roots, it’s exactly what you’d expect, though also not in a bad way. What headliners Lovejoy might lack in material at the minute, they make up for multiple times over with online hype, the kind of thing that chirpy, 2000s-influenced indie-pop like their really can go for miles on. Stylistically similar are Vistas and COIN, another pair of indie acts who fit naturally with this festival’s reputation in particular. It casts a vibe that plenty of accompanying acts are sufficiently prepared to match—TV Girl and Giant Rooks find themselves in the sweet spot of indie virality that tends to go over well here, while Tom Odell and Mae Stephens are the same within pop. It helps a breakout, but it isn’t a be-all-end-all thing; sometimes, it helps to just catch the right sound. On that front, Dylan John Thomas and The Royston Club pack into salt-of-the-earth indie, while Artemas and Royel Otis specialise in laconic, TikTok-ready indie-pop, and English Teacher would fit snugly into any of the numerous waves of post-punk. Lastly, in a class entirely of her own, is Ethel Cain, another viral success story whose profile has exploded thanks to enormous compositions melding folk, country, industrial, indie and a sense of dread that’s a far cry from anyone else on this entire bill. One of the most unique artists this entire lineup has, hands downs.
BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage
What’s noteworthy about this year’s BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage is the lack of real hitmakers. What tends to serve as a who’s who of UK rappers who’ve staked their claim in the charts with one or two appearances of their own, doesn’t really feel like that this time. Sure, there are known names in the headliners K-Trap, Meekz and Clavish—as well as others like Cordae, Ken Carson and Lancey Foux who definitely have a profile—but it’s honestly kind of refreshing to see the energy put towards spotlighting some real risers. And these are names that do have some heat around them, particularly in UK hip-hop with Sainté, D Double E and Songer. Even beyond that, there’s a good variety of stuff to be found here, spanning R&B from Mya Craig; hip-hop touching on Afrobeat from BZ; and a more conscious, lyrical variety of rap from Finn Foxell and Malaki. There’s also J Fado whose biggest successes recently came from gym videos and collaborating with HSTikkytokky…y’know, if you’re that way inclined.
BBC Introducing Stage
There’s an impressive amount of range on this year’s BBC Introducing bill, possibly more than usual. Whereas it tends to favour indie bands or whatever is tapped into the singer-songwriter trend of the moment, that seems to be shifting in some pretty cool ways. Just from its headliners, it spans softer indie-pop from Matilda Mann, riff-heavy grunge from HotWax, and a rap-electro-metal concoction from ALT BLK ERA, which covers a lot of bases on its own. And maybe that’s putting a bit too much emphasis on that when it’s not wholly widespread, but it’s worth noting all the same, when stuff like Haunt The Woods’ alt-prog or Frozemode’s pop-rap-rock get their chance to shine here.
Otherwise…yeah, it’s a lot of what you’d expect, but still good within it. That indie quota is pushing The Goa Express and Grandmas House fairly high up, although there’s room to deviate within it, as shown by Only The Poets’ speeding, romanticised indie-pop, and variations on the post-punk theme from Lucia And The Best Boys and L’Objectif. As far as soloists go, Charlotte Plank is arguably among the most established already, not just from her own tactile dance-pop, but from being the vocalist of Rudimental’s Dancing Is Healing, which is squatting in the Top 40 right now. Joining her are a host of singer-songwriters for whom a well-timed TikTok boost is almost guaranteed in their future, like Frankie Beetlestone, Hannah Grae and Pixey.
Reading & Leeds takes place on 25th-27th August at Richfield Avenue, Reading and Bramham Park, Leeds. For more information, visit http://www.readingandleedsfestival.com.
Words by Luke Nuttall