Reading Festival in middle age. Think twice.

Ever since the line-up was announced, Alexia, my usually eloquent daughter, was barely able to string a sentence together without the words Panic, Brendon, Reading and Saturday in it.

Her 13th birthday was coming up, so in a fit of momentary madness I bought the tickets. We arrived nice and very early, to watch the weekend campers wake up and brush their teeth outside their tents. We went straight for the main stage and by 11.30am we were standing by the barrier in what I am told is called a mosh pit, some 20 metres from the stage. Alexia joked that this was the precise spot in which we were going to spend the next 10 hours. I laughed out loud, but only until I realised she was not joking. One of the longest afternoons of my whole life followed.

Priorities first though. Reading has changed a lot since my last visit there, 19 years ago. Toilets are now actually usable, flushable and light years away from the portaloo nightmare of yesteryears.
Food choices are so varied this year, it feels almost insane. In 1999, we quequed for close to half an hour for a solitary food stall, facing the choice of greasy burgers or limp hotdogs. This time round, we could go for Mexican, Vegan and Vegetarian, Falafel Empire, Greek Expectations, Subway, Halloumi Store, alongside more traditional junk food offerings.

Reading audience has changed too. They seem to be all school leavers and clean shaven students now, with thick smudges of glitter and love bites on most cheeks and necks.  Their idea of youthful rebellion is pouring alcohol into Capri Sun pouches, bless them.

Security staff deserve a special mention. They were all absolutely fantastic. Being squashed flat against the barrier next to the centre path, we watched them, and they watched us back, all day and all night. They were facing the audience, American presidential guard style, hands behind their backs, mirror sunglasses, the lot. They were all exceptionally helpful, friendly and courteous at all times. They were also incredibly patient and gentle with every drunken, stoned, arrogant, immature and obnoxious reveller they had to deal with during the course of the evening. I mention it because it is so refreshing to see security staff who resist the temptation to enjoy their position of ‘power’ and opt for a human face instead.

Back to the music, and the four of us, guarding the main stage.

It all kicked off around midday with Trash Boat, which consisted of a few sinewy boys (men?) in staple black jeans and oversized vests jumping around the stage making a lot of jarring noise. I cannot recall a single song of theirs now, but their performance made me realise the enormity of impact that 80 one million watts speakers in close proximity was likely to have on my unsuspecting ears and brain.

A slew of bands followed, the place got more crowded by the hour. Every now and again, we were slammed against the barrier, as the more enthusiastic punters broke into a weird ritualistic jump and shove routine at random.

One of the early afternoon bands was a Jamaican reggae group, Protoje. They played a number of traditional rum and coke numbers, their dancing ladies gyrated energetically. It was pleasant enough, easy on the ear, which was welcome, but I am not sure how much traction their Rasta Love slogans gained among the Reading music youth of today.

I am going to be kinder to you than I was to myself on Saturday, and so I am not going to go through every act.  I still cannot fully believe we camped out there for so long .

Two more bands stood out for me, though, during our long vigil between midday, and Panic! slot shortly before 8pm.

The first one was Mike Shinoda. Before yesterday I was fully ignorant of his existence, so I found it difficult to put his back story puzzle pieces together, but everybody else in the crowd seemed to know who Chester was and several people had tears in their eyes when Mike talked about dealing with his loss. He spoke a lot, mainly about Chester, and overcoming his own anxieties in coming back to perform at Reading again. He jumped off the stage and went hand shaking with fans for a bit, to complete the reach out and relate routine. It left me cold, but that might have been due to my ignorance on the subject. Possibly an age thing too, my age.  A couple of Mike’s songs though were touching. He kept switching from pensive ballads to jump about a lot songs, which was confusing, but I guess this must be how these things work these days.

Next on was an improbably named Dua Lipa, a pretty, wholesome looking girl, who reminded me of Victoria Beckham from her Spice Girls days, when she still smiled and was generally much more convincingly human than she is now.  Dua Lipa’s outfit was no doubt carefully planned for maximum effect, and it worked, I for one was mesmerised by her wackily mismatched, multi-coloured skiing trousers and checked crop top ensemble, as well as her slick bouncy bob. Her songs and her voice were instantly forgettable, opinion totally my own of course, but her dance routine was impressive. It was a bizarre mix of tantric yoga, kickboxing and pretend horse riding, all in all a seemingly effortless display of agility and abs, what not to like.

Now for the main event. From the moment we crossed the Entrance line, the feeling of progressively hotting-up anticipation was unshakeable. The whole day so far was a mere warm-up, steadily progressing towards the one band on everybody’s lips. Panic! At the Disco was coming on at 19.50. A giant digital clock went on display ten minutes before, counting down seconds, New Year’s Eve style.  A smartly dressed all female string trio entered first, followed by two electric guitarists and finally, up he popped! Brendon Urie appeared and the crowd’s vocal cords went into overdrive.
Brendon is a cute looking guy, I give Alexia that. He donned skin tight leather trousers and a dark sparkly blazer for the occasion, which made him look positively skeletal, but I appreciate that this is the look his fans love to see. The next hour and a half belonged to him. He sang, he chatted, he jumped on a grand piano, he back-flipped mid-song, he told us how he got knocked out by a bottle in Reading 12 years ago, he made reference to some ‘sexual experience’ of his, which sent the rainbow Nando’s chicken banner holder into frenzy. He sang, quite a lot. He does this thing with his voice, at randomly chosen moments, when he goes into this really high pitch zone, and he stays there for longer than you would expect.  Quite impressive. As a newcomer to his music, I struggled to understand most of the words of his songs, he also occasionally skipped the whole line or two, letting the audience fill in the gaps, which they fully obliged, but which made my understanding of his lyrics even less clear. One song I did understand, from start to finish, was the one he announced as ‘one of the greatest songs ever written by any band’.  My first reaction was, he is a bit full of himself, isn’t he, but then it turned out he meant Bohemian Rapsody. So he sang the Queen tribute and yes, it was magical. And then, just like that, he was gone, and we faced a long journey home.

There was little interest left for the evening’s co-headliner, Kendrick Lamar, as most people left with us. Panic! was without a doubt the flavour of the day, and I am only grateful that schedulers did not put them as the top headlining band, as this would have meant them coming on last, which would have meant more sore feet, knees and back for the oldest generation of festival goers, which would have most definitely meant me.

This morning I woke up with the worst hangover in years, despite having consumed zero units of alcohol yesterday. I can only explain it by a compound effect of listening to excessively loud music, watching strobe lighting, ingesting mosh pit dust and second hand cannabis smoke for several hours as well as not eating, not drinking, in case I needed the toilet afterwards, for the same number of hours.  As I contemplated odverdosing on paracetamol earlier today, I seriously questioned my sanity of what I put myself through yesterday. But then I remembered Alexia, how she screamed her head off for hours, how she shouted Brendon, I love you! How she rocked, bopped, swayed, jumped, sang along, cried, laughed, pointed and waved in his direction, and it suddenly all made perfect sense.

 

 

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