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Pop / Rock 01/09/2003

Reading Festival 2003 (Part 4)

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Gillingham, Kent, UK (By Mikey)

Venue: Carling Weekend Reading
It's Sunday at Reading and the cheery atmosphere that has characterised the weekend so far is crumbling at the edges. A cocktail of alcohol abuse, sustained sleep deprivation and a metal main stage headlined by Metallica add up to some pretty short tempers.

But nobody gives good scowl like Scandinavian Velvet Underground fans, which is why The Raveonettes on the Radio 1 stage are the sulk highlight of the weekend. Fortunately, they look fabulous doing it, Sharon Foo practically growling from behind her bass while Sune Rose Wagner throws glamorous guitar poses and smirks to himself. They exude the same Scandinavian chic recently perfected by The Hives.

Sadly, their music is more monotone, hampered by the muddy sounds of the Radio 1 stage. There is raw power, true, but it's the kind of raw power with nowhere to go. The set drifts by in a blur of grinding guitar and thundering bass, with only 'Heartbreak Stroll' cohering into an actual song, and a luscious, simple beauty of a song it is, too. For these three minutes The Raveonettes sound essential, before collapsing back into artless messiness.

For artful messiness, however, you need look no further than The 80's Matchbox B-Line Disaster. They may be saddled with an irritating indie-schmindie name, but it's the only thing that's indie-schmindie about them. Their music is utterly ragged and unpredictable, flinging itself from terrifying punk metal overload to beguiling prog-rock tangles, all underpinned by a bass that beats with the insistence of a heart.

Like The Raveonettes, song structures are difficult to discern but unlike them their music sounds brilliantly exciting and original. It's impossible to make out singer Gary McKnight's words, so hoarsely does he scream them, but it's safe to assume they aren't about fields of gold or wonderwalls. Too offbeat to be metal, too insane for rock, too discordant for indie, The 80's Matchbox B-Line disaster are creating an invigorating sound all of their own. Unfortunately, judging by the near empty tent, they aren't bringing too many fans with them for the ride.

Meanwhile, outside the Radio 1 tent, it's raining - raining bottles. "Good Charlotte, welcome to the Reading Festival, we hope you don't enjoy your stay" seems to be the message. Aside from being a fully-fledged pop band, GC could never have imagined a reaction like this in their most disturbed dreams. You sense that having straddled the globe as a sales force few could cope with, that they'd have an indestructible swagger. Not after this show they won't.

A crowd baying for Metallica and System Of A Down are in no mood to tolerate GC and do their best to cut short proceedings. Their failure to do so is not down to the lack of trying, more the band's dogged persistence. For starters they attempt to dodge the continuous barrage of missiles with good-natured if perplexed looks until their patience runs out and things turn sour. Seeing that just ignoring the abuse isn't working they try being humble ("For some reason we suck today") before turning confrontational. Guitarist Benji Madden makes the ill-advised jest "Reading sucks... well that's what Leeds were saying about you guys. Don't shoot me, I'm only the messenger." Erm, the humour must have been lost in translation.

Vocalist Joel is more diplomatic likening their situation to a war between the US and UK and praising his tormentors - "Leeds couldn't even hit the stage" - but all attempts fail so they eventually resort to conceding defeat and coordinating the assault themselves. On their orders, thousands of bottles are unleashed towards the stage. Daphne and Celeste got off lightly. Good Charlotte's mauling must be the worst in Reading history. Thank God they only sell plastic bottles.

Hell Is For Heroes do have fans, but in the same way dogs have fleas: there are lots of them but, boy, are they irritating. Suddenly the Radio 1 stage is rushed by mobs of obnoxious sixteen-year-old boys, and these are most definitely boys. Girls (or, for that matter, any self-respecting grown up man) wouldn't be seen dead around Hell Is For Heroes' airbrushed angst and humourless emoting.

The boys bump, bounce and bang into each other in what would appear to the casual anthropologist to be some kind of homoerotic mating display, while Hell Is For Heroes churn out their overly neat, fussy little anthems one after the other. They do have a gem in the muscular stomp 'I Can Climb Mountains', but generally they sound like exactly what they are: a Home Counties band making a half-arsed effort at American complaint rock. Too polite to be nasty, too in love with noise to try anything gentle, they end up sounding confused and compromised.

After this, Hot Hot Heat sound something like genius. Yes, their album was a derivative disappointment, with bucketloads of hyperactive energy where a pinch of subtlety would have been more welcome, but Steve Bays' crazed monkey boy live presence and the elastic New Order basslines work perfectly today. The crowd clearly agree, jumping and jerking as though the field has been suddenly electrified.

Summer hit 'Bandages' goes down a predictable storm, with Bays pogoing perilously close to the grabbing hands of the audience, but 'Naked In The City Tonight' and 'No, Not Now' are even better, with their lithe, loose rhythms and playfulness. Only 'Oh, Godammit' misses the mark entirely, still sounding like The Cure during a bout of electroshock therapy.

They debut what sounds like a new song, with a slower pace and a hint of late night blues, which suggests we may hear more of what many had assumed were one hit wonders. Whatever happens next, Hot Hot Heat were the friendliest, poppiest act of the day and leave everybody smiling on a day when smiles have been too rare.

Grandaddy follow, like an exotic tropical fish stranded out of water, flopping prettily. Their gentle melodies and tender musicianship would thrive in an intimate, late night setting, but here in the still-shining Reading sun, as the day nears its drunken end, they simply can't reach most of the audience.

The majority of the sixteen-year-old boys drift off, leaving the fervent admirers behind straining to hear such loveliness as old favourite 'The Crystal Lake' and mournful epic 'OK With My Decay'. Sadly, hampered more than any of today's bands by the poor sound, these songs sound only half as good as they can do. A disappointment.

You wonder why Primal Scream's wiry frontman Bobby Gillespie didn't keep his acerbic mouth shut for just ten more minutes. Things were going so well. OK, so he was less than enamoured with taking their place on a US-dominated final day but the Scream were midway through what was proving to be one of the triumphs of the day when he decided to share his incomprehensible take on Sunday's entire line-up.

"You're a bunch of slaves. You're all just fucking spectators. You're only here to see Metallica and more shite bands," he slurs. Wow, profound indeed! The band's driver was probably running the tour bus engine in case the Metallica crew got wind of his outburst. That aside, the Scream are in imperious form egged on by the day's largest gaggle of starf*ckers crowded into the wings. 'Burning Wheel', 'Kowalski', 'Rocks' and 'Kill All Hippies' fill the required rock quota and 'Movin' On Up' spreads some 'Screamadelica' good vibes. Practice what you preach, Bobby.

Unlike Bobby G, Sum 41 are so clearly thrilled about sharing the bill with Metallica. They can't resist slipping into a cameo of 'Master Of Puppets' to whet their, and our, appetites. But before that homage, they do more to enhance their own reputation, which has already inflated to a formidable size. And rightly so.

The Canadian punk rockers knuckle down to a show that takes heed from their previous album title, 'All Killer No Filler'. Maybe it's an attempt to lose the 'cheeky tyke' tag or maybe they're just ageing gracefully, but the show seems to be a largely prank-free zone. They've dispensed with the much-loved lesbian snogging sketch and replaced it with a convoy of hits and album tracks - 'The Hell Song', 'Fat Lip', 'Still Waiting' and 'Motivation'.

For such a young band, Sum 41 already have the necessary clout to get this Reading audience eating out of their hands. The frightening thing for their peers is they're experienced and skilled enough to be playing crowd-pleasing sets like this for years to come. And there's not one low flying bottle in sight.

Back in the Radio 1 tent, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a challenge picking the pace up after Grandaddy, but it's a challenge they're more than equal to. In a reversal of The Raveonettes earlier, they look awful (whatever the hype would have us believe) but sound spectacular. They kick off a short but thrilling set with new song 'Down Boy', which snarls and growls like a cat on heat. They're like a state of the art race car, accelerating from 0-90 in less than a second, and barely slowing down for the next forty minutes, a blur of sleazy guitars, insistent choruses and the sheer manic energy of pop.

Karen O is an immediately electrifying presence, flinging her rag doll, lanky body at each song like it's a wall she needs to break down. Coupled with her brilliant Siouxsie Sioux yowl of a voice, she proves she is one of the few truly bright stars shining in the dull indie firmament. 'Rich' is as hot and sweaty as the crazed moshpit, while 'Date With The Night' has the grouchy, punky cool that Elastica once oozed. Their set seems to flash by in mere seconds, leaving fans collapsed in sweating heaps and begging for more of the same.

The Music are not the answer to their prayers. Bloated where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are lean and mean, portentous where they are pointed, The Music seem likely to be a disappointment. When they slouch on stage wearily, it's hard not to think that a seeming eternity touring the world has made that likelihood a certainty. Indeed, for the first few songs, including a lethargic slouch through signature song 'The Dance' that sucks the energy out of everyone's bones, disappointment would be a drastic understatement.
And yet, mysteriously, the crowd keeps swelling and as it does, The Music seem to gain both heart and energy. 'Float' suddenly sounds crazed where before it has sounded aimless and 'The People' comes on like an ecstasy rush, looping chords building up to a rhythm frenzy.

Robert Harvey is, as always, a divisive figure, but for every person shielding their ears from his cat-being-sandpapered howl, there is another gazing at him as though he is a curiously gawky messiah. As the festival nears its end, it's clear that thousands believe that The Music, and not Metallica, are the likeliest to provide a fitting climax to their time here. The Music do their best to live up to the expectation heaped upon them, and nearly do so with the blissed-out guitar supernova of 'Getaway'. A flawed band, doubtless, but it's hard to question their love of and joy in music.

The three-day, twenty-eight band Main Stage warm-up is finally over when Metallica arrive. Their first proper show on UK soil for a decade proves to be every inch the occasion demanded by the swollen crowd to close Reading 2003.

Even given the various merits of the other bands, Metallica are the superstar rockers we've waited all weekend for. Until now, no one has had the capacity to leave the entire audience in awe of their power as Metallica do. They are true giants headlining over a sea of minnows and it's never in doubt from the opening rib-cracking chords of 'Battery'. Everything else you've seen during the weekend instantly pales into insignificance.

Close up Metallica are definitely showing their age but in terms of their sound, they've never been more commanding. 'Frantic' is exactly that, 'Master Of Puppets' punches a hole in the sky, pyrotechnics explode during 'Enter Sandman' and 'St Anger' will still be reverberating around the site long after the cows have returned to chew cud. James Hatfield plays the rock god frontman like a pro striding between the three microphones positioned across the stage at will, while Lars Ulrich beats the living Bonhams out off his drums and Kirk Hammett gives a heavy metal guitar masterclass looking as cool as a grown man can with a flowing perm.
Metallica have gone some way to rescuing this year's Reading and we've just witnessed one of the finest headlining shows ever to grace the festival. We are mere puppets and they are the masters. All hail.

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