Tucked between the River Thames and Reading city center, the unassuming plot of grassland known as Little John's Farm wouldn't warrant a second look on most days. But on one glorious weekend each year hundreds of bands and nearly 90,000 fans descend on the field, transforming it into an epicenter of live music.
The Reading Festival – along with its sister event in Leeds – has long been a showcase for established stars and emerging artists. This year was no different, with festival veterans Green Day, Nine Inch Nails and Eminem all making return appearance and dozens of newcomers trying to work their way up the food chain of bigger stages and better timeslots.
Friday's main stage line-up was heavy on high-testosterone aggro-rock, but in a nice bit of counterprograming, organizers slotted English pop princess-cum-riot grrrl Kate Nash's Festival Republic Stage performance to coincide with alt-metal gods Deftones on the main stage. Alternately purring and screaming, Nash pogoed her way through hits "Sister" and "O My God" before darting off stage and into the crowd – an obviously petrified security guard hot on her heels. Upon her safe return to the stage, Nash took a deep breath, told the frenzied crowd she might puke and then led a massive sing-along of "Mouthwash."
Between-sets boredom mixed with large amounts of alcohol can lead to surreal moments on the farm. After hours spent marinating in the sun over countless beers, thousands of ruddy-faced festival-goers snapped out of their afternoon haze and began spontaneously – and seemingly involuntarily – singing along to Papa Roach's "Last Resort" as it blasted out of the Main Stage PA system. Heads bobbing, fingers and fists stabbing the air, shirtless young men and teenage girls with neon face paint and Native American war bonnets came together to howl along with the Jacoby Shaddix masterwork of misery.
Their thousands-strong sing-along more than warmed up the crowd for System of a Down's Friday afternoon Main Stage set. Serj Tankian's operatic voice was as strong as ever and John Dolmayan's machine-gun drumming helped power the band through most of their biggest hits, including "Chop Suey!" and "Aerials."
Pop-punk godfathers Green Day closed out Friday's festivities with a high-energy show that included a front-to-back performance of the band's breakthrough 1994 album Dookie sandwiched between a handful of other hits. Green Day last headlined Reading in 2004, but time has done little to slow Billie Joe Armstrong. Two decades of near-constant road work has helped Armstrong hone his skills as a festival-ready showman. Full of jittery, twitching energy, the 41-year-old sprinted back and forth across the massive stage, repeatedly prodding the swaying sea of fans to "get crazy." "This ain't just any festival," Armstrong said between songs. "This is the greatest festival in the world."
On Saturday, Imagine Dragons' set drew one of the largest non-Main Stage audiences of the weekend. The Las Vegas quartet enthusiastically churned out synth-heavy power-pop anthems that seem to have been chemically engineered in the backroom of a smoky Vegas casino to get festival crowds moving. By the time the band closed its set with mega-hits "It's Time" and "Radioactive," the overflowing audience was ready to explode. Imagine Dragons may not be the most innovative band in the world, but it's hard to knock a group that works so earnestly to please its fans. Lead singer Dan Reynolds bounced around the stage, pounded on an enormous marching band drum and dove headlong into the crowd. By the end of the show he was drenched in sweat and completely spent, vowing to return to England soon.
Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala had the unenviable task of following Reynolds and Co. on the NME/BBC Radio One stage, and even before the band finished its first song – a meandering version of "Be Above It" – festival-goers were already streaming out of the tent by the dozen. It's a shame, because those who stuck around were treated to a set of spacy, free flowing jams that would have fit nicely in any era of the festival.
Unlike Reynolds, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker didn't much seem to care how the audience was enjoying the show. Parker kept the between-song banter to a minimum, and the stage was so dark that the band nearly melted into the background. What Tame Impala lacks in over-the-top pop hooks and chest-thumping theatricality, they more than make up for in craft. The band ended its all-too-brief set with "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" and the haunting "Apocalypse Dream," where Parker got to show off his silky falsetto.
After a 20-minute delay, Saturday headliner Eminem started out his career-spanning set with the newly released track "Survival. "It's been more than a decade since Em last headlined Reading, and in the intervening years his life has been a series of peaks and valleys. On one hand, he's survived addiction and a much-documented stint in rehab, but he's also cemented his place as one of biggest recording artists of all time. With his hype man handling most of the perfunctory crowd interaction, Em gave a workmanlike tour through his stacked back catalog, including "White America," "The Way I Am" and "Just Don't Give a Fuck." Despite being a 40-year-old multimillionaire with his own teenage daughter, Em is somehow still able to convincingly sell the fuck-the-world angst he developed on the grimy street of Detroit so many years ago.
No band had more buzz going into the weekend than Haim, and the much-lauded Los Angeles quartet more than earned the hysterical praise they've been showered with in recent months. The Haim sisters – Este, Danielle and Alana – delivered a stunning 45-minute set Sunday set the NME/BBC Radio One stage that featured material from the group's 2012 EP and their soon-to-be released debut album. Haim has been described as "nu-folk," but anyone expecting a female version of Mumford & Sons was surely disappointed. Haim is not folk. Haim is raw power.
The band entered the stage to Jay Z's "99 Problems" and immediately launched into searing versions of "Better off" and "Forever." "We've been waiting for this show all year. We're so happy to be here," eldest sister Este screamed, after asking for help getting beer and vegan pizza. Haim's bluesy, hyperkinetic sound could have easily translated to the Main Stage masses, and after this year's performance it's not a stretch to assume that's where they'll be this time next year.
It's probably fair to say that Trent Reznor was in a bad mood during his Sunday night Main Stage set. The big question all weekend was why Scottish band Biffy Clyro, rather than Nine Inch Nails, was closing out the festival. It seems Reznor also had some issues with the schedule. Prior to taking the stage, the NIN leader lashed out at festival organizer Melvin Benn on Twitter. "Should be an unusual show tonight at Reading . . ." the first tweet read, followed immediately by ". . . the lying promoter and the band following us (whoever the fuck they are) fucked us on our production."
Those tweets go a long way toward explaining NIN's less-than-enthusiastic set and Reznor's attitude on stage. He opened with several songs off the band's forthcoming album Hesitation Marks, including "Find My Way" and the thundering "Copy of A." Drenched in atmospheric smoke and using a new light show, Reznor and his bandmates tore through "Year Zero" songs "Me, I'm Not" and "The Warning." Save for a few meek, almost inaudible "thank yous" sprinkled throughout the set, Reznor said little and looked to be having a shitty time. The one time he did string together more than two words was to take a veiled shot at Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, who earlier in the evening had spoken about the power of rock & roll. Before launching into "The Beginning of the End," Reznor grabbed the mic and said, "Fuck rock & roll, by the way."
Reznor has never been the cheeriest person in the world, so his moping on stage didn't exactly hurt the show. He capped off the set with classics "Burn," "Gave Up" and "Wish," then dropped the mic and walked off the stage, leaving the bewildered crowd wondering what just happened. After the show, festival boss Benn hit back at Reznor, telling NME, "The truth is there's no truth in (Reznor's) statement. The contract hasn't changed since they signed up to it." Either way, it seems it might be a while before Reading fans get another chance to see Nine Inch Nails again.