As the sun sets on the first day at Reading Festival 2021, the sweet scent of dark fruits and stale cigarettes in the air, RIOT reflects on the best it had to offer.
Since his Really Very Brilliant album Zeros, Enfield’s greatest export has gone from strength to strength. In fact, Reading Festival’s Main Stage looked almost too small for him as he pranced, drenched in glitter, across its width. I could only be talking about Declan Mckenna, who has earned his stripes as certified indie royalty via the medium of endless bangers and an endearing ‘fancy-a-pint?’ persona. In fact, if it weren’t for his sparkling suit, you might have thought he got lost on the way to the local when he entered Main Stage-right on a bicycle. But as he launched into the sweet chords of ‘Beautiful Faces’, it was clear that there is no place he better belongs.
As the track wraps up, a ‘Seven Nation Army’-inspired chant of “Oh, Declan McKenna!” encourages clumsy mosh-pits and beer-lobbing galore. Lapping it up, the youngster launches into ‘The Key To Life On Earth’. Dubbed a baby Bowie, the cosmic-synth number is an unmistakable love-letter to Ziggy Stardust and sets the crowd alight for the remainder of the set. His combination of biting social commentary and inter-galactic glam-rock has earned a diverse turn-out, all of which are oscillating throughout. As he wraps up, Mckenna leaving the verses of ‘Brazil’ to his guitarist as he sinks to the floor in disbelief, the indie God seems human for a fleeting moment. A suburban lad with a dream that came to life, it’s an emotional watch. If you missed the set, his September tour is a must.
Sporting a clip-on bowtie and dungarees, Alex Rice leads an ever-eccentric Sports Team onto the Main Stage forecourt. I like to think that their song choice, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, was an ironic one, but knowing them, it probably wasn’t. In the past three years, the London six-piece have gone from relative obscurity to one of the best live acts on the planet (their words and mine). From the jangly chords of opener ‘Fishing’ to the nip-slipping antics of ‘Margate’, their Reading set is a masterclass. So much so that the absent guitars in the former go completely unnoticed by the band, who are clearly enraptured by the shrieking crowd and joy of being back where they rightfully belong.
The guitar cuts back in for the jangly hum of ‘Happy (God’s Own Country)’ and for the rest of their all-to-brief 30-minute set, it’s absolute havoc onstage and off. “After the year we’ve had, this is amazing,” Rice grins. At the very end of the show, he collapses into the crowd and leaves guitarists Young and Knaggs to wrestle with ‘Stanton’. A furious hummer of a single, it whips the crowd into a frenzy, but Rice returns unscathed, donning an Elmo bucket hat and a ginormous grin. It is clear Sports Team are unphased by the enormity of Reading Festival’s Main Stage. A stage so large that the band’s name-engraved giant blimp looks like a party balloon. Next stop: Wembley? I wouldn’t put it past them.
Putting on an equally tantalising show, albeit to a slightly smaller crowd, was LVRA (pronounced loo-rah) – an Edinburgh-born prodigy churning out electro-pop bangers way beyond her years. Amidst a stacked BBC Introducing Stage line-up, her soft but intoxicating vocals reigned supreme, speaking to anyone in the crowd navigating identity and relationships as a young adult. She braids these with traditional Chinese instruments, inspired by her Asian heritage, and dense layered synths. All commandeered from a techy, central key-pad.
With the pandemic bringing about a spike in racist abuse towards Chinese students in the UK and beyond, her debut EP LVCID felt particularly poignant on the Reading bill. I wanted to “paint a positive image of Chinese culture in the wake of COVID-19,” she explained in a press release, and the bold lyrics of tracks like ‘Dead’ and ‘Nightmare’ achieved that in wonderful abundance. As she swayed in time with the thumping drum basslines and groove-infested melodies, it felt like watching a seasoned professional. Which she no doubt already is. LVRA. Remember the name.
“It Won’t Always Be Like This.” The title of Inhaler’s spiralling mega-single felt more poignant than ever as they took to Reading’s Main Stage a year later than planned. As the first band that most likely caught at the festival, the Irish ensemble set the bar inexplicably high. A subtle masterclass of well-curated indie-rock at a festival once renowned for it.
“How are we doing?” Elijah Hewson asks the early revellers, smirking at the raucous response of a belting cheer that greets their opening song. As they rumbled through bangers like ‘Cheer Up Baby’ and ‘When It Breaks’, their confidence only swelled. Donning a mod-mash-up of military blazers and Jeff Buckley-esque straight-leg slacks, they look like Main Stage dab-hands, and the tunes sound just as seasoned. Except, the band’s average age is just twenty-one and this is their first time at Reading. Nope, I’m being serious. Their recent record, which dominates the set, is about that weird area between being an adult and a teenager, trying to find yourself and getting lost again. Keep an eye on this band, because when they find themselves fully, the future is stratospheric.