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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Recollections of England's Reading Festival 2001

Photo: A view of the main stage at Reading 2001

On this final day of The Reading-Leeds festival of 2003, I share my recollections of Reading 2001. It was in fact an advertisement for Reading that initially ignited my European festival obsession. A yellow, black and red ad in Q Magazine for what’s known as “The Carling Weekend” (comprised of simultaneous shows at Reading its sister site at Leeds) had caught my eye in July of 2001. Then, over the course of the next week or so the thought running through my head changed from, “Wow, that looks like an incredible lineup” to “I sure wish I could go,” to “Who says I can’t go?” and finally to, “I’m gonna go, damnit, come hell or highwater!”

In that first summer of festival-going I’m glad I got a taste of both the V Festival (which I’ve already written about) and Reading because realized from the start that all festivals have distinct personalities, which of course drove my desire to attend all of them eventually. The V-Festivals are a good first festival for beginners. They’re fairly safe and tidy, and not so big as to be overwhelming. On the other hand, Reading is traditionally muddier, definitely more hip and there’s just something about it that’s just plain awesome despite the fact that at around 50,000 people it’s still only a third the size of Glastonbury or Roskilde. Reading seems consistently to have one of the highest quality lineups of any festival in the world and draws a somewhat rougher, rowdier crowd. Still Reading is friendly and hospitable, and crime is still relatively low. The only violent crime reported during that 3-day weekend in 2001 was a single sexual assault. Granted even one may be one too many, but most arrests were for drug related charges; including some that purportedly involved hash brownies.

This year there’s an apparently hellish experience getting there by train due to construction – on Reading weekend no less – as the trains between Paddington and Reading are shut down. Otherwise, travel by train from London is typically a breeze.

Arriving at Reading train station in 2001 I needed no city map to find the festival grounds; I simply followed the massive crowds through the streets. Along this rag-tag parade route there were plenty of dodgy hucksters selling counterfeit Reading goods. (I bought two such un-authorized t-shirts, which despite several cat calls of “10 pounds for shite!” by potential consumers, have held up quite well.)

It was a long walk from the station to the festival--at least a couple miles--and even once we reached the edge of the grounds it was still a good haul alongside the campground that ran along the festival wall to the actual entrance. I was overjoyed to final arrive inside. And the first thing I saw was some guy half passed out on the grass, perhaps one example of the differences between Reading and the V-Fests. Like I said Reading is definitely rougher and less of a place to take the kids—though that didn’t stop some of the English from bringing theirs along. (I’m not exactly sure what would.)

A punter relaxes in the grass

I wandered aimlessly for a while around the stands and stalls between the smaller stages with the main Reading stage off in the distance. After eating the bad food at the V-Festival I was first appalled by, then resigned myself to the fact that the same companies supplied the grub at Reading as well.

There are usually one or more acts each year that make Reading the UK Festival to be at, and 2001 was no different. The act of that year was most likely the Strokes, who were to be making their first UK Festival appearance. You may have seen the cover of NME the week before with the photo of the Strokes and the caption “The One Band You Must See this Weekend.” I would have been green with envy to have received a copy of the music magazine in my mailbox in Minneapolis, but it was somewhat smugly that I picked up my copy of NME that week at a London newsstand with a ticket to the sold-out festival in my pocket.

In 2001 there was some controversy regarding the Strokes appearance which only added to the media hype even though the band was already unquestionably the biggest buzz band in the world at the time. The Strokes were scheduled to play the Radio 1 Evening Sessions Stage, which is in a tent that holds only about 8,000 people. Festival organizers refused until the last minute to move the Strokes to the main stage. Wisely they ultimately gave in. The Strokes were a definite festival highlight when they played Friday afternoon few bands away from Iggy Pop. Other Friday Highlights were New York’s the Moldy Peaches (friends and tour mates of the Strokes) in the Evening Sessions tent whose song “Please Pass the Crack” was one of the catchiest fun songs of the summer.

The final day of the festival (Sunday) may have been the most full of music for me. I took a liking to a band called Lowgold who sounded awesome live but upon my return to the States I found their import-only studio material lacking in some important areas, one of which being that the lyrics were just plain boring and cliché. The Cult played an intense, energizing set and as if on queue it actually rained during “Here Comes the Rain.” Queens of the Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri played the entire QOTSA set stark f’ing naked with nothing covering his privies but his uh, instrument. Marilyn Manson opened his set with a blasted orchestral version of “God Bless America” which was hysterical and beautifully sick seeing 40 thousand English gaping in awe at the spectacle. Later, closing out the festival Eminem came on stage with his buddies from D-12 and a 30-foot high inflatable hand that bounced around through his set giving the finger to the audience. Eminem’s actual show couldn’t hold my attention for long on that final night of Reading and it was to the strains of Slim Shady that I exited the festival grounds for the final time and happened upon one of the best things to happen that trip.

While walking in the circular meandering streets of Reading (every other block there seemed to b ea roundabout) trying to find the train station I met an Irish girl named Laura who was also looking for the train station as well as her boyfriend Pete and friend Rich. We found the station together and later found Rich and Pete as well just in time to get one of the last trains. One thing that stands out from my daily commutes back and forth from London in 2001 was that the ELO song “Last Train to London” had took on an entirely different and somewhat more urgent meaning to me.

The train platform in Reading waiting for the 'Last Train to London'

Rich and Pete were rather satisfyingly drunk, and during the train ride home sang a mixture of Guided by Voices and Irish Nationalist. The English were typically tolerant and quiet, although one picture shows an interesting expression on one guy’s face as he attempts to avoid being squashed by one of the boys.

Rich, Pete and me (pictured on the right with the #1 length haircut that summer) on the train from Reading

Laura and I exchanged emails on the train before the three of them got off at her brother’s town along the way. The following year I caught up with them for the Witnness festival, and again this past summer.

All in all, if you had the chance to attend only one festival in Europe, Reading might be the one I’d go for over all the rest because of its eminence in band lineup. Other festivals may be larger and have more unique atmospheres (Roskilde and Glastonbury, for example), but Reading is truly the most English of experiences and a kind of rite of passage so to speak that is not to be missed by any true Anglophile, regardless of their country of actual residency.


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