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BEIGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

  • Steve Lamacq
  • 29 Aug 08, 11:30 AM

Florence Welch looks like she's come dressed for Abigail's Party. In a mildly spangly, weird-shade-of-green, flowing top which swishes round her arms, she gives off the glow of a latter-day street-savvy Kate Bush. In another Seventies life I can see her dispensing nibbles to guests in a room painted orange and brown.

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But here, through the gloom of the Reading Festival's Festival Republic Tent, it almost looks - as they kick off with the tribal Between Two Lungs - as if she's acting out a strange healing ritual. It's absolutely bewitching.

On past occasions I'll admit I've enjoyed her gigs because you never knew if they were going to fall apart. They always seemed to be walking a tightrope between triumph and disaster. But today - even as she loosens up and I have to run away to see another band - Florence & The Machine are as captivating as two people on a stage can be; raw and emotive and with great, stripped back, caustic pop songs.

I don't think I've ever seen anything like it in the 19 years I've been coming to Reading (NINETEEN YEARS! And most of those spent staying at the same little hotel where I am now on first name terms with Carol the woman behind the bar).

But this was a good Reading. For the second year running I barely saw a band on the main stage, with the exception of Rage Against The Machine (all these Machines!), the excellent, but too quiet, Bloc Party and a handful of others including our friends British Sea Power.

Once again the line-up demonstrated that if you're prepared to, literally, put in the legwork, there's some great stuff on the other stages (he says, while kicking himself for missing John Cooper Clarke because I got the stage time wrong).

To start though: Pete & The Pirates. Second on the NME Stage on the opening day and by the end of their set I had a tear in my eye. If there is a theme to some of the bands I really admire at the moment - apart from their songwriting craft - then it's the manner with which they conduct themselves. Honestly, when you see so many average groups throwing themselves at major labels and corporate sponsors while simultaneously advertising their grannies for sale, it makes you appreciate just what it takes to be in a skint band working your way up from the floor without cashing in your freedom.

Not that this should cloud our judgment, but the Pirates' set in front of an excitable and reassuringly big crowd felt doubly special given that they don't have a marketing bulldozer behind them. They were marvellous from the off, but The Girl With Eyes Like Tar was especially chilling and the audience sing-a-long to Mr Understanding so uplifting I thought they were going to blush.

Likewise The Cribs - at the opposite end of the festival, headlining the same stage on Sunday night - have never taken the easy, grease-palmed option. Having been asked to introduce them, I pace up and down at the side of the stage, worrying about what to say for a good ten minutes before running on in front of 10,000 people, shaking uncontrollably (for the record I mumbled something about integrity and good songs and then shouted their name very loudly before scarpering off again).

In return they started with my favourite song, the mighty Our Bovine Public, and then for the next hour, sailed the crowd home - new guitarist Johnny Marr adding extra weight to their short-sharp Sonic Youth-meets-the Buzzcocks anti-pop. Bless The Cribs! If they didn't exist I'd have to invent them.

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And in between these two... well, according to my scrawled notes, I saw about 30 other bands over the three days; consumed a good deal of pear cider and had my picture taken with a man who'd broken his ankle on Day One and been sent back from hospital on crutches.

There were notable performances (again) from Vampire Weekend and MGMT; a really assured and bright set from the cheerily pink-suited Mystery Jets and an immensely enjoyable reunion with (you guessed it) Fight Like Apes, the band where bonhomie and Buckfast stroll hand in hand.

Frank Turner was terrific on the Lock Up stage ("I'm the only man this year to play the Cambridge Folk Festival and the punk stage at Reading!") while elsewhere there were other resilient performances from some of the other bands I've been following over the past year or so - including, among others, the well-dressed, tighter than ever XX Teens, Jack Penate ("I've gone dance") and a more-focused, still quite intense Late Of The Pier.

Can we learn anything from this assortment? Traditionally Reading used to be a launch-pad for emerging bands as they headed into the big autumn touring season, but now, with the competition out there so fierce, I'm not sure that's true anymore. It does, however, remain a terrific showcase event for the music-curious among us. I wouldn't have known, for instance, if I hadn't been wandering past their stage just how popular Pendulum are (or indeed how much they remind me of a drum and bass Shamen). Or that this was one of Be Your Own Pet's final gigs before they split (and just how messy were they?).

I do know one thing though. My knees still ache.

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