Reading Festival 2011

Weekend overview
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As a just-arrived festival first-timer on his own, it takes an amiable bouncer to point out that walking in to the guest area hunchbacked with camping gear isn’t the best entrance to make. Stopped by him next, to transfer the contents of a can into a paper cup, a second lesson’s learnt at Reading – gifting beer when someone asks for it is a quick way to make friends.

Surging forward with them through a sea of people swaying to ‘the rockinest, rocksteady beat of Madness’, a moshpit with a leader dressed as a wrestler ends the path. This camaraderie of physicality is more for Clubber Lang from Rocky III than someone who dreads the line, “Prediction? Pain!” So energy is spent on the signature moves of the suited ska legends instead.

When they end their set – which includes a spanking version of Max Romeo’s ‘Chase the devil’ – there’s a motley crew of impromptu dancers on stage, including a mother carrying a child around five years old.

Madness over, the campsite’s rain-soaked grass then provides seating for recuperation. The remaining rays of the summer sun and intrusive grey clouds intersperse when a bright rainbow pans out against the Reading sky. But soon it’s dark evening and The National are on at the main stage, neon lights overshadowing the poetic break of the faded vibgyor.

So when Matt Berninger stretches his smoky whisky baritone to scream out ‘Mr. November’ in the song’s chorus, rows of white lights high above his head flash and blink in beat. And when Pulp and The Strokes follow, Jarvis Cocker joining the latter, a riot of electric colours on the main stage brings Saturday to an end.

Waking up the final day, yesterday’s friends now home, a second beer can while charging the phone at the information tent results in a second group of friends. Man U’s annihilation of Arsenal is being discussed with them when a man – who reveals he’s a losing fan – walks in. He’s grinding his teeth furiously and his eyes are wide but both presumably for reasons beyond football humiliation.

There’s no free socket and the i-phone wire in his restless hands is being twisted into all sorts of shapes while waiting to be plugged in. He suddenly loses track of it till someone directs him to check around his neck. Then conversation reveals he’s a casual rap artist and he breaks into a stream of consciousness that has people laughing and clapping on their knees.

When a neighbouring camper earlier in the morning had made a loud statement, “I’m not here to see bands”, this may be one of the things he’d meant.

Otherwise, what it means so far to be here is soaking in the communal festival vibe of ‘I was there’, with its added sense of ‘we are all together’. The world outside of the farmland is a galaxy far away for now. Inside this land of soft-spoken bouncers and wandering salesmen with barrels of Tuborg, the lone supermarket looks like it’s borrowed in time from a classic western. When that American theme plays in the head sitting in the Alternative Tent now devoid till next year of its comic acts – a multi-coloured Ferris wheel still turning up high nearby – Bill Hicks crosses the mind.

“It’s just a ride,” the immortal comedian had said of the world, and it feels true for Reading 2011 too. A first-timer arrives alone, meets people and joins the multitudes in the thronging crowd feeling one with them all, till the musical spectacles end and Muse turn the lights off. Tomorrow there’ll be another ride – on the coach back to London.

Will the connections made through understanding co-habitation over a weekend last the test of time and life? How will walking in to a home feel after climbing out of a tent? Does the wide-eyed rapper have enough focus to make it big? Is summer finally over then?

Right now, who knows? But then again, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a ride.”

Words by Shunashir Sen
Photo by Gobinder Jhitta

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