Billie Eilish inspires screams, devotion and tears as she delivers the ultimate closing set for Reading 2023

Plus Lovejoy show they can headline a festival stage, MUNA remain The Greatest, Declan McKenna pulls a huge crowd and Rina Sawayama is an entire festival lineup in one perfect set.

Words: Abigail Firth, Ali Shutler, Finlay Holden, Jake Hawkes, Jamie Muir.
Photos: Frances Beach, Patrick Gunning.

We’ve been mentioning that feeling of homecomings a lot this weekend. Reading has that feel of a show where bands truly begin, formed from the moments they experience across its historic stages. In The Amazons‘ case, they have a bit more of a claim, though. The Reading natives’ journey across the stages of the festival is entwined with their own rise – becoming not just a scorching force in British rock but bonafide live kingpins. If written out as a Hollywood film script, taking to the Reading main stage would sit as the pivotal scene where all those long years on the road pay off big time.

With a Reading FC scarf draped over their amps, their fiery brand of surging rock anthems is dialled up to 11 from the start. The moment seized in their teeth, the singalong refrains of ‘Junk Food Forever’ set alight a run across their career to date. ‘Ready For Something’ is stomping in its punch on such a grand stage, whilst ‘In My Mind’ and ‘Doubt It’ sizzle with such firepower that any early strugglers on a Sunday morning are immediately pulled into the fray. The rumbling crunch of ‘Mother’ becomes a larger-than-life beast when smashed across the Main Stage. Surrounded by friends and family, you can’t help but feel its importance.

Gazing out across the crowd gathered, frontman Matt notes that journey. From 16-year-olds all the way to the festival main stage, as they tear through a closing ‘Black Magic’ and stand draped in that very Reading FC scarf with the word HOME emblazoned behind them, it’s an emphatic moment for The Amazons and for Reading itself. That’s what you call a proper homecoming. (JM)

From nervous jazz student to fully fledged star, Wallice has fought through her own coming-of-age story through three EP releases to date. Appearing on the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage, the LA musician draws in the crowd’s self-doubt and shakes it all off with some introspective indie-rock.

Holding some serious notes and hopping on and off guitar duties, Wallice gets a big crowd response even so far from home. ‘Hey Michael’ balances rowdiness and relaxation well before ‘Punching Bag’ has the whole tent swaying, with the band leaning into the chilled-out energy. ‘90s American Superstar’ picks up the tempo before the punch of ‘Best Friend’ perks up listeners despite the collective hangover. ‘Funeral’ brings an impressive run of tracks to a close – who thought singing about your own death could be so uplifting? (FH)

Sunday lunchtime and a scrappy punk band are opening Reading’s Main Stage East. If there was a spot that spelled almost certain doom, it’s this one. True to legacy, Hot Milk explode onto the stage in a flurry of electric guitar, ready to kickstart a chaotic party, but none of their mics are working. They call it before the song is over, and leave the stage. This set has all the makings of an absolute disaster.

Hot Milk have built their career turning negatives into a more communal euphoria, though. “Let’s try this one again,” smirks the band’s Hannah Mee when they return to the stage minutes later and launch into the snotty rebellion of ‘Party On My Deathbed’. From here on out, it’s an all-out victory. 

‘I Just Want To Know What Happens When I Die’ asks big, existential questions that are twisted into a collective singalong while ‘Teenage Runaways’ deals in fiery escapism. There’s intimate, emo number ‘Glass Spiders’ that scratches against bone while the theatrical, twisting ‘Horror Show’ couldn’t be more ambitious – it’s menacing outro threatening to blow out the speakers of the stage. 

Before the poppy bounce of ‘Bloodstreams’, Hot Milk invites the growing crowd to celebrate the release of their debut album ‘A Call To The Void’. “We didn’t think we’d ever get to release one ‘cos no one would sign us, which was dead annoying,” grins Hannah, with another victory under their belts. Elsewhere, the closing chaos of ‘Split Personality’ sees the band asking for the biggest mosh pits the festival has ever seen, while Jim Sham jumps down into the crowd to help get things started. After that frantic, furious finish, Hot Milk leave the stage with the crowd chanting their name – well, apart from Jim who’s still down on the barrier. “I don’t know where I’m going,” he admits, before the mics are once again turned off. From here the only way this band are going is up. (AS)

Thoroughly warmed up from a summer of playing stadium shows with Taylor Swift, a Main Stage slot is no problem for MUNA, and there’s no better way to shake off the Sunday cobwebs than with a turbo run of sad bangers. Bounding out to ‘What I Want’, the trio bring only the biggest smashes for their debut Reading performance.

Their rapid rise since the release of their self-titled record last year, they’ve dominated stages worldwide ever since, getting better every time. Still pulling the pop monsters from their earlier records, ‘Number One Fan’ is a riot, while ‘I Know A Place’, dedicated to the trans and queer kids in the audience, brings in MUNA’s core message amongst the bangers.

The other side of MUNA – the sad soft pop songs for sissies, as their merch declares – is distinctly lacking, even ‘Home By Now’ gets a beefier electro cut, but it isn’t what this set calls for. It’s a hard and fast hammering home that they’re The Greatest Band In The World who deserve every inch of the crowd they’ve pulled on this rainy Sunday afternoon.

There’s silliness and sexiness in equal measure (Stacy the inflatable horse comes out and gets tossed into the crowd for a ride, but not before Katie Gavin grinds on it), and by the time ‘Silk Chiffon’ comes around to close the set, it’s another win for the gays.

Opening a festival set with a seven-minute-long song is a brave move, but Ethel Cain is the kind of artist whose fans are devoted enough to endure every minute. These are the kind of slow-burning sprawling numbers that made her debut album ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ so special, and the ones that make up most of her Festival Republic stage set today. 

Peaking early with ‘American Teenager’ second up, she’s also quickly in the crowd for a walk of the front row, who of course end up crying in her arms. For a half-hour set, it only comprises of five songs, each one making a different impression. “This one’s a little yeehaw”, she notes before ‘Thoroughfare’, already a stark contrast from the indie pop of ‘American Teenager’ and wailing emotional ballad ‘A House In Nebraska’. But ending on her first hit ‘Crush’, she’s back to the bangers, and solidifying her place as one of the most eclectic and exciting artists the festival has to offer. (AF)

Rina Sawayama ticks all the boxes. She’s practically an entire festival lineup in one pop star. As part of the ‘Hold The Girl: Reloaded’ tour she’s currently on, she lands at Reading on the Main Stage and it’s exactly where she belongs. A staggering production, she manages six costume changes and a setlist that does its best to crystallise her diverse discography into nine songs. 

The titular emotional semi-ballad ‘Hold The Girl’ kicks off proceedings, Rina performing a tightly choreographed Kate Bush style routine around the stage gear, barely scratching the surface of what she’s capable of. Throwing herself into roaring power ballad ‘Hurricanes’ her skirt is ripped off for the first change of the show. Throughout all the dancing and costume changes, she’s impressively stable, rivalling the best vocal divas with her prowess during the huge ‘Dynasty’.

As the set takes a turn, ‘STFU!’ is introduced with a call out to how fucked up the world is right now, and likely one of the most metal sections of the weekend (Reading used to be a rock festival, eh) as she intros it with Korn’s ‘Blind’ and outros with Limp Bizkit’s ‘Break Stuff’. Frankenstein follows suit with it’s Bloc Party rhythm section and an insane drum solo.

Rina can do it all though, and the vibes aren’t heavy for long, as she moves into the portion that can only be described as slay. ‘Comme des Garçons’ opens with an on stage change into a blazer and head mic behind a newspaper dubbed ‘MOTHER TIMES’ emblazoned with an ‘XS’ ad and the headline ‘I SIMPLY CAN’T SLAY ANY LESS’, and you know, she can’t. Cockiness reigns supreme during the 00s deep house fuelled banger, before finishing on platinum-on-the-internet hits ‘XS’ and ‘This Hell’, like MUNA dedicating the latter to the queer community.

An extravagant finale that finishes off Rina’s triumphant UK festival run with a bang and puts her in incredible stead for the next phase of her career. (AF)

Grandmas House’s Yasmin Berndt has had a run of bad luck in recent days, dropping their phone in two toilets in as many days. Today’s set on the BBC Introducing stage sees them turn things around though, with a buzzy, vibrant gig that’s quietly self-assured. 

The band are related to post-punk bands like Idles of Fontaines D.C., writing gritty guitar music that isn’t afraid of getting a little abrasive. With plenty of melody though and those soaring three-way vocals, the band aren’t afraid to dazzle either. There’s a joyous sense of escapism to their tropical surf influences, while moments of fantasy weave their way around songs like ‘Always Happy’. It’s a sparkling performance. (AS)

Having recently dropped his first new material in two years, we all knew Declan McKenna was about to make a big return, but a huge main stage showing at Reading reminds us of the true scope of his work and fanbase.

Eclectic, grand, adventurous, rapturous; there simply aren’t enough adjectives to pin down this born performer. Having launched his career straight into the stratosphere with THAT early single, cemented his abilities with the debut album to follow and then completely reinvented himself for 2020’s otherworldly ‘Zeros’, McKenna remains dynamic as he moves into a new era.

Stumbling on stage with a repurposed metal detector, Declan falls straight into the guitar lines of ‘Why Do You Feel So Down?’ and the adoring arms of his “spiritual home”. A flock of toy seagulls fly the sonic skies of current single ‘Sympathy’, but amongst the sea of faces their numbers are dwarfed – better up that inflatable budget next time, Dec.

‘Key To Life On Earth’ and ‘Isombard’ follow McKenna’s rapid bounce between projects, while a robotic impersonator ushers in something new; ‘Nothing Works’ dives into a whole new world with a fluorescent, bouncing energy that totally contradicts ‘Sympathy’. We might have no idea where exactly he’s going next, but the common denominator is a whole lot of fun – Declan and crew toast to that very sentiment.

With flags adorning the front few rows, there is, of course, the one song that got us here in the first place. Contrasting fresh offerings with old hits, shoulders are mounted en masse before a single lyric or even wail of ‘Brazil’, a song that has become an indie anthem for a generation of teens.

Whirring back into action for the explosive ‘British Bombs’, back-to-back political statements disguised as bangers prove just how much the young artist has to say. Already conquering the world aged 24, the path ahead is for Declan alone to carve out. (FH)

Reading Festival has flirted with big, mainstage pop moments in recent years – Dua Lipa in 2018, Mimi Webb earlier this weekend – but today’s Becky Hill set feels like a huge moment for both her and the festival. Playing before headliners Imagine Dragons on the festival’s Main Stage West, she throws everything at it. 

Opener ‘Crazy What Love Can Do’ is the sort of upbeat earworm that instantly brings the gargantuan crowd together, while the sleek ‘Gecko (Overdrive)’ is backed by a flurry of fireworks. The show also features a gang of dancers, backing singers as well as a brass and string section that gives her fizzing pop a hefty weight. Headliners have put in less effort.

Today’s set clearly means a lot to Becky, and she takes a moment after each song to take in the sheer spectacle of this sunset slot. Fighting back tears, she tells the crowd how overwhelming the gig is (“I cried at Glasto, I’m not crying here”) and she thanks the festival for giving her this platform to “show the world what I can do.” 

And what she can do is throw one almighty party. Promising “bangers after banger”, it’s a crowd-pleasing, career-spaning set that never feels anything less than euphoric. ‘Disconnect’, her recent collab with Chase & Status, is a chunky drum & bass number while a hectic ‘Afterglow’ still packs a punch after ten years. “I’m nearly 30, which is old in pop world” explains Becky, who wrote the track when she was 19, but it feels like the best is yet to come. Case in point, unreleased track ‘Never Be Alone’ is soulful, agile but still goes hard. It’s emotional dance music that doesn’t shy away from ambitious big steps, which is apparently the vibe for her new album, due next year.

A closing trio of ‘Wish You Well’, ‘Lose Control’ and ‘Remember’ are frantic, but feel good with the entire crowd singing along to those big, delicious pop hooks. “This set has gone far too quickly for my liking,” grins Becky, and she’s not the only one hungry for more. (AS)

For all the excitement of the weekend, there’s a celebration of individuality and uniqueness that rings out when Steve Lacy takes to Main Stage East. It’s a tour-de-force of effortless swagger and intoxicating charm that signals the arrival of an artist where genre is firmly thrown out of the window in favour of jaw-dropping vision and a natural twist where each step feels just right. When people talk about the perfect sunset set, the dictionary should say now on two words: Steve Lacy.

Oozing with superstar presence, the sprawling crowds gathered are met with spellbinding magic. It’s all magnetised around Steve’s presence, moving between mood-setting cuts like ‘Mercury’, ‘Lay Me Down’ and ‘Buttons’ with a potent power that most would dream of. Lead by a figure who can move between guitar hero at one moment and the conductor of a swaying congregation the next, every part of today’s show puts Steve Lacey in that superstar bracket. At its foundations are a mesmerising blend of tracks. Whether it’s early lo-fi cuts like ‘Infrunami’ and the searing punk kick of ‘4real’ or the smoother twists of ‘N Side’ and ‘Some’, it’s a transporting drop into something altogether more hypnotic.

More than anything, Steve Lacy taking to Main Stage East feels like the perfect alignment of vision and untapped potential to come. While the sheer crossover size of ‘Bad Habit’ may have opened the door to many, it’s about what comes from there that feels all the more exciting. Already carrying himself as a bonafide superstar laying out his craft for the world to see – tonight’s moment at Reading is leading the way for an entire career that’s sure to be based around refusing the norm and pushing to something more exciting and new. One of the most exciting minds going right now, sunset has never sounded so sweet (JM)

Playing at the very end of the weekend, up against Billie Eilish, barely a year into their career, and Lovejoy are still expected to bring in one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. Headlining the Festival Republic stage, it’s one of the smaller tents, but that didn’t stop fans lining up all day in the front rows. 

It’s been a mammoth year for the boys, getting out on the road properly to do their first festival season sandwiched between two tours, Reading closing out the run that’s seen them cut their teeth on some very big stages. And it’s the perfect ending; the late 2000s indie scene Lovejoy sonically pull from has always been welcome at Reading, frontman Will noting playing the festival is a dream come true.

Bringing out the big guns first, they fire through early track ‘Perfume’, recent Top 40 cracker ‘Call Me What You Like’ and ‘Taunt’ from their debut EP right off the bat, although from the reaction here, it’s impossible to tell which are even the singles. When it comes to hype, they’ve got it by the bucketload, but almost a year on the road has meant they’ve now got the chops to live up to it. 

With a clear ambition to climb up the ranks of a festival like this, the top spots will be within easy reach if they keep on at this pace. (AF)

In the time since Billie Eilish last played Reading Festival, a lot has happened. She’s gone from being a promising young pop star on the verge of exploding to a bonafide superstar. Her 2019 set, played at tea time on a Saturday, shut down the field, and there was no doubt that the next time she’d be back, she’d be top billing.

So here we are in 2023, her headline set arriving after a lengthy tour for second album ‘Happier Than Ever’ that included six nights at The O2 and a headline slot on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, amongst topping numerous other festivals. It does feel a bit like Reading is the last to get her back.

Still, the show doesn’t feel tired or overdone. The punters in the front rows have been firmly parked since the gates opened, and the screams from down there when she takes to the stage are visceral. Opening with her first proper hit ‘bury a friend’, she’s electric. Once baffled by the huge crowds, she now embraces them, pacing the runway and running up the backlit ramp that fills the stage without ever losing her breath, as she rattles off ‘I Didn’t Change My Number’, ‘NDA’ and ‘Therefore I Am’.

The balance between these rumbling dark electronic numbers and quieter bedroom pop adjacent moments is perfect, with just enough time to catch your breath before being thrust into another banger; ‘idontwannabeyouanymore’ before the prophetic ‘you should see me in a crown’, the tender Barbie soundtrack hit ‘What Was I Made For?’ before an ‘Oxytocin’ and ‘COPYCAT’ medley.

Only two albums in and becoming the youngest headliner the festival has ever booked at only 21, it’s sometimes hard to believe what Billie Eilish has achieved in just a few years, but when the final act of this set rolls in, there’s no denying her status is warranted. ‘bad guy’ remains roaring fun, but the star of the show is closer ‘Happier Than Ever’, boiling the essence of the show down to one track that starts small and slow before crashing into a pyro-laden scream-a-long in its second half. A festival legend in her own right, Billie gives us the ultimate closing set. Thank god Reading embraced pop. (AF)