Sam Fender steps up big time to prove his A-list headliner status on day one at Reading 2023

As Sam shows he’s ready for the biggest slots, Foals confirm their bill-topping prowess, Wet Leg’s stratospheric rise shows no sign of stopping, Ashnikko turns up for a surprise set, and Yard Act make their main stage bow. Not bad for a day’s work.

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

Opening up Reading Festival is quite a responsibility. It’s lucky then that there may be no sturdier shoulders than Bombay Bicycle Club – who take to the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage (yep, you read the right – Ed) for a special set that puts front and centre what a beloved band they remain. Nine years on from the last time they graced the Reading stage, the time away has seen them return with a renewed focus. Indie legends? On today’s evidence, their next chapter may be their most complete yet.

Immediately surging through an opening wave of ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)’ and ‘Shuffle’, it feels the perfect setting for a band whose credentials stand apart from most. Wistful and gripping in equal measure, it’s a swooning cocktail that demonstrates the broad spectrum of Bombay’s journey to date. ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ sparks singalong masses, whilst the title track from incoming new album ‘My Big Day’ revels in a sun-soaked Reading crowd. Recalling how when they first played the festival, they performed to an empty tent because the gates hadn’t even opened yet – it gives today a homecoming feel, for a band who cut their teeth working up the bill into the institution they are today. ‘Evening / Morning’, one such track they played on that day, punches with electric kicks, ‘Carry Me’ fizzes with effortless ease, whilst the dizzying warmth of ‘Luna’ overflows into pure euphoria. By the time a closing ‘Always Like This’ brings their bite-sized secret set to a close, Reading sits firmly in the palm of their hands.

As the start to a weekend goes, it sets the bar high for what makes Reading special – and in turn, just what makes Bombay Bicycle Club so special too. Inventive and sounding like nobody else, they’re indie legends and so much more. (JM)

Considering the fact that she’s only been releasing music as a solo artist for a few months, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Cole Bleu might still be finding her feet. Instead, already a confident performer in her own right, the Washington-via-Liverpool 22-year-old delivers a self-assured set over at the BBC Introducing stage. Leaving behind the alt-rock tones of previous venture The Let Go, Bleu steps into a colourful pop persona that turns an early half-hour timeslot into a bubbly but streamlined show of its own. 

Tracks from June’s 5-track ‘CRUSHED!’ EP bounce around the stage, detailing a long-awaited healing process for an artist capable of soothing others even ahead of herself. The crowd are still warming up but the day is brightened by some joyful dance moves and all are keen to get involved when Cole whips out a guitar to talk about her “least favourite person” on ‘HOMEWRECKER’. With the past examined, reconciled and filed away, Cole Bleu is not-so-quietly preparing for whatever comes next. (FH)

When we spoke to Yard Act at Reading in 2021, they said that they planned to be fourth from the top of the main stage in five years time. We don’t think they were serious, but judging by their main stage opening slot this year, they might not have been far off.

On a stage bedecked in trenchcoat-clad mannequins, singer James opens with a crowd-pleasing shout of… “this doesn’t mean as much to us as Leeds will!” Luckily the insult is soon forgotten as ‘Land of the Blind’ kicks in.

Months of shows have made the band into a tightly wound machine. James struts the stage and talks, yelps, shouts and sings his way through the tracks, while the rest of the band power through each song. They even have a saxophone now, which is the kind of nonsense we at Dork are very much on board with.

It’s impressive how tracks like ‘Take the Money’ have evolved and been reworked for the live show, without compromising what made them so fun in the first place. In fact, all the cuts from the first album have been nudged ever so slightly towards the electronic-laden, more meandering sound of new cut ‘Trenchcoat Museum’, which forms the sprawling eight-minute focal point of the entire set. How do you keep the audience’s attention for such a long song? Turns out half of the mannequins are actually backing dancers, leading to one of the more surreal stageshows we’ve seen in a while.

From the gloriously weird to the genuinely heartfelt, ‘100% Endurance’ follows. The crowd sing and clap along, proving that musings on existentialism and our place in the universe can go down just as well as synth-led lyrics about sartorial history.

Closing with ‘The Overload’, the whole set is a reminder that Yard Act have done so well that a lot of people were asking what they could possibly do to maintain their trajectory. Judging by how good today’s offering goes down, they’re not going to have any issues keeping the momentum going. (JH)

When NOISY take to the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage, the party truly begins. It’s not the Worthing trio’s first rodeo here, but it’s certainly their rowdiest; as soon as frontman Cody Matthews says the word, moshpits form left, right and centre – not that these ravers need much encouraging. Carrying that Friday morning energy through their entire set, the group deliver an intense package of old hits and fresh releases, with collaborators and rising stars Charlotte Plank and Frozemode coming in hot to join in on the chaos themselves. Everyone’s having a good time – most of all the band themselves, who stand back and watch the tent bounce in awe. (FH)

The surprise sets continue over at the BBC Introducing Stage, with 86TVs following up a week that saw their first slice of music land in the world with a set of soaring ambition. With the sort of undeniable CV that stands the White brothers as one of indie’s royal families, it’s heart-on-sleeve indie-rock of the finest order with harmonies that are ready-made to be screamed back. Seizing the stage like it’s an arena, today is a glimpse of a band destined to leave a mark in the year to come. Keep those eyes firmly on 86TVs. (JM)

To say there’s a lot of hype around The Last Dinner Party is an understatement. Selling out shows before any music was even released, they still only have two songs on Spotify but play the Festival Republic tent as if they were born to be there. Dressed in flamboyant costumes and bringing a theatricality that most bands could only dream of, they more than justify the impact they’ve made in such a short period of time.

Vocalist Abigail Morris absolutely belts out every word and remains pitch-perfect throughout, even when she’s dancing and spinning around on stage. The rest of the band are just as good, delivering Bridgerton-esque visuals and astoundingly tight instrumentation. It’s rare to see a new band give so much depth to each song, especially when so many are basically unknown to the majority of the audience.

Ballroom-pop energy runs right through the set, with big choruses and moody lighting dominating. The real magic, though, is the sense of fun they manage to maintain through it all. This isn’t some straight-faced attempt at high art with all the nonsense sucked out, landing more like the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s glorious glam pastiche, rather than the buttoned-up tuxedo of a national opera performance.

There’s growth on show, too. Early sets were anchored around ‘Nothing Matters’ and ‘Sinner’, their two released tracks, but here the energy never flags – especially impressive for an early afternoon set on day one of the festival. As their all-too-short set ends and they walk off stage to deafening cheers, it’s clear that The Last Dinner Party are only going to get bigger with each new track. Hype or no hype, we can’t wait to hear what’s next. (JH)

Having just come off stage performing ‘Dancefloor’ with collaborators NOISY, Charlotte Plank steps up to a bustling BBC Intro crowd to show off bangers of her own. An experimental approach to the pop and dance genres drives relentless momentum for a fanbase that clearly thrives on the unique fusion. Drum’n’bass sounds and energy sit at the core of her singles to date, including the high-tempo highlight ‘L.S.D. (Love So Damaged)’ and pulsating debut ‘Hate Me’. Laying down a solid foundation for Plank to take to the forefront and show off on-point vocals and pure charisma, she only stops to discuss upcoming single ‘Lights’, needlessly encouraging her audience to live in the moment. Suave pit-starter ‘Rave Out’ concludes the all too short set. Still in her early days but having already collaborated with the likes of Rudimental and Skepsis, it is clear that peers are recognising her talent as much as the crowds. A Gen-Z icon in the making, today’s set at Reading plants a flag for an artist getting ready to evolve into something much, much bigger. “I’ll see you next time on a bigger stage, yeah?” she poses. It doesn’t feel like an empty promise. (FH)

Waltzing on to ‘Back In Black’, Jesse Jo Stark radiates vintage rock star energy. Clearly taking cues from 60s icons – her Bridget Bardot updo that soon gets dropped, and Mick Jagger gyrating around the stage – she makes her festival debut with tracks from last year’s album ‘DOOMED’. But amongst the rock’n’roll grit, there’s still the LA glamour of her hometown. ‘Slayer’ brings pure bad bitch vibes, while ‘Tangerine’ offers something a little more sultry. She may be the Goddaughter of icon Cher, but there’s no pop diva to be found here. (AF)

Sea Girls take to Main Stage West with an added shot of adrenaline coursing through their veins. When they made their Main Stage bow in 2021, it was a band taking that rightful step into the big leagues. Today, they embrace it like a playground springboarding to something even higher.

With swagger by the bucketloads, frontman Henry Camomile commands the stage from the first note – diving into the front row for opener ‘Damage Done’ and refusing to let go. Cuts like ‘Ready For More’, ‘Sick’, ‘Call Me Out’ and ‘All I Want To Hear You Say’ were born for moments like this – big crowds and big stages under sunny skies. Mosh pits form, songs are screamed back, flares fill up the sky and even tears are shed for a complete takeover of the Main Stage in every sense of the word.

That ambition and hunger is perfectly captured with new track ‘Weekends And Workdays’ – a fiery blast of indie-rock that’s destined to kickstart a roaring next chapter. Judging by the size and scale of today, it’s an ambition welcomed with open arms. The denim era? Whatever you want to call it, its opening ceremony today points to it being big. (JM)

As eclectic as the Reading lineup is, unapologetic, sugary pop still remains something of an outsider amongst the indie, hip-hop and dance. However, Mimi Webb looks right at home as she bounces onto Main Stage East for a shimmery afternoon set that’s giddy, fierce and a load of fun. 

Fans clamber onto shoulders from the opening stadium roar of ‘Freezing’ and stay there for the duration, while the field just gets busier and busier as Mimi showcases songs from brilliant debut album ‘Amelia’. With bangers like ‘House On Fire’ and ‘Red Flags’, it’s an easy choice for the Reading faithful

Typically, even the most seasoned bands struggle to slow things down without losing the crowd but today, the field screams along to the slow burning ‘24/5’ and has a collective moment for the emotional reflect of ‘Dumb Love’. On paper, this should be a tough set for a popstar but in the field, Mimi Webb absolutely smashes it. “This is so cool” she grins, and we couldn’t agree more. (AS)

“If you peel off my skin, you’ll find a colony of ants living just here,” says Ashnikko. As stage banter goes, it’s different but they’ve built a career on being fantastically honest. Over the past few years, they’ve also become something of a regular at Reading Festival. Today, as she marches onto the Festival Republic Stage for a last-minute, pop-up set, she’s given a hero’s welcome – metaphorical ants and all.

Today’s short, sweet but sensational set sees Ashnikko deliver a clutch of their most beloved anthems. It isn’t long before the trap-infused purge of ‘Worms’ causes chaos, the chirpy ‘Slumber Party’ is a relentlessly good time while ‘Stupid’ has the entire tent singing along to the rapid-fire lyrics of self-empowerment. “Let’s do it together,” invites Ash. 

A surprise set means there’s none of the production that made Ashnikko’s Coachella performance earlier this summer the talk of the Internet, but who needs fighting robots when you’ve got a menacing reworking of breakout hit ‘Daisy’ while Ash attacks the stage with everything they’ve got. It’s easy to see why they’ve been invited back for the third time in as many years.

Still, the best moments come from Ashnikko’s debut album ‘Weedkiller’, which is out today. A dystopian fairytale that brings together fantasy, rage, catharsis and autonomy, it’s designed as an entire world to get lost within, and the brief glimpses we get of it today feel tantalisingly inviting.

The set opens with ‘You Make Me Sick’, a song driven by pure, unbridled fury that effortlessly weaves dreamy pop hooks around those abrasive, unforgiving moments and it sounds razor sharp. Likewise, the soaring title track is a fiery party anthem that hops between hammering nu-metal, giddy dance and stadium ambition without losing anything in the dizzying journey. It’s a swaggering album made for big stages and today’s performance gives us a brief hint at just how far this new era of Ashnikko can go. See you at the Main Stage next year, eh? (AS)

TikTok’s breakout stars come in thick and fast these days, but rarely do they reach the heights of Nessa Barrett. Clearly resonating with the fresh-off-exam-results-day crowd, tracks from her debut album ‘young forever’, like lovelorn ballad ‘die first’ and recent hit ‘american jesus’, prompt a major scream-singing response.

Despite battling some sound issues at the start, when she gets going she brings it, and so do the crowd (most making the dash from Mimi Webb to entirely pack out the Dance Stage for Nessa). Raised on a diet of Lana Del Rey and Halsey, her Tumblr-core lyrics and indie-driven lo-fi bangers mark Nessa as a serious contender for their throne. (AF)

Few bands have been on as stratospheric a rise as Wet Leg. From the very first reveal, they’ve been strapped to a rocket of unstoppable momentum that’s cemented them as the breakthrough band of the past few years. As they take to the fabled early evening slot on Main Stage East, the vast crowds that gather prove just why it’s all justified – for a band who embrace nonsense and fun whilst refusing to compromise, today is their moment.

A grandstand demonstration of the breadth and brilliance of their self-titled debut, it’s a popping-candy bag of fun. Whether it’s the knowing wink of ‘Wet Dream’ and the playful chops of ‘Oh No’ or the whipping fuzz of ‘Being In Luv’ and ‘Supermarket’ – Wet Leg thrive with every twist and turn they can throw into the mix. What other band on the lineup would bring a “scream-o-meter” to measure who has the loudest yell between Reading and Leeds during the famous ‘Ur Mom’? The answer is nobody. It perfectly captures a feel-good set packed with their feverish humour that just keeps delivering track after track.

By the time ‘Chaise Longue’ lets rip, an undeniable Reading moment ensues – putting an exclamation point on everything Wet Leg have embraced since the very beginning. Jubilant release and a band seizing their crowning moment – that rise is only set to continue. Dive head first into the fun of it all – that’s a Wet Leg order. (JM)

“Reading, are you about that punk shit,” snarls vocalist Ashrita Kumar before Pinkshift launch into ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’. Moments earlier, they were preaching solidarity while the fiery track ends with a huge call and response about the lyrics “I don’t want your fake obsessions / I need something real to change.” Turns out Reading really is about that punk shit.

Pinkshift exploded onto the pop-punk scene in 2020 with their breakout hit ‘I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You’ but the band were already moving beyond simple nostalgia and sugary hooks back then. Today, that urgent song leans heavily into its more hardcore influences (“It’s a release, it’s about having fun,” grins Ashrita) while tracks from last year’s debut ‘Love Me Forever’ see the band continue to experiment.

Opener ‘I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying’ cycles through aggression, heartbreak and vulnerability in a tightly-wound three-minute burst before ending in hammering catharsis, ‘Nothing (In My Head)’ is swaying, agile and menacing with big, emo declarations before ‘Burn The Witch’ channels more of that gnashing fury. “It’s about burning down systems of oppression,” explains Ashrita, with transphobia and racism in its sights. 

New single ‘Home’ shakes things up further with the swaying, atmospheric moment of calm as powerful as anything that’s come before. Through the rage, the venom and the raw reflection, there’s a constant sense of community. (AS)

A relaxed fusion of jazz, rap and RnB radiates over the fields during a stellar showing from Loyle Carner. At this point established and with a diverse community backing him, the London creative is finding new ways to express his refined perspective. Cuts from last year’s top five charting third LP ‘hugo’ rapidly delve into a succession of self-exploratory topics that lay bare his own view of self and society, always remaining hopeful even amongst the pain. Charged offerings like ‘Plastic’ set light to racial injustices, while the lowkey grooves of ‘Damselfly, and ‘Ottolenghi’ call upon past hits and get the main stage crowds dancing once again. “Fuck that toxic masculinity bullshit,” he goes on to say, “and fuck the Tories as well.” Rich natural instrumentation is consistently infused with butter-smooth verses, making this set a delight to listen to whatever the lyrical stance. (FH)

If you had to point to any band as the definition of festival headliners, Foals would be up high on the list. Over the course of countless years, an unrelenting touring schedule puts them in the conversation as one of the hardest-working bands going. They’ve earned more stripes than a Zebra convention.

No festival may be more intertwined with their story than Reading. Landmark moments as a band (and, in turn, British guitar music) have flowed through them, and now, with the fluorescent tones of their latest album, their return is a beating heart for the weekend. Topping the bill for the first time since 2016, it finds them even more formidable and all-encompassing than ever before. Stitched into the very fibres of what Reading & Leeds is, Foals headline tonight with a primal and ferocious intensity that commands their place as one of the best live acts on the planet.

Taking to the stage with technicolour displays, they lay their intentions out from the very start. ‘Wake Me Up, along with a variety of cuts from latest album ‘Life Is Yours’ such as ‘2AM’ and ‘2001’, are the perfect ingredient for summer headline nights – and they act as a fuse for a firework display of effortless hits.

‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Olympic Airways’ and ‘My Number’ is the sort of opening salvo most bands would dream to have to close a set, never mind serve as an appetising starter for the full feast to come. The sheer scale and prowess Foals possess is one that commands attention: the widescreen club-drop of ‘In Degrees’ landing as a perfect capsule for a crowd whose weekend jumping between genres is only just beginning, whilst the spellbinding ‘Milk & Black Spiders’ twist and turns Reading at their will.

The magic of Foals can be boiled down to the push and pull. The crushing widescreen emotion of ‘Spanish Sahara’ is jaw-dropping, only matched in sheer power by the pounding run of ‘Exits’, a ridiculous ‘Inhaler’ and the searing ‘Black Bull’. It never relents, and by the time a volcanic ‘What Went Down’ and ‘Two Steps, Twice’ let rip – Reading is torn into a whole other dimension.

Tonight is a reminder of just what Foals represent. Not just a band beloved, but a band with the arsenal to back it up – it’s the riotous rock show that defines what a festival headliner should be. (JM)

In a year of firsts and newfound heights of achievement for the Geordie songwriter, today might be Sam Fender’s most significant step up the ladder yet; a headline slot at one of the UK’s two biggest festivals. This might’ve seemed a world away just a few years ago, having attended as a rowdy punter himself as a teen, but recent exploits have proven his ability to draw huge crowds and execute a set that delivers on all fronts. Headline slots at Truck and TRNSMT, as well as two sold-out stadium shows in his hometown, have trained him for this moment.

And what a moment it is – kicking things off with ‘The Kitchen’, a declaration of rowdiness is immediately established before the usual intro of ‘Will We Talk’. A small decision, but one that proves intent. Calling back to his North Shields roots during ‘Dead Boys’, Sam declares tonight to be a milestone, and he’s bang on the money – never mind how far he carries his legacy, the local roots and truth in this song will always follow.

‘Mantra’ once again inspires a message of defiance and identity, which seems like a strong start – Sam soon retorts, “That’s the chill ones out of the way, now let’s get everyone jumping.”

The introduction of debut EP callback ‘Spice’ quickly satisfies that request, but Fender himself isn’t satisfied: “Can we do that again?” With ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ up next, the only feasible answer is yes.

At this point, the reality of the accomplishment currently in motion is apparant, although flames and fireworks are already in the rearview mirror, but assuredness and catharsis are bolstered further by ‘Alright’. This is the kind of artist where even a b- c- or d-side is more powerful than you could ever anticipate, as a faux finale of ‘The Dying Light’ evidences once more.

An encore of ‘Saturday’ proves just how much Fender has left in the tank, admitting on behalf of his band that, “we feel stupid headlining anything.” If the iconic melody of ‘Seventeen Going Under’ and ever-relevant lyricisms of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ prove anything, it is the absurdity of that statement.

Not only pushing the ever-moving goalposts of his own career but continuing to cement his acclaimed status each step of the way, Sam Fender has little left to prove – but he’s giving it all anyway. (FH)