READING, England — The Cult's Ian Astbury is insane. We know he is because he told us so. Still, he had at least one interesting point to make from the stage of the Reading Festival — an annual summer-end celebration of mud, mud and music — on Sunday afternoon: The Cult were the only English band playing the main stage.
Since its 1971 inception at this Thames-side town, the three-day Reading Festival has been the traditional August stomping ground of the cream of English rock, from the hairy-faced days of Ten Years After to last year's headlining set by Oasis. This year it was the Americans' turn to pack the lineup with nü-metallers and headline grabbers such as Marilyn Manson and Eminem. Anticipation ran high for Friday's coming-out party for New York's the Strokes, the English music press' current cause célèbre. And although the group didn't play this year, every other T-shirt in the 50,000-strong crowd mysteriously advertised Cali punks NOFX.
So on Friday, the Strokes emerged blinking into that most unexpected of English meteorological phenomena, the sun. Reading traditionally forces most rock fans to carry their lighters aloft in a torrential downpour, but the unexpected solar rays dispelled the Strokes' Alphabet City cool. After exhausting their Velvet Underground tribute cum debut album, Is This It, in about half an hour, their guitarist flipped the bird to whoever threw a bottle at him and they were history.
Friday turned out to be the Americans' Waterloo, however, with the Eels performing hara-kiri on "Beautiful Freak" and Iggy Pop slicing himself with a razor as though to atone for his band rendering "Search and Destroy" unrecognizable. Instead, the night belonged first to P.J. Harvey, who teased the audience in a black bra and bin-liner skirt cut up to here and completed the seduction with an intense one-woman version of "Man-Sized," and then Travis, the Scottish popsters whose dedication to grinning through sturdy acoustic ditties such as "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" has made them the Bay City Rollers it's OK to like.
Away from the main stage in the Radio One Evening Session tent, however, a quieter resurrection was under way as Evan Dando led a master class in who the Lemonheads used to be. The sparse crowd gathered to hear chestnuts such as "Rudderless" and a clutch of estimable new songs was indicative of a strange trend in which yesterday's indie heroes — who once could have headlined — faced dwindling constituencies. Dando's mob left grinning at the man's retiring greatness.
Teenage Fanclub bear old heads on old shoulders and have stayed true to jangle-pop wrought as classically as a Cellini goblet since 1991's epochal Bandwagonesque. Saturday night, their career retrospective, from "Everything Flows" to "What You Do to Me" to "My Uptight Life," provided a soundtrack to the kind of high summer during which Scotland wins the World Cup. Mogwai, representing the next generation of Glaswegian noisemakers, were more action painting than Renaissance silversmiths, ripping open the instrumentals from this year's Rock Action with sudden blasts of tent-shaking noise. By the time leader Stuart Braithwaite cried the Hebrew spiritual "My Father, My Kingdom" over a wailing wall of feedback, eardrums were bleeding and the audience was weeping.
Clannish sing-alongs and post-rock weren't much use against the big guns wheeled out by the Yankee contingent Sunday. First up on the main stage were Staind, who rock as hard as anybody at the festival but do so with much intense staring at the stage that could be easily confused with indifference. Less shy and retiring, (hed) p.e. declared themselves the greatest band in the world while demonstrating that even the greatest sometimes sounds like the angst-metallers next door.
Back in the Evening Session tent, Alien Ant Farm found a better way to deal with the my-mommy-won't-buy-me-a-PlayStation blues by adding a little Blink-182 laughing gas and a bruising assault on Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" to their frat-metal euphoric rush. It's an entertaining combination, but it doesn't quite approach the veteran absurdity of the Cult. Seven years since Bradford's finest last played the festival, Astbury's still a fool, guitarist Billy Duffy's still cool and who cares who the other guys are as long as they play "Love Removal Machine"? Astbury's serial leaps into the crowd were only the black polish on the Doc Marten.
Yes, it can get better, although probably nobody reading this would imagine that it would be Queens of the Stone Age who made it so. That's because nobody in the United States seems to know who these California stoner-rockers and English-press cover stars (call them last year's Strokes) are. But guitarist Josh Homme and the totally naked bassist Nick Oliveri deserve bigger based on a set that resurrects the drug anthem ("Feel Good Hit of the Summer"), ZZ Top (Mark Lanegan came onstage to perform "Precious and Grace"), the guitar wank ("You Can't Quit Me Baby") and the instrument smash 'n' burn.
Although his brand of outrage has blended into America's cultural landscape, Marilyn Manson is still a potent curiosity in Europe and feeds on the attention like a blood-starved Nosferatu (Klaus Kinski model). Arriving onstage to a choral "God Bless America" and several exploding flame pots, Manson's set was a glam-rock spectacle whose satirical breadth contrasted sharply with the past hour of Papa Roach's roaring pain (which was loud enough to render poor Cat Power's performance in a nearby tent inaudible). Manson became a stilted spaz for "The Nobodies," rose 40 feet above the stage for "Cruci-Fiction in Space" (dressed as a bishop) and showed us his arse. A lot.
How better to emerge from Manson's nightmare than blinking into the paradise lit by Mercury Rev? With "The Funny Bird" as their opener, the beatific Catskill band filled the Evening Session with an epic sound of tinkling pianos and symphonic crescendos. Alternating selections from their 1998 magnum opus, Deserter's Songs, with material from the new All Is Dream, singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue seemed to elevate the entire crowd until, at the end of "The Dark Is Rising," he was reaching for the heavens like some William Blake allegory.
Eminem might have been on the main stage at the other end of this spit of green and pleasant land seeking relief with "Purple Pills" — and bewildering the Slim Shady posse with his cartoon interludes, D12-centric set and a "Forgot About Dre" that lacked the crucial element of the good doctor himself. But Rev delivered an even rarer kind of high, the kind that rendered national boundaries and musical fashion obsolete.