“We feel completely stupid being up here, headlining anything,” says Sam Fender towards the end of his Friday night closing set at Reading Festival. “This is the most bizarre experience”.
While Fender might be unsure about how he got to music’s top table for his first ever major festival headline set, the adoration of the 60,000 fans gathered at Little John’s Farm gives a fair idea of how it happened.
Pints go flying as he launches into opener ‘The Kitchen’ – a rare B-side no less – before cartoon visuals show cans being cracked open around scrawled lyrics, adding to the boozy singalongs that Fender inspires. He deals in messy, coming-of-anthems that wrestle with sprawling global frustrations and intimate hometown angst. He might not have the longstanding relationship that Foals, The Killers or The 1975 have with this bank holiday bash, but he’s the perfect Reading Festival headliner and one hellbent on writing his own history.
“This is a big milestone for me, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a lad,” he admits before the hammering ‘Getting Started’. Throughout the gig, he checks that the audience is doing alright and repeatedly thanks the busy field for turning up. “I’ve got mad imposter syndrome” he explains before a mass singalong to ‘Spit Of You’ goes someway to calm his worries.
Elsewhere ‘Spice’ and ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’ inspire moshpits via snarling venomous anthems, with the latter ending on the sort of bombastic guitar-led breakdown that would make Muse jealous. The unfurling, groove-driven ‘Mantra’ makes use of Fender’s 8-piece band while the quiet fury of ‘Dead Boys’ (“A song about North Shields, a drinking town with a fishing problem”) tugs on heartstrings. The sprawling ‘The Borders’ quickly follows, designed to raise spirits and get the entire field moving as one. It’s as much their gig as it is his. “I’m just the c**t at the front,” says Fender.
Despite the stunning visual display and Fender’s swaggering confidence as a performer, there’s still a joyously ramshackle feel to tonight’s set, as Fender veers away from polish and chases pure joy. “I’m having so much fun, this is daft,” he beams before the rumbling ‘Spit Of You’. Still, he throws absolutely everything at this headline set with fireworks, flames and confetti going off during every other song.
There’s power in the quieter moments though. A haunted ‘The Dying Light’ sees Fender strip things back, as he sits alone at the piano for a moment of fragile melancholy which pays tribute to lost friends back home. Elsewhere, an acapella ‘Saturday’ brings a hush over the crowd, before it morphs into a giddy, full-band version. In these flashes, Fender proves there’s more to him than soaring guitar anthems.
But there’s plenty of those as well, and Fender closes things out with two of his biggest. ‘Seventeen Going Under’ receives the first flare of the weekend, with the booming refrain hollered back by the crowd long after the track has finished while the energy only increases for ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ which adds in streamers, confetti and a full blown firework display to the party. “What a belter,” Fender grins.
Following on from two headline shows at his local stadium, St James’ Park, tonight’s set is an instant classic from an artist who makes these big, imposing gigs feel comfortable. It can’t be long before Glastonbury comes calling.