Foals @ Reading Festival 2016 – Review

Fury Road

The Oxford rockers balanced themselves nicely between heavy crescendos and slower, more contemplative tunes in a set that paid tribute to fans and showed a great deal of their musical progression.

****

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Oxford rock band Foals have come a long way since their debut album Antidotes, but they remain a band of extremes. My opinion of them has mellowed too since the last thing I wrote about them, but I was still afraid that Foals’ seemingly dour, undemonstrative demeanour might affect their headlining a festival.

I needn’t have worried. This set was different – not only did it showcase their musical range, but it showcased a looser, more easygoing and relaxed Foals. They are a band comfortable in their skin – now that they know what it is. After their first song, ‘Snake Oil’, frontman Yannis Philippakis announced that he wanted to give the crowd a ‘f***ing special night’, and cracked a smile at the assembled Reading masses. I nearly fell off my chair.

I was still stunned as the band launched into first-album hit ‘Olympic Airways’, which, supported by handclaps from the crowd, succeeded in making the atmosphere calm and chilled. The drumbeat from the end of the latter song ran straight into old-fashioned crowd-pleaser ‘My Number’, unquestionably one of their biggest hits. And this non-stop mood set the tone of the whole affair – high energy, high passion, never letting up – but also fun. Foals rarely stopped for breath in the 75 minutes they were on stage, running about and furiously throwing themselves into their music.

The inclusion of ‘Red Socks Pugie’, from their first album, showed a willingness to delve into their back-catalogue, and for me it was a shame that neither ‘Blue Blood’ or ‘Black Gold’, similarly epic-length songs from their second album, were aired. Some of the slower numbers from their most recent album What Went Down would have further showed the band’s versatility too. But that is a minor gripe, and I appreciate you don’t go for the subtlety – it is a rock concert.

Another good thing about this set, though, was how fired up Foals were about their first Reading headline appearance. They clearly wanted to make it count, and throughout proceedings seemed like a band on a mission to forge their own musical reputation the only way they knew how – by going to extremes, loud crashing against quiet, rage followed by calm. From catchy anthems like ‘Airways’ and ‘My Number’ to slow-burners like ‘Spanish Sahara’ and ‘Late Night’, they knew how to mix it up.

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And the fans liked what they heard. It has been some time since I saw a crowd so enraptured by a gig as this one – even on TV, the sense of their admiration and love for the music was palpable. The Foals twang, the distinctive way the band have of plucking guitar strings which makes a song sound like a race against time, was supported by frequent camera shots of fans singing along to every word with a kind of fervour, eyes closed, fists clenched.
Suitably enough, it was the fans who felt key to the whole set. Foals were comfortable with the more thoughtful edge of songs like ‘A Knife In The Ocean’, but later tracks in their performance brought back the fun – which, of course, is what people came for. After the latter song, Philippakis playfully asked the crowd ‘Are you ready?’ repeatedly, before then adding ‘Are you ready for this?’, setting up their propulsive recent single ‘Mountain At My Gates’, which went down a storm. However, this was nothing to what was coming next – the massive tune, ‘Inhaler’, which had the crowd roaring, with the added bonus of jets of flame coming from the front of the stage. It would have been almost rude if the extravagantly-shirted lead singer hadn’t gotten in with the fans towards the end.
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An encore of ‘What Went Down’, ‘Cassius’ and ‘Two Steps Twice’ rounded off the night, with the latter two tracks from their debut album bringing them full circle. There was some more crowdsurfing, and Philippakis proclaimed Reading ‘the place for us’. Foals had a sense, almost, of musical duty throughout the night – of both playing what they wanted, and doing it with passion – and the fans loved it. They may not have played the perfect set in my eyes, but that doesn’t matter. The band of extremes have balanced themselves out. It was quite literally music on a big stage, and Foals delivered. From the ocean waves to the high mountains, it is clear that this dedicated bunch of rockers are not going away any time soon.
Alex Nicholson
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