Pulp storm Reading festival 2011

There's anarchy from Odd Future and steady songs from the Strokes – but it's Jarvis Cocker's gang who steal the show as the sun finally shines at Reading festival 2011

There may be a bit more branding, and a lot more neon face paint, on show, but the Reading festival of 2011 is not so far removed from that of 1992. Not if you're watching Yuck, anyway: young Brits well-versed in the spirit of grunge – although their take on slacker rock is more Sebadoh mope than Nirvana rage, introspective verses building to choruses dotted with crayon-scrawl guitar solos.

In fact the group's stoner vibes suit today's weather perfectly. Apart from a short but torrential shower early morning, the sun has finally decided to show its face today, making Saturday an ideal time to roam the site checking out its myriad distractions: patches of chocolatey mud, roaming groups of young men dressed as monkeys or tigers, a sound not unlike heavy artillery as you walk past the Lock Up tent. Many, though, are over at the main stage, watching Seasick Steve. It's quite impressive, how Steven Wold has managed to craft his unprepossessing backstory (he slept rough for a bit in the 1970s) into a festival-friendly persona: the loveable hobo. He is, undeniably, an entertainer: see as he pulls a young woman from the crowd for an earthy serenade, or unveils a musical instrument made from a Morris Minor hubcap stuck to a broomstick. Even when it's just him and his band playing, though, his chunky blues churns along like a combine harvester.

It went a bit quiet for Odd Future there for a bit, the hype undermined by the release of Tyler, The Creator's rather trudging Goblin LP. If there is one place this shock-friendly LA rap group's bratty anarchy ought to shine, though, it's the festival that held Limp Bizkit and Slipknot close to its sweaty chest – and they do not disappoint. Twenty minutes before they hit the stage, a "Wolf gang! Wolf gang!" chant goes up, the cameras picking up kids in homemade Odd Future balaclavas crammed against the barriers. It starts with their DJ, Syd, playing a brief club set, before she is joined by Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, and then Tyler, The Creator, who rides on stage on a pink fixie bike and declares "God-damn, there's a lot of people." Ribcage-shaking bass and snappy snares form a backdrop for this bunch of MCs blessed with brash charisma, bounding round the stage gurning and mugging for all they're worth. Tyler warns the security that "this is when you've got to take your job as serious as possible", and leaps into the crowd, returning five minutes later missing his T-shirt. It takes him a while for him to recover, but a closing run through Sandwitches and Radicals, with its chant of "Kill people, burn shit, fuck school!" is exhilarating. Their lyrics, with their casual homophobia, remain a sticking point, and rightly so. But live they're a truly thrilling spectacle. Write Odd Future off at your peril.

Following is a bit of a mid-afternoon lull. Madness play to a crowd eager for the hits, who nutty-dance and join conga lines to One Step Beyond and Baggy Trousers, and wait patiently the rest of the time. The Kills' skeletal blues-rock still sounds a little studied and insincere. Everything Everything marry plaintive indie songs to sparkly 80s synths and tricksy dynamics. But the next truly great set is from New York's the National. In black-clad frontman Matt Berninger, they have a singer with a glorious, lugubrious voice, and in the band, a force sharp and sensitive enough to pull back and let him do his thing without interruption. For all their anthemic builds, songs like Bloodbuzz, Ohio and Mistaken for Strangers are laced with messages of isolation and anxiety, which seems a weird fit for something as communal as a festival – but if the National prove anything, it's that a lot of people feel lonely, even in a crowd.

"Do you remember the first time?" asks the big screen on the main stage, just before Pulp arrive. Many up the front were but a twinkle when Sheffield's finest debuted Common People here, back on this day in 1994 – "Who was here?" questions Jarvis. "Who was born?" Not that it appears to dampen anyone's ardour – and who can blame them, because this is an imperious set, ranging from a perfect F.E.E.L.I.N.G C.A.L.L.E.D L.O.V.E to a glorious Misshapes, its line about "The future that they've got mapped out/ Is nothing left to shout about" sounding more contemporary than ever. Jarvis jumps from towering speaker cabinets, lies horizontal for some athletic hip-thrusting during a torrid This Is Hardcore, and dedicates Joyriders to "the rioters", quipping "they weren't rioting, they were just playing Grand Theft Auto outdoors". Honestly, it's hard to imagine how their reformation could have been handled any better.

Over on the Radio 1/NME stage, Jane's Addiction pull off a last-minute cancellation – Perry Farrell is poorly, apparently – leaving a tent of disgruntled punters and a big job for the Strokes. Their set is best described as professional, with New York City Cops and Reptilia dispensed cleanly alongside newies like the reggae-tinged Machu Picchu. It is not unenjoyable, but it probably speaks volumes that the only real sense of occasion comes when Jarvis returns on stage to join Julian Casablancas for a cover of the Cars' Just What I Needed. All in all, it's a climax to the evening that seems to up-end the conventional wisdom that reformed bands are going through the motions, doing it for the bucks. Tonight, yes, the Strokes do it. But it's Pulp who look like they really feel it.


Louis Pattison

The GuardianTramp

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