Feature: Leeds Festival Review
In many ways, this year’s Leeds Festival had all the crucial ingredients you’d expect from a classic weekend of live music. There were accomplished turns from some of rock’s biggest names, returning heroes in the shape of a joyously reunited Pulp, and mud. Bucket-loads of the stuff. By the end of the weekend, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who hadn’t found their carefully-selected festival attire soiled by the elements.
That said, this was not quite a vintage Leeds Festival. There were too many workmanlike sets, too few you-had-to-be-there-moments, and the nagging feeling that, despite some big names and excellent up-and-coming acts, the overall bill could have been much, much stronger.
Still, there was much to savour over the course of the three days, and the event’s notable highs were strong enough to rival anything that previous years have had to offer.
Early on a rain-soaked Friday afternoon, Cage The Elephant did their level best to enliven proceedings with a full-throttle set, their blend of old-school grunge and raucous rock soon resulting in a sizable crowd bouncing over at the NME/Radio 1 stage. When live-wire frontman Matthew Schultz disappeared into the crowd at the set’s electrifying conclusion, it was a fitting end to an infectiously lively show.
The crowd response was rather less enthusiastic for Chapel Club, whose moody, brooding and introspective sounds didn’t go down as warmly, and weren’t helped by some initial problems with the sound-mix either. Over at the Festival Republic Stage, terrific folk artist Benjamin Francis Leftwich was met with a gigantic crowd – due in no small part to the foul weather that was forcing hundreds to dash for cover under the inviting tent. He deserved the attention, even if many had accidentally stumbled across his evocative brand of acoustic music.
When Friendly Fires hit the Main Stage, the expanse of vacant field en route became a veritable sea of revellers dancing and punching the air on their way to join the crowd. The band’s insatiable dance-funk got a huge audience leaping and clapping, and was a fitting tribute to trumpet player Richard Turner, who died the previous week.
Seemingly effortless in their success at putting on one of the performances of the weekend were Elbow. Undoubted masters of their craft, their beautiful, soaring anthems went down a storm and offered a serene yet powerful change of pace. Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver stunned some of the more distractable onlookers into awestruck silence with its sheer power, while Guy Garvey – ever the consumate showman – poured endless flattery and copious good-natured banter on the audience, deservedly lapping up plaudits as he led joyful sing-alongs to Grounds For Divorce and epic closer One Day Like This.
As darkness fell and a massive expanse of people gathered before the Main Stage, it was time for Muse to power-through a memorable set, pleasing casual fans with all their recent stadium rock hits, while delighting die-hards by unshelving some of their more neglected older material.
Proceedings opened with the sinister and ominous Tom Waits track What’s He Building?, which had been used on their breakout Hullabaloo tour a decade previous. This heralded a formidable performance of their second album Origin Of Symmetry in its entirety, to mark its tenth anniversary. This trip down memory lane was a reminder of just how bloody brilliant their breakthrough record was, and of how much depth the band actually have to their back catalogue these days.
Some of Origin Of Symmetry’s album tracks really have been missed from their live sets – Hyper Music, Micro Cuts and Megalomania all sounded tremendous. There was nothing jarring about the consequent transition from prog-metal to Queen-esque showpieces either. The second-half of the set was a filler-free rock-out of more recent stadium-smashing hits, from Uprising to Supermassive Black Hole, from Starlight to Stockholm Syndrome, and an epic rendition of Hysteria.
Rounding off the proceedings was an inevitable onslaught of Knights Of Cydonia, which sent the amassed hordes into sheer delighted bedlam. Backed by incredible graphics and light-shows, as well as the wailing sound of air-raid sirens at one point, this was true evidence, if any further proof were needed, that Muse may well be the great prog-rock band of their generation, minus any sense of po-faced seriousness and resplendent in as much barmy fun as they can muster.
Such a fine headline set was always going to be a hard act to follow, and it’s fair to say that Saturday was very much the chink in this festival’s armour. The Main Stage line-up was probably as weak as it gets, and certainly as divisive. My Chemical Romance as headliners? 30 Seconds To Mars second on the bill? It was clear to see that the obligitary 11 hours of energetic pop-punk and angsty, shouty rock that Leeds serves up every year could have done with a few more heavyweights, even if old-hands The Offspring and Deftones were on hand to steady the ship.
Fortunately, there were other things to check out elsewhere. Getting things started over at the BBC Introducing Stage were Heart-Ships, a tremendous Leeds band who blend glorious, sea-shanty folk singalongs with wall-of-sound post-rock guitars. Offering an original take on a well-worn genre, they deserve big things – and judging by the enthusiastic response when they started lobbing demos into their jigging audience, the crowd agreed.
Over at the Alternative Stage was musical comic Tim Minchin, who deserves huge credit for getting a gigantic Leeds Festival crowd whooping along to booge-woogie, swing and jazz. That said, it was hard to make out the lyrics to some of his songs – and when newcomers aren’t already familiar with his amusing take on issues such as love and prejudice, that’s quite a tricky problem.
As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that the NME/Radio 1 stage was the place to be, with a trio of crowd-pleasing acts getting in on the action. Their secrets to success? Being able to throw out catchy, sing-along choruses that people can bellow along to when their drunk.
The Vaccines are a case-in-point. They’re a pretty decent garage rock outfit with some infectious tunes, and are adept at putting together simple major chord progessions with a shouty chorus. A roaring, leaping horde eagerly lapped this up, as they did with Noah And The Whale, who proceeded their set with a pre-recorded brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. Neither act pulled anything particularly special or memorable out of that hat, but they had the material the situation called for, and threw themselves into their performances eagerly.
On the back of this, White Lies followed with an impressive show that suggested they have far more festival-ready anthems in the tank than you might expect. Death and Bigger Than Us inevitably produced the biggest response, but it was truly an hour-long stand of electro-rock prowess that suggested they have now entered the big leagues.
After the sparse pockets of entertainment provided on Saturday, Sunday promised much with a line-up that boasted a fair few veteran masters and the odd slice of youthful exuberance too.
Clearly relishing being back on home-turf, The Pigeon Detectives perhaps deserved higher-billing, rollicking bursts of Take It Back and I’m Not Sorry going down a treat. That said, their sprightly indie-pop was almost eclipsed by the antics of the next act to take to the Main Stage.
For a man who has an album out called You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks, the quite wonderful Seasick Steve certainly has a fine trick or two up his sleeve. When you’re able to call upon Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to join you as a special guest bassist, and summon a girl from the crowd to admire your gravelly tones and impressive beard, you’ve got to have something a little bit special. Oh, and there was also the sight of the drummer using a broom and a frying pan as instruments, the Seasick one’s own lovingly hand-crafted guitars – ingeniously composed from pieces of scrap – and a traditional summertime streaker to boot. As for the music itself, Seasick Steve’s terrific brand of old-school, ramshackle blues-rock was a superb early afternoon treat.
Ska legends Madness were a refreshing change from the overriding procession of rock with their classic two-tone output, offering some good old-fashioned ‘nutty’ banter into the bargain. That said, their performance was oddly sedate and underwhelming for much of the set, as they saved all of their biggest, liveliest hits for the very end. Then, things finally sprang to life, the likes of House Of Fun and Baggy Trousers inducing much dancing and merriment – not least from an upside-down fella in the crowd, visible only by his uprighted jiggling wellies.
As afternoon turned into evening, The National attracted a woefully small crowd to the Main Stage considering their plum slot and excellent array of material, but perhaps their brand of thoughtful, musing rock wasn’t what the revellers were after. The band deserved better – particularly when a track as magnificent as Bloodbuzz Ohio was rendered as perfectly as it was here.
Playing second fiddle to Pulp after headlining at Reading were The Strokes, who promptly gave the people exactly what they wanted. They placed a mere trickle of their strongest new tracks amidst a procession of old favourites drawn from Is This It and Room On Fire, with room for just a solitary effort from the underrated First Impressions Of Earth.
It was great fun too, with the band completely faultless in serving up three-minute guitar-pop gem after three-minute guitar-pop gem. Tracks like Someday, Last Nite, Reptilia, Whatever Happened? and Hard To Explain got a particularly enthusiastic reception, and demonstrated just why the band made such an impact in revitalising garage rock at the start of the Noughties.
With Jane’s Addiction cancelling their headline appearance on the NME/Radio 1 stage and the competition from elsewhere decidedly un-starry, you might have expected Pulp to draw a colossal crowd. But there were clearly less onlookers in attendance for the Sheffield veterans as there had been for the preceding New York rockers.
Fools. They didn’t know what they were missing. Pulp’s near-faultless, triumphant set really brought home just how inspired the band’s most defining output was, as well as reminding us all how monumentally wonderful a frontman Jarvis Cocker is on stage.
We’ve missed him. Oh my, how we’ve missed him. His unique mix of casual, dry humour and electric bum-wiggling charisma remains formidably entertaining; his between-song musings on everything from a half-eaten pear to a sign reading ‘I Need A Shit’ generated great warmth from the eager audience, who he had eating out of the palm of his hand.
The set was perfectly judged too – primarily drawn from the anthemic, crowd-connecting genius of seminal ’95 album Different Class, with room for a few atmospheric soul-searches plucked from This Is Hardcore, at which point Richard Hawley also found his way on to the stage.
From the moment Do You Remember The First Time? sprang into life it was clear that this would be a festival-closing set to remember, and by the time Common People inevitably drew proceedings to a sweaty and gleeful close, thousands of Pulp fans young and old were leaping joyfully in the mud, screaming along and generally having a wail of a time.
Cocker is a tremendous entertainer, and his songs still strike a stirring chord with people now. If this was to be Pulp’s swansong gig on British soil, then they waved a plucky Pink Glove farewell in quite masterful fashion.