The Leeds Festival – younger sibling and companion bash to the granddaddy of all British contemporary music mass gatherings, Reading – sprawls across the August Bank Holiday every year.
In a massive logistics operation, all acts visit both locations.
I am something of an event veteran, having made many pilgrimages to the ‘old’ Reading Festival, when l was knee-high to a Marshall practice amp, where the emphasis was emphatically on heavy metal and new wave.
The reinvented production was established in 1989, focusing on rock, grunge and generally raucous countercultural fare. Here, I caught legends such as Nirvana, Iggy Pop and New Order, while early ear-splitting titans to visit the Leeds sister-event that was spawned a decade later included Guns n Roses, Metallica and Iron Maiden.
Not having returned for several years, my expectations were understandably high.
The line-up struck me as being somehow simultaneously much more diverse yet also more mainstream, chiming with today’s much-assumed conservative youth culture and the continual splintering of popular music. The biggest shock to this old rocker was the proliferation of rappers, who are now a fixture of the Top Ten.
Vive la difference, though. I’ll listen to anything and give an honest opinion.
Of course, a major stumbling block is the choice of multiple stages, often simultaneously hosting acts of near infinite variety. There are simply too many options. You cannot avoid a major attack of FOMO; just when you are really getting into an exciting gig, your pleasure is tempered by the thought that you may be missing something even better, just a short squelch through a muddy field!
Appropriately, Leeds’ own Dinosaur Pile-Up kickstarted the Main Stage action. Fast, loud and heavy, this relentless three-piece is a true road band, having crisscrossed the planet many times since hatching in 2006 – and they really should be Diplodocus-sized by now.
The piledriving local heroes were ideal galvanisers and set a high benchmark for all that followed, despite their miserly 20-minute set. No sooner was everybody happily settling into their Jurassic groove in the warm sunshine than they were gone.
FOMO drove me to explore other platforms, taking in hardcore dance; Australian up-and-comers, DMA’S, knocking them dead on the Radio 1 Stage; and even a killer stand-up from fast-rising TV comic, Chris Ramsay, on the Alternative Stage.
Meanwhile, the Radio 1 Introducing Stage was always interesting, showcasing highly diverse start-ups, such as lovely, soulful young songbird, Tiana Major9 and intimidating atonal noise trio, Lady Bird, in short order.
Back to the big boys in time to catch The Vaccines’ jingly, jolly, indie pop stylings – and blagging a trip into the photographers’ pit for their first three songs, I was lucky enough to enjoy close-up inspection. Enigmatic frontman, Justin Hayward-Young, worked hard to whip up the crowd, now rather chilly and rain lashed as the sunshine ebbed, making it quite clear that the top acts couldn’t rest on their laurels.
Bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy, he was universally adored and, having opened for the Stones, clearly knows a lot more about stagecraft than his youthful looks suggest.
Perennial festival faves, Courteeners, were less lively and rather subdued on their second visit to Leeds in three years. The Mancs were highly popular, though and benefited from a well overdue reappearance by a rueful sun. Many of the swelling crowd knew every word and sung along enthusiastically with Liam Fray as he wrapped his sweet voice around lyrics that detail profound personal experiences – with ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ the top track for me.
And so, to today’s headliners. I like Kings of Leon, but never expect too much from them. The mainstream Nashville rockers operate within strict parameters, producing catchy, radio-friendly toons that are about as edgy as your granny’s woolly hat. Each is the perfect length for a single that neither rattles on at length or peaks too early.
There are no big personalities or egos in this workmanlike, no-nonsense family firm. Determined to simply deliver the goods without fuss or ceremony, I don’t think they even spoke to their congregation until the sixth or seven song and snappy banter was off the menu all night. Their Majesties were also notable by being the only American act I saw all weekend, of any genre, that failed to call its audience, “Crazy mother*ckers”!
However, the foursome did seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves on this, their first visit to Leeds fest in nine years, as they kept the hits coming for a crowd that couldn’t get enough.
Minimal audience interaction allowed them to cram 25 tracks into a set that ran to less than an hour-and-a-half, predictably signing off with their biggest number (and my least favourite from their songbook), the stellar ‘Sex on Fire’ – which, to these ears sparked the loudest singalong of the whole weekend.
If the measure of success for a festival headliner is that it warmed the freezing masses, lashed by gust-driven savage outbursts of rain, the Kings scored royally.
Warm sunshine greeted those masses the following day as we all reconvened. Although clouds were to later dominate, happening US rapper of the moment, Post Malone, arrived in time to enjoy the rays, to a symphonic intro tape, much dry ice and an intriguing scaffold backdrop.
Much love was extended by the attendant thousands to the extravagantly tattooed one. Surprisingly honey-voiced, when he sang, several numbers were quite sensitive, including mega-hit, ‘Better Now’. That said, ‘Rock Star’ was all about, “Checking into your hotel room, getting f*cked up and trashing everything!” His catchy, although lyrically dour, songs and ready engagement with the audience made him easily the best rap act of the weekend for me.
By contrast were Liverpool’s finest, The Wombats and their happy, singalong renderings. They played an absolute blinder, to be followed by the similarly uplifting power pop ensemble, The Kooks, just as the meteorology became more hostile.
This unapologetically light and superficial lot are the perfect band for a sunny festival slot, but they had their work cut out for as temperatures dropped and the rain got serious. They pulled it off, though and were rewarded by the reappearance of our nearest star as everyone joined in for the umpteenth uplifting singalong.
Pleasingly, their latest album is called ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ – and from it, they plucked the lovely little throwaway, ‘Four Leaf Clover’, which is as perfectly constructed and harmonious a pop confection as you will find outside ABBA, Erasure or The Beach Boys.
Frontman, Luke Pritchard, bemoaned the lack of guitar bands at this year’s event, which may or may not have been a sideswipe at the next act up – another American rapper – one Travis Scott. He seemed less aggressive than Mr Malone and was ably assisted by a backing singer/DJ, who fascinated me by being perched atop the tallest theatrical platform I have seen outside Kiss’ drum riser (perhaps they rented it).
Lots of “Motherfuckers” etc, natch, as well as vocal effects and backing tapes – and, like every other American act (except Kings of Leon), young Travis “loved us all.” The crown certainly got moving, but that might have been down to the renewed burst of sunshine The Kooks had conjured up for his performance.
Chicago stadium-rocking punks/EMOers/whatevers were tonight’s top spot. Arriving with fireworks, torch-bearing dancers and trapeze swinging acrobats, the theatrics were stunning but as superfluous as their flame-throwing bass guitar. For this is a band at the height of its powers. Members are enjoying their best form ever, obviously comfortable in their own skin and supremely confident not only in their abilities but a towering back catalogue.
While the visual feast that accompanied FOB’s show was dazzling and might have held those unfamiliar with their earlier work, in place, very few were not singing along to the well-chosen set culled from their many Billboard #1s. For me, rarely played numbers, ‘Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes’ and performance starter, ‘Thriller’, were the sunlit uplands. I’m fine with classics like ‘Dance, Dance’ too, obviously, but few concert joys compare to when a much-loved band airs personal faves you never thought you would hear live.
I must add that Patrick Stump’s voice is one of the finest and most powerful in rock and he’s a mean rhythm guitarist too. In fact, apart from an unsettling resemblance to Alan Carr, the frontman is damn near perfect.
Then to Wolf Alice, headlining the Radio 1 Stage – and, annoyingly, overlapping the Fall Outs. With gems plucked from their brace of albums to date, most memorable tracks were ‘Silk’ and ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’.
The performance of Ellie Rowsell and the rest of the band was intense, dreamy, loud and visceral. While not ready for the biggest stage yet – they would still be dwarfed by the cavernous setting that FOB fill with swagger and verve – the North London alt rockers are definitely a future bill topper.
A potent burst of positive energy from Skindred was the highlight of the early doors acts. The Newport quartet’s muscular fusion of metal, alt rock and reggae proved a winning formula for the already sizeable crowd, although we were once again left frustrated by the miserly time they were allotted; a minute for each of the 20 years they have been blasting audiences at festivals and concert venues around the world.
Smiley Linkin Park, alumni, Mike Shinoda, presented an eclectic mix of styles – rap, rock and his very own soundworks. Noodling away happily on keyboards, turntable and guitar, he turned in an intriguing set of thoughtful songs that I knew little of beforehand but enjoyed immensely. Shinoda’s appearance was also notable for a candid discussion about his feelings for late colleague and friend, Chester Berrington and there was a huge upwelling of goodwill for the likeable American.
By complete contrast to his laid-back approach, spiky, uber-confident Canadian rabble rousers, Sum 41, hit the stage running – literally – as buzzsaw guitars blasted out shedloads of riffage before drummer, Frank Zummo, even reached his stool.
Last seen by this correspondent 15 years ago, also at Leeds fest – when they opened for the mighty Metallica and completely won over a tough crowd – the Sums pulled it off again in 2018. The heavens opened, but the huge besotted audience didn’t notice or care. Astonishingly accomplished and with the sort of exuberance that simply batters you into submission and demands you join the fun, the now damp, steaming crowd surged, danced and shouted along.
Engaging surf-punk-looking frontman, Deryck Whibley, led his troupe with aplomb and directed his public like a skilled conductor, clearly taking huge delight in the enjoyment he brought to the thousands arrayed before him. For a band that often puts in 300 gigs a year, they remain remarkably fresh and unjaded, grinning like Cheshire Cats throughout proceedings.
Introducing ‘In Too Deep’, young Deryck declared it, “A jumping song.” But they all were – and I have the blisters to prove it. Mike Shinoda displayed his versatility again by adding his six-string to the three-guitar assault when he guested for the wrap-up. Then, regretfully, the 41ers exited the stage as quickly as they had crashed it.
The noise of gears clashing horribly should have soundtracked the interval between them and the next turn, so polar were they opposite. Enter chart bothering, BRIT Awards hoovering, Calvin Harris collaborating songstress of the moment, Dua Lipa, with her dancers, backing singers and competent, but bland, band.
It has to be said that La Lipa didn’t grab the attending masses by the scruff of their collective neck and carry them in the palm of her dainty hand, as Sum 41 had done. However, now boosted by families and teenage girls, the crowd greeted her kindly. There wasn’t much jumping around, but we all sang along and cheered after every tune – and the weather perked up a bit, which was nice.
Inevitably, it was all rather muted after the explosive force that had gone before, but standouts were the putdown number for puerile young men, ‘I Don’t Give a F*ck’ and her massive ‘One Kiss’ hit.
The legendary N.E.R.D, helmed by the equally legendary Pharrell Williams, were up next. They brought with them fantastic dancers I couldn’t take my eyes off – and the audience was exhorted to get animated too. To this end, Pharrell obligingly directed the opening of a massive hole in the crowd, so that people could run into one another at high speed.
I enjoyed this spectacle nearly as much as the best musical section, the Neptunes’ medley, which featured ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’. What I was really waiting for, though, was ‘Happy’. Disappointingly, it seems that Mr Williams considered his jaunty, be-platinumed international hyper-hit would erode N.E.R.D’s credibility. The elements made their feelings known by becoming decidedly iffy once more.
And then it all got seriously exciting again, as we awaited poptastic Panic! at the Disco. The Las Vegas force of nature didn’t get its Leeds fest career off to the best of starts when, in 2006, leading light, Brendan Urie, was lamped spark out by a moron-propelled bottle. After ten unconscious minutes backstage, he defiantly led his band back onto the boards to everlasting affection and respect.
He clearly hasn’t held it against us, for this was the fourth time the band has returned. And boy, what a show! Scampering into the spotlights to the stupendous stylings of a stunning string trio, they burst into action with the lush, but powerful, ‘(F*ck A) Silver Lining’
While the string and horn sections; mouse-sized bassist, Nicole Row, who wrings vibrant rhythms from her five-string (yes, five!); and guitarist/sideman, Kenneth Harris, are bonkers good, the you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him Urie is undoubtedly the star of the show.
This charismatic showman is the consummate entertainer; bombastic song-and-dance man one minute, louche lounge singer the next, then strutting rock star only moments later. Striking, theatrical, shiny-suited and gold microphone-wielding, you could just imagine the Tom Cruise lookalike handling ‘Rock of Ages’ or a triumphant West End run – or both!
Not only blessed with the looks and the moves, Urie’s pipes are phenomenal too, flying from brassy baritone to sustained falsetto in an instant. I was just jotting into my soggy notebook that he possesses the widest vocal range this side of Freddie Mercury, when he ably proved the point by fronting a note-perfect version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
PATD went down a storm and, aptly, their joyous anthems even perked up the miserable weather.
Some dramatic gear changes of my own next, as I beetled across the mud to The Pit Stage, to catch hoary shout rockers, Beartooth, dishing out lashings of thrash. You either like this music type or you don’t. I do when done well – which way too many practitioners do not.
Beartooth do. In fact, for me, they are the best uncompromising noise masters since Anthrax and l banged my head very happily – even getting ‘Caught in a Mosh’ (©, errm, Anthrax) at one point.
Another dash back to the main stage for a festival closer, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (understandably, he dropped the Duckworth), arguably the world’s biggest rapper today. Harnessing slick social media stratagems and high-end promotional videos to garner a huge online following, ‘King Kenny’ lashes funk, soul and spoken word to rap and enjoys stratospheric critical acclaim as a result. In fact, his latest album, ‘Damn’, is the first non-classical or non-jazz album to scoop the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Wow. Can’t miss this, I thought.
Sadly, it was a let-down. Had I been on the Pulitzer voting committee, I would certainly have voiced a dissenting counterblast. As I was not invited to give my opinion, though, I will tender it here.
Arriving fifteen minutes late (the only tardy act of the entire weekend), possibly due to the required high level of technical effects and audio backup being fritzed by the wet weather, Kendrick sounded interchangeable with so many others.
I know I must be missing something and I know there are a lot of heartfelt politics somewhere in there but for me, this was a bloke hopping about the stage, occasionally grabbing his crotch and shouting, “Pussy assed mother*cker”.
Other opinions are available, though and he went down a storm with his devotees, of which there were scores of thousands present – although hundreds were pouring away in search of alternative diversions when I left to catch Papa Roach, back at The Pit Stage.
The tent was impossibly full. Well over capacity, but somehow, I managed to squeeze in and enjoy a few riotous ‘Roachings’.
Led by ebullient, liberally inked, bear man, Jacoby Shaddix – ironically, an occasional rapper, too – the born-again Christian whipped the crushed crowd before him into a frenzy. Or would have done if we could have done more than shuffle, struggling even to get our arms in the air as he demanded.
I had to cut my visit short, as I wanted to give the headliner another chance, but was pleased to hear my favourite, ‘Getting Away with Murder’ aired. ‘Scars’ and the cover of Blur’s ‘Song 2’ would have to wait for another day.
Returning to the main event, I found young Kenny apparently on the same song. The stage set was impressive, though and he was supported by split second-timed videos, dazzling effects and impressive background music, vocals and spoken word tapes.
His performance and the festival ended not with a bang – and not quite a whimper, either, but did stop rather perfunctorily and without climax. In some ways, it rather summed up the rushed nature of the entire weekend.
To cram in as many acts as had been staged and to meet rigidly enforced performance times (the inflexibility presumably to beat punitive curfews), even headliners only had 85 minutes to set out their stall. This is not long enough for the punters to get their teeth into a gig.
It is more than enough if you don’t like the performer, though.
Fortunately for me at least, these were few and far between.