Leeds Fest – mecca for impressionable hood-rats, skaters, cool dads, cool kids and grim portaloos. That’s the thing about Leeds, the feeling of breadth; you never know who you might find or who you might want to see at a festival that is itself teenage. Since being dubbed Leeds Festival in 2000, this site has keep too young to be typical and old enough to know better. Mainly, Leeds isn’t bobbed down with the history of Glasto or the chart-dependent line up at V Festival, so it tends to draw bits from everywhere. A splatter of rap here plumes of hardcore from the left, spots of indie rock, pop stars and established legends…
That isn’t unique to Leeds, but Leeds Fest is the easiest festival to off-road. I didn’t see Eminem, Green Day or Biffy Clyro because 1) Green Day’s set will have been written about more than The Creation and 2) there’s too much good music going on to camp the Main Stage. Knowing there’s a ton of different ways to enjoy Leeds, here is mine.”
Disclosure have been slaying every festival from here to Coachella this summer with a jewelled pop mastery; part inscrutable construction, part raw power. They’re at it again, the NME Stage has a crowd of super-massive density practically on top of the brothers ahead of their early evening set, sprawling outwards far beyond the tent, petering out somewhere near the bike sheds. Not just an attraction for bleary eyed kids, everyone who’s turned on the radio this year is down here.
Daft Punk’s ‘Robot Rock’ announces a final round of preening backstage before the show starts. What follows may be the perfect big stage dance set this year – melodies like a whisky kiss, production both immaculate and off -balance, packed with more detail than you can twiddle an EQ at. Guest vocalists, including Aluna Francis, Sam Smith and Ed MacFarlane all have their turn on to recreate Settle outside of the studio with note-perfect precision. It’s easy to see why their huge too, joining the dots between the 80s gleam of Phoenix, the woozy synths of early house and now Tyler The Creator’s Skunk&B aesthetic, the minimalism of the XX and sparse Timbaland grooves, and of course dubstep, you’d have to be a puritanical Dire Straits devotee not to enjoy a little of Disclosure’s hit-packed stage show.
After the chart-bothering amigos bugger off on a helicopter to their next gig, the NME stage is looking very big all of a sudden. With a fraction of the crowd left behind, Azealia Banks‘ set abandons the carnival atmosphere. This is just about her, with each and every face is primed at the stage, waiting for the rapper/singer/feud-monger to arrive. It’s just a shame she’s not found the right balance of singing and rapping into a properly unique sound, over the last two years mostly releasing mutant bangerz with bizarre videos (see ‘Yung Rapunxel’). With that in mind, Banks’ set is exactly what you’d expect. The self-styled “Bad-Ass Bitch” doesn’t showcase any stone-cold pop hits soon to blare out of every city centre like 2011’s ‘212’ did, and her vocal powers amount to a set-piece here and there. She instead plays to her main strength, pulling off tongue-mangling, rarely braggadocio and sometimes lyrics like a marksman in a cat suit, strutting restlessly round the stage and acting like she’s headlining the festival. In fairness, this is as good a dance set as Disclosure’s thanks to Azealia’s indomitable flow and bottomless energy keeping things moving. Azealia’s got some dancers voguing throughout, in case you forgot what you should be doing at her shows. More dancers later…
Off the back of two critical acclaimed albums and a swelling fan base, Phoenix dominate the Friday night headlines by taking the sheen of 80s rock that Strokes have been dabbling in for years and, ultimately, write better songs doing it. If great song-writing has one goal, making the odd ordinary, these guys win the gold medal, sounding like a mirror ball yet hiding plenty of depth just under the surface. Singer Thomas Mars deserves a lot of credit for this lightness of touch, since his way with a tune seems to trickle delicately over wherever you put him, not always searching out deliberate hooks, but knowing when to use them (‘1901’s “hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey”).
The oddness is so wrapped up in the hooks, in the interesting bits, that it dissolves the barrier between what we’re expecting and what we’re not. Rhythm guitars start after the bar, chords and verses revolve erratically. There’s wooziness beneath the faux-fur glamour that ultimately making Phoenix more human than 1D could ever be.
After a wet night, we’re ready to take on Leeds Festival Day 2 with just a packet of Mini Cheddars and pockets of showers. First up, Wytches make wonky garage rock for anyone who ever got into Nirvana or Pixies. We couldn’t make it out exactly, but the drummer got heated right before show time, shouting at the roadie something along the lines of ‘Louder, you prick!’ Once the band get it together though, we’re straight under the spell of their menacing dirge. The embodiment of the brooding mop-headed slack rocker, Wytches’ frontman doesn’t bother with eye contact throughout – he looks like he’s being eaten by his haircut, so fair we’ll let him off. Clearly not been told it’s Saturday still, they’re off channelling pure Sabbath, pounding instruments like a zombie limp crossed with a panic attack. What begins as tub-thumping riffage flowing through each track slowly opens up to explicit grunge nods (a hysterical rewrite of Nirvana’s ‘Love Buzz’, itself a 60s garage tune) and more mind-bending guitar lines than you can shake M.C. Escher at. Wytches are… Hard rock with smoky, sometimes cloudy melodies.
Charlie Boyer & The Voyeurs have a great name and look like they’ve been cut from paisley. There’s the pros to this gig. Sadly, as traditionalists go, these chaps just aren’t trying hard enough. Yes, it’s kinda sexy to be Modern Lovers/Velvets/New York Dolls and I enjoy swooning over boy bands as much as the next heterosexual male. But CB&V don’t have the charisma to keep you glued, nor the tunes to bruise your shoes – motorik and a rickety organ cabinet are only great if you know how to use them. Some stage presence wouldn’t have gone a miss, lads.
Deap Vally do likeable. The sweet and sour combo of singer Lindsey Troy’s God-given rock pipes and drummer Julie Edwards’ mean-drunk nihilism lends drama to what could be a samey set of classic rock covers. Yet with these two contrasting personalities you end up with a show more interesting than the Kills’ too-cool-to-live indifference and White Stripes’ one-man-band-with-a-drummer-on-top non-communication. Lindsey holds the show together though, with her Stevie Nicks vocals, massive heart-shaped glasses, lashes of melisma and enough knuckle-headed rock to wind up on a Kiss record. Together, they strike an electrifying balance between daft and desperate, playing and pained. Deap Vally are… Amaretto and coke.
Staying at the NME stage, Peace are very good at ripping off great bands and looking cool while they do it – Blur’s college rock period, the Beatles (‘California Daze’ shares its intro with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’), Stone Roses (‘Wraith’), the Cure (‘Lovesick’), and so on. The ‘disco rendition’ is one of the most blood-curdling expressions in the English language, but their disco reworking of Disclosure’s ‘White Noise’ floats along is far from naff, even if it does bulldoze the original’s enigmatic mood. Having mastered Pop Success 101: Writing Meaningless Nonsense, they’re gunning for Oasis fans using music you, that guy over there and even the idiot in the Smurf costume would all agree on: fackin’ chunes. Peace will only be going up the festival food-chain.
Leeds Fest 2013 had two ‘moments’. One was when that kid sang with Green Day (YouTube it). Second, the Mulder-fudging deluge during Peace’s set. Peace may be pretty young Fop Gods, but when the Heaven’s open in this country, there’s no doubt whose king of our hearts. Bramham Park over the next two days will turn to milkshake, then treacle, and finally meringue as thousands of bewildered punters turn into flaky, dehydrated (it’s wet and very hot, go figure), stumbling hordes. Thank you, rain, for justifying wave-after-wave of zombie references.
Kate Nash would like us to forget her 2008 self, when you couldn’t find a photo of her without a summer frock and teacup, jumping on a trampoline while playing the piano. Now she’s legged it in the opposite direction. With just an electric guitar and a back-comb, Kate isn’t playing the jolly pop act today; she’s here to head bang like a nutter. ‘Foundations’ and ‘Mouthwash’ get neat guitar arrangements, and Kate’s really know how to look like they’re having the time of their lives (are you watching this, Boyer?) As well as her new Bikini-Killish material, she’s got a serious message, encouraging girls to start bands and not worry what people think because people will criticise ‘whatever you look like’. She also has an eclectic way with teen slang; she could have bust the n-word at any second. She hugs the entirety of the front row after the gig wraps up. They’re mainly girls.
Forgoing Green Day (don’t judge me guys), Saturday gets rounded off with a swim to the Festival Republic Stage to see Chvrches, rising Scottish electro-poppers (is that a drug?) and typo fans. Having heard good things about the three piece, it’s a pleasant surprise top hear their melancholic electro-thrash, like a heavy La Roux, with its imposing electronic beats leaving the singer forever tumbling down the rabbit-hole. “I know it’s cold and muddy, but it could be worse… you could be covered in piss!” singer Lauren Mayberry cheerfully reminds us between songs, blackly adding, “…at least you’d be warm” – now that’s a silver lining. It’s hard to pick apart the detail of their songs live, but there’s a classic blend of Numan and Cyndi Lauper at its root, weighing huge crisp snares with thoughtful organ. Chvrches are… 99 problems. Cups of wee are another.
Darwin Deez’s have an atom bomb up his sleeve when it comes to crowd support. With the flick of a hip, he’s elevated merely infectious NY pop into a glut of synchronised, white-guy dance shapes. One point to Deez. Darwin doesn’t cut the usual rock star figure, not like other New York guy (rhymes with Sasablancas), but he’s a shit-hot guitarist, filling in stray moments of his taut pop rock fancies with blues fingering- he laughs out an apology after a particularly meandering wail, ‘Sorry, no more solos’. Two points. Aside from that, Darwin Deez’s cuddly indie radio killers like the spacey philosophising of ‘Constellations’ and the twee rock ‘Radar Detector’ are like a shot of Sunny D on a dreary Leeds morning. Game: Darwin Deez-y does it.
This is Earl’s show really, EarlWolf isn’t all Earl. ‘Doris’, his second full-length, dropped a few days ago, and since the media circus/moral panic of Odd Future blow-up into the mainstream a few years ago, Earl’s been the one getting the rapper acclaim even if enfant terrible and Odd Future leader Tyler The Creator has been taking all the spotlight. Tyler is the producer/rapper with the impeccable sound design and bratty evocation; Earl’s a nineteen year old whose rhymes dribble out to their own beat but cut like a machete. Earl sounds like he can’t help it. This gives Tyler a lot of room to do what he does best, getting us to say atrocious things while he’s wearing a florescent jacket and a stolen crew cap. ‘You guys getting nastier? Nasty nasty nasty!’ He tries to get us to chant something Oedipal. All the hyper-violent, sexually explicit and ultra-transgressive lyrics, new and old, are all present and correct, married to joyous soul samples, mudslide sub-bass and sometimes the most horrifying electronic ‘music’ you’ll find this side of a Savages gig. Though it’s nasty, EarlWolf act and are treated as kings, turning stage banter into a piss-taking pantomime (Jasper to Tyler, ‘Don’t touch him! He’s got a disease!’) and making your worst nightmares sound like a trip to the skate park. Nasty.
By way of an ear-shredding set from Drenge, festival veterans Deftones, teen dream fireworks from those Birmingham chaps Swim Deep (like fellow B-Towners Peace, they have a saccharine cover to kill any crowd – ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’), thrash-sax-punk MC-ing from Sonic Boom Six and Chance The Rapper‘s MDMAided vignettes, we collapse, broken, in front of the Main Stage for Foals‘ triumphant afternoon set. After a length gestation as hype pin-ups, critical darlings and now big field heirs, Foals are today taking their rightful place in the top tier, where pop-portunists Two Door Club have lurking for a while now. The band arrives by way of staggered atmospherics, building their presence bit by bit. Once singer Yannis Philippakis shuffles on, they hit the Big Red Button on their distortion pedals, calling martial law on rows one to twelve. Yannis’ basically reminds me of Splinter Cell‘s Sam Fisher, if he listened to Kraftwerk. With his rifle/guitar in hand, that image cracks only slightly with a breathless “hello” to the flaking hordes scrambling to devour his troupe’s brainy rock. ‘My Number’ goes down like the first pint in the morning, ‘Spanish Sahara’ unfurls like Neil Young epic. And there’s a total absence of the early material, like ‘Mathletics’ or ‘Cassius’. Looks like these Foals are growing up fast (Never come back here.)
By the time Tim Burgess bounds on-stage around 7pm, we’re ready for a light jig to indie-pop rather than the hassle of taking names in the moshpit. Golden muffin-topped Tim doesn’t disappoint with his solo set. This Isn’t Hardcore. In fact, Burgess’ fresh and dreamy set is like a gentle tumble through an Ariel advert. He clicks his fingers, shuffles, nods… Tim has a move for every tempo, whether it’s lilting of his new album or tranquil reworks of older Charlatans material. It’s lovely, which is hard feeling to summon when a sodding great field just ate your tent. We’d hug you Tim, but you look so clean.
A petite Scottish lass and I are majorly fan-girling in anticipation of Tame Impala on the NME stage. Can you blame us? They’re shining proof of how punk got it all wrong. ‘Elephant’ is a monster from start to finish, so good they used it on a phone advert. ‘Mind Mischief’ descends into a hypnotic jam or maybe another song entirely. ‘Feel Like I’m Only Going Backwards’ makes you fall in love for the first time, again. ‘Apocalypse Dreams’ sounds exactly as it should, like God took a speedball. Despite the tear-jerking gorgeousness, Impala soon succumb to electrical gremlins and have to bugger off after twenty minutes. Yes, those are bitter tears rolling down your screen. Anyway, what’s on next… Jake Bugg? Ughhh. Tame Impala are… frickin’ sweet, dude. Hopping over to the Festival Republic stage, Lucy Rose has a excellent band well-versed in ‘Graceland’-era Paul Simon, injecting a bouncy, Big Folk sunshine and jubilant afro-beat into what could be a typical singer/songwriter set. But the main event for me is the girl-group on next.
“I AM HEEERRREEE!” yells Jehnny Beth, as if we didn’t quite catch the stomach-churning assault of her band Savages. She’s got a point; no-one could accuse them of phoning it in live or being anywhere else than right ‘here’. More so than any other band this weekend, Savages in flesh isn’t Savages on record. Sheer volume transforms their proper songs on record into a twisted bone-heap of percussion, caffeine bass and blocks of malevolent scree. Gemma Thompson’s brooding echo-guitar tidily fits the post-punk template on début Silence Yourself; live, the instrument becoming practically atonal. It isn’t even a drone – it becomes as faceless and sinister as a portrait with the eyes blacked out, giving the set a whole new, ultra-visceral edge, kicking the piss out of the tune for good measure.
Then there’s Jehnny, an extra from Twelve Monkeys in pink kitten heels. Grace (and ‘lady-like’) are to be avoided. Jehnny though, like Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, has the knack for ‘odd as ordinary’ – she makes catchy rock songs out of disfigured frequencies with operatic screams and yelps. Amongst the lovely ugliness, it can get damn close to B52’s ‘Rock Lobster’ at times, but then you have a ‘Shut Up’ or a ‘Husbands’, which sound like the single The Cure’s Pornography always deserved. In a better world, Icona Pop would top the chart with a Savages song. ‘I Hate It’, if you will.
On Monday morning, the sun raises out of the mud. Then my tent explodes. See you next year, Bramham.