Live Review: Leeds Festival, Bramham Park, 28th – 30th August 2009

250-leedsWell, here we are. Three days of unbridled musical joy spaced out over 6 different stages encompassing every genre imaginable and whetting the appetites of tens of thousands of avid festival-goers. This is Leeds Festival, the culmination of the UK’s festival calendar, and a grand display of the UK, and beyond’s musical expertise. Expectations were high. Tickets prices even higher. The amount of fat blokes in wedding dresses even higher still.

FRIDAY – 28/08/09

The beginning of a music festival dedicated to the finest in rock ‘n’ roll starts, very naturally, with Mariachi music. Here we have the musical stylings of Mariachi El Bronx (6/10), the confusingly ‘different’ side-project of punk titans The Bronx. It takes a while to get your head around, so the fact that I arrive only for the last two songs means I, for one, conclude their set with a mindset in flux.

Fightstar (3/10) continue proceedings on the main stage. It’s dreadful. Be it the faltering acoustics on the main stage out in the open, or the completely falsified ‘rockstar’ gestures these guys try in vain to pull off, there’s just something about this set that irritates me. A setlist that relies too heavily on newer songs denies people the sing-a-longs they hoped for, and things only pick up on set closer Deathcar when these fans are finally given the opportunity to stir up some pits.

Enter Shikari (6/10) are, surprisingly, below form today. Again, probably to do with the sound problems out on the cavernous pastures of the main stage, Shikari’s sound seems to process as very two-dimensional, with the gap between the rock music and the use of synths too far to bridge on this occasion. It comes across that they are attempting two inherently dissimilar genres and undercutting each. It doesn’t help that latest single No Sleep Tonight is omitted from the set due to a technical fault, and that my two personal favourites, Anything Can Happen In The Next Half Hour and We Can Breathe In Space, They Just Don’t Want Us To Escape, both fail to make an appearance either.

Next up should have been Set Your Goals, but then news filtered through of something a lot more special. Yes, this was the (not-so) secret set of supergroup Them Crooked Vultures (8.5/10), the newly-surfaced side project of Queen Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Alain Johannes, ex-Nirvana and Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones. Luckily, I get a spot close to the front, prior to the inevitable exodus of thousands from elsewhere, and two rows behind Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes, who, bizarrely, was filming the set. The roar they receive when they walk on-stage could probably be heard in Reading, yet they take it all in their stride and jam away. The music really was second-place to the spectacle, they could literally stand there and do nothing for an hour and the crowd would still be in rapture. The music itself however was very good, deriving mainly from Homme’s stoner-rock influences, and played with the razor-sharp precision you’d expect from such exceptional performers.

A tidal wave of people leaving the NME tent is replaced by an opposing tidal wave of kiddlywinks here for You Me At Six (8/10). That this rather large tent is filled to the brim and beyond at such an early hour in the day is a reminder of just how far these guys have come, having played the 4th-from-last set in the Festival Republic tent just one-year ago. Having only a handful of songs to choose from, there aren’t any surprises to be found within, just a band now firmly at the top of their game. Hits like Jealous Minds Think Alike and Save It For The Bedroom however, are wasted on an utterly ridiculous crowd of obvious first-timers. Don’t call me an old fart, but when you see a 14-year-old girl cry because she went into a circle pit by accident, you know this kind of stuff should be past your time.

I followed the pre-pubescent tsunami to Go:Audio (2/10) in the Festival Republic Tent, where, over a £6 plate of fish and chips, I witnessed an absolute atrocity of a set. The music, what with its pinpoint synths, girly lyrics and twee hooks, actually came across like an aural business portfolio. It was like music you’d hear on the Tweenies. Some gurning guitarist plodding primary-school riffs and a douchebag frontman whining completely fake sentiments to a completely oblivious group of morons. The next big thing? It was staring me in the face. Expect ‘the UK’s answer to Metro Station’ to explode soon. They’re playing to 2000-3000 people a night on their September tour. Don’t go.

Following that disgrace, anything could be better. And my god, was I right. Back on the main stage, rave-rock legends The Prodigy (9.5/10) took to the stage. This was perfection. All the hits were there, ranging from old favourites like Breathe and Firestarter to new set staples like Omen and Warrior’s Dance. However, what makes this performance so fantastic was not just the delivery, but the spectacle. Picture it – the sun’s gone down, many a drink has been consumed, and tens of thousands of people, young and old, lose their inhibitions together in rampant ecstasy. You couldn’t imagine a more triumphant scene, bar the odd wanker who inexplicably decides to set off a flamethrower. Not just the best set so far at Leeds Fest, possibly one of the best I’ve ever seen in my life.

Following this, I retired once more to the Festival Republic Tent, this time for The Blackout (7.5/10). Here we have a band hell-bent on having a good time when they play, and that’s exactly what they deliver. The songs they have at their disposal may not as yet be up to scratch, but the potential’s definitely there. A few tunes in the mix, I’m A Riot? You’re A Fucking Riot and STFUppercut for instance, get the crowd moving with aplomb. If only they’d stop bloody thanking everybody for everything so much, this is a band worth looking into.

Concluding my Friday are a band from Sheffield, but not the one everyone else is going to see. Headlining the Festival Republic Tent are Bring Me The Horizon (8.5/10). Having successfully turned me with their barnstorming sophomore effort Suicide Season, they turned things up to 11 throughout this apparent ‘homecoming’ set, and did not leave me dissatisfied whatsoever. Widespread screamo-bashery reigns elite, and the crowd, not at all sapped from the rest of the day’s action, get br00tal to anthems like Sleep With One Eye Open and Pray For Plagues. Focus is taken, if only fleetingly, from Oli Sykes’s hair when former I Killed The Prom Queen guitarist Jona Weinhofen makes the peculiar decision to scale the tent’s main scaffolding pole during set-closer Chelsea Smile. A few daredevil (or more likely inebriated) fans follow him up there, much to the dismay of the flapping stewards below. All in all a delightfully vicious end to what is a very so-so day.

SATURDAY – 29/08/09

Kicking off the day’s antics bright and early on the Main Stage were Welsh risers Kids In Glass Houses (3.5/10). Now I’m a big fan, but even I’ll have to admit that today they were far from their best. Maybe to do with the lack of gig practice prior to their perplexing support slot to New Found Glory, or maybe to do with a few too many drinks the night before, tracks like Easy Tiger and Saturday just don’t seem to have the desired effect on an uncaring crowd. An untitled new track shows a potential glimmer of hope for the future, but the reputation loss these guys have sustained of late could scupper their world domination attempts. For now at least.

I then crossed over to the Dance Tent, and to the screamo-crunk frolics of 3OH!3 (8.5/10). Having endured harsh criticism by haters worldwide pooling them in the same pigeon-holes as other hate figures such as BrokeNCYDE and Millionaires, to many, they had a point to prove. To others, they offered a cheap thrill. To me, they were an altogether blinding performance. Stomping onto the stage with archetypal crunk swagger, the likes of Punkbitch and Starstrukk get the crowd hooked right from the start. And although the majority were here for just one song, closer Don’t Trust Me, it’s apparent that throughout their measly half hour early-afternoon set, people are indeed doing the Helen Keller, and talking with their hips.

After such a gaudy and effervescent set, a nice bit of contrast was found settling on a grassy knoll outside the NME Tent for the folk rock croonings of Frank Turner (7/10). Although acoustic heart-warming tends not to be my kind of thing, it was impossible not to take a genial penchant towards this evidently stunned character before us all. Even he didn’t expect this many people to turn out at such a time. Still, he treats it as if he were playing only to 10 people, and steps up to the plate admirably. Toe-tapper The Road really does, well, tap toes, but more importantly, gives you the explicit notion that here’s a guy that could go far.

Off to the main stage next, and to a set from post-hardcore legends Brand New (3/10). I’m not getting it about this main stage so far, every band that seems to step upon it under-performs massively. Brand New are no different. Some people call them complex, the ‘thinking man’s’ kind of music. To me, it’s just bloody boring. Every song seems to drag on for hours. Pedestrian droning from frontman Jesse Lacey does not do justice to killer songs like Jesus Christ, and the otherwise lively crowds down at the front turn to glue. Maybe this is the kind of music that’s just not suited to broad daylight, maybe this would have fared better in the more familiar surroundings of a tent, but you have to think that all those die-hard Brand New fans will re-consider seeing such dross at Wembley Arena in a few months time.

In the Dance Tent once more, this time for the most hilariously obvious DJ Set of all time, the dark and mysterious L’Amour La Morgue (6.5/10). Quite blatantly Lostprophets’ Ian Watkins in sunglasses and a shite neckerchief, here I’m pleasantly surprised by his skills on the turntables. Heavily expecting a self-indulgent recital of an iPod playlist, instead we’re gifted with some decent tunes, with remixes of the likes of Beyonce and Lady GaGa proving popular. Ruined somewhat by the masses of twogs screeching stage-ward to demand if it is indeed the eponymous Watkins behind the ever-slipping neckerchief, he takes it in his stride and keeps schtum throughout. Bringing it to a glorious crescendo with a remix of the Star Wars theme tune, you’re left feeling on an incontestable high.

A lengthy and congested trek to the NME Tent brings us to the perennial freak parade of Crystal Castles (5.5/10). Arriving slightly late, I saunter in to find diminutive frontwoman Alice Glass indiscriminately caterwauling to the soundtrack of dancefloor beats. On the face of it, it appears a pretentious, arty blob of ‘creativity’. However, there’s something strangely alluring about it that makes you want to stick around. I remain long enough to witness aforementioned crazy lady downing a bottle of Jack Daniels and falling from the drum set to the ground. And if that isn’t reason to celebrate, I don’t know what is.

Post-food, I find myself once again in the NME Tent, this time for the punk-rock maelstrom of Gallows (9.5/10). Here, we have a band who have found it impossible not to put their all into every performance. Having latest album Grey Britain dropping to pervasive critical acclaim, the setlist is peppered with angsty, ferocious crushers. Ranging from the sneering Belly Of A Shark to a feral London Is The Reason, people are literally attempting to tear each other’s faces off with delight. Engineering a twofold circle pit, one swallowing up the front, the other sweeping up a human cyclone around a terrified sound desk, frontman Frank Carter looks every bit the enigmatic leader. Fans lap up every word of his socio-politically directed speeches, and a huge wall of death concludes an unforgettable experience for all involved.

Back into the familiar surroundings of the Dance Tent, this time for the electro-dub stylings of French DJ Vitalic (10/10). I knew very little about anything of this man or his performance before I stepped into the tent, only a faint rumour that he’s meant to sound a little bit like Daft Punk. But then, when the lights dimmed, the strobes were released and the beats began to kick, I found myself in dancefloor heaven. This, very much like The Prodigy the night before, was only so faultless due to the grand spectacle of the occasion. Whereas those guys took the tens of thousands of punters and got them all sucking from their collective rave-rock teet, Vitalic’s approach was a lot more subtle and a lot more precise. Raising the atmosphere up sky-high in joyous crescendos and then plunging again into murky basslines, Vitalic was most definitely a man who was in control. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t watching Radiohead or Lostprophets, I felt sorry for the people who haven’t heard or witnessed this incredible hour of complete bliss.

Headlining the Dance Tent tonight was the oversized Canadian rodent, Deadmau5 (6.5/10), specialising in trance, electro and, well, hau5. With new album For Lack Of A Better Name about to drop on us, and with lead single Ghosts n’ Stuff featuring a cameo from Pendulum’s Rob Swire, it would seem that the atmosphere immediately changes from Vitalic to one of dance aficionados to one of people who’d gotten bored of Radiohead. Suddenly the room is packed with way more people than it can cope with, there’s literally no room to dance in an, err, ‘Dance Tent’, and there seems to be an exorbitant amount of grots within pointlessly bellowing ‘YOU WOT? YOU WOT?’. In such a pressure-cooker setting, my hot dog eventually repeats on me in an always-sociable kind of situation, and, coating passer bys in vomit, I storm out the Tent. Good while it lasted, but the illusion inevitably fades when you’re retching your trachea up next to a drunk middle-aged man urinating on the side of a fairground ride.

Switching rapidly from dancefloor dream to disgustingly mainstream, my day ends outside the Festival Republic tent with electro-pop moron La Roux (4.5/10). Here we have an oddly-quiffed frontwoman who’s apparently too afraid to interact with her fans. Although, I’m in time only for two songs, two being the only ones the idiots in this room are aware of, In For The Kill and Bulletproof, she rifles through them as if there’s a gun pulled to her head (therefore, not making her Bulletproof). The set ends a whole ten minutes earlier than it should have done, and it deservedly leaves fans wanting more. A disappointing end to an overall much-improved day.

SUNDAY – 30/08/09

Well and truly hungover, and feeling the effects of recently barfed-up hot dog, I miss ska-punkers Sonic Boom Six on the Main Stage. However, I was in time to see Chicagoan pop-rockers Madina Lake (6/10), hit the Main Stage. As could have been expected at such an ungodly hour, it’s all very dry and uninspiring. Hits like House of Cards and Never Take Us Alive are always going to elicit impassioned sing-a-longs, but there’s nothing within this set that isn’t off the beaten track, regardless of frontman Nathan Leone’s little inspirational ‘don’t be afraid to be yourself’ soundbites.

Next up today were Canuck post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire (8.5/10), a band renowned for their outstanding live form. And, although such an early placing on the Main Stage was always going to hold them back, they actually manage to pull of this seemingly unenviable task with a degree of merriment. Constantly egging on a lacklustre crowd to get their asses into gear, hits like We Are The Sound and This Could Be Anywhere In The World really do present AOF at their finest- the interplay between the harmonies of Dallas Green and the growls of George Pettit combine superbly, creating a terrific viewing experience.

Staying at the Main Stage, New Found Glory (7/10) were next up. Having warmed themselves up for this weekend’s appearances through the form of an intimate club tour, it becomes clear that their practice pays off. The only thing holding them back, in my opinion, wasn’t themselves, but the stage itself. Playing to such a vast amount of people seemed to take some of the shine off their performance, and made it just a little too deadpan. However, gracing the stage with such dynamism, you’d think they thought they were headlining. Frontman Jordan Pundik makes for an excellent ringmaster, getting the crowd bouncing up and down like a giant pogo stick, the main culprits being effervescent hits like All Downhill From Here and Don’t Let Her Pull You Down, all communicating quite plainly that NFG are seasoned pros when it comes to the festival circuit.

Moving on to a rammed NME Tent, and to current electro-pop darling Little Boots (7.5/10). Sporting with her an awkward-looking backing band, plus a mysterious appliance I’m led to believe is called a ‘Tenori-On’, she proceeds to perform what is actually a very skilful and accessible set. Hit singles New In Town and Remedy naturally have the tent booming with festive sing-along, but it’s in fact on more arbitrary songs, Meddle and Mathematics for example, where this Blackpool songstress really proves her worth, keeping a ravenous crowd relentlessly engaged on her and her spangly attire. Concluding her set by inviting her brother on stage for a happy birthday celebration, there’s a great feeling of delight contained within this tent.

Back out onto the Main Stage, we’re treated to a set by nu-metal titans Deftones (6.5/10). Minus bassist Chi Cheng, who is, at the time of speaking, sadly still in a coma, we still get a comprehensive run-through of all their biggest hits from a bygone era, Change (In The House Of Flies) and Back To School (Mini Maggit) to name a couple. And, while all the grandiosity and pomp of these anthems are broadcasted proficiently from such a spacious arena, there’s a niggling sound problem throughout that detracts from your overall enjoyment of it. From the pits, I doubt it would be as much a concern, but for every other punter, it makes it come across as very dreary and very muddy, and unfortunately, will only preach to the converted.

Staying at the Main Stage, next up were the self-appointed kings of emo, Fall Out Boy (6.5/10), who, regrettably, are far from their best today. This being their last UK jaunt previous to a ‘break’ that could see them out of action for a year or two, you’d think they would make more of an effort to thrill their fans just once more. However, throughout today’s set, it seems they would just prefer to get things over and done with. It’s a set that doesn’t disappoint – all the obligatory tunes, as far-back as Grand Theft Autumn to most recent release I Don’t Care, all make an appearance. Nonetheless, it’s all very ploddy and underwhelming, and the pouring rain does little to elevate spirits. Still, a jovial cover of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, cheekily billed as our and their’s ‘National Anthem’, ends things on a high.

Venturing into the NME Tent for the last time today, I capture a rousing set from Florence and the Machine (8.5/10). Seeing them in place of more conventional sets from Placebo and Leftover Crack, I came here with the feeling that I would either be blown away or bored to tears. And I was blown away. Having praises thrown at her in every direction, frontwoman Florence Welch seems completely undeterred by such high levels of anticipation. It is within the live setting where one inevitably proves their worth, and, by some stretch of the mark, she’s proven herself here tonight. She blasts out songs such as Dog Days Are Over and Cosmic Love with a voice that would be envied by many. Even tackling an audacious cover of Candi Staton’s You’ve Got The Love, the Machine’s set, sadly, is hastily ended by the sound desk Nazis just before crowd favourite Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) – an inauspicious ending to a breathtaking performance.

Returning to the Main Stage, local favourites Kaiser Chiefs (9.5/10) take flight. Claiming this would be their last show ‘in a while’, it’s apparent that this homecoming set would be one to remember. And, in typical British fashion, it’s chucking it down. Still, they’re playing the biggest show of their lives. Something you can plainly fathom from the grins plastered on their faces. As expected from such a lofty festival slot, the set is packed with hits, Ruby and I Predict A Riot attracting thunderous sing-a-longs. Frontman Ricky Wilson is an outstanding master of ceremonies – from the beginning splitting up the colossal crowd into ‘Kaisers’ and ‘Chiefs’, and pitting them against each other in whimsical duels. I, being an ardent Chief, get stuck straight into the action, as myself and the thousands around me hang on every last word. And, by the time set-closer Oh My God swings around, you’re left with a feeling that’s nothing short of ecstatic.

Drawing the festival to a close were chart-topping alt-rockers Kings Of Leon (10/10), who, in spite of the rain, pulled off an unforgettable 90-minute set. Having been booed off the stage in an apparent spat with the lacklustre crowds at Reading, tonight they had a point to prove. And from start to finish, you’re absolutely captivated by what’s unfolding in front of you. Having such an extensive and wide-ranging back-catalogue, Kings were able to convey so many different facets to their act. The faster-paced, groove-laden older material such as Red Morning Light and Molly’s Chambers clashed with the more recent, more ostentatious, radio-rock anthems like On Call and Notion sublimely, and worked to keep the crowd constantly intrigued. Some truly humbling words from frontman Caleb Followill about how the UK had provided so much inspiration and stimulation for his and his band’s ventures really struck a chord with the masses, and created a magnificent bond between themselves and him. It really came across as if he never wanted the moment to end. Alas, it must. And just like that, the Festival’s all over and it’s back to the day job. One of the greatest experiences of my life has been and gone. And I forgot to buy a t-shirt.

Ryan Haslam.

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