Callie goes back to Leeds Festival after an eight year break – Check out what they saw on the Friday!
Words – Callie Petch, Photos – John Hayhurst (@snapagig )
Thanks to diabetes-related complications pertaining to a chaotic Turnstile gig the night before, I don’t manage to make it on-site at Leeds until about 2:30pm. A decent ways into the day with a good number of acts I was hoping to catch having already played their sets and buggered off to either the tour-bus or to get pissed somewhere on-site. Still, having a low-pressure day to get one’s bearings for their first major festival in eight years is probably common sense. It’s my first time back at Leeds Festival since 2015 and things have changed considerably since then.
We’re now in year three of the great Two Main Stages experiment, designed to bring more big names to the biggest stages for the biggest crowds at a faster rate (changeovers technically only taking five minutes since the non-used stage can do all the laborious set-up process whilst the used stage is busy rocking out). Seeing it in-person for the first time it’s… certainly a bit weird. The giant centralised communal atmosphere which is supposed to exist for Main Stage acts doesn’t really seem to be there for anybody who isn’t a headliner (or second-from-headline in some cases); either due to attentions being split or the acts involved being vaulted to either Main Stage status perhaps because the slots needs filling. Time was some of these artists would be playing much more impressively-populated sets under the long-departed NME BBC Radio 1 Tent, where their cult/B-tier statuses (not that these are bad things to be clear) wouldn’t be exposed to the harsh light of day. The dual Main Stage arrangement also means that the other four tents – Festival Republic, 1Xtra, Radio 1 Dance, and Alternative Stage – are all clustered together right at the bottom of the field, almost like an embarrassed parent trying to hide their disappointing children from sight.
I have feelings on this, is what I’m saying, and they aren’t entirely *Seymour Skinner “am I out of touch?”.gif* either. But that’s a moan for another time. For now, there was music to enjoy. Eventually. I had to skip out on Eliza Rose because her set started late and I’d already made a commitment to check out Mnelia in the 1Xtra tent… only for her set to take at least 10 minutes to bring her out too. For some reason – maybe technical issues, maybe optimistically hoping that the tent would fill up more before starting the set, maybe just an intentional creative choice – Mnelia’s DJ spent a full third of her set trying to hype up the crowd by spinning tracks before Mnelia finally came out to perform.
It’s a real shame, too, cos Mnelia was great when she got on-stage. Her brand of British R&B, combining smooth vocal runs with tough beats and lyrics which alternate between vulnerable and righteous, works in the same early-00s revival wave as FLO and similarly has the capacity to function as genuine hits if people catch on. She carries herself on-stage like a star, too, engaging with the small but vocal crowd and playing off with her intermittent dancers. I wish that she had more time, or made better usage of the time; this felt like a tease rather than a proper trailer for the Mnelia Experience. Still, at least she turned up, unlike Lil Tjay who failed to make his Main Stage West slot and “could not be contacted” at any point as the gigantic video screens had to announce during that now extensive dead air period. (He would finally take the stage on the next day instead, billed as a “surprise slot” which does seem very embarrassing for all parties involved.)
I had tickets to Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl tour last year, only for a broken hip mere days beforehand to put pay to those plans. So, even in truncated half-hour form, I was not going to miss her Main Stage East appearance. Whilst the effort to translate that tour into a festival setting hits a couple of pace-killing snags – Rina gets through two songs before having to take a lengthy dance break for a costume change; presumably an act which happens much later in a headline show – her set is nonetheless a joyous time befitting her ‘every kind of turn-of-the-century pop music in a blender’ approach to songwriting. Camp, freely sexual, mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, and all orbiting around the superstar-in-waiting that is Rina Sawyama. As the prop newspaper she reads during the transition to “Comme des Garcon” says, she “literally cannot slay any less,” throwing her entire self into embodying the domineering capitalist of “XS,” the defiant survivor of “Dynasty,” and the archduke of queer sinners in Shania-meets-Gaga closer “This Hell.” It’s all great fun, and that’s before I mention the “Break Stuff” cover which takes over the end of “STFU!”
Giant Rooks pull one of the biggest crowds I see at the Festival Republic stage during my time at the festival, and I kinda get why even though I’d never listen to the music outside of this specific context. When I ask you to name the most quintessential early-2010s indie/pop-rock act – whether that be Bastille, Imagine Dragons, WALK THE MOON, Foster the People, whomever – whatever answer you provide is exactly what Giant Rooks sound like only less interesting. That same kind of low-calorie, simplistic, mass market music which sounds fine in the background but isn’t in any way fulfilling to deeply listen to. Still, the German quartet perform all of this with admirable gusto, conviction, and cheer. Singer Frederik Rabe can barely go one minute without organising waves, call-and-response challenges, or leaving the stage entirely to get right up in the barricade’s faces, and that’s the kind of energy you want from a band like this. If they’re having a great time, it does rub off regardless of the quality of the music being played. So, I get the highly-enthused response given by the crowd at every song, even if I’m never going to actively seek them out again.
The BBC Introducing stage has the simultaneously canny and bizarre real estate of being out in the open, just a little bit to the left of Main Stage West. It’s canny in that the vast majority of festivalgoers will be naturally walking past or around the stage all weekend to get to and from the gigantic main stages, so could be drawn in to an act they otherwise may not have tried. On the other hand, it’s a bizarre location decision because that means, due to the significant audio overspill from the much louder Main Stage West, the stage isn’t active for extremely long periods, everyone’s on a constricting time-limit to get their shit in before MSW activity kicks off again, and any act waiting for the MSW act to finish has to just awkwardly stand around on-stage til things finally wrap up. I honestly don’t get it and I swear my day job is not a civic planner please stop mocking me.
Anyways, this is what happened to Friday’s BBC Introducing headliner, Matilda Mann. Prepared for her brief 20 minute set super-duper-early, she and her band are forced to just stand around restlessly for their gradually-growing audience whilst awaiting the end of MSW’s Becky Hill set. Fortunately, when things do unceremoniously get going – the band are actually in the middle of a directionless jam when they got told “the clock is now running” – Mann and her band relax very quickly. Her nostalgic-feeling indie folk is very winsome, riding that line between delicate intimacy and cathartic expanse to a degree where it’s not in the least bit surprising to see many at the barricade and around singing back the lyrics. I’m honestly amazed Dirty Hit haven’t tried to poach her yet, this is sonically right up their branded alley. Nobody on the Introducing stage over the weekend (that I was able to see) was given the room to show the full extent of what they could do, but Mann made a strong impression regardless.
You know the legend by now. In 2019, a 17-year-old Billie Eilish was supposed to perform in the Radio 1 tent, only for her to be upgraded to midday on the Main Stage because 2019 was the breakout year dominated by her zeitgeist-shaking debut, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? And it arguably still wasn’t enough, as the aerial photos demonstrated. Four years have passed since then, encompassing two UK #1 singles, a highly-acclaimed sophomore album (Happier Than Ever), a belated proper world tour, an Oscar, and being the youngest solo artist to ever headline Glastonbury, amongst many other things. Finally, in 2023, she headlines Reading & Leeds, becoming the youngest-ever artist to ever do so at just 21. Since I managed to get a spot down in the front pit, I cannot speak with any authority as to whether the crowd size ended up being bigger or smaller than that fateful afternoon in 2019 since I couldn’t see very far back. What I can say is that it was loud.
Having managed to get to that world tour last year, I already knew that Billie had hits for days, a magnetic stage presence, and a preternatural ability to connect with a crowd, so this performance wasn’t surprising in any real way. With album #3 still in the works, this is more of an encore show for the Happier Than Ever tour, simply streamlining the setlist of the deeper cuts and replacing a crane with copious fire jets whose eruption during the second breakdown of “bury a friend” make Billie look suitably demonic. Speaking of, she’s completely in her relaxed element here. Leading the crowd in warm-up exercises early on after noting how chilly the Friday evening is, guiding singalongs out of nearly every track, reminding everyone about being present and this being a safe space “for everyone to be yourselves without judgement.” More than once, a truly delightful cackle breaks through on the mic, maybe just as the realisation of what she’s doing hits her all over again.
Not every song goes off in the more general audience festival setting. “GOLDWING” and its Jamie xx-reminiscent throb struggles to take off until the very end, when Billie practically forces the “down down, down-da-down-down” into a festival-worthy chant. But that’s a rare blip in a crowd who otherwise delight in singing, shouting, screaming, or yelling back nearly every lyric that passes Billie’s lips. I spot more than a few wet eyes during Barbie cut “What Was I Made For?”, a number later eclipsed by those during “when the party’s over.” Loosy “TV” improbably makes for one of the loudest crowd participations of the night, as well as showcasing that Billie would make a fine folk singer in another life. But when the bangers get unsheathed, with Billie lurching and prowling the stage and giant central ramp like one of the monsters glimpsed in her visuals, it’s pandemonium. “Therefore I Am” is an early such highlight, “bellyache” causes manic euphoria in everyone stood around me, and the closing 1-2 of “bad guy” and “Happier Than Ever” see many a personal demon cast out in communal elation.
Nearly every act headlining this weekend will set off fireworks and streamers near the close of their set. Billie’s pair during the scream-filled climax of “Happier Than Ever” will be the only one which feels properly earned. She is the pop star right now, and this set proves she’s not abdicating that throne any time soon.