The biggest festival in Northern England is back – Plenty of Stormz(y) but we mainly bathed in the sunshiiiiiine !!
Words – Graeme Smith
Photos – John Hayhurst (@snapagig)
After a year’s COVID-enforced hiatus, Leeds Festival is back and we were keen to get down there and soak up the festival atmosphere once again.
On the first night of the festival, the live music was confined to the Festival Republic Stage. Martha Hill kicked things off proper, with the unenviable task of following a populist DJ set to a tent full of festival goers who had peaked too soon. It didn’t phase her and she delivered a powerful set on acoustic and electric guitar.
Following her were Leeds-based group English Teacher. Their sound was difficult to pigeon-hole, running the gamut of prog rock, funk, noise rock, math rock and shoegaze. However you want to describe it, it was something special and I look forward to following the band’s career.
Up next was the Liverpudlian Zuzu, who had a vivacious stage presence and delivered infectiously melodic pop rock. The night was then finished off with a crowd-pleasing set from Vistas who got the set jumping with their brand of indie rock.
Fast forward twelve hours and, while Hot Milk were opening the Main Stage, Nottingham’s Blondes were playing to a somewhat less rowdy Festival Republic tent. Nevertheless, their indie dream pop rock went down a treat. If you haven’t heard them before, think The Smiths but slightly cheerier (but only slightly). Also on The Festival Republic Stage were Sheffield-based funky electro pop group Sophie And The Giants. Frontwoman Sophie sang her heart out and they closed with their greatest hit to date, Hypnotise.
Over on The BBC Introducing Stage was Lauren Hibbard who delivered a unique-style of attitude-laden storytelling. With a quirky stage presence and fast-talking verses, she proved to be a breath of fresh air.
The afternoon closed with an early highlight of the weekend – KSI on the Main Stage. The vibe in the crowd was the definition of the phrase ‘festival atmosphere’ and YouTube sensation KSI was clearly suitably humbled. Not bad for his debut festival appearance.
It was back to the Festival Republic Stage to catch Baby Queen. Playing only her fifth live show, she delivered sassy alt pop and a string of Gen Z anthems including Internet Religion, F*cked Up and Dover Beach. She then did some shots of tequila with her fans in the crowd afterwards. I think that’ll end up being a moment they’ll tell their grandchildren about.
Following her was a surprise set from Jake Bugg on the same stage. With a new album out, the Nottingham singer songwriter is having something of a renaissance and the packed tent showed their appreciation.
We closed the evening out on the Main Stage, firstly with Wolf Alice. Like the animal they’re named for, they have a soft coat but a hell of a bite, and their set lurched from gentle rock to all out noise, ever delivered by their frontwoman’s inimitable vocals.
Then it was the time for the headliners. Before Liam Gallagher closed the night, there was enough time for an incredible set from Scotland’s Biffy Clyro. There isn’t much to say about Biffy Clyro’s music that hasn’t already been said so instead I want to shout out the unsung heroes of the rock world – the lighting and AV techs. With their expertise, the band’s incredible performance was lifted to new heights, with innovative visual effects and one hell of a climax.
Having already partied hard for 36 hours, you could forgive the crowd at Leeds Festival for being a little low energy going into Saturday. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Saturday kicked off for us at the Main Stage where rock six-piece Demob Happy were opening the stage. Made up of guitar, bass, drums and a trio of backing singers their sound reminded me a little of Death From Above 1979, but fronted by Beck. The set was a landmark moment for lead singer Matthew, who’s first festival was Leeds at the tender age of sixteen.
Over on the BBC Introducing Stage, we caught a couple of young promising acts. Firstly, Belfast-based rock trio Dea Montrona who brought classic garage rock kicking and screaming into 2021. Then it was FFSYTHO!? who brought to the stage her free-flowing hip hop. It was then down to the BBC 1xtra Stage to catch a set by Blanco, a London rapper who we’ve covered a couple of times on the blog. He lit up the tent and got the youthful crowd bouncing.
And the afternoon climaxed with Sam Fender back on the Main Stage. After his earlier surprise appearance alongside Declan McKenna, he delivered his own set of energetic modern folk. There was a wonderful full circle moment too. Sam’s first festival too was at Leeds.
As the sun set, Yonaka were getting the Lock Up Stage bouncing with their underground brand of attitude-laced electro punk. They’ve been on a meteoric rise since they first hit my radar back in 2019 and it’s easy to see why, expertly blending rock with dark pop and hip-hop elements. Their lyrics have a reassuringly positive message too – “grab life by the balls.”
Back on the BBC Introducing Stage, seven-piece Low Hummer filled the stage with their fast-talking, apathetic indie rock. Their music was infused with the essence of punk in the vein of Ian Drury and oozed with magnetic charm.
Then it was time for the day’s highlight for me – Ashnikko at the Lock Up Stage. She put of a hell of a performance, lively and bonkers and the crowd lapped it up. Particularly when she dropped her hits Slumber Party, Cry and Daisy.
Saturday’s headliner on the Main Stage was Stormzy. Much a column inch has been dedicated to the man since his headline appearance at Glastonbury in 2019 and this was a great platform for him to respond. And how did he do that? He shrugged it all off and had a party on stage. It was the perfect way to end the night and those in the crowd were likely counting themselves lucky. With no further plans for shows over the next twelve months, it’s likely to be his only show for two and a half years.
On the final day of Leeds Festival 2021, the young crowd were clearly looking forward to headliner Post Malone and their last chance to let loose before returning to normal life.
The afternoon started for us in The Pit, watching rockers Dead Poet Society. One of the rare American bands that had risked the trip abroad, these guys were in the middle of a UK tour. They treated the early risers to a set of big riffed classic rock and they lapped it up. Changing gears to blues metal, they finished strong.
Over on the Main Stage was one of the acts I was anticipating seeing the most, Beabadobee. Presenting a softer side of rock, she played a charismatic set of melodic grunge. The onlookers at the front of the stage loved it, and the biggest reactions came for two songs from her debut album – Coffee and Worth It.
Back at The Pit came a lively set from a festival highlight – Bob Vylan. Having released their debut album We Live Here during lockdown, the pair have been waiting some time to get out there and perform it and it showed through the energy they brought to the stage (and in the mosh pit).
And the afternoon came to a close with a cheeky set from rapper Slowthai. Never one to back down from controversary, he delivered lyrical digs for all his critics and rivals, and even had time to mug off the crowd. “You lot standing at the back,” he declared. “Stop being so stiff and have a dance!”
Entering the weekend’s last leg, it felt about the right time to have a sit down and enjoy some comedy. Fortunately, the timing was perfect as Katherine Ryan was taking to the Alternative Stage. Having recently had a baby, of course a lot of the comedy focussed on childbirth and being a mother but she also took on ‘woke-ism’ and invited audience questions.
Energy restored, it was time to catch The Wombats on the Main Stage. A big crowd had gathered by this time and they were rewarded as the trio opened their set with their hit Moving To New York. From there they interspersed their impressive hit catalogue with new music from their forthcoming album, due out in January. They were another festival highlight and I enjoyed their modern-folk-disguised-as-indie-pop style.
Then, of course, we had to catch local grunge rockers Bull on the BBC Introducing Stage. Since I’d last seen them, they had expanded to a five-piece and pulled out all the stops for the festival audience, delivering a set of live favourites and tracks of their debut album Discover Effortless Living released last year, in their trademark chaotic style.
So, late into the evening, all that was left to do was to enjoy the festival’s final headliner Post Malone. It seemed like everyone had had the same idea, and the crowd sprawled out in front of the Main Stage for as far as I could see. I must confess I’m not overly familiar with his material but the young audience around me sang back every word to every track to him. He’s clearly struck a chord with them through his unique brand of music that incorporates emo rap, rock and singer songwriter elements.
Here we are, four nights of live music with dozens of acts later, we’ve reached the end of our Leeds Festival journey. Until next year that is. Make sure you’re there!
Words – Graeme Smith
Photos – John Hayhurst (@snapagig)