Leeds Festival 2011 review

Originally published on The Line of Best Fit August 31, 2011

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel or just 20,000 people standing in a field? 16 years ago these words rang out across Leeds’ Roundhay Park as Pulp headlined the hottest day of the year at the forwardly optimistic, brit-pop oozing Heineken Festival. On Sunday night in 2011, in a field down the road, Jarvis sings out those same words to a sludgy field as a near climax to the retrospective, heritage weekend that was the main stage at Leeds. Was this really the imagined future? Mainstream guitar bands clinging on to any credibility they once had?

Friday

The guitar may currently be the dirty old man of music, lurking sinisterly against the bedroom walls of teenagers, tempting them into a dark, post primary school world. But on Friday at Leeds Festival, it’s a machine which still kills fascists. The day starts with real ale and Danananakroyd who appear not so much anarchic as polished. Gone are the wall-of-hugs mosh pit and the second drum kit, and what emerge are near anthems and screamo showmanship. Next, Fucked Up play the set of the weekend. Despite being early on Friday, it’s clear it won’t be bettered. Pink Eyes’ stripping semi-naked and his spending all but the first song with the crowd is inevitable, but the ferocity of their hardcore was excelled by even their own standards.  ‘I Hate Summer’ becomes an appropriate anthem for this soggy day, and as Pink Eyes tells the tent, “Every one of you in this tent could be in a band,” we don’t believe him. No one could be as good as them.

Disappointingly Best Coast’s Californian dream-fuzz is an uninspiring follow up, coated in too much distortion and sounding frankly awful. A trip to the main stage for Frank Turner’s desperate balladeering sees the crowd cruelly urged to sit down on the swamping ground during the sing-along cliché of ‘Photosynthesis’, a gimmick which even indie-folksters James stopped enforcing years ago. Luckily Dutch Uncles bring some much needed angular quality to a rammed Festival Republic stage for a set which they are visibly glowing through. Back in the NME/Radio1 tent Warpaint exude warmth and hazy days, so as the weather deteriorates, their set provides a summer shimmer and warm cidery embrace. As ‘Undertow’ and ‘Billie Holliday’ breeze across the wild flower crowd as they have done throughout the festival season, we are gifted a rare glimpse of genuine musical beauty at Leeds, before Warpaint flutter back across the Atlantic.

Friday’s real excitement is aimed at Death From Above 1979’s frightening return. Although their backdrop gives the dates 2001-2006, this is no nostalgic reunion, this is unfinished business. They are a band of legend, of obtuse infamy, which took noisecore-electro and played it live with drums and ravaged bass, but split after concussing and confusing the adoring hipster minority. Tonight Jesse F Keeler and Sebastian Grainger are frankly pummelling, yet teetering close to nova as if it’s only their own momentum keeping it together. Starting with ‘Turn it Out’ sets the precedent for heavy piercing distortion, but even the slower ‘Black History Month’ has enough rough dirge to propel it to epic depths.  During ‘Romanic Rights’’ extended bass crunch Grainger stalks the stage before his drums set the feral pit loose. A set filled with crowd pleasers like ‘Little Girl’ and rarer tracks ‘Do it’ and ‘You’re Lovely (But You’ve Got Lots of Problems)’, it is a monstrous spectacle worthy of their return.

After enduring Muse widdle and whine in front of cartoons and tinfoil sticks until they do ‘Plug in Baby’, Descendants are a welcome relief.  Although they seem like five dads who play punk in a back room of a provincial boozer, their angular Californian hardcore sounds as relevant as ever. Thirty three years in the making these icons, which influenced Black Flag, Rival Schools, Fugazi and every kid with a guitar since, show a sincerity in melodic, poppy punk rock which lesser bands mass-marketed and belittled.

Saturday

Saturday sees mud lakes turned into sludge dunes, and the punk aimed Lockup Stage morph in to a Tribal Gathering halcyon. D/R/U/G/S start the day with the sweeping bleeps and veering beats of Orbital whispering in one’s ear. Next, a quick trip to see Frankie and The Heartstrings reveals them as superstars worthy of a much higher billing, with Frankie Francis prowling the NME/Radio 1 stage and laying his scent in declaration of ownership. Mount Kimbie need no such raw animal energy; the numbers in the dance tent say it all. Crowds gravitate toward them, magnetised by their rolling rhythms and building ambience with precise layering.

For a dance stage show, Crystal Fighters’ set up seems awfully band like: guitar amps, keyboards at the back, drum kit and bongos galore, and with the audience swelling, a tingling atmosphere develops.  This potential is swiftly ignored by Crystal Fighters by being too quiet and threadbare, a basic volume problem which isn’t fixed in the mix- a problem Grandmaster Flash would no doubt be appalled at. The music is there and a sub-bass wobble can be detected but none of it deployed with the energy needed to bring their excellent and exciting album to life. A trio of ‘Swallow’, ‘I Love London’ and ‘I Do This Everyday’ should be an epic highlight but simply sounds lacklustre.  A diversion to see Naked and The Famous provides the opposite experience, a clean cut, corporate electro suitable for a car or tampon advert, but at a volume to get the tent truly energised.

Patrick Wolf doesn’t need to worry about fickle aspects like atmosphere and volume, he has perfect pop song writing on his side. An effortless multi-instrumentalist, Wolf is comfortable with a ukulele, violin, piano and swooning vocals. ‘Bermondsey Street’ in particular propels him into the 80s with its  Talk Talk and Aztec Camera pop, with the rest of the set veering from the soaring sound of The Associates to the melancholia of The The. Katie Sky Larkin also makes a guest appearance in this wistfully soaring show, but it’s all been a bit too pleasant, so a visit to Henry Rollins is in order. This bison man stands centre stage with a microphone held solidly and appears to own the fulcrum of gravity around him. The fifty-year-old delivers his vivace critique of his time in Black Flag with a literally eye popping anecdote, buying ladders in Costco and war, and it’s objective fact rather than merely a man’s opinion. Rollins is the voice of authority – if he says jump, you run away because he will jump higher, onto you.

The trio of great men concludes with Tom Vek’s phenomenal live return. Although he’s promoting new album Leisure Seizure the electro Darren Hayman starts with the familiar ‘C-C (You Set the Fire in Me)’ assumingly by way of apology for a six year absence. As he moves into ‘We Do Nothing’ the fruits of this absence are apparent – intricately crafted electro pop with slacker drawl. The gentle rave of ‘Someone Loves You’ uncovers the key of what he’s been doing, sitting out nu-rave’s glo-stick obsession until a time when innovative electro was in charge.  Old songs ‘If You Want’ and ‘I Ain’t Saying my Goodbyes’ sound like classics alongside new epics ‘ A Chore’ and set closer ‘Aroused’ in an exquisite performance from a true innovator, which makes next act Digitalism now sound dated. Their lazy Trash electro hasn’t aged well since their mid to late noughties peak and harks back to a time when people still gave a shit about the Klaxons.

The Horrors’ Festival Republic headline slot is a comfortable place for them. Opening with ‘Changing Rain’, it’s clear that they have a classic on their hands. With its reverberating bass and krautrock tinklings, it’s a long term indie disco stand out tune. It’s appropriately dark in the tent, and with the stage backlit in purples and greens, we see Farris Badwan’s silhouette eagerly skulking around the stage – and he’s relishing it. The tent is being swept away in blissful nu-gaze, but during a potentially career defining performance of ‘Still Life’ there’s a sudden power cut. Seizing their chance to show their adoration the whole tent repeatedly sings back the chorus of ‘Still Life’ while the band, sensing this is the career defining moment, remain on stage bathing in arguably their first rock-star sing-along moment- something Jim Kerr will never again receive. After what seems like an eternity, and to a power surge roar, The Horrors valiantly complete ‘Still Life’ and Badwan towers triumphantly, thanksing the tent for being the best crowd they’ve ever played to.  They leave the stage and Saturday’s true headliner has been revealed.

Sunday

Sunday has the feel of merely killing time until Pulp headline, with a main stage line up seemingly cobbled together from a shit iPod on shuffle – why else would the Pigeon Detectives be playing?  Especially above the blisteringly phenomenal Joy Formidable who turn into fully fledged rock royalty before Leeds’ early risers. This Welsh trio make a big, big sound and Ritzy Bryan has the rock kudos to control any crowd. ‘A Heavy Abacus’ batters any post Horrors fuzziness out of the assembled brains, and the already classic ‘Austere’, wins them sing-along points. But it’s ‘Whirring’ which proves they’re not afraid to rock-the-fuck-out more than any other bands on ‘rock’ day.

Photo by Jodie Sims

In 2011, it can’t be right for Seasick Steve to still be peddling his hobo gimmick – he tours the world, hangs out with Dave Grohl in VIP bars and even brings his rock behemoth John Paul Jones on as special guest bassist. ‘Diddley Bo’ is still a great song but the novelty wore thin in 2007 and has been degraded to a Radio 2 jingle. Madness’ gimmick has been ground for much longer but theirs is tolerable up to a point. They are the consummate professionals, starting with two biggies, ‘One Step Beyond’ and ‘Embarrassment’ but then sedately meander through lesser known and unenthusiastic ska-pop leaving their remaining classics until the end. However, they maintain a huge bounding crowd throughout, and essentially, isn’t this what festival bands should do?

Sunday’s indifference continues with a tiring set by Cults who only muster a modicum of the enthusiasm felt around their emergence. Brian Oblivion still has energy and Madeline Follin’s voice can always woo the coldest of hearts, but a mid-afternoon set in a half empty stage was the wrong slot. Finally a much needed boost comes from Jimmy Eat World who surprise with their alt-emo. They’ll never be as hip as Death Cab for Cutie nor as big as Weezer, but in ‘The Middle’ and ‘Sweetness’ they’ve produced some indie classics as recognisable in the disco as ‘Cannonball’ or ‘Debaser’. Today from the main stage they declare ownership Bramham Park.

As evening starts to draw in, the mood tenses as The National settle into their recently acquired penthouse. Third on the bill at Leeds and headlining Latitude, these lofty heights are well deserved by these New Yorkers.  It’s not a huge crowd (by Madness standards) but those here know it’s a major event as soon as Matt Berninger’s bar room croon on ‘Start A War’ echo’s into ‘Anyone’s Ghost’. But it’s an early appearance of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ which sends Leeds into a spin and becomes an unexpected sing-along as the battling drums and milling guitars cascade relentlessly. It’s a set which honours all their albums, not just the breakthrough ‘High Violet’, with the same debonair gratitude. During ‘Mr November’, the bar room chic descends into a gentleman’s brawl with grappled agitation and sharp bursting hooks. Berninger’s composure returns as he dusts down for ‘Terrible Love’ which is delivered as an impassioned epitaph to tragedy and hope. With that The National leave, knowing that although they may have been preaching to the converted, the gospel will be spread.

Leeds festival has already provided many sing-along anthems from the likes of Fucked Up, The Horrors and The National, showcased enigmatic frontmen with Tom Vek and Henry Rollins, and celebrated reunions with DFA 1979, but they were all strategic- warms ups for this. Windy and synthesised voices are audible as neon letters reveal themselves one by one from behind a curtain. As the curtain falls Pulp are revealed and expectedly delve in to ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’ and it sounds as perfect as ever, before Jarvis Cocker greets the crowd with “We are Pulp, you are Leeds. We are here to keep you warm”.

The magic within Pulp’s comeback shows lays with their set lists. There is a core set of songs but the opening quarter, bar ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’, are interchangeable, indicative of the quality of their catalogue. Tonight’s second song is ‘Pink Glove’ – one of their best, then ‘Razamatazz’ – the pre His ‘n’ Hers epic and then into the voyeurism of ‘Pencil Skirt’. This is wonderful for the aficionado, but it’s ‘Disco 2000’ where the wind is ignored and Leeds is truly propelled upwards. Amongst the mesmerising set, Cocker’s charisma is constantly prevalent as he relays tales to those who choose to ride the twirly fairground, about how they could have the honour of throwing up during a Pulp show, and later nearly choking on a mid-set pear.

Cocker brigadiers Pulp through their set, straddling monitors and letching over his microphone as he writhes across the stage. It’s awe inspiring and exactly what we want. Pulp are outclassing everyone who’s been on this stage as they punch ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ and seduce with ‘Babies’.  Former Pulp touring guitarist Richard Hawley joins the group for the ever seedy ‘This Is Hardcore’ – a song with the puissance to make hardcore bands, punk or digital, doubt themselves. Hawley remains on stage for the remainder of the set in which ‘Sunrise’ sounds more Ibizan rave than indie anthem.

Of course it’s ‘Common People’, which Cocker claimed in 1995 was, “An anthem for the Netto Generation”, that instigates the greatest serotonin hit of the whole weekend. It closes the set with its euphoric yelps and pleads, and its place as the UK’s unofficial national anthem is secure.  With the wealth gap widening back in the real world, ‘Common People’ is as relevant as ever, a timeless statement of social division. But delivered at a festival in 2011 where young and old can be hypnotised by the simplest of things – a man on stage – it proves Jarvis Cocker was right. 16 years ago just down the road, when he sang, “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?”, he knew Pulp’s songs were meant to be heard en-mass with gusto and joy, forever. Whether it be in a field in Hampshire, Yorkshire or Berkshire, Pulp’s songs belong here, and after tonight’s show, let’s hope they stay.

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