FESTIVAL REVIEW: Live at Leeds 2018

Oh Leeds, you charmer you. A city that weaves and unwinds like an immense tapestry, revealing a thousand hidden gems, a thousand nooks and crannies, a minefield of cultural brilliance waiting to explode from under you at any given moment. And there is no better day to exemplify those most tantalising of features better than Live at Leeds, which once a year gets the city to let its hair down, slip into something more comfortable, and drunkenly gorge itself on a vast banquet of music, ranging from the freshest blood from the local scene, to the giants of the old guard from across the country and indeed the world.

On a blazing hot day worthy of a Portuguese sundown, venturing out into this city was an absolute pleasure, and all the better for the gentle thud of bass and the soft rapture of indie rock cascading from every other building. Here’s what we saw, experienced, and made part of ourselves at this year’s event. Strong emotions ahead, proceed with caution…

Koyo – Oporto (BBC Introducing Stage)

As a way to kick start your day, watching Koyo whilst drinking a beer fantastically named ‘Cowbell’ (and branded with Christopher Walken’s face to boot) ain’t half bad. A band with an eclectic mix of sonic signifiers, Koyo brought a rich variety to the tiny stage of Oporto. References to other bands were left bouncing around the skull throughout: Queens Of The Stone Age, Kasabian and Interpol to name but a few. Their loose, elongated sound was thoroughly tight and well exercised, but with plenty of fiery noise to be had, in contrast to the gentler, tenser moments. Though I suspect a band better appreciated having previously engaged with their studio material, they did a great job of getting the uninitiated involved, a highlight being the final song, which collapsed into a messy but enjoyable jam with a manic saxophonist. A fine start to the day that laid the foundations of promise for the rest of the journey throughout the city’s own brand of fledgling musical upstarts.

Caro – Oporto (BBC Introducing Stage)

From one Oporto gig straight onto another, we launched into Caro, and after being unknowingly snapped for their social media, we turned our attention to their highly engaging set. The band certainly powered through it, with a lot of precision and dexterity on show, especially in the rhythm department. The phenomenal conclusion of Closet Lunatic was propulsive, its drumming so busy and tribal it seemed inhuman, whilst tracks such as Cold Comfort exemplified the band’s vocal dexterity. Harmonies were part and parcel of the excellent deal you got out of this show, bringing to mind the eccentricities of Alt J and the angular force of early Bloc Party. There were moments that felt like they could have had an extra adrenaline shot of lunacy, as some songs felt a little tame in comparison to the really bombastic ones. However, there remained a real soul behind Caro’s wonky arrangements and gentle interactions with the crowd. They were very much worthy of the attention BBC Introducing is giving them, and worthy of a higher place in next year’s festival I would think.

Night Flight – Leeds International Festival Spiegeltent

Night Flight had the pleasure of being one of the bands to christen the festival’s new Spiegeltent. Now I don’t know what a Spiegeltent is, but I do know I want to live in one when I retire. Reminiscent of a Georgian circus, the new stage has bags of character. With its homely decor and coloured awnings, the tent was the perfect setting for Night Flight’s calm, soothing material. Not the most arresting performance of the day, since the band’s sound is very much a gentle trickling of melody, but certainly packed with talent, in particular the vocals, which were exceedingly rich and evocative. The heartfelt confession of Death Rattle reverberated through this bohemian setting, ebbing and flowing as the tent’s walls ripple in the calm breeze. It really did feel at times like the music was in conversation with the city; as Pray caused a swoon, the city’s sirens responded, harmonising in the faraway background. Though there was little respite from the day’s glorious heat due to the setting, the band kept their cool, keeping things calm and gentle, a perfect respite from the busy activity of the day. No doubt Night Flight won themselves some admirers by the end of the set.   

Superorganism – Leeds University Stylus

Contrast really makes a festival, and let me tell you, going from a subtle acoustic band to the explosively psychedelic Superorganism was a most jarring transition. What’s more, you could sense the excitement from the packed sweaty basement of Leeds’ University. Undeniably a highly anticipated show for many attendees of this year’s festival, Superorganism did not hold back on their zany eccentricity, and nor should they have. They had by far the best visuals of the festival, projecting their trademark deep sea and online culture driven textures onto massive screens and the band themselves, so that everything blended together in a rich mush of sight and sound. There were tropical vibes abound, as best exemplified by the sliding guitar stabs on some of the band’s bigger tracks. It was a largely enthusiastic crowd, although there were times when, as I predicted, it seemed that some, perhaps the uninitiated, didn’t seem to get what was going on, and there were moments where tracks like The Prawn Song, which sound so vivid on the band’s album, feel comparatively flat live. Despite this, tracks like Something For Your M.I.N.D and Everybody Wants To be Famous dominated the show in terms of excitement, interaction and performance. The band’s enthusiasm and love for their own sound is also apparent throughout, and it’s a tough act not to smile through the whole thing.

P. D. Liddle – The Wardrobe

Former Dry The River frontman Peter Liddle was dipping his toes into the waters of solo-ship, this being only his second gig alone. Reaching back towards his folk calling, Liddle’s distinctive drawl glided gently over the busy environment of the bar, remaining just as intoxicating as it has ever been. At its best, Liddle’s new material held your attention with a slow waltz that touched the jaded corners of your heart, at its worst, it was a forgettable, by the numbers acoustic performance. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a solo artist on the basis of his previous ensemble endeavors, but in parts, the material lacked the ferocity and urgency of Dry The River. However, with more graft and more time to be self-assured, there’s potential for Liddle to be just as formidable a performer. There’s hope on the horizon, and certainly plenty of room for a reprisal of his kind of songwriters, much like the Ben Howard’s and Jack Johnson’s of the 2000s. Little by little, Liddle can take a leap, and this show was a great start. 

Tamzene – Northern Guitars

You have to admire the business strategy of Northern Guitars. What do people like? Drinking. And? Live music. And also? Guitars. So they opened a bar with a guitar shop upstairs yet also with space for having live music in the shop window, genius! Anyway, Tamzene brought a simplistic setup and a beautiful voice to the environment. Harmonies abound, a good amount of charisma, and plenty of accessible, albeit at times predictable songs. The combination of piano, reverb soaked guitar and a backing vocalist was a pleasant change of pace, though lacking in variety in places. However the real power came from Tamzene’s lead vocals. Soulful and rich, she is a captivating presence as a performer, and clearly has an impeccable sense of her own strengths, and what’s more, she kept the crowd silent during the breakdowns, which is a real sign of power. Worth keeping an eye on, and a great fit for the environment, the natural light pouring from the shop windows basked the whole set in a natural glow befitting of such delicate musical pieces.

FLING – Leeds Beckett Students’ Union

FLING were, and are, utterly mad, but then I’ve been saying that for months. From the moment we entered, there was enthusiastic jostling and movement in the crowd, the band bringing a bombastic show that thrilled with the likes of Just A Dog and That’s Nice. The fellas of FLING really brought an enticing and fun performance to the drab, dark venue space, letting the music’s colourful nature brighten up the room. They’ve tapped into the youthful energy of their audience and exploited it in a truly marvelous way, sending bodies flying left, right and centre. Gotta give props to their wardrobe department too (I suspect its something of a self-contained enterprise), which really threw subtlety out the window in a very intentional way. So much could be learned from the band about the construction of a fun eccentric vibe, that shows in their stage presence as much as it does their music. The only thing that ever held them back was a few occasions of very shrill vocals coming out of the PA system. Regardless of that minor technical issue, FLING’s music translated wonderfully from studio to live, making good use of time, space, style and grace. They’re clearly making a positive impression on the scene, as Leeds music veterans (and fellow Dance To The Radio signees) The Pigeon Detectives ambushed them for some well-earned compliments right after the show.

Bad Sounds – Church

To say that we were dragged to Bad Sounds by some overly enthusiastic strangers would sound like a disservice to their music. There we were, minding our own business, when several fans insisted we come witness a masterclass in danceable music. But honestly, thank goodness we complied with their summons, because Bad Sounds were one of the best performances of the day. Pulling from the style guides of Primal Scream and Rat Boy, they were energetic, funky and fun, and reminiscent of a poppier Beastie Boys. If the baseline for MJ’s Billie Jean were turned into an entire album, it would sound like this; a blend of funk twitchery and pop sensibility taken to its logical conclusion. And that power was felt throughout the hallowed halls of Leeds’ ever excellent venue Church. There was dancing had by all, there were mosh pits explored by many, and there were howled singalongs ranging from the very drunk to the stone cold sober. What also shone through, much like with FLING, was the bottomless sense of fun being had, in particular by the bands’ jostling dual frontmen, who tumbled about the stage like two toddlers buzzing on MSG. And the music was powerful; big meaty chunks of sound you could really get your teeth into. By far one of the biggest and most welcome surprises of the day, and a band I will definitely be looking at with great interest in the future.

British Sea Power – Leeds Beckett Students’ Union

Honestly I’m tempted to simply write ‘there were bears’ and leave your imagination to do the rest, but that’d be an insult to the artistry and sonic excellence that British Sea Power brought to the festival. Opening on the oddly topical Who’s In Control from their album ‘Valhalla Dancefloor,’ the band went straight for the killing blow and never let up on the musical assault, dropping classic after classic, in particular from their seminal album ‘Do You Like Rock Music.’ British Sea Power may not have the flippant industry respect of other headliners like Pale Waves and The Vaccines, but they have a deeply invested fanbase and a longstanding critical acclaim that really shines through at their lives shows. From mass singalongs to tracks like No Lucifer and Waving Flags, to the pure ferocity of their stagecraft, there was nothing but love for them.

Even in amidst intermittent technical difficulties, the band’s charm and resolve never dipped. But back to the bears, because really I know that’s what you want to hear elaborated on. About halfway through the beastly opening riff of breakthrough track Remember Me, the crowd was introduced to what I can only assume to be two very VERY uncomfortable people in 8 foot tall bear costumes. It was boiling in the venue, I hope whoever those two were are being paid well for their heatstroke. The stage’s forest aesthetic only added to the charm, however where stuff of this nature would seem gimmicky for some bands, it merely feels like an extension of the fun for British Sea Power. In fact, the depth and seriousness of their music, in particular for the moodier tracks like Great Skua and All In It, meant that the daftness of the bears was a welcome balance of emotions. I don’t doubt that everyone who chose to see British Sea Power as their final gig for the day made the best possible choice and had a fantastic time, I certainly did. What a closing statement for a phenomenal day, what a vision!

Here concluded our journey. Once again, Live at Leeds packed a lot into a small amount of time and space, and flexed its musical muscles proudly. If there is but one criticism I would make, its that the festival could be doing more to represent the budding jazz and hip-hop scenes of the city, rather than purely focusing on the admittedly fantastic indie bands that inhabit the place. However, there was plenty of variety in settings, sound, and culture to be had throughout the day, and an afterparty to be remembered years down the line. Like any good story, Live at Leeds is a franchise worthy of infinite sequels.

Photo Credit (Featured image – Speigeltent): Andrew Benge

Photo Credit (In body – Night Flight/P D Liddle/ Tamzene): Jay Plent

For more information on Live at Leeds, visit their Website.

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