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FESTIVAL REVIEW: Live at Leeds 2019

As new music festivals go, Live at Leeds is the premier league – a metropolitan wurlitzer of entertainment and culture pinpointing talent from all corners of the globe then bringing them together for one blistering day. The great Northern city offers a playground for escapism, adventure and pilgrimage, spanning miles of terrain the venues are sporadically placed so if you’re a keen explorer the city is yours, regardless there’s a bar/restaurant on every corner guaranteeing music won’t be the only pursuit on the menu. Falling on Saturday, 4th of May, 2019’s festival managed to maintain LAL’s exemplary foresight for booking artists that are on the cusp of major careers while, for the most part, ensuring a smooth delivery from stage to audience.

Understandably, Live at Leeds invests effort into delivering big name draws like Sam Fender, Kate Tempest and Tom Grennan, but this year in particular, they were very determined to showcase a might of local talent. This is where our day starts.

The Social, a good venue in theory but lacking for the simple logistics of its prime purpose. Throughout the day we visit the cafe/bar only to be met, primarily, by an unfocussed, distasteful ambience. Especially in a venue that is specialising in acoustic, stripped down performance this is one of those sour tricks that isn’t acceptable. Leaving the door open for general Saturday service (while in the current climate we can’t hold this against any institution, business is business) did a disservice to the artists, in our minds yes, be social but sometimes the setting calls for consideration of other factors.

For early birds Green Gardens were a delightful mix of melody and poignance, dressed in primary colours the four-piece presented a modest set-up: acoustic and electric guitar, bass and snare/brushes. They play comfortably and enjoy each others’ company passing smiles around every chance they can, still raw around the edges although the songs are ably written and performed (the drummer plays a mean shaker). The juxtaposition of two singers gives the performance extra dimension and potential for future experimentation. Keep an ear open.

The Oporto seems to be one of those reliable venues that always ushers a crowd, breaking records (potentially) this time around – it was home to BBC Introducing West Yorkshire all day long. Even arriving early wasn’t enough to guarantee a spot inside, a fact that remained true well into the night. An early afternoon slot for Cruel World brought shoulder-to-shoulder enthusiasm, peer-to-peer comradery and a departure of one of the band’s founding members, James Pearce. Quick to remark they’re probably the only band to play the festival without a single track appearing on Spotify, Cruel World ascertain a witty, lightheartedness throughout, as do their songs. One of those songs, ‘Boxer’ (the only one released online to date) is a major earworm, deeply poignant but masked by upbeats and a glossy romantic feel, the song captures nostalgia and wistfulness at the brink yet it sounds anything but. Other points in the set draw comparisons to Car Seat Headrest, and I doubt there’s any better compliment than that. Our only piece of criticism: the venue was so oversubscribed that it made the experience slightly uncomfortable and many were even turned away, next time we hope for a more considered staging.

An unplanned highlight of our day was HiFi’s superb Yorkshire Music Forum stage, happenstance ensured that we arrived at the venue super early giving us the privilege of watching Tall Talker in all their articulate glory. An instrumental-only deal (a style I tend to find navigate away from usually, but all doubts and preconceptions were thrown out of the window) and in no way does this method of expression detract from the experience, this band grooves. It grooves hard. It rocks hard. The rhythm’s tight, the execution is precise, the members’ interplay is locked and loaded. Full of versatility but carefully planned dissonance, Tall Talker is a mathy, prog, jazz-influenced dream. A thoroughly thrilling thirty minutes, the zest the band has for their art is contagious – and goes further to demonstrate the breadth and ensemble nature of Leeds’ scene. Invest time in local music, there’s more reasons to start there than anywhere else.

Sea Legs are a blending of classic pop and alternative rock, the Leeds trio have released two singles thus far, both represent the band’s ability to compose sonically interesting and attractively written songs clear as day. It’s the live show’s job to not only capture this same budding promise but to visualise the band’s prowess – and that it does. Naturally the set was dominated by new cuts, providing a deeper interaction for those already familiar and a sounding board for the band; the trio have charisma, they have stage presence, they have a growing catalogue and a local following – it seems that everything is in place for the band to really catch on. We wish them godspeed.

Stepping outside, you take a walk up Briggate and find a stage mounted on the promenade centralised between rows of high street retailers and drones of Saturday leisure seekers, the Dr. Martens pop-up is a free-for-all snapshot of what LAL offers: edge, ingenuity and neighbourly commune. Well in swing by the time we arrive is Sports Team, the band’s first of two sets that day. It’s pure entertainment, nothing less, the six-piece fronted by Alex Rice carefully ransack the peace owning their bolshy, confident sound in a nonchalant show of pageantry and spectacle. In a setting like this punctuated by the band’s defiant dissonance and combined with the lyrics’ own discordant commentary, the display couldn’t be more relevant or disruptive. Sports Team are a true highlight in British music right now, there’s a real sense of vitality in what they represent and the kinds of messages they’re putting across through the music really resonates. Undoubtedly one of the best acts working today.

Back in The Social, Barcelona-born Odina makes her debut at the festival. The musicality is limited here (due to the solo nature of the performance) yet Odina bypasses traditional singer/songwriter configurations to deliver an extended array of instrumentation: electric guitar, vocoder and synth. Her songs are inspired by real life situations and delve into an emotion-rich poignancy that cuts to the very core of who we are. Previewing a bunch of new material from her upcoming album as well as past singles, what makes Odina’s talent uniquely her own is her diction and delivery. The way she elongates vowel sounds and accents her syllables, and differentiates her tone, the control she has of her voice is truly magnificent. Her music is simple but due to the way its formed, it lingers on the mind and transforms the naturality of her arrangements into rare, inventive orchestrations of artistic majesty. Never underestimate the powers of a singer-songwriter, they are often more creative and industrious than anyone other artform.

Heading to the other side of town, we join Swimming Girls in the Chapel – a space that’s appropriately decorative for an after-party rave, or even an open plan Airbnb alternative (definitely the most quirky out of the roster of venues used this year). After hearing the Yucatan signees early last year via social media, the band landed on our radar and we’ve been eager to catch the live show ever since. It’s the kind of music that feels immediately familiar without sounding derivative, a pop sound that has complexity and panache, think Pale Waves on vocals with Tegan and Sara’s lyrical intellect and a Cocteau Twins/Cure/Paramore volcano of instrumental ecstasy. The songs are painted luminous but if you look deeper the words being sung portray a level of honesty and self-reflection that takes the band’s credibility to a whole other level. It’s a good turn out too, a sign of future endeavours possibly reaching more ears. An invigorating, well-rounded performance that unanimously insists that the band can hold their own as headliners, as well as livening up early-evening festival slots.

Around the corner nestled inside the Leeds University complex, whenyoung play a breezy half hour in the football-pitch sized hall known as the Refectory. With their debut album dropping in a few weeks’ time and the elation that their live show produces, it’s a consistent treat to watch this band grow as performers and nail each set they deliver. Now with an extra member completing the stage order, Nathan Cox takes over the reins of Aoife Power’s position on bass and the show hasn’t looked more assured or felt more effortless. Aoife is now available to move around on stage and perform the songs with an incensed passion of ownership (the lyrics are self-penned afterall). Each song pours out of the band like a bristling, crimson earworm – reliably euphoric, beautifully evocative and scintillatingly precocious. This is a band you’ve probably seen in a live room somewhere at some point over the past 12-18 months, they are a booking agents’ dream and it’s easy to understand why.

Now pushing eight o’clock, it’s back to The Social to hear some genuinely soothing sorcery. Archie Faulks is on stage and his voice is unforgettable – a gem in the malaise of disorder surrounding his pocket of sentimentality. He’s dealt a poor hand, the room is agasp with chatter threatening to overthrow the soft tones of his musicality but for those attentive and invested, his music is the kind where everything and everyone falls away. It’s just you, the words and the serenade. In a set that’s mostly minor key, there are a few breaks of character that reveal a major chord lift of spirit which works just as well, but it is Faulks’ falsetto that is the award-winning, shiver-inducing, touch of greatness that’ll send your head dizzy with adulation. His songwriting is also stellar, one of the best kept secrets in music today. Get acquainted.

As night starts to take hold, sound issues begin to arise. First, Fuzzy Sun are delayed when they come to close out The Chapel’s final hurrah of the day, then The Slow Readers Club in the neighbouring Church also experience a prolonged deferment. Both bands finally get to play full sets, sending dancefloors abound with impulse and activity, each share a sombre tone in one way or another but at the same time they are utterly revelrous and rousing. Framed by the glow of disco pop and new wave splendor, each band channels despondency and melancholy to create an absolutely irresistible proposition. Both bands shine on stage, there’s an obvious element of showmanship, an energetic spectacle to draw the audience in, the songs are more than enough but the way they’re presented is what really seals the deal. We leave each bands’ performance content and revitalised.

Recognising talent early on and celebrating it is what Live at Leeds does best, it is its primary purpose after all. 2019’s festival carried the flag across country borders and brought a global team of superstars-in-waiting to the event, running a multi-venue, metropolitan gathering of this scale can’t be the easiest of tasks and to pull it off to a high standard like they did (and always do) we commend the festival team and all of its moving parts. Next year is already marked in the diary.

Photo Credit [Confidence Man]: Lewis Evans

For more information on Live at Leeds, head to their Website.

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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