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While the use of the Main Stage ‘special guests’ tag has become a bit more liberal in recent years (are they really that ‘special’ when this is the stage they’d normally play?), the inclusion of Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes on any bill is never a bad thing. Even when this feels like pretty standard fare for them, by the time Carter ends up rows deep in the crowd and guitarist Dean Richardson is playing while held aloft on the other side, it’s clear it’s not being phoned in. When the punk snarl of My Town and Sticky is considerably upped too, this feels like a band settling into their established groove with remarkable ease, and tearing out the exact greatness that’s expected from them. There’s just such an affability all the way down, as they round off with the prowling Crowbar and one of the most emphatic early-day reactions you’re likely to see. In this case, ‘par for the course’ tosses any negative connotations it may have far to the side.
Someone on the booking team clearly had more faith in bbno$ than was probably otherwise justified. The somewhat bemused reactions that tend to grace his set do say a lot, and can be interpreted twofold—a) why an online comedy-rapper is getting this sort of Main Stage billing, and b) why this isn’t really working. It’s the latter point worth focusing on as it’s the easiest to answer, given than bbno$’s ‘humour’ is tailored way more to Internet absurdism than a live setting. It’s honestly kind of tryhard here, where he’ll cut the opening bars of lalala to literally Rickroll the audience, or dance around to the VeggieTales theme song, or close his set with an extended Eurodance megamix. Cumulatively, it eats up a lot of time, to where it practically dominates the set when it doesn’t really need to. Sure, the songs themselves have the same goofiness, but at least they’re actual songs, and big, house-flavoured pop-rap has a pretty high floor anyway in this kind of environment. It has something of a saving grace then, but the biggest takeaway is that music this deeply online probably isn’t best suited for huge festival stages. Who’d have thought?
At a base level, Black Honey probably do belong on festival main stages, but that doesn’t tend to come through today. Yes, it’s good to see something that’s such a far cry from the homogeneity of ‘festival indie’ getting traction and opportunities like this, but it’s simply not enough to prevent them from ranking so similarly in the middle of the pack. For as meaty as their bluesy riff-rock can be, and for as striking a figure that Izzy Baker cuts as a frontwoman (visually not too dissimilar from a younger Dolly Parton), this isn’t music that makes a deep impact, as much as it soundtracks a day in the sun for those looking to get some respite sitting on the grass. That’s all that can really be said about Black Honey—it’s absolutely fine for what it is, but does that really amount to much?
As a brief once-over of the poster will tell you, this isn’t the most bumper year for ‘proper’ rock music, though Witch Fever come across like they could shoulder the responsibility of that scene all by themselves. A relatively small but dedicated crowd has gathered in the tent for what is rightfully one of the most promising bands our nation has to offer, bringing a Sabbath-esque approach to riffage that doesn’t go unnoticed on a lineup fairly lacking for it. That’s where Witch Fever’s most emphatic strength lies, in how much heft and crunch they weave through an already formidable punk structure, fronted by Amy Walpole as a talismanic ringleader who’s as magnetic as she is powerful. For the absolute top-tier in new rock music, Witch Fever dole it out in spades, and anyone who was there should be able to vouch completely.
So…Scene Queen, eh? It’s a name that’s been hard to escape within alternative circles practically through all of 2022, for better or for worse, but it’s also one of those acts that clicks far more live than it ever could on record. After all, the incorrigible blend of early Kesha and low-end nu-metal chugging feels like it belongs on a stage more than through a speaker; it’s not like Hannah Collins can command her ‘twerkle pit’ on record, or visually ham up how much of a juxtaposition this really is. And yes, it’s trashy and airheaded, but to chastise it for being so is to utterly miss the point when it’s such a fun time. On a base, Neanderthal-brained level, there’s something that inexplicably clicks about a nu-metal cover of I Kissed A Girl, or a song like Pink Panther revelling so deep in its own ridiculousness, and having everyone along for the ride. Bimbocore lives apparently, on stage if nowhere else.
On paper, Joy Crookes should be racking up an easy win today. She’s got a Main Stage slot and a warm, layered R&B-soul sound that can make great use of the beautiful sun to sound extra lush. That’s on paper though; in practice, it’d be just as true at, say, Glastonbury, where she’d have a much more responsive and filled-out crowd, instead of today’s that just seems a bit nonplussed. Admittedly, thrills are pretty far removed from Crookes’ repertoire, but there’s a lovely feel to how the prominent pianos and bass meld together with her voice, almost encroaching on Amy Winehouse at times in terms of clarity and tone. But when stage presence comes as more tasteful than kinetic or grabbing, it doesn’t seem to click all the way. It’s hard not to view Crookes as having the short end of the stick when clashing with Pinkpantheress, herself blessed with an overflowing tent and a sound that Leeds’ natively younger crowd would gravitate towards more readily. The brunt of that isn’t nothing, and all factors put together—positive and negative—average out to being just fine.
It feels like Circa Waves are now at the stage where they can be lumped in among the indie bands that can be drafted in whenever a festival slot needs filling. They’ve hardly been on a tear recently, but they’re popular enough to justify a mid-afternoon Main Stage slot that’ll ultimately go off without a hitch. That is to say, they aren’t the most thrilling live prospect, snappy and jovial enough to go down easily, but hardly with a memorable catalogue outside of their billed half-hour. T-Shirt Weather is the designated linchpin that comes right at the end, where Circa Waves take shape as the indie darlings that’s always been insisted from their end. Otherwise, it’s all just a bit rote, down to between-song chatter that’s ripped straight from the festival playbook, and is received exactly as such. As a festival set, every moving part works exactly as it should and as efficiently as necessary, and that’s what makes it so forgettable.
As hip-hop continues to gain prominence among this festival, the inclusion of Little Simz so high up on the bill is incredibly encouraging. She’s not got the mainstream zealousness that brings other rappers up this far, and thus, it comes down more to legitimate acclaim and merit that her layered, almost jazz-inspired leanings have. She’s definitely got the onstage presence of a superstar, as well as an unbridled confidence and bite in her rapping that few this weekend have really matched up to. But it’s the live band that elevates it all into full-fledged greatness, in how Simz’ domineering flow pairs with the meaty, free-flowing rhythms behind her to yield so much of the magic. There’s a bass snarl on Offence that’s completely vicious, and fits flawlessly among how stable the guitars and live drums are for just an enrapturing sound. Doused in the cool that’s an effortless product of Simz’ talent, it all makes for an amazingly understated but electrifying set. In that lane, Simz is in a league of her own.
Maybe the purpose of putting Glass Animals on this high was to show that there’s more to them than the mainstream space is privy to. No one really expected Heat Waves to be the smash hit it’s become, so here’s a somewhat feast-or-famine approach to following that up—either opening up the catalogue to a crowd who may be previously unaware, or plod along before that big song inevitably comes last. To say Glass Animals err more towards the latter would probably be a bit too unfair, because this isn’t bad, per se. Visually they’ve gone all in on the spectacle with how stylish the neon aesthetic and CRT backdrop is, and in some instances like Space Ghost Coast To Coast and Your Love (Déjà Vu), they prove to have longer legs as pop songwriters.
It’s just that getting there requires trudging through the drizzled-out indie-pop of Glass Animals’ catalogue, which isn’t the most enlightening thing in the world. They aren’t a band big on hooks as much as vibe, which only gets so far before either their pop colours start to run, or they end up drained of whatever little momentum they had to begin with. There’s also the matter of Dave Bayley clearly believing he’s fronting a different band entirely, one where his rockstar posturing and swaggering (and frankly distressing number of tongue-waggles) feels justified, rather than ill-fitted over a sound bereft of firepower. The isolated moments do deserve credit, and there’s a notably positive response when Heat Waves gets its airing—there’s at least one incredulous cry of “Finally!” in earshot of us—it’s taken a lot of plodding and meandering to get to what’s just a nice finisher. Then again, it’s not like much else was expected.
There are few ways for a DJ to build hype before a trap show better than dropping Sheck Wes’ Mo Bamba…until it cuts out and leaves the stage in silence for a pretty awkward period of time. A couple of extra between-set songs on the PA later, we’re back in business, only for Polo G’s unceremonious start to herald a lot of what’s to come. His physical presence feels like it contributes more than his performance or songs, because for as high up as it is, it’s an awfully workmanlike appearance. Granted, on record, he tends to be more of a serious rapper than some of the trap artists he’ll be grouped among, but there’s a difference between that and feeling drained of all character. The vocal tracks that he’s rapping over often sound louder than his actual voice, meaning that there’s precious little added to these songs; hell, a cover of Juice WRLD’s Armed & Dangerous basically amounts to playing the song wholesale with an occasional contribution. It’s not all that fun or exciting, as each song ends with the same glass-smash sound effect, and even the streams of pyro come up that feel borderline perfunctory. It’s a set churned out by necessity, i.e. the worst kind of set.
It’s time for some real hot girl shit, folks. Seldom do headline sets come with the same preemptive vibe as Megan Thee Stallion’s, where there’s an enormous crowd (a lot of whom seem to just be killing time before Dave, but whatever), but very little expectation of what’s to come. Before her announcement, nothing about Megan really screamed ‘top billing act’, especially in the UK where her popularity is significant, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the States. That said, an onslaught of trap bangers and a personality the size of this stage and then some are good win buttons to have, and it’s clear that Megan is really juicing both factors for all they’re worth. It’s at the expense of most variety, mind—a lot of this can be boiled down to a fat trap beat, Megan shaking her ass and spitting through a vicious flow, rinse and repeat—but it’s way too much fun to complain.
For one, Megan herself a pure-bred superstar through and through, the sort of artist who can come onstage with relatively little production behind her, and command it like nobody’s business. She’s the only one who matters here, and when that attitude is fed into Megan’s Piano or Big Ole Freak, it’s a streamrolling display of knowing the craft and owning it. The first big crowd reaction inevitably comes on WAP, but it’s still all eyes on Megan, with every movement and gesture she makes being utterly magnetic. That’s more or less what you come for, rather than a diverse catalogue of songs (the house thrum of Her is probably the only deviation, and it comes at the very end), but for blunt-force turn-up music, Megan has the body (-ody, -ody, -ody) of work to really fly. When she brings up members of the crowd to dance and twerk alongside her (shoutout to the one girl properly going for it—if you were there, you’ll know), it highlights the brash, brazen party vibe that sets Megan so far apart from everyone else. Even if it’s not one for the ages, it’s also not one to forget in a hurry.
Right now, Dave holds an almost unassailable position in UK hip-hop. He’s at an apex point with both conscious, deeply introspective and emotive songwriting and the more braggadocious standard, and that sets a standard of quality for a headline set of this magnitude. And while he does definitely hit it, it’s not really a shock that the most fervent reactions come from the moment deeper inside the normal UK hip-hop parameters. But Dave’s a skilled enough performer to really drum up hype regardless, in the switch-up of Professor X into Funky Friday that’s effectively seamless, or the ever-anticipated bringing onstage a crowd member for Thiago Silva. It’s deep-running showmanship and populism that’s ultimately why he’s gotten as far as he has, and he never misses a beat.
But it’s perhaps on Location where the cleanest fusion of Dave’s ideals comes into play, and why this feels like so much more than a ‘play the hits’ headline set. He does indeed do that, but he’s armed with a live band to give it all so much more life and organic energy that a simple backing beat could never reach on its own. But it doesn’t end there when there’s also horns, strings, a drum line, a choir, further backing vocalists; it’s a packed stage, visually and sonically, but the harmony that each piece works towards in unparalleled. And as it should, every piece is built to make Dave feel so much bigger and grander, and enrich these songs often by countless degrees. There’s the scorching guitar solo to round off Both Sides Of A Smile that’s triumphant and expansive. Conversely, Heart Attack is solemn and pensive with its delicate guitars and strings, a ten-minute swirling epic that Dave is forced to stop to quell a crowd issue in front of him, but picks up with barely a beat missed. These are where it feels the most special, and where Dave’s creative majest feels best realised. Even on the aforementioned filled-out stage, complete with a giant scaffold heart as the centrepiece, he’s there at the front, and the energy he gives off is palpable. Absolutely terrific stuff from one of the UK’s finest artists, period.
Words by Luke Nuttall
Photos by Sam McMahon, Emily Marcovecchio, Matt Eachus and Linda Borscika