FESTIVAL REVIEW: Leeds Festival 2023 – Friday

Want more Leeds Festival? Check out our full review of Saturday and Sunday right here.

Pleasantly, there’s been far less ‘discourse’ than usual about this year’s Reading & Leeds lineup. Not none, of course, but perhaps the older crowd have finally realised that these aren’t nostalgia fests, and catering to trends—and the younger crowd who’ll be more receptive to them—is what this festival has always done. That said, it’s hard to imagine English Teacher popping off much in any era, partly because they’re a side-stage opener on the first day; partly because a good portion of this crowd seems to just be sticking it out for Lovejoy’s headline set; and partly because they’re just…fine. Their moments do come, like a strong vocalist in Lily Fontaine and the occasionally weedling bassline that makes use of an exceptionally clear sound, but overall, they’re lodged in a swollen glut of perfectly agreeable indie-rock and post-punk. This is the sort of music that mightn’t be terrible, but it gets lost among the sprawl of a festival bill exceptionally easy. Not to say English Teacher couldn’t strive for more, but their most memorable moment is when their keyboard falls off its stand mid-song. Make of that what you will.

By the time Hot Milk bound onstage, it’s been exactly 12 hours and 41 minutes since their debut A Call To The Void was released, and they’re visibly on cloud nine. How could they not be? It’s a big deal, after all, celebrating with a Main Stage slot and pulling in an admirable attendence, particularly for this early in the day. And while there have been better setlists from them in the past (or at least ones that play better to their variety), the confidence they’ve always had has ballooned immensely, and it’s a joy to see. It’s great that their heavier, rougher, punkier material can get them to these heights, though the ever-dynamic duo of Han Mee and Jim Shaw punch away up front with as much aplomb as always. It reflects more of a steady culmination than a snap turning point, as should be the case for a band who can drop pop-rock bombs like Bloodstream and Glass Spiders with this regularity. Main stages all the way for the future, eh?

MUNA performing at Leeds Festival 2023
MUNA (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

You can’t underestimate the pulling power of a band like MUNA. The sad pop girlies will come out in full force for this sort of thing, though it’s not like it isn’t warranted. Not at all. In fact, MUNA’s synthpop is an absolute joy to behold from front to back, sounding totally immaculate in the sun with a new wave glamour that makes some already deep-rooted appeal totally irresistible. Feed that into a bevy of tighter-than-tight grooves, vocalist Katie Gavin clearly having the time of her life, and guitarist Josette Maskin being the most iridescent ball of energy you’ll see all weekend, and the result speaks for itself. The fact they’re sporting exclusively bangers—rounded off by Silk Chiffon that sounds utterly tremendous in the open air—just goes without saying. With MUNA at the helm, life is, indeed, so much fun.

Bakar performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Bakar (Credit: Matt Eachus)

So here’s the thing with an artist like Bakar having a Main Stage set—there might appear to be a totally enthused, dedicated following, but the ease at which that crumbles beneath the veneer is pretty apparent. So despite a big first reaction and an equal uptick for the stroll and spurts of brass of his viral hit Hell N Back, that can fizzle out rather quickly. And that’s a shame too, because everything is poised for this to be extremely likable. Bakar himself has a soft-spoken quality and clearly untrained vocal presence that packs in some character, and the looser indie sound that flits between jumpier guitars and watery textures produces a generally good vibe all around. Perhaps the Main Stage nerves are more noticeable than they ought to be, but it’s all coolly low-key enough to pass through. Not bad overall, and probably worth a bit more than the polite, perfunctory reception it generally gets.

Ethel Cain performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Ethel Cain (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a half-hour festival set probably isn’t the optimal environment in which to experience Ethel Cain. Most of her songs run long and slow and intensely, so when only a small handful get the chance for some airtime, there’s a real risk of losing key pieces of what’s brought in such a considerable following. It’s unavoidable, though at the same time, it makes sense to lessen some of the more wrenching, dread-filled parts of her oeuvre. Thus, when American Teenager drops early on, a phenomenal, sweeping heartland-pop anthem that Cain’s dedicated following lap up, it’s absolutely the right call. But at the same time, she bears a mystique here that can be so hard to parse, but it’s what makes this whole thing so captivating. The sound is entirely spellbinding, a slow burn that sears right down to the bone, and that’s totally its own thing on this bill. Hell, Dirt Affair is the closest to a full-blown country song that Bramham Park will produce, with its own harmonica rip to boot that, naturally, is met with rapturous veneration. The whole thing is mystifying but in the best possible way, no less for how Cain devotes all power and energy to her short allotted time. And although every impulse says this is just a taster of what she can do, it can get pretty close to something incredible.

Rina Sawayama performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Rina Sawayama (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

Rina Sawayama is the sort of pop star that every other one should aspire to be like. Let’s get the obvious out the way first—multiple costume changes across a single 30 minutes is impressive by anyone’s metric, and it’s something that gives off a very elevated feel. There’s something almost play-like about it all, between the choreography, the visual bombast, the freeform approach to genre in setlist construction…basically, when an extensive list of credits roll at the end, you can tell that effort has been put in. And apart from an awkward space-filler from her pair of backing dancers during the first costume change, it all goes off pretty seamlessly. It’s the end of Sawayama’s repertoire that has a lot of Lady Gaga in it, and none of that pageantry and theatricality is lost. This is a performance; not just your run-of-the-mill festival set.

But it’s always Sawayama herself who’s the big draw, to where her inevitable superstar status feels sealed pretty much instantaneously. The vocals are—without sugar-coating it—flawless, and impressively deft in adapting to the various shades of pop and pop-rock at her disposal. As slightly off-kilter as the interpolations of Korn’s Blind and Limp Bizkit’s Break Stuff are to sandwich STFU, the nu-metal hat certainly contributes to the overwhelming spectacle of it all. It’s the end that seals the deal though, with Sawayama in full-blown pop mode, choreography and all, to play off some incredible tightness on Commes des Garçons (Like The Boys) and XS, and a terrific This Hell that’s everything you’d want in a pop smash and more. It’s sets like this that entirely justify Reading & Leeds throwing open their doors to worlds outside of strictly alternative music, and there’s no better ambassador for it than Rina Sawayama.

Declan McKenna performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Declan McKenna (Credit: Matt Eachus)

It makes a lot of sense why festivals book acts like Declan McKenna time and time again. This type of indie’s entire stock is based on its accessibility and ease at which it gets feet on grass, and it always seems to succeed. It’s why it doesn’t matter that McKenna—despite his Elton John glasses and brown blazer and trousers—isn’t the greatest showman as far as voice and charisma are concerned; the songs travel far enough to make up for it. That said, there’s more scope to travel for McKenna in particular, as he and his band come bearing a lot of classic rock ideals that a good range of musicians onstage fill out easily. The violinist and keyboardist are definitely more interesting touches, even if they aren’t the main attraction. That, perhaps by default, is McKenna himself, who isn’t bad, but ties things together in a way that doesn’t equate to much. Even the new song Nothing Works fits cleanly among the textbooks early-evening dare, being pleasantly catchy but with the same general characteristics that’s just about keeping this above water. Definitely competent, but nowhere close to ranking among the day’s best.

Becky Hill performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Becky Hill (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

It’s kind of interesting that, for Becky Hill’s reputation as something of a hired gun in pop and dance music, there’s an unmistakable grandeur here today. Even in terms of attendance, there’s really nothing to scoff at; Hill herself says as much with a curt “Fuck! There’s loads of you!” But at the same time, she also kind of nails what she sets out to do. With a swathe of backing dancers and plumes of sparks—and later on, a brass and strings section for that Cream Classical vibe—it’s an unmistakably great use of resources, even if Hill herself can sometimes be swallowed up by it all. But as with so much of her career, the role of a mouthpiece to elevate the songs take precedence, and as a talented live vocalist with a deep bench of genuine, bona fide hits to her name, she barely puts a foot wrong. It’s effectively a what’s what of UK dance smashes of the past few years, fired off in quick succession with brass-bold exuberance that’s reciprocated in spades. When you drop Wilkinson’s Afterglow, which is already almost Leeds’ de facto house drum ‘n’ bass tune, that kind of response is imminent. And even with a couple of indulgences in Candi Staton’s You Got The Love and Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), it’s as lean and propulsive as it gets. It just goes to show, even the junkiest of junk-food pop and house on this bill can satisfy and then some.

Steve Lacy performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Steve Lacy (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

It’s quite amusing to think that when Steve Lacy was announced for a sub-headline slot, Bad Habit was still a juggernaut hit, but in the months since, nothing he’s done has come close to that crossover ubiquity. Nevertheless, there’s still plenty darting to the front, ultimately craving the dopamine rush from that single song that’s bound to come at the very end. Lacy himself even seems to know it in time: “I’ll play Bad Habit and Billie Eilish will be up here before you know it.” That in itself can foster a disconnect that doesn’t seem to really go away. Just as Lacy’s soul- and rock-infused R&B isn’t a strictly main stage sound, the individual songs aren’t in that ballpark either. They aren’t hook-heavy enough to dominate, nor are they smooth and widespread enough to sink into, regardless of unfamiliarity. It’s more interesting for its composite parts than what Lacy delivers as a whole, really only spiking when that singular big hit finally comes.

And that’s a real shame, because Lacy casts a superstar’s shadow. When he strolls down the stage’s catwalk to riff (and do so with some surprising heaviness at times), they’re the moments in which he dominates. He and his band do have some real creative alchemy on the go too, with a lot of depth in how this sound burbles and morphs in real time, anchored by Lacy’s own guitar and fantastically clear voice. Had this been his own crowd, the likelihood of impact would’ve been far different; he’s got the potential for magnetism that, complemented by the golden sunshine, could have some real legs. An appropriately-timed Sunshine has Fousheé coming out to collaborate, but it’s still Lacy who feels like the main attraction, and it’s a shame that struggles to sink in deeper. At least Bad Habits gets the uproarious reaction it was always destined to; some flowers are better than none at all, right?

Imagine Dragons performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Imagine Dragons (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

So…Imagine Dragons are headlining, yeah? And they still somehow manage to be a big draw? It’s kind of incomprehensible when this spot feels about five years late at least, but the chance to do something is still on the table, isn’t it? After all, Imagine Dragons have been the flagship band for rock in the mainstream for pretty much an entire decade now…even though their influence on the genre has been irritating at best, and downright poisonous at worst. And placed in a setting where they’re forced to rely on their own merits to actually headline, they still somehow disappoint. And you would think it’d be the opposite; Imagine Dragons’ entire existence is based on booming, all-consuming rock songs, the thing you’d want to wheel out on an enormous festival stage at any given opportunity. But aside from the fact that a lot of them aren’t very good, and in close quarters show no kind of excitement value whatsoever, there’s barely anything to this.

And that shouldn’t be the case for a band as maximalist as Imagine Dragons, with about half-a-dozen blasts of confetti and CO2 peppered across the set. But despite the size, there’s rarely any style or spectacle. In an area like arena-rock that breeds commodities, Imagine Dragons feel like the safest, most reliable, most shrink-wrapped version of even that, able to clock in, churn out the hits and go home. Their big, clattering monstrosities aren’t the epics they think they are; on its own, the onslaught of percussion lugging itself along gets tired in a hurry. And when that tedium is tied in a self-seriousness that means Dan Reynolds struggles to even crack a smile most of the time, it’s even less interesting. Reynolds might believe he’s shooting for the stars, where he’ll tell a seven-year-old kid in the crowd that they can be anything they want when they grow up, but in reality, it’s just another block stacked on the manufactured, clean-cut image of Imagine Dragons that even certain pockets of the crowd seem to lose interest in. It’s telling that one of the biggest cheers of the entire set comes when Reynolds takes his shirt off. Imagine Dragons? More like ‘imagine draggin’ yourself to see these instead of anyone else’.

Billie Eilish performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Billie Eilish (Credit: Matt Eachus)

Back in 2019 at this very festival, Billie Eilish was bumped up from a sub-headline slot on the sadly departed BBC Radio 1 / NME Stage to a mid-afternoon Main Stage billing. She then proceeded to attract the biggest crowd that Reading & Leeds has ever seen. There was not even a shadow of a chance she wouldn’t return to headline properly, and though there isn’t quite the specialness of watching an artist’s stratospheric rise mid-ascent, the fact that there’s no less pulling power speaks volumes about where Billie Eilish is. Compared to any other headliner—and really, any other big-scale pop act—she’s got an abundance of negative space, but it translates into something quite cool in a command of eeriness and solemnity that plenty others can’t muster. bury a friend and you should see me in a crowd throb and pant in their own encased darkness; Therefore I Am and my strange addiction play to giddy pop magnetism; the acoustic comedown mid set of Your Power and TV is perfectly placed and enrapturing.

And of course, at the centre of it all, is Billie Eilish herself. She was nothing short of a superstar four years ago, and now with big budget capabilities and a catwalk all of her own to stroll down (built especially for her set today, as well), that’s only inflated multiple times over. The bareness of the stage itself doesn’t feel detrimental at all, as Billie stalks and stomps and takes up every bit of space that she needs. There’s an approach to star power here that’s entirely her own. But most importantly, the ‘star’ aspect is never overshadowed, shown most prominently when things do get eased back, in some beautiful, porcelain vocals on What Was I Made For?, or how even the most straightforward pop moments feel imbued with a magic that only Billie is capable of delivering. To say these songs come to life exponentially more live than on record is an understatement in itself; this is a masterclass in redefinition and making these work. So in tying things off with the big, rubbery favourite bad guy, and a colossal final moment of grandeur in Happier Than Ever—all cavernous rock guitars and fireworks—there’s no question of whether Billie’s still got it or not. She does, and in absolute spades.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Photos by Emily Marcovecchio, Matt Eachus and Georgina Hurdsfield

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