FESTIVAL REVIEW: Leeds Festival 2023 – Saturday

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

Lil Tjay performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Lil Tjay (Credit: Linda Borscika)

As much as US hip-hop doesn’t have the most glowing track record at these festivals, you have to hand it to Lil Tjay for making the effort. Today’s bill has already seen Trippie Redd pull out due to illness, and after the most unceremonious no-show you’ve ever seen yesterday, Lil Tjay’s opportunity to redeem himself finds him placed as a Main Stage opener for some form of recompense. He does seem pleased to be here, as do the crowd, but on the whole, there just isn’t much to this. It suffers in the way a lot of similar rappers do, particularly those whose hitmaking career overseas hasn’t translated as cleanly in the UK. Thus, hooks and guest verses are chopped up and screwed together, leaving the odd feeling of him being up here at all mildly punctured by vague recollections of verses that won’t add up to a whole lot. And when those guest verses make up a significant portion of the set (ultimately leading to three Pop Smoke cuts in a row, including an interpolation of Dior with minimal change or contribution), Lil Tjay just doesn’t seem that strong a presence on his own. When he sinks into his own melodic trap lane, it’s generally harmless, but also with the same ineffectuality as everything else.

Clearly Yard Act see this moment as a big deal, when they openly admit to telling their Reading crowd yesterday that they didn’t care about that set as much as they do this one. It’s fair enough when this is their local area and the festival they grew up going to, and you can generally feel the push going into this works in their favour. Sardonic post-punk can do a lot of heavy lifting in that field, but Yard Act get a bit more creative than your average stage openers, with their accompanying mannequins onstage and a pretty entertaining dance interlude that comes from that. Otherwise, the ragged saxophone is always a nice touch in post-punk, and more space to fill—both physically and sonically—feels like the impetus to go those extra few steps bigger and better. On the whole, those decisions seem to pay off.

With the slogan of ‘always on tour’ now plastered onto their backdrop, you’d expect the aptitude for playing live that Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls undeniably have. What you might not expect, however, is just how fresh they both look and sound, as if the toil of now 2,799 shows hasn’t been felt all that much. And while nothing new comes of it, the folk-rock sound is yet to diminish in effectiveness, even picking up an extra few layers of tension on Polaroid Picture to nail it down. Yes, the feedback crackle of the system can be hard to ignore when it seems to fill each deliberately quiet part, but Turner and his band soldier through regardless, with the adeptness you’d hope for when their 3,000th performance is fast approaching. Recovery sounds wonderfully crisp, and the always-rowdier closer Four Simple Words as always sparks up the twinkle in Turner’s eye of someone whose love affair with playing live is barely dampened, let alone diminished. Long may that continue.

The Last Dinner Party performing at Leeds Festival 2023
The Last Dinner Party (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

So here we are with The Last Dinner Party, a band for whom there’s been a lot of strong opinions, both for and against, without much concrete evidence to back up either side’s argument. At the time of writing, they still only have two songs released, though at least the lion’s share of attention seems to be on their live show. That somewhat tamps back at some of the more vociferous ‘industry plant’ accusations, and when The Last Dinner Party can back it up, it’s both encouraging and relieving. A not-insignificant portion of said hype feels exclusively driven by Abigail Morris, a frontwoman embodying a very physical manifestation of this art-pop sound, twirling and gesticulating with a borderline operatic sense of presence. She’s the visual focus amid a generally still rest of the band, though the music does in fact hold its own too. A lot of it mightn’t be in the wild yet, but the potential to hit when it does is not hidden whatsoever, with flavours of glam owing to Queen or Kate Bush in how exuberant and luxurious they are. Honestly, it’s enough to see where so much of The Last Dinner Party’s enormous runway has been generated from. Maybe not in the ‘be-all-end-all best new band around’ sense, but as they take a bow as if they’ve just finished headlining the whole festival, you get that feeling that’s not as far-fetched a prospect as it might seem squarely from arm’s length. They shouldn’t be counted out, not when they can genuinely back it up.

Mimi Webb performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Mimi Webb (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

On paper, Mimi Webb could do well here. Reading & Leeds have been fairly kind to more mid-range pop stars as of late, and as far as creativity in the mainstream goes, you don’t get more more mid-range than Webb. She’s even got a more robust live band to back her up, in what does a good job at leaning into blustery, freewheeling new wave and handy guitar shredding when necessary on the likes of Ghost Of You. Admittedly, the spark does fizzle after the initial couple of hits; Webb tries to retain it, but her slower numbers indebted to a less malleable brand of pop trope carry a lot of excess weight. They feel like growing pains more than anything, given how Webb’s stabs at showmanship are a bit ‘my first big festival’, particularly in crowd patter that’s a far cry from her capability as a singer. Still, there’s promise, not in the least for Webb herself with some application towards colour and electricity. It’s just a bit uneven at present.

You Me At Six performing at Leeds Festival 2023
You Me At Six (Credit: Matt Eachus)

To say that Josh Franceschi sounds rough today is not a contentious statement. The You Me At Six frontman is right on the precipice of losing his voice completely, and you don’t really get through a half-hour performance in that state unscathed. It can make for a heavier rasp at times, but more likely, it’s the cause of dropped lines and pacing issues that Franceschi looks visibly frustrated and disappointed by. Just look at Take On The World for the worst of it, a song whose saccharine but well-meaning nature is practically torn to ribbons by an unforeseen lack of tact. And it’s a shame too, because this set should be as easy as anything for You Me At Six. They’re unquestionably one of the UK’s biggest alt-rock bands now, who’ve played festival stages like this time and time again. As a whole, they’re perfectly attuned to what this kind of set demands, and where that’ll come from when primarily focusing on their later material. What would otherwise be a softball for them ends up a lot bumpier through no fault of their own, and though they press on admirably, you’d imagine even You Me At Six themselves would admit this isn’t their best.

Wet Leg performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Wet Leg (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

The fascination with Wet Leg is one of those head-scratchers among indie music that rarely gets easier to understand. As a band, they aren’t doing anything that countless before them haven’t, and there’s really no secret sauce in the live environment either. In fact, live is probably where the front breaks down most, when it’s revealed just how inconsequential Wet Leg really feel. It’s the fact that there’s nothing explicitly wrong that stands out the most; this is breezy, mild indie-rock perfectly complementary for a likewise day, sounding fine but seldom being special. They hit more of a high when they cut loose a bit more into driving post-punk, but more often than not, they’re fine holding on to a firmly placed median. It’s all sounding fine, but you’d also think that a slot this high would demand a bit more than that. There’s an aloofness that they struggle to escape from, where the extremely limited crowd interaction leaves a style already wanting for some drive and connection hanging all the more. Maybe at a different festival, this would work better; an older crowd at Glastonbury or Isle Of Wight might be more receptive to this. As it stands, it all just floats on by with barely a trace to be found. “We are Wet Leg, and this is rock music,” says Rhian Teasdale before the closer Chaise Longue, so tentatively that you wonder if she believes that herself.

As much as ‘proper’ rock music has been pushed further aside at Reading & Leeds, you’re still likely to find some gems. Magnolia Park, for instance, are currently racking up stock within the pop-punk world, and a well-timed Sugar We’re Goin’ Down cover can attract even the greenest of alternative music patrons who may be passing by. But as far as pop-punk goes, Magnolia Park are putting in far more legwork than most of the current scene. They establish their goldmine of hooks immediately with Feel Something and Misfits, augmented by vocalist Joshua Roberts’ full-throatedness to fill in for some of their leached recorded colour. It’s a classic tactic they go for, jamming as much raw hookage as possible into this small space, where even a finish well under their allotted time delivers a distinctly worthwhile result.

Knocked Loose performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Knocked Loose (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

As the only band on the bill to appear both here and at Bloodstock this year, Knocked Loose have a pretty steep climb ahead of them, particularly when your average Bicep enjoyer is far from the easiest convert. Metallic hardcore has always only been marginally in these festivals’ purview to begin with, though if you think Knocked Loose are likely perturbed by that, you might need to brush up on that a bit. They’re at the top of their genre’s food chain for a reason, and with a decent sized crowd to go with the intimate-but-not-really setting, it’s basically their comfort zone. What follows is typical Knocked Loose form—Bryan Garris shrieks with his razorblade voice as the bludgeoning is standardly heavy but never less exhilarating. The sharp stage mix does a lot to emphasise how much this crushes, and Counting Worms remains the biggest hardcore bomb to possibly drop. You could level this field with what Knocked Loose give today, just as it should be.

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

Foals’ ubiquity can catch you off guard, but it’s not as if it isn’t deserved. They’ve grown immeasurably from their initial guise as Oxford’s premier math-rock nerds, to where a full-blown headline slot is nothing out of the ordinary anymore. What does surprise, though, is how far ahead of the usual headlining suite they are, because not only are they creatively on the ball this evening, but they’re using it as one hell of a springboard to rocket even further ahead. It’s worth just openly saying that Foals have grown exquisitely into a dynamic rock band, but it’s the tight-knit synthesis of populism and genuine expansion that’s got them to this stage. Wake Me Up kicks off as a glossy dance-rock banger, but also as a vehicle to explore Foals’ biggest and boldest impulses. Between an almost inhuman level of catchiness on display, and the vibrant stage production behind them cycling through floral backgrounds and twisting kaleidoscopes, it’s as close to summer festival perfection as you’re likely to get.

It also speaks to Foals’ expertise with this that it’s not something they sit still with. You can take that literally—Yannis Philippakis is often quick to get amongst it as he runs down the barrier—but it’s maybe more pertinent musically. The sinuous bass grooves and textured synths in 2001 and My Number pop and explode so effortlessly, but they’re also waiting to be replaced by the harder edges that come through on The Runner. The backgrounds turn monochrome or inflicted with harsh blocks of red, and the flowers are torn and falling. All the while, Foals’ rock end blares out, as they rip themselves apart mid-set to draw out a conclusion that’s even more climactic. Inhaler especially is where that’s shown off most, as it roars and groans and accumulates raw size, an unshakable rock monolith pulled out seemingly on the fly. If there’s any doubt about Foals’ worthiness to top bills of this size and magnitude, honestly look no further. There’s barely anyone curating their own catalogue with an eye for detail like this, and even fewer that can do it with such an insane track record of hooks landing. Step forth, Foals—the throne is yours to take.

Sam Fender performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Sam Fender (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

Within this current lay-up of two Main Stage headliners per day, it’s often not hard to gauge where most of the enthusiasm is aimed. It’s certainly true in the case of the average festival-goer; the rumblings and fragments of chat you’ll catch throughout the day point you in one direction or the other. In the case of Sam Fender, though, it’s something that’s easy to intuit on its own. After all, he’s the people’s champ of modern music, standing as a stalwart of working-class wherewithal against current austere conditions, or more importantly for this crowd, making music that you can sink pints to and scream along with. Either way, the down-to-earth persona is the draw, especially here with a certain northern kinship that’s easy to see percolating through. He doesn’t feel like some corporate headliner sent out to the top by birthright; he’s got the natural bravado to where a decision to put him here is a completely natural one. And when factoring in the sheer sonic size, and how much the vein of Springsteen worship plays into it with the spaciousness of Dead Boys and the saxophone on The Borders, no other spot would really do it justice.

That said, the case of first-timer apprehension isn’t willed away by that. The Kitchen is a particularly stodgy opener, as a stomping, loud rock song that doesn’t play to Fender’s strengths; similarly, Howdon Aldi Death Queue opts for punk flavouring that yields much of the same. Just as a whole, too, the cadre of hits isn’t the most fleshed-out, and with what’s still a fairly limited catalogue at his disposal, it’s hard to aim towards the highest possible rung. That’s not to say Fender won’t try, as he’s clearly giving it his all, even down to win-buttons of pyro and fireworks that feel like a musician happily indulging in his big performance fantasies for the first time. It’s definitely still good, with Fender anchoring it all really well in terms of the scope that’s necessary to cultivate. Particularly with The Dying Light to close the main set, moments of triumphant, ‘I’m finally here’ bombast come exceptionally naturally. And when it’s time for the double-headed send-off of Seventeen Going Under and Hypersonic Missiles, the face of Sam Fender The Arena-Rocker gets its most airtime yet. If that’s the vein he’s looking to carry on in, the regular roster of omni-dominating headliners could be getting a little bigger very soon.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Photos by Linda Borscika, Emily Marcovecchio, Matt Eachus and Georgina Hurdsfield

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