FESTIVAL REVIEW: Leeds Festival 2023 – Sunday

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Jamie Webster performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Jamie Webster (Credit: Matt Eachus)

There’s something to be said for how far Jamie Webster has come, to where he’s opening the Main Stage early on Sunday afternoon, and still manages to attract a fairly sizable following even beyond The 1975’s barrier-clingers. There’s clearly appeal that goes beyond the Liverpool audience with which he made his name, and while at least one ‘Scouse, not English’ sign puts that as a factor here today too, overall, the big, populist, homegrown folk sound is an easy one to translate on a wider basis. So while these are pretty one-to-one renditions, Webster’s everyman persona and clear passion shine through, along with some snappiness in the writing that the live environment unearths more readily across a song like Davey Kane. Of course, a chant of “Fuck the Tories” is an easy way for Webster to endear himself to a crowd like this specifically, but he and his band on their own merits do lift a lot of weight. Even as the rain begins to hammer down during the barnstorming closer Weekend In Paradise, the shine refuses to be dulled.

From the very start, you can tell that Baby Queen is vying for dominance on a huge scale. The big personality is a given (her claims that “this is the first time [she’s] come onstage sober” elicit a few chuckles), but the songs are where the meat is, in a selection of towering alt-pop that far supersede any ‘rising’ tag. It’s an instance where, despite having arguably the festival’s biggest platform, the songs are left to speak for themselves, and with some great ‘80s swell and tangibility to the likes of Dream Girl, they’re getting there fast. There’s already an index of popularity with Baby Queen that can clearly be seen, too. Basically, every factor points to Baby Queen being primed for something enormous, and likely extremely soon.

Arlo Parks performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Arlo Parks (Credit: Emily Marcovecchio)

The sun is fully back out for Arlo Parks, as if the forces of nature themselves know that any alternative just wouldn’t be right. This is music that deserves a backdrop equally as glittering and golden as itself, a light but deep take on soul where the dappled synths run seamlessly and effortlessly into the bass and touches of guitar. The whole thing sounds gorgeous, only magnified by Parks’ own soft, sweet vocals as she ambles back and forth across the stage. It’s another instance of the live stage bringing out the best in this work; Parks references Deftones’ White Pony as an influence on her growing up, and you can definitely see that in how much more dense the melodies and atmosphere that peel out are. It’s arguably the more important takeaway from that album than sating any adrenaline junkies; to expect that would be to miss the point. Instead, Parks’ creative synthesis grips with some far richer, more longstanding results.

Holly Humberstone performing at Leeds Festival 2023
Holly Humberstone (Credit: Georgina Hurdsfield)

There’s an inherent likability to Holly Humberstone, but right now, that’s about as far as it goes. These are the kind of easy-breezy indie-pop songs reliant much more on their performer than any obligatory spectacle, in which Humberstone’s hushed, quiet confidence is the killer app. She does very well in that regard, particularly in terms of a gauzy vocal texture on the likes of Antichrist. But when that sinks in, the formula becomes very apparent, as songs tailored for early-afternoon field listening to escape anything too intense often do. It’s all gentle and lightweight and a host of other adjectives that don’t convey much of a nailed-down response, but evidently, the job Humberstone sets out to do is done.

Of the cavalcade of popstars filling this year’s bill, the most swagger of them easily belongs to Caity Baser. Arguably she embodies the truest ‘conventionality’ in that field, where there’s a lot of colour and energy and winking, streetwise personality, almost akin to Lily Allen in that sense. It clearly works too; it’s frankly shocking to see how popular she is, not just in terms of bodies in the tent, but with how many seem to be screaming back every word. It can all feel a little scattered as Baser darts around—both physically and stylistically—but that’s undoubtedly part of the point. If anything, it feels like an artist trying to leverage the ‘anything goes’ tenet of TikTok-pop, and building more of a personality than the vast majority have. Thus, when she flits from bassy pop on X&Y to cod-reggae on STD to Joel Corry’s taut house production on Dance Around It (which gets an unsurprisingly massive reaction), it’s all strung together by Baser as a presence, and done so fairly well at that. The confidence here is exuded in spades, and for good reason most of the time.

You can tell how far the discrepancy lies between the Reading & Leeds environment and the morsels of the alternative and heavier realms that seep through. Had this been a more strictly rock-oriented affair, Scowl’s crowd would be nowhere near as spotty as it is, seeing as they’ve spent 2023 reshaping hardcore to their own whims, and becoming one of the genre’s pivotal new forces in the process. It clearly doesn’t faze them, mind; this remains as manic and pulse-pounding as one would expect from an act whose primary output is basement shows. Sure, there might be a literal barrier between them and that today, but the mood is there. It’s particularly true of frontwoman Kat Moss, who’ll switch from convulsing rottweiler one second to the brightest, most convivial indie-rock persona you’ve ever seen the next. It really is Scowl’s calling card these days, and while it’s a melodic backbone that truly stands out, the greater implications are the most interesting. The push is evidently there, and with the right force and effort, there’s almost the silhouette cast of a gap-bridger between this stage’s old Lock-Up days, and where the current incarnation as a whole is going. Get the right lineup together, and Scowl could theoretically sit unscathed on the Main Stage, a prospect that’s too enticing to leave as merely a ‘what if’.

There’s a look in Zand’s eyes that gives off absolutely nothing. Maybe that’s part of the bit—the whole ‘too-cool-to-care’ disaffection that alt-pop has effectively claimed as its own—but if it is, they pull it off a bit too convincingly. It doesn’t help that the barren stage puts all focus on them, already drawing in any and all gazes with a bright green wig, and subsequently puts an onus on how flippant the whole performance aspect is. Maybe it’s the case of a festival so deep in mainstream eyes not being their usual stomping ground, but none of this seems as cool or provocative as Zand wants it to be. The glassy-eyed detachment and aloofness is just too distracting; even when announcing an unreleased song Leeches, they almost sound fed up by the whole prospect. The music itself is much better with some good propulsiveness and industrial darkness, and it even seems to all click together on I Spit On Your Grave, with the screaming and more outwardly robotic gestures that finally elucidate where this whole shtick is supposed to go. Too often though, Zand gets caught up their own artifice to do much of anything. It’s quite a shame, when the cool ideas are so obviously there.

You’d think after wheeling out a cover of Smash Mouth’s All Star directly after another cover of Bring Me The Horizon’s Can You Feel My Heart?, you’d be dealing with an artist spinning their wheels so violently that they could provide power for this entire festival site. Not so with Mothica, though, who joins the cadre of acts this weekend for whom their recorded limitations are handily washed away on the live stage. It’s the ability for more that really sells it—the prominent guitar and drums are a clear anchor, and Mothica herself decked out in corsets and ostentatious winged shirts means she easily looks the part, alongside a vocal range that’s always been great. But she also dips into vulnerability that, really, hasn’t been explored this frankly by anyone else over the weekend. She’ll speak on her depression diagnosis and her years of sobriety with true passion, and in a corner of pop-rock and alt-pop that can frequently feel so put-on or undercooked when it comes to properly exploring those themes, putting a human face to them can make all the difference. Especially on forever fifteen, where she takes a seat and sings with the sole guitar accompaniment, the poignancy can be genuinely startling. It’s just a real solid showing overall, buoyed by a live personality and a sense of weight that Mothica inhabits far better than expected.

There’s energy onstage, and then there’s what Joey Valence & Brae are doing. It’s preluded well by their DJ dropping drum ‘n’ bass tracks and a rave remix of The Cranberries’ Zombie of all things, but even that gets swallowed up by a pair of personalities so enormous, they’re probably in danger of breaking out of the tent completely. It’s what you’d expect from an act packing such direct parallels to the Beastie Boys, only turned up to where the beats come crashing down relentlessly hard for an even more onomatopoeic slam. Of the two, it’s probably Joey Valence who gives the most as a physical performer that’s such an outstanding find, but the pair really do get swept up in their own energy on Double Jump or Punk Tactics, or any number of flagrantly ignorant, over-the-top hip-hop songs that can work a crowd like nobody’s business. What’s more, this isn’t a comedy sketch; they’re both perfectly decent as rappers, never dipping into insanely detailed flows, but allowing their outsized personalities to push them the rest of the way. And when the frankly untouchable entertainment value never gets close to wearing out, that absolutely goes a long way.

Central Cee performing at Reading Festival 2023
Central Cee (Reading Festival) (Credit: Isha Shah)

There’s a very real chance that Central Cee could be headlining outright in the next few years. Not necessarily because this is a great display, but he’s a big enough draw to where this could certainly be a financial success, if nothing else. Saying that though, any UK rapper at the crest of the wave at any given time could fit that bill; Central Cee just happens to be in a fortuitous spot right now. It’s possibly why this doesn’t feel like any kind of triumphant homecoming, as much as a fairly interchangeable artist getting some preordained time in the sun. He’s still got decent technical skills, as with most of his peers, and the effort to appear big with the CO2 and fire and an entire backing crew taking to the stage behind him isn’t lost. But as far as reaching a point of ubiquity with a cache of recognisable hits, he’s not entirely there. Yes, Doja is inevitably the one everyone’s been waiting for, but a lot of this can fade pretty quickly when the beats within UK hip-hop and drill aren’t rising above the norm. There’s a hunger to impress, definitely, but it’s a little awkward to translate, at least on this scale. Still, the hurdle to the very top will likely be cleared sooner rather than later.

The 1975 performing at Reading Festival 2023
The 1975 (Reading Festival) (Credit: Sarah Louise Bennett)

You’d almost think that The 1975 were supposed to be here. The fact they’ve had fans clinging to the Main Stage West’s barrier all day for them suggests enough innate appeal, as opposed to a band being offered a second consecutive headline slot to substitute for someone else, with little impetus behind it other than name recognition. At least this time, having them here makes more sense; there’s likely to be way more crossover between their fanbase and Lewis Capaldi’s than with Rage Against The Machine. But at the same time, it kind of runs the risk of diluting the brand, particularly if they’re in contention for topping the bill again in the future. This already doesn’t feel as momentous as it could, even compared to last time now they’ve proven they can succeed at a fill-in job. Though, saying that, this is a different kind of show again, now serving more as an impromptu celebration of their debut’s 10th anniversary, with a run-through of the entire album being the primary factor spun to sell this.

It’s not like that doesn’t work either. When you’ve got a band of proven unit-shifters like this, paired with a star-making debut that’s widely agreed to be their most consistent work overall, the overlap in factors can work in their favour by quite a lot. They’re fully committed to it, as well; this is presented surprisingly humbly for them, with Matty Healy donning a black t-shirt, trousers and a leather jacket as some kind of tacit throwback to when his ego was less titanic, and even the screens mimicking the monochrome aesthetic of that era. As for the songs—the leaner, more straightforward branch that The 1975 always seem to have been tempted to pick back up on—they’re the exact sort of ones that you build a festival headline set about. If anything, it makes you appreciate how foundational this sound was, as the splashes of ‘80s groove and sophistipop still sound fresh and pristine.

It’s a lot of fun to watch play out, especially when the segue into the ‘hits’ portion of the set builds on its momentum so seamlessly. The big sparkle of It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) to kick off is so wonderfully executed, as is the evidence that The 1975 have such a well-honed acumen for curating an ideal cross-section of their new wave best. It’s, once again, proof that the best side of them comes out live, where any self-aggrandising nonsense can be left aside in favour of the hooks they can demonstrably write, and proceed to slam out with willful regularity. When Healy declares his own songs to be bangers, you kind of have to agree with him; this is as definitive as proof gets, particularly when the spillover from their debut still features the likes of Happiness and The Sound as all-around terrific pop songs. So yeah, they have indeed done it again—even in circumstances not their own, The 1975’s ability to top a festival with a juggernaut pop party can’t be discounted in any form.

The Killers performing at Reading Festival 2023
The Killers (Reading Festival) (Credit: Sarah Louise Bennett)

Sometimes, for the closing night of a festival, you just need to pull out the big guns. It’s a bit more difficult in this case with a lineup that rotates with Reading (that, let’s be real, sometimes doesn’t fall in Leeds’ favour that much), but in the case of The Killers closing out, the stars align perfectly. They’re clearly not victim to 2000s indie ennui like so, so many of their peers; even just visually, with a stage packed full of backing singers and additional musicians, and Brandon Flowers as the vamping ringmaster in his velour jacket, a mark is being made. With Flowers especially, he’s got the radiant, painted-on smile that’s so infectious, to where when his claims of being “purveyors of some of the finest rock ‘n’ roll on the planet” can be dutifully believed.

And in this exact scenario, you’d be inclined to buy it even more. The Killers are a singles band with an absolute avalanche of them at their disposal, and an hour-and-a-half to systematically let the biggest and best of them rip is the perfect outcome. Particularly in the second half when they come even thicker and faster, the buoyant, bombastic gleam never ceases, playing to New Romantic swell and heartland-rock liberation that, on a clear night in a Yorkshire field, does somehow translate. When You Were Young is the first huge moment; following that later on, there’s Somebody Told Me, and Spaceman, and Runaways…basically, the misses are very rare. Maybe new song Your Side Of Town can be classed as the ‘worst’ of them, but that’s just because it’s against such stacked competition. As far as ‘playing the hits’ goes, The Killers can run circles around so many others.

But again, it’s the larger-than-life vibe of it all that ties it together. For The Killers, this is, in all actuality, nothing too enormous; there’s no new album to be promoted or grand anniversary to celebrate. You wouldn’t know it from looking at it though, when the curtain of sparks comes down on Caution, or the confetti goes off on My Own Soul’s Warning and The Man, or just from how unapologetic a showman Flowers consistently is. And with the confluence of factors at full force all the time, the electricity in the air is constantly aglow. Nowhere does that come with more magnitude than the closer Mr Brightside—it might be the most overplayed song in the universe, at the time of writing in its 376th week on the UK Charts, but it’s endured for a reason, and hearing a field of thousands belt out one of the most iconic choruses in modern popular music, while its original smith beams on in admiration, is the sort of moment these festivals were made to foster. And when The Killers know the exact ways to dominate this corner of rock music time and time again through those exact means, it’s why they continue to tower over basically everyone.

Words by Luke Nuttall

Photos by Matt Eachus, Emily Marcovecchio, Georgina Hurdsfield, Isha Shah and Sarah Louise Bennett

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