Review of Leeds Festival taking place at Bramham Park August 28th to 31st 2009.
Before the flood of festivals descended on us, before every spare field was apparently filled with revellers and burger vans, festivals used to be A Big Deal. Leeds Festival was one of said festivals. But ironically, you didn't have a massive choice of genres or activities: it was Guns and Roses , burning toilet blocks and cans of warm, flat Carling. And the funny thing is this was something to look forward to.
Well, for better or worse, times have changed and this festival has changed with it. Whilst you know the weather is probably going to be dire, Leeds has undeniably cleaned up its act over the last decade. The nightmare of this year's' one way system' aside (1,000 person crush, anyone?), with cleaner toilets, a better site, nicer food and a line-up of fabled status - these days Leeds could rival any festival. 2009's billing in particular has tried hard to appeal to lots of different tastes. From Deftones to Arctic Monkeys, MSTRKRFT to The Black Lips: It's diverse and as music-centred as a weekend can be. An unfortunate symptom of this is of course the dreaded clash of two (or in some cases FOUR!) bands you like playing at the same time.
Contact seemed doomed to have to choose between dynamite acts all weekend, particularly on Saturday evening when Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gallows, White Denim and The Ruling Class all started at roughly the same time. But voting with your feet is never a bad idea, and Karen O rarely lets anyone down who fancies a spectacle. True to form they really are so watchable, an ideal festival band. Songs like 'Date With The Night' are huge, ballsy fun but where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs really shine is their ability to tug on the heart strings. 'Skeleton' is pure and lovely heartbreak, and by the time the acoustic version of 'Maps' comes around there's barely a dry eye in the house. Add what must be 200 years of different fashion compressed into 3 neon costume changes and you have quite a show on your hands.
It's a shame the same sort of showmanship couldn't have been employed by the Arctic Monkeys. Fresh off the plane from making their rather excellent new album with Josh Homme at the Joshua Tree, you'd think they'd be leaping around the stage with creative exuberance. Unfortunately, it seems they are still jet lagged. Though they've never really been the limelight-hogging types their demeanour is particularly hangdog this evening - the stage banter is at a minimum and they finish quietly on a downbeat couple of songs and leave without much fanfare. The songs are brimming with wit and intelligence, but when delivered through the corner of Alex Turner's pout all their vibrance seems to fall flat to the floor. A disappointing finish to the opening night.
From misery to, well, even more misery! But whilst Friday might have seen the equivalent of a storm in a teacup, this may well be the torrential downpour. No one does melancholy quite like Radiohead. The problem with the expectation weighted upon this band is that people come to see them with very different expectations, and it's a real fight to satisfy everyone. Those overly fond of telling you that Kid A is actually much better than OK Computer vs. the people that will get upset if they don't play 'Creep' and 'The Bends'. And who do you side with? Saturday's set will please the latter crowd, but the fact is that Radiohead have now long been the big, ambitious band we see before us tonight: dazzlingly accomplished, subtle and note-perfect. Stood in front of the mesmerising lights- as the dejected little riff from 'You and Whose Army?' kicks in- I think the people who pine for the days where Thom Yorke had a blonde helmet hairdo and a bit of a whinge seem quite contrary. They were never plugging for stadium anthems, so they finish on the gently euphoric 'Everything in its Right Place.' And it is musical perfection to end all perfection; if Pink Floyd were around today this is who they'd be. The set is punctuated with more than enough evidence of their genius, and if you don't agree, well there's always La Roux in the NME tent.
Not to say every highlight of the weekend has to be so grandiose and perfectly executed. That's the beauty of an event like this; there's so much choice it's easy to stumble across a brilliant experience. Leeds Festival is now just as much about the raw talent as it is about the headliners, and this can only be a good thing. The BBC Introducing stage in particular was a great little arena for this, a well chosen cross-section of up-and-coming talent from all four corners of the UK - positioned to catch people's attention making their way to the main stages. Contact was lucky enough to catch some of Manchester's Everything Everything on Sunday, who come across somewhere between Wild Beasts and Futureheads - great pop music that's catchy but never fails to be inventive. If you'd have wandered by on Friday you might have got the much-lauded local boys Chickenhawk whose particularly noisy metal could not have been more musically opposite, but just as thrilling. It's a true lucky dip and all in all, that's where some of the Leeds weekends best moment's lie, in just taking a chance on a random tent and seeing what happens. You may be disappointed, you may be blown away, or splitting your sides; like on Sunday evening when we see an already raucous (and excellent) Black Lips set tears turn into a massive stage invasion, only to be stopped when people start crowd surfing on top of the drum kit. Now there's something you don't see every day, as great as that would be. So everyone's a winner, providing you bring your wellies.
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