Live at Leeds has become something of a W&H tradition: there’s a definite buzz about the event, which not only marks the start of the festival season, but also has a habit of showcasing a lot of artists who will subsequently break on through over the next 12 to 18 months.
A cursory glance at this year’s lineup suggested something of a shift in focus for Live at Leeds, hinting that the more commercially-orientated inclusions which have become more numerous in recent years had reached a tipping point. Hover a cursor over half the acts on the lineup and you’ll read the words ‘for fans of The 1975 / Warpaint’ a considerable number of times. But in truth, Live at Leeds offered up as wide a selection of ever, and one place that invariably guarantees to showcase the more quirky, unusual and often homegrown talents is The Brudenell, the venue surely most synonymous with the city’s wildly eclectic scene.
It seems a lot of others had had the same idea, I was impressed to see just how many had made it down before I arrived at 12:15 in time for the end of Wuzi’s set of rough-hewn grunge rock (which was rather good, climaxing as it did with an extended riff workout).
The Golden Age of TV showed a similar surprise, looking out over a busy Brudenell Games Room. It’s no disservice to the band to describe their brand of twinkly, synthy shoegaze with sift, rippling guitar as ‘nice.’ ‘Nice’ doesn’t have to be a synonym for ‘bland’, and there’s room in the world for bands who make music dreamy indie that’s thoughtfully composed and well played, especially when it’s unexpectedly noisy in places.
One of benefits of hanging out at the Brudenell is being able to move between rooms to see bands back-to-back, and immediately after in the main room, Team Picture looked very much at home. Their dark, stark new wave pop sounded strong and dense through the big PA, and they looked the business under minimal white laser lighting.
Nipping out to grab a samosa from the chop next door and a beer from the bar, I return a little way into Lisbon’s set to find the games room is beyond packed. People are loving it. And I really don’t get it. On stage, some anonymous-looking bokes are churning out some generic indie rock and the most remarkable thing about them is just how unremarkable they are.
It would be hard to level such an accusation at snotty synth-poppers Luxury Death. They may be suffering from a breakdown of the bass, but they still kicked out some killer tunes – all the more effective for their simplicity – with aplomb. With enough hook-laden singles to their credit to already make for a strong set (‘Radiator Face’ and ‘Glue’ are obvious standouts), the dual vocals and contrasting performances of Ben Thompson (energetic, attacking) and Meg Williams (centre stage with a sulky, bored expression, almost static behind her keyboard) creates a compelling sense of friction.
Live at Leeds is savvy when it comes to its scheduling, and invariably pitches some of its big name acts earlier in the day. Strolling smugly past the queues round the block as I pass The Church and wondering why anyone would queue to see The Pigeon Detectives, I find a similar situation outside the O2 Academy. But then, White Lies were always going to be a big draw. Sitting in the early post-millennium post-punk revival alongside the likes of Editors, there’s a sense that there’s something altogether too safe about their slickly produced, synth-heavy reworking of the Joy Division / early New Order template. But it would be pure snobbery to dismiss the band for achieving commercial success, or to criticise their large-venue show for sounding really, really good. ‘Lose My Life’ and ‘Farewell to the Fairground’ are great, great tunes, with strong choruses, and they’ve got no shortage of others in their repertoire. What’s more, even at this level, they play them like they mean them, and look genuinely appreciative of the audience’s warm reaction.
What better way to experience the fullness of contrast than by following White Lies at the Academy with a jaunt to the dark, sweaty underground 200-capaciy Key Club to witness a grungy power trio delivering an intense thrashabout? There’s a lot to like about Atlas Wynd, not least of all the explosive energy of their bassist. The man’s a human tornado and has incredible presence. He plays some mean bass, too. Combining the full-throttle energy of Nirvana with a dash of The Who and the drawling coolness of Queens of the Stone Age, they’ve got a faultless handle on the quiet / loud dynamic thing, and deliver quite a rush.
Fazerdaze, the musical vehicle of New Zealander Amelia Murray, offer a rather calmer kind of listening experience. The brittle guitars are pitched against soft-edged synths reminiscent of Stereolab, and finished with Murray’s melodic vocals, they’ve got their sound nailed, and their songs are charmingly sweet.
The same can’t be said of the saccharine pop of Fickle Friends. Granted, the selection at this point of the day is limited – it’s 18:45 and we’re in the lull between afternoon and evening sessions – but whoever recommended this lot to me is in for trouble. Ok, so I’m 20 years too old and 100% too male to be the target audience, but I do get pop. I know what’s good pop, and I know that this is just heinous autotuned fluff. Enduring three songs felt like an act of journalistic heroism.
HMLTD, on the other hand, are an art rock riot. Yes, you can see and hear Bowie, Roxy Music, Bauhaus, not to mention Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Adam and the Ants, and even David Devant and his Spirit Wife and Art Brut all in the mix, meaning they’re far from original in their style or sound. But these made-up, flamboyantly-dressed poseurs put on a show. Of all the acts I caught during this year’s festival, they were the only ones who felt dangerous. Every second of their show had a wild unpredictability, a sense that anything could happen at any moment, and I found myself wondering if they’d even make it to the end of the set intact. They did – just – but left behind a mess of mic stands and feedback as they stumbled off.
Where do you go from there? The University’s Stylus venue is where, to catch a bit of Honeyblood , who make an immense, dense alt-rock noise for a duo, before swerving down to The Church to see Frightened Rabbit play to a near-capacity crowd who clearly adore their stuff. It’s not hard to grasp why they’re pitched alongside former labelmates The Twilight Sad and bands like The National, but the fact they’ve been signed to Atlantic since 2010 also indicates that their brand of soaring, cinematic emotive indie has a mass appeal that aligns them more closely with the latter than the former. Which is also to say that the emotional depth is tempered by an accessibility and universality which dilutes its power and capacity to really dig into the deeper, darker places. Perhaps a full 90-minute set is exactly what an ardent fan wants, but it’s less appealing for a more casual observer, and with a set drawing heavily on last year’s ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ (which conveys all the anxiety of the prospect of a quiet night in front of the TV) the set did slump into saminess after a while.
The plan had been to hop next door to round off the day with Let’s Eat Grandma, but their 11pm set had been pushed back to midnight to make way for a crew of hipsters dressed head to toe in white who take to the stage 15 minutes late after an eternity of tweaking the mic levels. Apparently, the hipsters are Shy Luv – Shiteluv, more like, according to my notes. It seems like an appropriate time to call it a night, and it seems a fair few others share this view.
Of course, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but on balance, Live at Leeds 2017 succeeded – once again – in pleasing a lot of people for most of the day. And that’s really everything you could hope for from a festival.