Live At Leeds – Festival Review
Saturday 4th May 2013
Still Corners, Kleine Schweine, PINS and Post War Glamour Girls are just some of the highlights of a twelve hour musical whistle-stop tour of Leeds venues.
The sun’s shining through the porthole windows of a bar that’s already full at midday, though the synthpop coming from just in front of them is almost inappropriately dark and brooding. Yes, May is here, the month of music madness, of rushing around city streets with a wristband and one eye on the Twitter feed. In a couple of weeks we’ll be Great Escaping to Brighton, but it all kicks off in the north – at the other end of the M62 Liverpool Sound City‘s already into day three; tomorrow Salford hosts Sounds From The Other City. But today we’re in Leeds where Live At Leeds has over a few years now established itself as a fine season opener, dishing up a carefully curated bill of local talent, emerging stars of tomorrow, a few big-hitter headliners and the inevitable Dutch Uncles. No, really – we have this theory that wherever there’s one of these things Dutch Uncles will be on the bill somewhere (they did their shift at Liverpool Sound City yesterday).
“Can you just all move forward a bit to let more people in? trust me, it feels good to say that. Normally it’s like, can you make it look busier?” The dark pop and mild self-deprecation comes courtesy of local scene veteran LONE WOLF who’s kicking off a packed schedule at Milo’s. Not literally a lone wolf, Paul Marshall has a bassist, drummer and keyboard player backing his brooding melodrama – and a spine-tingling falsetto which makes an appearance four songs in. It’s like a 21st century take on vintage Talk Talk that’s already seen him tour with Wild Beasts and Bat For Lashes, and on the strength of this little six-song set he’s (or they’ve?) certainly got what it takes to make some headway of his/their own – new album “The Lovers” is out now and the first entry on my post-festival shopping list. Good start.
Dodging the EDL and anti-EDL demos in the city centre we didn’t actually know about in advance, next stop is Nation Of Shopkeepers for MENACE BEACH. Something of a local supergroup with time served variously in Sky Larkin, Hookworms, Komakino and You Animals they dish up fun noisy sunshine fuzz-pop in two minute splatter-bursts. They have one spectacularly cardiganned singer, a guitarist and bassist playing on the floor in front of the stage, and clear evidence of ownership of Sebadoh records: one of those bands who could lift the blackest mood – and we were feeling pretty good to start with. The same sadly probably can’t be said of the people at the back of the wristband queue, which is by this point stretching half way across the city… Or it may be the queue for The Pigeon Detectives. Yes, they still exist – who knew? Enough people to stuff the O2 Academy apparently. We meanwhile are off up to the university for a bit where there are three stages: first stop’s the basement Mine bar where THOSE ROTTEN THIEVES are knocking out some sturdy AC/DC riffs and proper headbanger rock’n’roll that’s completely at odds with the bassist’s eyeball-frazzling Hawaiian shirt.
There are too many swimmy bands around at the moment and it’s all terribly confusing. One of our party’s headed up to the Brudenell for Wild Swim; Swim Deep and Splashh are playing later, for us it’s time for some SWIMMING LESSONS in the univesrity’s mid-sized Stylus venue. One man with guitar, keyboards, stubbly beard and glasses he doesn’t look much like he’d be particularly good at swimming lessons, but he is rather good at reverb-heavy experimental pop. It’s fair to say that musically there’s not a lot to distinguish his sound from about 3500 other bedroom electro-dreamers who put music on the internet, often alongside washed-out Instagrams, but his arresting and emotionally-charged vocals certainly do.
Things that intrigue us: #1 – the notice in the smoking area “Please do not interfere with the drain (eg. putting cigarette ends / litter in the top) It is being used for MSc dissertation”. We resist the temptation somehow (though rather wish they’d included a website address or something for the probably considerable number of people now wondering exactly what this dissertation’s all about) and #2 – the bit where BLACKEYE‘s guitarist makes use of a bass/drum interlude in one of their songs to do some pull-ups from a girder over the Mine stage. Mind you, with the fiery, peroxide-and-eyeliner assertive Chloe Little on bass, vocals and short black dress he could probably do headstands and half the crowd wouldn’t notice. Top of the NME’s “Five Buzz Bands You Have To See at Live At Leeds” list (though we only discover this afterwards) the Peckham trio have drawn comparisons to Garbage and Elastica but they’re a whole lot more fun and upbeat than that might suggest. Not least on their last song, a punky grunge pop classic-in-waiting with a huge chorus of “I just wanna fuck the night away” – we reckon you’ll be seeing a lot more of this band, and you can imagine whole fields of festival crowds adopting it as an anthem…
Next it’s catch-up time. Grammatics were much loved in Leeds, releasing one exceptional album through Dance To The Radio before disbanding rather suddenly a couple of years ago; they were one of those bands who seemed gone before their time, with so much unfulfilled potential. These days Owen Brinley’s beautifully evocative voice can be found fronting DEPARTMENT M, who’ve drawn a big crowd in Stylus. I guess a lot of other people have missed him too. His talent for oddly twisted and thoughtful post-rock-tinged indie pop is still present and correct, and if anything this almost entirely synth-based outfit (albeit with a live drummer) provides a more expansive canvas for his myriad shades of darkness and light. There’s even a bit of (very on-trend) indie-r’n’b edge in places, including current single ‘I’ll Fax You An Apology’, and done better than pretty much anyone else: looks like that potential might finally be realised. Meanwhile back down in Mine, FAWN SPOTS do a reasonable impression of No Age doing Husker Du. We might possibly be starting to get cabin fever, but there’s a couple more bands we want to catch before we move on…
One of them is POST WAR GLAMOUR GIRLS, whom we first saw as unknowns in a quiet early afternoon slot at the Cockpit at Live At Leeds 2011 – we liked them then, but they’ve come a long way in those two years. Stylus is close to capacity and the local four-piece certainly sound big enough today. Ferocious, even. Alice’s bass sounds positively threatening while singer James is your classic anti-frontman, spilling half-sung half-spoken bitterness and tales of seedy intrigue like he’s desperately trying to purge something rather unpleasant from his system (though he’s quite happy chatting off-mic and sharing beer with the front ranks as soon as it’s done). “Service Station Blues” is outstanding, even if we’re probably best off not knowing what it’s all about (murder and prostitutes, we think). It all seems over far too soon – maybe because for that half hour this afternoon Post War Glamour Girls felt like headliners.
Then there’s twisted filth of a completely different kind downstairs, where we crash in to find CASTROVALVA singing Happy Birthday (“…you motherfucker”) to someone, possibly their drummer. Castrovalva have always defied any sensible descriptions, but if you can imagine the results of a spontaneous house-party involving The Mars Volta, early Mudhoney, someone with ADHD playing old prog albums at 45rpm, gallons of tramp-cider, speed and some extremely violent slapstick films you might be in the vaguely right ballpark. Or you could screw trying to analyse or understand it and just have a massive and deliriously happy moshpit. At teatime.
Tea is, of course, from the chippy next to Milo’s (has anyone ever actually tried the pea fritter? I always wonder about it, but I’m always in a hurry when I’m in there) which is rammed. The venue, not the chippy. Seems most of the venues are – the queue outside the Cockpit contains about three times as many people as the venue holds and Twitter is getting very angry indeed, with one hashtag punter claiming to have “seen nobody all day”. One has to surmise they’ve not really tried – we just saw seven bands between the University venues and none of them involved a queue.
The crux of the matter seems to be (in the words of the hard working press office) “some bands exploded into the mainstream earlier than expected” with fans of mainstream-friendly acts such as Peace (whom we saw here last year, before the hype, playing a mid-afternoon slot to a near-empty Stylus – they were pretty average, with little to indicate then certainly that they’d be headlining one of the venues twelve months on) and The 1975 expecting that their ticket entitled them to see these bands. Which it did, of course, if you were prepared to spend most of the day stuck in the Cockpit. I’ve done it myself – not the Cockpit, but certainly Brighton venues during Great Escape when there’s been a must-see performance; spent four hours in a pop-up venue tent once with no toilet facilities and a couple of truly dire bands before the two I “had” to see, an evening still recalled by all present in all its horrific detail six years on. This does however presume not only prior experience or knowledge of the whole wristband festival thing but an accurate assessment of the popularity not just of the band you’re aiming for but he two or three before them. Maybe the festivals should be more upfront about the issue in their programmes and websites, but you don’t want to put people off coming – and would a kid who’s mostly bought their ticket to see the latest NME band even see it? It’s a tough one.
Anyway back to Milo’s (waiting time to get in about ten minutes, in the end – some of it rather amusingly spent with members of Kleine Schweine who are due on in half an hour but even they can’t physically get through the door until some people have left) where we still manage half a set of SPIRIT OF JOHN‘s brilliant acoustic skiffle punk – now there’s a genre you don’t hear every day. Just the two of them, one with a stand-up double bass and the other with a guitar they rattle along at a fair old pace surrounded on all sides by a crowd doing their best to dance in the very confined space available.
Everyone else has gone to see Savages. It was a tough choice, with their new album freshly landed on my turntable (and yes, it really is as good as LTW’s review says it is) and a professional music journalist would have been hot-footing it to the university, flashing the VIP wristband in case of queue and then gritting their teeth through the technical problems we later hear from everyone rather stunted the band’s impact. Me? I’m squashed into a corner between the bar and the square metre of floorspace that’s desperately trying to act as a stage with my head practically in the guitar amps, as in a scene gloriously reminiscent of 2012’s Live At Leeds highlight, KLEINE SCHWEINE attempt to tear the venue several new orifices.
With song titles such as “Arkan See Clearly Now” and “Ceaucescu Let The Dogs Out” (and plenty more where they came from), a quick read about the band on the internet could result in some people thinking they’re a joke band. Those people, should they exist, could really do with being here right now. Yes, it’s shambolic – amps aren’t doing what they should, the sound’s all over the place and singer Neil is ricocheting off everyone and everything, falling backwards into the drums within the first five minutes – but it’s probably the most punk rock thing you could have the pleasure of experiencing today. Behind the punning titles are some great songs with astute, pithy lyrical snapshots of various events in the late 20th century history of Eastern Europe – though you’d be hard pushed to make most of them out here, aside from shout-along chorus lines like “I was the king of East Berlin” and “Yeah! I killed the President!” (great to shout along at a gig, that is – maybe less so when they pop up on your MP3 player’s shuffle on the train or in the gym). You can’t argue with the exhilarating powerchord tunes, though. It’s like a shot or adrenaline – or indeed Jaegermeister, a tray of which is delivered to the band mid-set by someone in the crowd. Pretty impressive considering the set is all of about 17 minutes. 17 minutes and about ten songs, we reckon, the last being a cover of “Smash It Up” played at a speed I suspect The Damned themselves would seriously struggle with these days. If you miss proper punk, punk that didn’t have “pop-” or “post-” or “steam-” or “emo-” stuck on the front of it a date with Kleine Schweine should sort you right out – their next will be supporting Goldblade at the Brudenell Social Club on 15th June, tickets available from all the usual places including the excellent Jumbo Records (online or in person).
The Brudenell is taking part in today’s events, but we don’t actually make it up there – in my defence, it’s a heck of a walk from town. We hear The Sunshine Underground – “secret” headliners actually announced a couple of days in advance – went down a storm. We’ve headed back to the Metropolitan University because we want to see PINS who are on in about an hour but we’ve heard the queue’s getting heavy there, too. It is, and even using the press pass (I know, I do feel a bit wrong doing it) we slip inside literally seconds before it declares it’s at capacity. Which gives us some time to kill, and the chance to do that thing you’re meant to do at festivals and go and see something that’s totally outside your natural music taste. This being LAURA MVULA: we’ve read plenty about her, time to see what she actually sounds like. Um, maybe. She should have gone on ten minutes ago, but then I guess there’s quite a lot to line-check, including a harp. Another ten minutes and the crowd’s getting restless: it’s not great to keep a crowd waiting too long at events like this, even if you are the voice of 2013 or whatever. Thing is when she does appear, after another five, she seems so down-to-earth and nice she’s got everyone back on side pretty much instantly. Her talent in both the singing and songwriting departments is undeniable from the start, and a big part of that talent is her natural restraint: she doesn’t over-emote or belt it out because she doesn’t have to. It does feel a bit like having been transplanted into Later With Jools, though; you can appreciate talent without actually liking the results and at the end of the day jazzy adult pop – however well executed – isn’t really where our heads are at coming straight from a punk rock moshpit. Thought we’d have given her more of a chance had she come on on time – as it is we’ve got places to be…
Up at the bar stage, we spot another problem. The building may well be at capacity, let’s call it X, but X minus 15 people are downstairs. And PINS are supposed to be on in a minute. I know it’s logistics and fire regulations and stuff but it still seems rather immoral that there are people standing outside and there’s a band playing to – by the time they come on it’s thankfully rather more than 15, but nevertheless – a room less than half full.
It’s hard to tell what the band think about this as they’ve got that expressionless No Wave cool down to a fine art – but looking great (which they always do) would be irrelevant if they didn’t have the sound to back it up. And what a sound it is – the voodoo drums, the buzzsaw guitars and Faith Holgate’s ever-so-slightly menacing vocal delivery – but it’s so much more than that, it’s the way each song sucks you into a dark hypnotic mantra. They don’t say much, except to highlight a couple of new songs that take this idea and run with it, the guitars heading strongly into space-fuzz territories. Don’t you just love it when a band introduces new stuff and it’s some of the best in the set? Not that previous single LUVU4LYF isn’t as utterly brilliant as ever, of course.
We make a swift exit to avoid exposure to American uberpillock Darwin Deez who’s incomprehensibly headlining the main room downstairs, and put our destiny in the hands of Google Maps because as usual we can’t remember where The Wardrobe is. That’s a venue called the Wardrobe, for those unfamiliar with Leeds. We have been inside many venues over the years that resemble wardrobes, but this isn’t one of them – once you’ve braved the terrifying jazz-dancing in the main bar, the stairs lead down to a good little live space, and surprisingly underpopulated. Yes, we could be watching Everything Everything or The Walkmen or The Sunshine Underground, but it’s the beautiful, fluid dreampop of STILL CORNERS that wraps up our musical adventure. Early sightings a couple of years ago were all about soft focus, from the projections and smoke machines to the misty morning sonic haze; these days beats and bleeps have emerged from the colourwash as their faces have from the shadows. The result is a kind of Maps or Ulrich Schnauss – esque electrogaze euphoria with Tessa Murray’s delicate voice floating through a delicious motorik-driven landscape; the perfect end to a pretty long day.
Much later, notes are compared with those who took a completely different path through proceedings. Sometime LTW scribe Liam Core left us after Lone Wolf and never managed to reconvene, reporting fine performances from SJ Bravo, Wild Swim, Swiss Lips, On An On, Deep Sea Arcade (another watery name for the list there), Splashh!, Savages, Dutch Uncles, The Walkmen and Sky Larkin with just one twenty minute queue (for peak-time On An On at the tiny Shopkeepers) on a regular non-press ticket. It’s always a sign of a good festival when you could easily assemble an equally good bill from the bands you didn’t get to see because you were watching someone else – and having been coming to Live At Leeds since 2008, we reckon this was the best yet.