There are many things that Leeds covets as a city – cheap beers, being the birthplace of M&S – but perhaps its most precious asset is its thudding music scene, and with it, the annual Live At Leeds Festival.
Kicking off my day at 3pm were the floppy-haired rockers Drenge at O2 Academy, who wryly commented on how “pleased” they were to be on so early. With this time-slot came a roomful of people who weren’t yet pissed, so a normally raucous Drenge gig (being kicked in the head seeing them in 2013 was a memory that sprung to my mind mid-set) was reduced to a lot of polite head-nodding (-10 points for poor atmosphere). At one point, lead singer Eoin Loveless looked so bored with the crowd that he decided to make his own craic and roll off the stage’s speakers. Despite all this, Drenge were still brilliant and their new songs off 2019’s Strange Creatures sounded incredible. Slick, heavy and lyrical, their new sound is mature and developed, which is probably why they managed to survive the indie black hole that ended the popularity of many of their contemporaries. Their hour-long set comprised of new bangers like “Autonomy” and “Prom Night,” as well as crowd-pleasing tracks from their first two albums like “Face Like A Skull” and “We Can Do What We Want”, of course rounding off their set in classic Drenge fashion with the gloomy, tuneful, powerful and still fucking brilliant “Let’s Pretend.” To remind you further that they’ve grown up, they projected the experimental 1929 Soviet silent film Man with a Movie Camera (+5 points for this weird flex) on the back of the stage, to the hilarious bemusement of the crowd.
Next, I rushed over to Hifi to catch Dead Naked Hippies (+10 points for the excellent band name), who were on home turf as a Leeds-native band. Frontwoman Lucy Jowett exuded as much energy and brashness as her bright red hair, commanding the stage and projecting her fierce vocals onto the (very male, I noticed) crowd. Clearly having perfected their own unique brand of tuneful noise, the trio brought a punk edge to proceedings.
With a gap in my planned schedule after this, I wandered over to Headrow House (+20 points for providing the cheapest pint of the day) and decided to go and see Irish electro-indie-house-pop duo Le Boom. “Leeds, you make 6pm feel like 6am” singer Chris said in delight, and I couldn’t agree more – the duo would have gone down well at a grotty Leeds house party or at a set in Canal Mills. We basically could not stop dancing the entire time, with the duo’s energy and genuine joy bouncing off on the crowd; it felt like we were witnessing something special. Irresistible, infectious and energetic, Le Boom blends classic house beats in with subtle indie sensibilities and catchy vocal hooks, and by the end of the set had the crowd eating out of their palm.
After this was the hardest decision of the day – whether to go and see one of my favourite bands, Black Honey, or to try and catch the much-hyped afro-funk collective Ibibio Sound Machine. We decided to with the latter, and reader, I made the right decision. Fusing 80’s afrobeat with West African funk and electro, their carefully crafted sound was an explosion of joy in Leeds Beckett’s Student Union. With a smile permanently plastered on the crowd’s faces (-1 point for face-ache), the entire set was essentially an extended party, with band and audience alike grooving along with the masterful songs and dulcet vocals. Named after the Ibibio language of southern Nigeria, which is the native tongue of lead singer Eno William’s mother, the collective are poised to set summer festival season ablaze with their refreshing, anthemic and vibrant set.
The day could not be complete, however, without an injection of Tumblresque indie nostalgia, and thus, we descended on The Wardrobe to catch Swim Deep to end the evening. Although it felt a little sickening to see the extremely young crowd and feel a pang of oh God this was me six years ago (-5 points for the sudden awareness of one’s burgeoning wrinkles), all that was forgotten as soon as Austin Williams started playing the opening chords of “King City.” Although it’s fair to say that the golden days of B-Town are well and truly behind us, the set wasn’t despondent or forced, and luckily the group were still fine with playing some of their somewhat uncool but still-loveable early material; synth-heavy and trippy bangers from their second album, like “To My Brother” and “Fueiho Boogie,” still stood up as being fresh and groovy. They also debuted new songs, including “Sail Away,” which Austin said was dedicated to his grandmother, whose birthday it was, which resulted in a touching moment. They’re a raucously restless bunch, who still embrace their irresistible status as dream-pop outcasts despite a fair bunch of their songs relating more to acid house and psychedelia. Although the set was a fun blast from the past, we’ll have to wait and see what their third album will bring us before we can truly herald the return of Swim Deep.
Live at Leeds’ strength, and weakness, is that it’s a city-wide festival with the line-up spread across various venues across the city. This allows for a diversity in a location with a huge choice of people to see, including loads of up-and-upcoming acts. However, with some venues not being too close to each other, if you want to see one band at The Wardrobe and you have fifteen minutes to get up to Leeds University Union, there’s a high chance you’ll be caught up in a mad stampede of denim, leather, glitter and stripes as you rush there, only to find that the band are already nearing the end of their set. Many bands I wanted to see clashed, so I had to make some pretty ruthless decisions about my day. Despite this, and the fact that headliners Metronomy could not play after a water pipe burst in one of the venues (-20 points for the literal headliners not playing), Live at Leeds was smoothly run, well organised and generally a pleasure to attend.
Words by Steph Green