Friday, August 31, 2012

Live Review: Leeds Festival 2012

It's not exactly been a vintage year for the UK's major festival circuit. Mediocre lineups, Glastonbury's absence and the odd cancellation have, truth be told, made for a rather quiet season, with no real success stories or headline grabbing antics to speak of. Reading and Leeds, the last of the summer giants can usually be relied on to liven things up, but this year even they appeared a tad underwhelming, with a pair of generic headliners topping a bill which looked average at best. This twin event's ace card, however, has always been its depth, so there was a certain inevitability in the way that the schedule became more and more attractive with each new announcement.

Friday (24/08/2012)

Among Leeds' latest additions were Mongol Horde, Frank Turner's new hardcore side project who were playing only their third ever gig in the punk-themed Lock-Up tent. Stalking the stage topless and drenched in sweat from the offset, it was almost as if someone had flicked a switch in the mainman's head, abandoning his heart on sleeve earnesty and bringing about a complete personality switch. It wasn't quite up to Million Dead standards, but their set (which was rounded off by a raucous cover of Nirvana's "Territorial Pissings") was thoroughly decent, and provided an aggressive middle finger to anyone with the absurdity to suggest that Turner's heart no longer lies in punk rock. Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem, however, are heading in the complete opposite direction, something which their Main Stage appearance went some way towards proving. Shunning any hint of their roots, the New Jersey heroes instead focused on the MOR Americana that's brought them so much success, with a set heavy on cuts The '59 Sound and new record Handwritten. Although not at their best, the quartet still attracted a sizable crowd, who responded well to the likes of "45" and "Too Much Blood" despite the frustratingly quiet PA system.

Friday's next two major attractions had also jetted over from the states, bringing with them their respective takes on the nation's great blues tradition. The first of those came in the shape of the Mark Lanegan Band, whose classy performance over on the NME Stage provided the weekend with its first true highlight. Moody yet effortlessly cool on stage, former Screaming Tree Lanegan was in fine voice throughout, with a crunching musical backdrop only adding weight to the singer's weathered, velvety baritone. He barely said a word throughout, but why bother when you've got such a unique blend of style and substance to fall back on?! The Black Keys general outlook may be far lighter, but their name has also become widely recognised as a reliable stamp of quality. Playing by far their biggest UK festival shows to date, the Ohio-based duo more than justified their lofty position, delivering a rock solid stint which lent heavily on the more recent corners of their discography. It would've been nice had they aired some of their lesser known earlier material, or indeed the surprisingly omitted "Everlasting Light," but these can really only be seen as minor complaints.

When the initial bill was announced back in March, I found it hard to get excited over the prospect of the Foo Fighters headlining yet another UK festival. There is, however, a reason why Dave Grohl and co. get so many calls, namely that they're a storming live band who have a genuinely immense catalogue of radio rock hits at their disposal. Populist though they are, there's simply no denying the power or scope of "My Hero," "This Is A Call" or "Everlong," all of which were greeted with adulation from the assembled masses. It was completely predictable, and at times a little over-indulgent, but you'd be fighting a losing battle trying to find anyone that didn't enjoy it.

Saturday (25/08/2012)

Saturday got off to a rather more modest start, with Welsh noisemakers Future Of The Left opening proceedings before a criminally sparse crowd on the NME Stage. Not ones to be phased by poor turnouts - or for that matter, anything - the four piece ripped through a phenomenal set which drew from all corners of their catalogue and also included a pair of Mclusky songs (NOT covers, as Andy Falkous was keen to remind us all). They'd probably have benefited from a later slot on a smaller stage, but the pure seething energy of "Small Bones Small Bodies" and "Robocop 4 - Fuck Off Robocop" nevertheless did plenty to awaken dreary eyed punters who did bother to venture out early. Thoroughly, thoroughly excellent.

With a frankly dire lineup of established afternoon acts, the onus was placed on the Festival Republic Stage to produce the goods with its eclectic mix of new and emerging talent. Arguably the most exciting prospect on offer were Savages, an all-female London-based post punk outfit whose debut single has caused quite a stir in the indie underground. On this evidence their hype train will only gain momentum, as that track, "Husbands" was by no means the standout of a feisty and ear-splittingly intense showing. Industry hype is, of course, not always a guarantee of true worth. That much was proven by mediocre appearances from both Parma Violets and We Are Augustines - though the latter were at least far more convincing live than on record. Far more impressive were Alt-J, the rapidly rising Cambridge 'folktronica' outfit behind one of 2012's most intriguing debut albums, An Awesome Wave. Despite a fragile sound, their songs strike a rare balance between addictive hooks and brainy invention, one which clearly strikes a chord with the army of fans who packed the tent to its rafters. The bubbling bass-led filth of "Fitzpleasure" was a particular high point, leaving little doubt that this unashamedly nerdy trio are one of the finest new bands around.

Back over on the NME Stage, Graham Coxon attempted to dispel grumblings over Blur's flat Olympic farewell by refocusing on his solo career. Unfortunately he was up against it right from the start, with his efforts largely undermined by an influx of white vested LADs who had turned up early to mark their territory ahead of The Courteeners' arrival. It must be said, however, that the guitarist's setlist did him no favours, with noisy jams and tracks from new album A+E generally given the nod over festival friendly anthems. It was by no means a bad showing, but the wisdom in playing dingy cuts such as "City Hall" at the expense of "Freakin' Out" or "Standing On My Own Again" was questionable to say the least, especially in front of such an inattentive crowd. What of The Courteeners themselves? Lets cut the bullshit; they were fucking horrendous. To hell with political correctness, you could send half of their audience to their deaths in Afghanistan and the world would emerge a better place. Honestly, there's nothing worse than legions of boneheads losing their shit, moshing and covering eachother in piss amid a soundtrack of lethargic, utterly average landfill indie. They have the odd passable tune, but this truly was a performance which epitomised everything wrong with mainstream 'ladrock' and the culture which surrounds it.

Thank heavens then for The Cure, the gothic post punk legends who returned us all to sanity with a quite superlative headlining triumph. Note perfect throughout, Robert Smith and his band turned up with what could only be described as the perfect setlist, airing all of their popular hits whilst also throwing in a smattering of deeper cuts for the more dedicated in attendance. They adorned the stage in excess of two and a half hours, but there wasn't a single dissenting voice to be heard - something which speaks volumes of the extraordinary audio and visual extravaganza at hand. Live shows are becoming something of a rarity, which only added to the sense of occasion on site; one which reverberated long after Smith had to be ushered offstage having drifted well past curfew. A magnificent exhibition, in every sense.

Sunday (26/08/2012)

The event's final day saw the transformation of the Lock-Up Stage into the Dance Stage, and although somewhat mediocre the running order did present one noticeable standout. The rapid rise of Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, has been one of this year's biggest success stories, so it was hardly a shock that her mid-afternoon appearance pulled such an extensive crowd. Contrary to the script, the pint-sized Canadian did in fact take a while to get into the swing of things, but an array of trump cards such as "Oblivion" and "Genesis" soon rendered that sluggishness a distant memory.

Perhaps the defining feature of Boucher's music is the freshness and vibrancy that it emits, something which simply cannot be said of The Vaccines and Florence & The Machine, both of whom were later found trudging through prime time main stage slots. That probably sounds like a harsh depiction given that they're two of the best acts currently penetrating the charts, but the harsh reality is that they've quickly become victims of their own success, and particularly the overexposure that's come with it. The Vaccines, to their credit did ok, dishing out a solid set and chipping in with a handful of new songs from imminent sophomore ...Come Of Age. In the main, though, this was an act built around established hits such as "If You Wanna" and "Norgaard;" difficult to get enthused over now that they've become completely inescapable. Florence on the other hand did herself no favours whatsoever. Everyone knows the strength and scope of her voice, but surely even her most obsessive followers don't want to hear it strangled beneath a glut of sickly melodrama and listless wailing. Again, great songs - shame I'm utterly sick of them.

Thankfully just as things appeared to be fizzling out a pack of Yorkshiremen provided the shot in the arm that Sunday so desperately needed. A three-piece once more following the departure of Johnny Marr, The Cribs showed they're no worse off with a set which rocked the NME Stage, and indeed the surrounding area to its foundations. With new LP In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull marking such a potent return to form, it was no shock to see the likes of "Come On Be A No One" and "Chi-Town" greeted like instant classics, cuing singalongs just as raucous as those afforded to "Hey Scenesters" and "Men's Needs." Already among the UK's premiere indie bands, the Jarman's live shows have always set them apart from the pack, and on this form they look unstoppable.

For myself and a few thousand others who stayed at the same stage, however, even The Cribs could only act as a taster for what was to come. Sunday, and indeed the entire festival had left its best until last. There were no children or hangers on here - they'd all flocked off to watch Kasabian. All that were left were the real, dedicated and excitable rockers, many of whom will most likely have wet themselves when At The Drive-In's name appeared on the lineup. They say that good things don't last, and that was patently the case here, with an hour of sweat, screaming and surging adrenaline passing by in a euphoric flash. Sure, the band themselves weren't as animated as in their original incarnation, but that didn't prevent "Pattern Against User" or "One-Armed Scissor" from taking on a new, rampant significance; proof, if ever it were needed the whole reunion was worth everyone's while. Leeds 2012? I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a mixed year overall, but it was nevertheless one where the good definitively outweighed the bad. And this was as good as it got.

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