I arrived at the naturally atmospheric Castlefield Bowl very early and there was already a large group of lads in Newcastle United F.C. shirts and bucket hats surrounding the stage. The bowl never fails to create a certain festival energy.
After watching a stellar set from Sam Fender at Glastonbury (unfortunately on TV), I couldn’t wait to be part of such a passionate, vocal, and hearty crowd. Whilst watching his Glasto set, I experienced the classic festival-envy phrase, ‘god I wish I was there’, and at the time I hadn’t got my tickets for the gig in Manchester. Fast forward two weeks and I was elated to be stood in the front half, 12 feet from the stage…just 3 hours early…
Fellow Geordie Heidi Curtis was our first opener. The twenty year old singer-songwriter was powerful and punchy. As the wind picked up and the welcome Manchester spray cooled the crowd, Heidi was charming, entertaining and exhibited a great balance of Adele-esque ballads and Fender-esque grit. Her cover of Chris Isaak‘s ‘Wicked Game’ was a real joy and her drummer and bassist/keyboardist were exceptional.
Next up was Wunderhorse, the guise of former Dead Pretties frontman, Jacob Slater. It was a contrast to Heidi’s set, with black midi-style jerky movement (musically and physically) and tight, punk-fuelled musical practice Wunderhorse’s set was spirited, distorted and fundamentally loud. I loved it. I even caught a tiny glimpse of Sam enjoying the set backstage. He later said that their set was a special moment in their career and that they would do well. I genuinely agree.
As Sam and his band walked on stage, the 8,000-strong crowd made the Castlefield Bowl momentarily become St James’ Park. A proper roaring cheer.
He said nothing and opened with ‘Will We Talk?’, phones went up…and then immediately down, which meant we had a fantastic atmosphere and the eager crowd knew every word. The hotel garden across from the venue was packed, as were the apartment balconies, experiencing the ‘Sounds of the City.’ The city sounds pretty brilliant.
‘Dead Boys’, ‘Mantra’, and ‘Better Of Me’ brought the crowd to a reflective moment of passion and calm. ‘Dead Boys’ seemed especially poignant to everyone making up the 8,000. There were perfect silences between the verse and chorus and appropriately passionate singing during such a heart-breaking song.
From this point onward it was nothing but mosh pits, chants, flares, and Sam checking that the crowd were ok. During ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’, everyone took advantage of the opportunity to scream “Woah woah woah woah woah that’s less that two metres”, followed by a smoke-bomb-filled rendition of ‘F*ck the Tories.’
‘Spit of You’ was supported by pictures of people and their parents projected behind the band and that unmistakable Sam Fender bright guitar sound really fills you with nostalgia. This next part seems too fictional to be true, but as Sam sang ‘Spit of you’ a twenty-something year old lad and his dad in front of me sang every word with arms around each other. Schmaltzy I know, but I’m sure they weren’t the only ones doing this, neither of them will forget it.
You could hear Sam’s raspy, robust vocals over the crowd perfectly, and the musicianship of his band is second to none. I never thought I would mosh to a sax solo but it happened, multiple times.
During his encore, the crowd sang the hook to ‘Saturday’ over and over (and quite well it must be said) until he invited the band back on stage to “do it properly.” It sounded fantastic. Of course he egged the shoulder-riding crowd on, and said Mancunians are great to sing along with.
‘Seventeen Going Under’ was accompanied by pyrotechnics and dedicated to The North. It was always going to be good, but it exceeded my expectations. The lyrics were displayed on the huge screen behind Sam, as if anyone needed reminding. Even the crowd on the balconies and in the hotel garden sang along, and how could you not?
Fender closed with ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, his politically fuelled and energetic breakout single. As the crowd continued to sing out the ‘woah ohh’s’ just as I’d watched them do Glastonbury two weeks earlier, Sam left on “You’ve been f***ing wonderful.” It’s true, I don’t think any musician could hope for a more engaged, participatory, and welcoming crowd than the 8,000 at the Castlefield Bowl.
Catch Sam Fender at a festival this summer!
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