The annual (Reading and) Leeds Festival returned to Bramham Park for the Bank Holiday weekend (26-28th August) this year, boasting six stellar headliners whose music traces all corners of the genre map.
Leeds Festival attracts some 105,000 daily attendees, the majority of whom will camp for the weekend, and offers entertainment on a variety of stages. The festival is particularly popular with school leavers who are celebrating their GCSE and A-Level results.
Traditionally Leeds Festival has been a rock festival, with the likes of Metallica, Muse, and Foo Fighters headlining previous years. However, Reading and Leeds Festival have shaken things up for the past two years, upgrading from three headliners on one main stage to six across two main stages, and enlisting a mixture of rap royalty and pop acts. This year saw The 1975 (replacing Rage Against the Machine), Dave, and Arctic Monkeys headline the Main Stage East, and Halsey, Megan Thee Stallion, and Bring Me The Horizon headline the Main Stage West, on what was to be a spectacular sunny weekend, showcasing the best newer and established artists on offer.
Friday at Leeds Festival was perhaps the most unpredictable day due to cancellations from Rage Against the Machine and Måneskin meaning The 1975 and Charli XCX were called in as last minute replacements for the headline and support slots on Main Stage East.
It was also a massive day for independent label Dirty Hit – their best known band as headliner along with Mancunian pop-punk outfit Pale Waves and grunge-inflected singer-songwriter Beabadoobee taking to Main Stage West and the Festival Republic Stage during the day, respectively.
Beabadoobee offered a slightly more subdued set than I had hoped. A packed Festival Republic tent gathered to see the alt-rock songstress who played a selection of tracks from her critically acclaimed sophomore Beatopia, along with the infectious bedroom pop of ‘Coffee’ and the glittering grunge of ‘She Plays Bass.’
Pale Waves, also having recently released third LP Unwanted, brought alt-rock aplenty. Frontwoman Heather Baron Gracie demonstrated her powerful stage presence, hopping off stage to get closer to the crowd, high-fiving festivalgoers along the barriers. The band could have perhaps benefited from playing slightly later on in the day, but nonetheless, they delivered a slick set.
As temperatures soared, a leather-clad Charli XCX entered the stage surrounded by Greco pillars and her two insanely talented dancers, blasting through a set of sing-along hits.
She opened with ‘Lightning’, a track taken from her latest record CRASH. But it was second track ‘I Love It’, her 2012 collaboration with Icona Pop that really got the party started as people jumped up and down, shouting the song’s main refrain. Charli’s command of the stage and of her audience is unparalleled – “You better fucking jump the fuck up!” she shouted between songs, in what was arguably a Leeds set for the ages.
With a career now spanning a decade and including the likes of ‘Boom Clap’, ‘1999’, ‘Boys’, ‘Beg For You’, and ‘Hot In It’, Charli certainly has a back catalogue that would make her a worthy headliner in the near future.
Pop provocateur Halsey proved to be one of the weekend’s highlights. The singer had been battling a severe case of food poisoning, sharing a video to social media the following day of them being treated by medical staff just moments before taking to the stage.
Halsey brought an eclectic mix of pop bangers, metal/hardcore hits from her new Nine Inch Nails-produced LP If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, and alt-rock aplenty, even entering into a guitar battle with their band. “I can tell from looking at this crowd that different people fell in love with different versions of me”, they remarked before playing a trio of tunes from their debut album Badlands: the foreboding ‘Castle’, kaleidoscopic ‘Colors’, and cathartic ‘Gasoline’, the latter of which Halsey added was a song that “always makes me feel better.”
Never one to shy away from using their platform to highlight issues around LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, the singer, who has spoken candidly of their experiences with miscarriages and abortion performed in front of screens depicting pro-choice messages and footage from protests surrounding the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Both a powerful performer and outspoken activist, there was no doubt by the end of that set that Halsey had well and truly earned a headline spot at one of the UK’s biggest festivals.
The 1975’s set on Friday night was nothing short of triumphant. Following their unveiling as the replacement for Rage Against the Machine and the negative response from rock fans on Twitter, it felt like the band had everything stacked against them. Nevertheless, they were greeted with cheers from an adoring crowd.
The 1975 literally gave the crowd what they wanted – a greatest hits set – and they have plenty! Beginning with 2020’s ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’, the arena was transformed into a synth-pop disco. The band showcased their versatility with the jazz-inflected ‘Sincerity is Scary’, the Bowie-esque ‘Love Me’, and the hardcore punk-rock of ‘People.’
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Matty Healy is one of, if not, dare I say, the most charismatic and engaging frontman of his generation. A natural showman, his between songs banter, including an acknowledgement of the crossover between the band’s 2014 Tumblr-era fans and Sunday headliners Arctic Monkeys’ fanbase (“Get out your doc martens and fishnets!”) was second to none.
The band’s more ambient, sprawling songs were given a skip as The 1975 promised all killer and no filler. Healy’s sarcasm and self-awareness shone through as he exclaimed “We have been your favourite band, The 1975” before closing with a double whammy of bangers in ‘Sex’ and ‘Give Yourself a Try.’ Judging from the crowd’s response and comments from Twitter users, The 1975 may have well and truly debunked a lot of people’s preconceptions of them.
Saturday’s line-up was dominated by rap royalty including a set of soothing, confessional grime from Dave, uplifting anthems alongside a dance masterclass from Megan Thee Stallion, and the masterful flow of Little Simz.
BBC Radio 1’s Dance Tent boasted a bill of rising talent including genre-defying artist Bakar and dance-pop starlet PinkPantheress. Bakar delivered a blinder of a set – I was actually a little late so missed the beginning but I could hear echoes of the crowd singing along to ‘NW3’ as I made my way there.
The native Londoner, who’s music fuses indie-rock, rap, dance, and gospel, with highly poetic, often politically-charged lyrics, was well-received. It was particularly hard to hear him sing during breakthrough song ‘Hell N Back’, due to the fact the entire audience joined in. His set made for a glorious start to a super sunny day.
Unfortunately, PinkPantheress’ set was hindered by technical difficulties. Her short and snappy bubblegum pop songs such as ‘Pain’ and ‘Just for me’ have catapulted her to stardom on video sharing platforms such as TikTok, but they fail to translate live, perhaps because they are so short and snappy. Her set seemed to be over before it had barely begun. Nonetheless, for a young artist, playing one of her biggest shows so far, she showed huge promise.
Scouse indie-rockers Circa Waves drew a huge crowd at Main Stage East, and deservedly so. The band have worked extremely hard to earn their spot and their breezy guitar-driven bops like ‘T-Shirt Weather’ have stood the test of time.
Next up was Little Simz, an artist who’s studio albums and live performances have continually impressed. With each new record, Simz has grown as an artist, incorporating everything from classical instrumentation (‘Venom’, ‘Introvert’) to afrobeat (‘Point n Kill’) into her music. Little Simz absolutely did not disappoint.
Opening with the first track from her lauded forth LP Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, the cinematic ‘Introvert’, Simz strided onstage in a baggy black shirt, yellow hat, and shades, smiling as the crowd soaked up every inch of her set. She did an excellent job at hyping the crowd, particularly during ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, with its insatiable hook. Ending on perhaps her best track, the empowering tongue-twister ‘Venom’, Little Simz left the crowd wanting more.
Though she arrived onstage slightly later than expected, Main Stage West headliner Megan Thee Stallion soon made up for this with an electric performance. Thumping bass blasted through the speakers as Megan strutted across the stage in a PVC leotard, twerking, dancing, and swaying to every beat of ‘Realer’ and ‘Freak Nasty.’ Twice, she invited around 20 fans onstage at a time to dance with her.
This was a hugely exciting moment as fans clambered atop their friends’ shoulders to be in with a chance of being seen and chosen. It also helped to break the divide between stage and audience, and despite the huge arena capacity, Megan’s set felt almost intimate, as she instructed the lucky chosen few: “Don’t be on your phones the whole time and don’t be acting shy!”
Despite a relatively short career thus far, Megan proved she had abundant hits to fill a headline set. You could barely hear the backing track during Cardi’s verses as the audience sang every single word so loudly.
The atmosphere Megan was able to create in the arena was one of self-love, empowerment, and, most importantly, safety amongst her crowd, as she checked in with them between songs. Undoubtedly, ‘Body’ and ‘WAP’, the rapper’s filthy collaboration with Cardi B were highlights, along with her penultimate (and best) song ‘Plan B’, which arguably should have been the set closer.
Dave arrived onstage promptly at 9.20pm, delivering a perfect cocktail of thoughtful, spoken-word musings, along with his more danceable rap tracks. The 24-year-old continually expressed his gratitude to the crowd, who, from where I was stood, seemed to know every word to his (at times) tongue-twister lyrics.
Dressed in green shorts and a green cap bearing the word ‘Psycho’, a track from his Mercury Prize winning debut Psychodrama, Dave performed in front of a giant metal heart. Heavy use was made of pyrotechnics along with fireworks which shot into the sky from behind the stage, as Bramham Park became enraptured in darkness.
Having invited AJ Tracey to join him for ‘Thiago Silva’ at Reading the previous day, anticipation was high, but a suitable replacement was found when Dave invited an excitable Merseyside fan onstage to spit his bars.
The infectious ‘Funky Friday’ and ‘Location’ meant the crowd weren’t short of tunes to dance to, as heads could be seen nodding. Personally, I would have loved to see a few more tender, piano-driven cuts like ‘Black’, but Dave’s emotional performance of the epic ‘Heart Attack’ certainly sufficed. A man of many talents, Dave showcased his musicianship, wielding a guitar during ‘Clash’ and lending a hand (or two) to the keys for ‘Twenty to One.’
After a soaring rendition of ‘Starlight’, with ample fireworks surrounding him, Dave departed from the stage, thanking his audience once more for their continued support, and the organisers of Reading and Leeds for consistently booking him over the years. A truly magical set.
All eyes were on Main Stage East on Sunday as Leeds Festival delivered a trio of extraordinary rock bands in the shape of Fontaines D.C., Wolf Alice, and of course, Arctic Monkeys.
Irish post-punks Fontaines D.C., who are rightfully receiving critical acclaim and selling out increasingly larger venues following the release of their third album Skinty Fia, strutted onstage at 5.05pm. Beginning with 2020’s ‘A Lucid Dream’, frontman Grian Chatten, looking effortlessly cool in a pair of shades, grasped the mic stand and circled it, delivering each line with purpose.
The shimmering ‘Roman Holiday’ and sprawling ‘Nabokov’ offered some relief from their more mosh-pit friendly efforts like ‘Televised Mind’ and ‘A Hero’s Death.’
Performing in front of a piece of scaffolding decked in red roses, the band closed their set with the politically-charged ‘I Love You’ – their piece-de-resistance. Chatten spat its turbulent verses, which veer between patriotism and subversion, into the mic before a mumbled thank you, and then left.
Following on from this was none other than Wolf Alice, who once again proved why they continue to be adoringly referred to as Britain’s best rock band. They delivered a slick 40-minute set, punctuated with sizzling guitar-driven tracks like ‘Smile’, ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’, and ‘Giant Peach.’
Having followed the band since 2015, I still can’t get used to them ending on ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ on this run of shows – it should be ‘Giant Peach’, with Ellie Rowsell jumping down into the pit and screaming its final lines at the top of her lungs!
The band played a perfect balance of their softer numbers and rockier cuts. Rowsell’s vocals have never sounded better, particularly on ‘Safe From Heartbreak’ and the emotive ‘The Last Man on Earth’ – the band’s penultimate track which Rowsell performed sat on the edge of the stage, bringing the arena to a complete standstill.
Theo Ellis played the dual role of bassist and hype-man, asking the audience if they were “Ready for Arctic Monkeys?”, receiving cheers. ‘Play The Greatest Hits’ also marked a high point during the set as Rowsell paced around the stage, her vocals now a snarl, as she yelled “It isn’t loud enough!” Always reliable, Wolf Alice undoubtedly produced one of the best sets of the entire weekend.
As the dramatic flourishes of The Streets’ ‘Turn The Page’ draws to a close on the loudspeaker, the lights dimmed and so entered our Sunday headliners – the ones everyone had been waiting for – Arctic Monkeys.
The Sheffield four-piece and their expanded touring band swaggered onstage, to a grand overture before breaking into the instantly recognisable chords of their massive 2013 single ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ Quickening the pace, the band followed with the tumultuous ‘Brianstorm’ before breezing into the crunchy guitar lines of ‘Crying Lightning.’ Matt Helders on drums was a force to be reckoned with as the original ‘agile beast’ drilled through an abundance of complex arrangements.
Alex Turner, now sporting his signature floppy hair (gone are the days of the buzzcut!), he rested one foot atop an amp on the front of the stage, leaning towards the crowd and oozing charisma. The band’s effect on their audience is something akin to a religious ceremony, with Turner as its preacher. “Hello Leeds!” he said in his Yorkshire drawl as screams erupted from the giddy crowd.
Arctic Monkeys drew from all corners of their back catalogue, including songs from each of their six chart-topping albums, and even dropping in a new unreleased song, which they had debuted in Zurich mere days earlier – ‘I Ain’t Quite Where I Think I Am’ which will appear on their forthcoming seventh LP The Car, scheduled for an October 21 release.
A sprinkling of rarely-played deep cuts – namely ‘Potion Approaching’ from 2009’s Humbug and ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ from 2011’s Suck It and See were welcome additions to their greatest hits set.
Unfortunately, ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ was not preceded by Turner’s trademark “LADIEEEEESSSS” but the crowd didn’t seem to mind as the already tightly-packed crowd surged forward and mosh-pits began to open.
Chat between songs may have been minimal from Turner, but for a band of their calibre, it didn’t really matter. Though, Turner did in fact joke that the band might place ‘Sketchead’, a B-side to 2009’s ‘Cornerstone’ suggesting that there may be more Humbug-era tracks instore for this tour! In a three-song encore, Turner lost himself in his train of thought during the mellower ‘One Point Perspective’ before playing back-to-back AM bangers ‘Arabella’ and ‘R U Mine?’
Though Arctic Monkeys undoubtedly attracted the festival’s largest audience, the arrangement of two main stages with six headliners is clearly a success with each artist putting on career-high performances.
From Halsey’s incredible set whilst battling illness to Dave breaking records as the youngest Reading and Leeds Festival headliner, to Megan Thee Stallion’s inclusive and uplifting performance, and The 1975 refuting people’s expectations of them, it is difficult to decide on just one highlight. But to see such a diverse array of acts taking to the stage and tearing it up is certainly a step in the right direction for Leeds Festival, and one that will hopefully be continued.
Leeds Festival will return over the August bank holiday weekend in 2023. You can buy tickets for Leeds Festival 2023 here.