Long live Rock n Roll Circus: An inside-look into Sheffield’s first-ever carnivalesque festival
It’s almost too easy to describe a festival as unique – after all, there are many in the UK alone that have their own quirky selling points. Newquay’s Boardmasters Festival has its surfing competition, Gloucester’s Barn on the Farm has the paddock’s population as half of its audience and Alex James’ Big Feastival in the Cotswolds has its abundance of cheese. Rock n Roll Circus adds to this list of festivals with USPs, taking place underneath a space typically reserved for ringmasters and clowns.
In its first year, the circus not only plays host to a dazzling array of artists but manages to cram in all the carnivalesque happenings that you could wish for. Featuring aerialists sprawling overhead, fire-breathers in the food queues, plate-spinners by the bars, and, perhaps most surprising of all, a very drunk Shaun Ryder (shock horror!), read on to get a taste of the tantalising talent that Sheffield’s Rock n Roll Circus has to offer.
First up, Friday. We join the surge of Manchester music enthusiasts spilling into Don Valley Bowl: bobbing bucket hats, shoals of Fred Perry shirts, and seas of Adidas Sambas all uniting over a shared love of baggy grooves and Britpop sing-alongs. Following the herd, we arrive just in time for the tetchy alt-rock of Wakefield’s The Cribs. Despite the sound being on the murky side, The Cribs exult on the circus tent’s main stage, showcasing their back catalogue with an equal amount of angst and enjoyment.
The melodic prowess of spine-tingling single ‘We Share The Same Skies’ (with a little help from the magic touch of Johnny Marr) still manages to ring out with crispness and clarity across Don Valley Bowl. What continues is a slew of indie disco sleaze: the self-deprecating, cartoonishly contradictory ‘I’m A Realist’, the wiry, Inbetweeners soundtrack mainstay ‘Mens Needs’, and the climactic wailing of the ballad ‘Pink Snow’.
As we wait for Factory Records legends Happy Mondays, spandex-clad aerialists climb up the girders of the stage’s skeleton, leaping into the air whilst dangling from a thread. They twist and turn above the heads of the audience – somersaulting like characters ripped out of a comic book. It’s a genuinely unique display for a festival, and works wonders in filling in the waiting time between acts. Special props must be given to them – they’re the cogs of the Rock n Roll Circus machine, keeping the cartoonish yet controlled chaos chugging along at a smooth pace.
What is there to say about Happy Mondays that hasn’t already been said? They’re a freak of nature, an act so shambolic that it’s a wonder they ever sat down to sign a record deal, let alone go on to become one of the most successful indie bands of a generation. Shaun Ryder’s smoke-stained voice grumbles from behind the stage as he makes indecipherable Salford-scally musings, only walking onto the stage after the first song has already been and gone.
Ryder ambles forward like a kind of Fungus the Bogeyman figure – from the grimy underground to the surface world – and continues to slur his unique, drug-addled poetry (yes, it is poetry) across the band’s Afro-rhythms. Rowetta leads the boggle-eyed Shaun through the set: a sturdy, sensual presence that seems to prevent the Mondays from completely tumbling astray. And, of course, Mark Berry, better known as Bez, does his usual thing: shuffling, shimmying, and shaking the night away to Madchester classics. It’s glorious.
An artist like Noel Gallagher needs little introduction: household name, legendary songsmith, national treasure, rock ’n’ roll figurehead. The crowd sets alight as Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds open with ‘Pretty Boy’. Who would have thought the ex-Oasis songwriter and guitar-obsessive would be opening a set with a drum machine straight out of a Neu or Kraftwerk record? The flickering electronics of the track go on to meld with Gallagher’s trademark melodies and nonsensical lyrics to open his set with just the right balance of the alien and the familiar.
The setlist continues to cement this mixture of new and old – post Oasis, Noel Gallagher has miraculously managed to keep his material fresh, open to left-field influences, but with the all-encompassing Northern heart of his most soaring Britpop-era heights. If anything, that’s what makes following Noel’s solo career worthwhile. He could be pumping out records of average pub rock (Oasis themselves did that for a while, after all), but he instead mixes previously established strengths with increasingly unpredictable musical combinations.
The Saturday opens with streaks of sunshine and the circus is back open for business. The demographic has noticeably shifted – gone is the abundance of casual sportswear, now enter pride flags, rag-tag vintage garments, and colourful makeup. It’s a mix of genders, ages and styles – Sheffield’s LGBTQ+ community, as well as its indie scene and legions of mums who still have Natalie Imbruglia as their iPhone lock screen, have gathered with anticipation. After all, this is Self Esteem’s historic homecoming headline and the last ever Prioritise Pleasure show.
There is a plethora of talent on display before Self Esteem’s arrival. I camp out by the BBC Introducing stage for the early afternoon: a relaxed, intimate area for young, emerging artists. The peculiar, sparkly-eyed outfit Sister Wives perform a set marked with contrasting tinges of folk, punk, and kraut-rock. With flowing hair and white-laced robes, it’s as if Christine McVie or Florence Welch joined a Welsh pagan cult.
Next is local singer/songwriter Gia Ford’s melancholy jangle-pop. Her guitarist provides glittering hooks to Ford’s feathery acoustic layers with a deft sleight of hand. ‘Alligator’ is murky, watery, and beguiling whilst ‘Bored Housewives of America’ sparkles with the sardonic commentary of LCD Soundsystem.
An undoubted stand-out of the festival is in the art-house adventures of Confidence Man, an Australian dance outfit that have been consistently pricking up ears across this festival season with unmatched vigour, but feel most at home in the chaos of a carnival. Vocalists/dancers/songwriters Grace Stephenson and Aidan Moore (under the respective monikers of Janet Planet and Sugar Bones) act as erratically as their pseudonyms would suggest as they open their set with 90’s-warehouse-rave-throwback ‘Toyboy’. The pair emerge in black, rectangular suits that combine the wardrobe of David Byrne with the shadowy geometrics of German Expressionism. Planet and Bones are as icily seductive as Soviet spies, but with all the energy of sugar-high children: simply the most perfect front people you could ask for.
After being warmed up, it’s now time to prioritise pleasure. This is Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s last outing as Self Esteem before she commits to a David Bowie-esque stint as a West End performer for the Autumn. It is also her biggest headline show yet – in her home town, of all places. It’s an emotional, cathartic and unifying performance.
Prioritise Pleasures’ pop manifestos of feminism, autonomy, and marginalised people’s freedoms echo out for the ages: tears are shed, old wounds are inspected and bled, past demons are put to bed. Fan favourites from debut record Compliments Please also make an appearance – from the nervous bisexual desire of ‘Girl Crush’ to the bass-led gem ‘The Best’.
Taylor and her bandmates, in between somersaulting like one of the circus’ own acts, lose themselves in sweat-soaked tears, falling against each other in overwhelming, disorientating catharsis. It’s spine-tingling to watch an artist at the top of her game coming home to cement her newfound freedom, success, and artistic prowess. Taylor has set the standard for what a liberated, politically-conscious pop star can achieve in the post-Covid age.
How can Sunday top Self Esteem’s homecoming splendour? Well, frankly, it can’t, but it doesn’t have to try. The festival has already been a glorious success. Instead, Rock n Roll Circus takes a U-turn, moving away from the histories and futures of rock and pop to celebrate thirty years of Sheffield’s legendary nightclub Gatecrasher. It’s been sixteen years since the nightclub was destroyed in a fire, but memories of magical nights remain with a generation – this same generation of club-goers now swarming into Don Valley Bowl. The Sunday night is a booming ode to the surviving ravers, with the feel of a huge school reunion.
Sheffield’s Rock n Roll Circus is a fantastic new festival. With a dizzying array of entertainment, an immensely amiable atmosphere and a mix of musical transcendence, it’s going to be remembered as a beautifully bizarre weekend.
Special thanks to John McEvoy for kindly providing us with photos – you can visit his own music journalism/photography website here.