Saturday, 11 May 2013

Live At Leeds 2013 Review

Live At Leeds
May 4th

I missed Live At Leeds last year, and though it was for very good reason, I was excited to be back. The traipsing, the queuing; all the realities of a busy festival in a bustling city centre were far from my mind, until around 12:01, when they became hardened facts that persisted for the next twelve hours. But more on that later.

The thing I personally like about Live At Leeds is catching new bands, or bands that are just names I've heard in passing. That is partly by my own zine remit, and partly a recurring inability to actually see the larger bands without having to queue on a one-in-one-out basis. I just take it as read that I won't be able to see the Darwin Deez and Everything Everything's of a Live At Leeds line-up.

Perhaps it was this idea that brought home to role of the Press in this kind of endeavour. I'm so naive. I think I only just realised that all the silver wristed devils skipping the lines are not there in order to review bands and then give an accurate account of whether the festival is worth joe public spending their hard earned cash on it.

No, it's in order to write about, or shoot, the kinds of bands that attract visits to website, or whose name sell magazines; or attracts advertisers to the free ones. I thought writers were there to perform a public service! What a fool.

So my virtuous quest began in a safe and comfortable place; watching Mi Mye at Milo's. I've seen them maybe fifty times, but I felt I should support one of only three Wakefield bands on the 120+ band bill. What's with that? Flicking through the Live At Leeds programme it did cross my mind that perhaps bands in Wakefield simply don't use moody enough lighting in their press shots. How dowdy us Wakefieldians must look in our 90s attire, in fields of Rhubarb or outside pubs.

Mi Mye represent us well (despite being absent from said programme) although they are over critical of a snare-skinning mishap that left them with a drum that went 'Tong!' where it should have gone 'Boom!' But never mind. The three piece version of the band is now well worn in, but is able to slip from mournful and minimal to buoyant and beaming in a matter of seconds. I preferred it when the bassist had curly hair, but apart from that, it's a happy start to the day.

I briefly caught some of Charlie Straw at The Cockpit. Although far too country-fried for my cynical taste-buds, a great show was in motion, certainly so judging by the foot stomping that threatened to knock the floor / ceiling through.

A journey up past the wristband exchange revealed the extent of the queuing problems. Although the switch of venue seemed to make sense, something went terribly wrong. Up beyond that was the queue for the O2 Academy, which was equally dire. Queuing for venues at these types of festivals will always happen. But this year it seemed to happen at all of them, not just those holding the headliners. Was the whole thing oversold? It's a difficult thing to balance, creating a bill that has 100 capacity venues and 2000 capacity. If I had been a paying customer this year, it would have given me serious pause for thought. The hassle is close to overtaking the worth in waiting.

I saw James from Post War Glamour Girls hanging round Stylus. He was in good spirits before their show. Sadly I had to make a tough call and miss them in place of Middleman, but I heard a whole load of great things about their set, and I'm glad things are still on the ascendency for them.

Middleman are a difficult thing to warrant missing. But despite them being one of the busiest and most prolific live bands around, it’s a good while since I’ve caught a full set. The sound for the first couple of songs wasn't quite there, but whether it was them or the soundman settling in, over the course of their all too short thirty minutes, it all came together in spectacular style. And that made it special; it was like falling in love all over again. The Prodigy was the name that came to mind for me more than it has in the past; specifically the way the synth sounds on Liam Howlett’s last effort called back to their earlier days in the early ‘90s without sounding reductive or nostalgic. The same energy was there throughout, in the company of a smiling, celebratory warmth that radiates from band to audience, and back again. Every night is Wembley for Middleman. I hope Zane Lowe who had popped up North just to see them was as impressed as I was.

A twenty minute walk to The Wardrobe came next. To my shame, I often forget the place exists, the downstairs at least. Which is terribly because I reckon it is one of the best venues in the city. It's the perfect place for Sweet Baboo to tootle through their set of deceptively simple compositions of fey, winking songs about love and dancing, mainly. It's a polite sound, clean-guitar led that focuses on feeling and a persistent groove over volume or showmanship. Not a million miles from The Wave Pictures and the like; thirty minutes was just right.

Walking out of The Wardrobe to be faced with Aagrar's at teatime was too much temptation to resist. The following journey back up to Leeds University seemed less harsh when used to walk off a curry. Dutch Uncles waited for us in Stylus - a venue that is thankfully without queues, largely due to its architecture that welcomes large audiences.

Up on the many balconies, the sound was once again left wanting. Their energy didn't quite transfer to the back of the room but hey, I could have squashed my way to the front if I was that bothered. The aching stomach still dealing with the assault of Saag Gosht probably persuaded me otherwise but pleasingly many others had chosen to partake. It was a quality set, including an impressive 'duelling xylophone' section. The frontman worked the audience with his elastic hips, the band with style to spare. A good show.

Although I would have liked to have seen Darwin Deez, especially after missing an apparently awesome show at Long Division two years ago, I suspected only queues would await. As is often the case - and I suspect most people are forced to do this once the evening comes - the decision was made to stay exactly where we were, which did at least mean one of the headliners; The Walkmen.

Given the remit I laid out at the start of this review, they were perfect. A name I have heard a thousand times, often in gushing reviews, I've never actually bought a record, and could only name The Rat as a song of theirs. Given that reference point, they were quieter than I expected, generally, and not as directly exciting and powerful. The singer seemed in good spirits, having been 'playing darts in The Fenton all afternoon.’ A couple of songs encouraged a semi-pit of exuberance and I did enjoy the show, but I wasn't totally won over in the way I expected. I thought I'd be ordering a back catalogue the following day, but I'm still not sure. But it was a good performance from what was a shrewd booking from Live At Leeds.

The end to the day instead came from Sky Larkin. I've probably not seen them since a previous Live At Leeds, maybe four years ago and typically for a man rapidly leaving his twenties, I found comfort in this fleeting familiarity. The twelfth hour of drinking probably did it too mind, and though I remember little of the songs, I know it felt good to have them back.

Live At Leeds is unquestionably a good thing. The queues were a problem this year. And not just for the venues. The bar in most places too. And the toilets. Alongside the walking between venues it made it feel like hard work at times, and this is me happily seeing whoever I want, without feeling the need to get my money's worth, or please some editor or other.

Furthermore, this year left me with the feeling that the festival is becoming more like a showcase than an event. I saw good bands in good venues but none were especially memorable. The line-up, though expansive, felt like a collection of achingly cool 'potential next big things' thrown together, rather than a personally curated day and hence lacks personality as a whole. It's a great festival to see a massive chunk of music, and is also great at giving bands a chance to shine. But the feeling of quantity over quality raised its head, despite me not actually seeing a bad performance. I don't know what Live At Leeds is, I can't see a personality coming through, or an ethos. So it inevitably feels like a cattle market when you are being literally herded through queues most of the day, when it should feel like a sweet shop full of new and tasty delights.

Of course, Live At Leeds is more than a day of gigs, and I have to say that The Unconference was excellent. There's a big gig on the Sunday and the football tournament on the Monday, so my criticisms are directly challenged there. The community aspect is strong with all those elements; I would like to see this made more explicit on the Saturday.

Dean Freeman

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