For the longest time one of the biggest weekends in the UK festival calendar, Reading & Leeds Festivals have for many years been considered hotbeds in which to catch both the biggest names in modern music playing alongside up and coming new acts across genres from pop, to rap, to metal. After a year away thanks to COVID-19, we made the trek up to Leeds to see how things would go down.
With gates just opening up, and worryingly grey skies already overhead, our first stop of the day is Main Stage West for Manchester outfit Hot Milk (7). Despite being the first act of the day for a lot of people, there doesn’t seem to be a shred of nerves on display as co-vocalists Han Mee and Jim Shaw bound out and immediately launch into the anthemic pop-rock title-track of their new record I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I’M DEAD, to great enthusiasm from the early-comers. “I haven’t seen a circle pit in like 2 fucking years”, bellows Jim at one point (oddly, despite having played Download Festival Pilot mere months earlier), and that only serves to egg on the apparently-decent number of their fans present today, as the band launch through a short-but-sweet that bounces from the electro-tinged Glass Spiders to the borderline funk bounce of Candy Coated Lie$ with apparent ease, and only the odd early-doors sound gremlins occasionally rearing their heads. There’s even time for the mid-set live debut of IJWKWHWID track I Think I Hate Myself, which goes down an absolute storm, and as they eventually end on the PVRIS-esque synth-storm of Awful Ever After it’s safe to say that Hot Milk are probably ones to watch in future.
Iffy sound isn’t a criticism you could level at The Struts (8) over on the opposing Main Stage East however. Emerging to the sound of an air raid siren and all clad in pink and black jackets (bar frontman Luke Spiller, who here rocks up in a full pink suit), the classic-rock revivalists waste absolutely no time endearing the Northern audience to their 80s inspired pomp that seems today to be essentially based around being an amalgam of everything great about glam-rock. Spiller’s Jagger-meets-Mercury posturing seemingly makes him an instant hit in the eyes of those in attendance within moments, and when it’s backed up with huge tracks like Body Talks and a debuting Wild Child (sadly sans Tom Morello guest spot, because obviously), it really does feel like The Struts have the potential to lead the pack of classic rock revivalists that seem to have sprung up in recent times
Sadly faring a lot worse are Main Stage East’s next act The Hunna (4), who despite drawing a huge crowd for their relatively early slot, actually do barely anything with their 35 or so minute set to excite. Apparently playing their first show in two years, it’s difficult to discern whether the band’s underwhelming showing is down to rust, or simply their music not being up to par. A brief vocal guest spot from singer Kelsy Karter on a brand new track also falls somewhat flat due to overwhelming echo effects on her vocals, and overall, it’s difficult to find much of anything to enjoy from The Hunna on this occasion.
Trekking back across to Main Stage West, we’re greeted by the sight of a pair of enormous inflatable ND letters flanking either side, and a backdrop declaring “Now then Leeds, we are Neck Deep”. Of course, that means the arrival of Wrexham pop-punks Neck Deep (8), who waste absolutely no time getting the crowd on-side with an excellent one-two punch of Sonderland and Fall. “This festival is my stomping ground”, quips frontman Ben Barlow, and it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the Welsh collective’s show today as they power through the likes of When You Know (apparently aired for only the second time ever today), December and brilliantly catchy closer In Bloom with the confidence of a band many many years their senior. If the UK has a flag-bearer for modern pop-punk, at this point it surely must be Neck Deep.
Trekking through a suddenly packed section of the field later on in the day, we find indie heavyweights Blossoms (6) gracing a colossal crowd at Main Stage West. Despite a 15 minutes late start, it takes mere moments for the literal swarm of bucket-hatted people to begin screaming and setting off flares, which feels a little at odds with their incredibly laid-back sound and performance in general. There’s honestly nothing really offensive about Blossoms’ showing today, in fact they show flashes of something interesting at several points throughout their 50-or-so minutes, with pleasant cuts culled from across their back catalogue and even a cover of Miss You by The Rolling Stones that works better than you’d think on paper. Of course, there’s the usual crowd pandering with duelling cheers encouraged, and a snipped of Oasis hit Half The World Away thrown in at one point, but truth be told it’s all just a bit beige and lacking in any real bite to make much of an impact.
Subheadlining on Main Stage West, we next find man-of-the-moment Dom Harrison – better known to the apparent army that’s congregated at the front as Yungblud (3). Things don’t get off to the best start, with the man himself arriving onstage some 20 minutes late, and they arguably only get worse from there on out. Flanked by walls of prop red Marshall stacks filled with lights, and a ludicrous inflatable “punk” rubber duck that somehow manages to make Alestorm seem restrained by comparison, the young singer throws himself straight at a borderline feverish audience that’s mobbed the stage and surrounding area. Perhaps the overriding issue with Yungblud’s performance, be it just today or in general, is that on a musical level, it simply annoys rather than entertains though. Yes, there’s an army of teenage girls practically having fits as Dom prances up and down the stage, gurning endlessly and screaming lyrics in his best “I’ve heard precisely one punk album ever” stylings, though the outcome’s more in a manner that makes the average end-of-night pub karaoke singer sound akin to Mike Patton. His backing band do in fairness churn out a perfectly serviceable (if uninspiring) canvas behind him, but there’s mostly just a distinct sense that all the pyro and such is merely attempting to paper over the cracks of an actually quite annoying performer. Attempts at inciting circle pits on the likes of superdeadfriends basically fall flat, and not even a pre-recorded video guest spot from Machine Gun Kelly to perform the latter’s I Think I’m OKAY, which you suspect would have been done in person had MGK not dropped-out last minute, can save this from being arguably the most lacklustre set of the entire weekend.
Thank god then, for Biffy f****** Clyro (8), who find themselves closing out Main Stage West to a hugely enthusiastic throng of supporters throwing out “Mon the Biff” chants before even a single note has been played. One eclectic intro tape later, and we’re off – the band emerging and firing straight off into North Of No South from A Celebration of Endings, followed seconds later by a turbo-charged and pyro-assisted That Golden Rule. Given the now considerable depth of their back catalogue, hardcore fans might be a little saddened to hear that the furthest back the trio go this time is 2007’s Puzzle, though in that regard we still get some of the set’s highlights thanks to an early deployment of Who’s Got A Match and eventual closer Machines. Having been a bona-fide arena band for over a decade at this point though, Biffy are of course seasoned crowd-pleasers and know exactly how to stack a hits set – deftly balancing the likes of Mountains, Wolves of Winter and Bubbles with newer cuts like the angular End Of, and latest über-ballad Space, which sees them joined by a pair of violinists. Given the slightly more mainstream crowd they face today, it’s little surprise that one time X-Factor hijack Many Of Horror draws probably the most powerful response, with frontman Simon Neil leaving the crowd to sing its’ chorus and grinning with delight as an entire field bellows back at him. It was never really in any doubt that Biffy Clyro would be able to deliver the goods today, but to do so in such emphatic fashion is truly a highlight of the weekend.
For what feels like basically everyone here though, tonight is about one man and one man only. Sprinting across to Main Stage East, we’re greeted to the glorious sight of thousands of bucket-hatted people bellowing along to the intro tape of Oasis track Fuckin’ in the Bushes, before Liam Gallagher (9) emerges; parka, sunglasses (despite the sun being long gone) and newly grown-out classic 90s haircut all present, to an applause so rapturous it feels like an earthquake contained solely within Bramham Park. Fittingly kicking off with Oasis cover Hello, the vocalist cuts every bit the posturing rockstar, egging on the throngs of people in front of him to the point where a literal rainbow of flares are simultaneously lit across the crowd during the latter. Of course, the vast majority are here for the Oasis hits that made Gallagher the iconic figure his is today, and their rabid enthusiasm is today satiated by a mammoth 13 of them spread throughout the set; from heavy-hitters Rock ’n’ Roll Star and Morning Glory being deployed back to back, to the eventual six in a row that make up the show’s two encores, but it’s worth pointing out just how well Gallagher’s own solo material fits into the equation at this point, with the anthemic Wall of Glass and rabble-rousing Shockwave both proving highlights in their own right. Liam himself is on fine form throughout of course, dedicating Stand By Me to “all the bankers”, mocking football rivals Manchester United’s loss earlier in the day and generally playing up to the persona he’s cultivated over the last 25 years or so, but there’s genuine care behind the facade too – “we don’t wanna be breaking people’s fucking backs, I don’t work for the Red Cross”, he quips, having paused the show at one point to stop an imminent crowd crush. As the night gradually rolls to an end, Gallagher fans are faced with the absolutely ludicrous final run of Supersonic, Acquiesce, Cigarettes & Alcohol, Roll With It and Live Forever (the latter dedicated to the memory of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts), before a cheeky false ending sees Gallagher reemerge one final time to cap the night off with the inimitable Wonderwall. Like him or loathe him, there’s only one Liam Gallagher, and it seems tonight that the people of Leeds are very much in the former camp and glad to have him.