Generally regarded as one of the most important UK festivals for all things rock, metal, punk and ska, the weekend of Slam Dunk Festival’s now-duo of dates on opposite ends of the country were sorely missed in 2020 thanks to the onset of COVID-19. Fortunately though, the absence was only to be a temporary one, and this summer saw a return to both Hatfield and Leeds for the much-loved events – and it’s the latter we head to in this case to see how things would be after a year away.
Our first stop of the day at the Jägermeister Stage is an oddly emotional way to kick off the festival as it turns out. Blood Youth (7) have long been one of British metal’s most reliable young bands, however a recent announcement that vocalist Kaya Tarsus would be stepping down following this weekend’s shows seems to have caused a groundswell of support and more early-comers than you’d normally get for a pre-midday opening slot. Starting off strongly with a punishing live debut of Iron Lung, Tarsus and co. are instantly on fully feral form, inciting rowdy circle pits from the off as they barrel through an all-too-brief farewell of sorts that perfectly showcases what this incarnation of Blood Youth was all about. Riffs hit with the force of a speeding train and the alternation of throat-shredding screams and soaring choruses is truly something to behold. “I may not be in the band anymore, but Blood Youth continues forever!”, Tarsus emphatically posits as the stage starts to empty, and at this point we can but imagine what’s next for both parties.
Hot off the back of appearances at both Download Festival Pilot and Reading & Leeds, the heaviness continues along rather nicely with Liverpudlian collective Loathe (8). For the uninitiated, opener Red Room proves a pretty solid encapsulation of what the band are about; melding a dreamy ambient electronic opening passage straight into a sudden monstrous scream from Kadeem France, who immediately heads to the stage barrier to take in the thunderous chaos. From here on out, it feels like a triumphant victory lap for the scousers, as they more than prove their worthiness of being on stages this large. Racing through a set mostly culled from 2020’s glorious sophomore release I Let It In and It Took Everything, you’d be hard pressed to find another band on today’s bill more effectively capable of flitting between brain-melting heaviness and ethereal melodies – the latter being handled deftly handled by guitarist Erik Bickerstaffe (even if they are mixed a tad too low down here and there). Closing on an incredibly appropriately-titled White Hot, watching Loathe do their thing to such a standard really does feel like you’re the midst of something incredibly special indeed, and it seems that the vast majority of their audience agrees with that assessment.
Moving across to The Key Club Stages owing to a handful of rumours on Twitter of what’s to come soon (more on that in a second), we first find punk four-piece Weatherstate (6) blasting through some delightlfully snotty punk-rock bangers akin to the likes of classic Green Day and Rancid. Though apparently having to play a slightly truncated set owing to the seemingly omnipresent sound gremlins on-site, the band nonetheless prove a decent surprise, and a fun enough way to pass the time, to the point where we wish we could have seen them in peak form.
As Weatherstate quickly pack up their gear and vanish, it quickly becomes apparent that rather a lot of people have heard the aforementioned rumours of a secret set taking place next on the adjacent Key Club 2 Stage, though nobody can quite agree which band they’re actually about to be met with. At this point stood literally shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow festival goers, chatting to those around us yields suggestions ranging from Neck Deep to former SD headliners Enter Shikari, however the actual truth proves to be a little more nostalgic to the average Slam Dunk punter here today. Having needed an extra 10 minutes or so to frantically set things up, there’s perhaps the most delighted scream of the entire day as a group of musicians sprint onstage and reveal the secret band as early 2000s chart-toppers McFly (9). Kicking off with One for the Radio, complete with genuinely deafening singalongs from what surely must be the most metal shirt-clad audience the band have ever had, the pop-rock heroes then proceed to deliver one of the biggest surprise highlights of the day in the form of a perfectly-concentrated half-hour of nostalgic heavy hitters. Star Girl again continues to be screamed by the throngs of people now swarming the stage, whilst Obviously might just receive the loudest cheers of the entire day. “Here’s a song with the exact same chords just different words”, comes a cheeky quip as they then immediately follow-up with All About You, which to the general age group seemingly watching this set might as well be the most nostalgic few minutes in the entirety of music. With only very limited stage time owing to their secret act status, there’s precious little time for much more than the anthemic Shine A Light, before it finally falls to an impressively rowdy 5 Colours In Her Hair to cap things off. They might not have been what the majority seem to have been expecting, but McFly certainly prove themselves the very best kind of surprise based on the jubilant levels of excitement we see both during and in the immediate aftermath of their set.
After unfortunately failing to get back inside the Jägermeister Stage’s tent (not for the last time today we might add) for a bit of Malevolence, who for what it’s worth even sound crushing from the very outskirts of the big top, our next port of call is instead an also rather packed-out and purple-lit Rock Scene Stage for British goth-punk titans-in-the-making Creeper (8). Where their June appearance at Download Festival Pilot felt like a triumphant if much delayed proper opening chapter to the band’s Sex, Death & the Infinite Void era from the outset, today sadly begins on a bit of a downer due to apparent technical issues sadly rendering both guitarist Ian Miles and touring fellow axeman Lawrie Pattison pretty much inaudible for opener Hiding With Boys and a good chunk of VCR. Things are eventually fixed up after a while, and the band tear through the Britpop-esque Cyanide and the anthemic Napalm Girls with not a hint of further issues. Then again, technical hiccups with their sound feel like nothing in the grand scheme of things when it later becomes apparent how close to not even appearing at the festival the band may have gotten. “I had COVID last week but I’m back now”, keyboardist Hannah Greenwood shyly admits before hurriedly adding “I’m fine”. Not that you’d be able to tell she’d been ill at all today though – if anything, Greenwood’s turn on newbie Midnight trading co-lead vocals with frontman Will Gould might just be the show-stealing moment of the day with the track’s Springsteen-esque piano and monolithic chorus somehow providing the loudest crowd yells from a set that already seems to have hit several peaks by the time it gets to this penultimate stage. Only one thing could properly close out a Creeper show though, and it of course falls to monster outcast ballad Misery (today dedicated to State Champs bassist Ryan Scott Graham) to see the band’s time through. With an entire audience seemingly singing every single word to the point where Gould simply stops and points the microphone out at points, visibly overcome with emotion, it’s a truly incredible sight to see and one surely to be repeated on the band’s headline tour at the end of the year.
After a quick moment to compose ourselves again, it’s a sprint over to the Punk In Drublic Stage to catch folk-punk favourites Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls (7); apparently playing such an early set here at Leeds due to somehow being double-booked to headline Moseley Folk Festival this same day. Arriving about halfway through their set means we’re immediately greeted with the campfire singalong of The Ballad of Me and My Friends, before a succession of catchy-as-all-hell bangers like The Next Storm and a storming Try This At Home. A quick speech from Turner at this point about the importance of bands’ road crews goes down incredibly well too, with the whole crowd taking time to applaud both the Souls’ people and those behind Slam Dunk itself. “Time for a few more and then we’ve gotta go play another festival on the other side of the country because I’m a fucking idiot”, Turner then yells as time rolls on, before affixing the end of Recovery straight into a titanic I Still Believe. It’s then Four Simple Words that finishes things off, with a jubilant Turner calling out “I wanna see some waltzing shit going on”, to which the Punk In Drublic crowd dutifully comply.
Strangely somewhat of a marmite band amongst the metal community at large (at least if you glance at social media opinions anyway), firecracker duo Wargasm (8) are our next stop, as we race back across the length of the site to The Key Club Stage. Much as has been their modus operandi at a number of other festival appearances across the summer, what we’re treated to is a joyous half-hour that manages to simultaneously tap into both nu-metal revivalism and electronic-tinged pop – often within the same song. Boasting a slightly reordered but otherwise identical setlist to their Reading & Leeds Festival appearances a week prior, guitarist/vocalist Sam Matlock and bassist/vocalist Milkie Way are very much on similar form here today as those shows; though perhaps with a better-sounding mix. Indeed, the likes of opener Rage All Over and the Prodigy-like Pyro Pyro sound excellent today, as does a celebratory early-airing of newbie Salma Hayek and the band’s still-completely bizarre but brilliant cover of N.E.R.D. banger Lapdance. Closing out with a particularly punchy version of Spit, it’s yet another hit in the books for Wargasm as far as we’re concerned.
Skindred (9) do not put on bad shows, ever – that’s basically an agreed-upon concrete fact at this point amongst anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing them over the years, and tonight is certainly no exception to the rule. Emerging on-stage in an at-this-point beyond-overfilled Jägermeister tent to a remix of the Imperial March from Star Wars, a glittery suit cladded Benji Webbe and co. take all of about 3 seconds to bask in the adoration already coming their way before throwing themselves into punchy opener Stand For Something. Naturally, pits instantly break out across the entire crowd and people begin to mosh and bounce in equal measure to possibly the UK’s best party band. Playing a 50ish minute set that’s almost beat-for-beat the same as their summer-conquering showings at Download Festival Pilot back in June and Bloodstock in August means the Leeds faithful are treated to all of the anthems that’ve made Skindred such a beloved group over their career. Rat Race is as ragged and brilliant as the day it first came out, Doom Riff as the whole tent jumping in unison, and there’s just an overwhelming feeling of love in the room for heavy music seemingly present across everyone here today. There’s plenty of obligatory silliness throughout the show too – Pressure has a snippet of AC/DC’s Back In Black mixed in, Ninja sees Webbe “fighting off” a somewhat portly martial artist foe, and perhaps best of all, Kill The Power is preceded by the frontman being thrown a red, white and black striped keytar on which to mime the iconic opening to Van Halen’s Jump (which then immediately morphs into a remixed Jump Around by House Of Pain), before they barrel into the song proper. Naturally, the show culminates in perhaps the best sight in all of alternative music too, as shirts are removed throughout the tent for the band’s trademark Newport Helicopter whirlwind to conclude their time here. “This is a celebration of fucking life”, Benji quips at one point during the set, and frankly it’s difficult to thing of a band better suited to heading up said party. Long live live music, and long live Skindred.
Arguably the most intrigue-laden set of the day going into things, Bury Tomorrow’s (8) subsequent appearance at the other end of the Jägermeister Stage tent comes as the band’s first show without longtime clean vocalist/rhythm guitarist Jason Cameron, who announced his departure back in July. Only the second lineup change in the band’s now 15 year long career, as it turns out, there’s a bit more to his replacement than people are necessarily expecting. As an array of screens coating the back of the stage and the drum riser flicker into life sporting huge “BURY” lettering, we find not one new face, but two – with Ed Hartwell taking up rhythm guitar duties, and clean vocals along with keyboards and percussion handled by Tom Prendergast. It’s an interesting development, and one that actually seems to add more depth to BT’s already-towering live sound, as the likes of Choke (making its’ live debut today) and Earthbound sound particularly feral, opening pits within seconds that practically threaten to shake the tent loose from its’ fixings. “We don’t believe metal music should be elitist”, bellows frontman Dani Winter-Bates at one point, and that’s a mantra that surely hits home with everyone in attendance today.
As it turns out, our haste to make it back over to the Punk In Drublic Stage for one last set before having to leave may have been somewhat misplaced. Due to unclear factors, the whole stage is a good 35 minutes behind schedule, meaning it’s long since gone dark by the time Alkaline Trio (7) bound out to a torrent of applause and begin bashing out a veritable smorgasbord of punk ragers from across their dense back catalogue; stretching between Cringe from 1998’s Goddammit all the way through to Blackbird from most recent 2018 effort Is This Thing Cursed?. In fact, it’s only 2008’s Agony & Irony that doesn’t get a look-in this evening, with at least one song from the other eight main studio albums being aired for the baying Leeds audience – although in some cases, not the ones you might have expected. Maybe the band’s biggest song, Stupid Kid, is for example completely absent, much to the disappointment of more casual fans dotted throughout this now suddenly-rammed corner of the field, but the fact remains that everything Alkaline Trio through out tonight is punk-rock gold. Despite tonight apparently being the band’s first gig since January 2019, there’s hardly a hint of rust anywhere either, even if the band members themselves might not be so sure. “[It’s] just like riding a bike, if riding a bike was really hard”, Skiba quips to himself at one point early on, eliciting cackles from bandmates Dan Andriano and Derek Grant. It’s probably a fair comment from one of the men who actually has to play the songs, but to be perfectly honest, the only real fault we notice is a few questionable mixing choices that leave Skiba overpowered by bass and backing vocals on several occasions. Hardly a deal-breaker though, and Alkaline Trio can certainly leave Leeds with their heads held high, knowing their comeback was a rousing success.
To be perfectly honest, the fact that Slam Dunk Festival 2021 was even able to happen at all is enough of a win to be celebrated, given the state of the world since last March. The fact it was absolutely packed to the brim with killer performances from so many bands across a huge range of subgenera though? Now that’s what live music is all about.