Leeds Festival – Ain’t What It Used To Be!

The Leeds Festival CrowdI’ve been an avid festival-goer since about 1992 when the local college radio station, WRAS, held a one-day event at Lakewood Amphitheatre in Atlanta. On the bill were The Soup Dragons, The Connells, +Live+, Material Issue and Arrested Development, among others. I was 18 years old and it was fantastic – a day of live music in the sun with loads of other teenagers and college students. The following summer, I attended my first Lollapalooza at an airfield in Rhode Island. We watched Rage Against the Machine, Fishbone, Alice in Chains and Primus. The Verve were also on the bill but we were queuing for the carpark at the time. It was 100,000 grunge kids getting off their faces, moshing and having fun.

Since I’ve been in the UK – 10 years next month – I’ve been to every major festival, excepting Download, and some of the smaller ones too, and I’ve enjoyed myself immensely. Each one has its own personality, its own quirks and its own unique vibe and fanbase. Glastonbury, my least favourite, truth be told, has the reputation of a hippie lovefest. In reality it’s loads of yuppies getting off their faces so badly they can’t tell how anti-social they are, but it’s unique and the music is amazing, even if most people aren’t really there for the bands. T in the Park is like the Scottish Glastonbury, it’s everything I expected from Glastonbury from the happy, outgoing, friendly crowds, to the range of bands across all the stages, to the laid-back attitude. V is like a festival-lite. It’s a festival for folk who don’t rough it, who listen to MOR stations like Virgin and it’s corporate and full of bands that 30-somethings play at dinner parties. Occasionally they outdo themselves, like when they booked the Pixies and NERD on the mainstage one year, but even though it’s incredibly corporate and the music is distinctly average, it’s also laid back and I have, usually, enjoyed it. Guilfest is the hippie family festival. The acts are folky, older and the crowd are middle-aged, but the year I went it was well organised and the bands were okay. Summer Sundae is more of a folky and world music place, with rock bands included. Sponsored by 6 Music, it has a wide range of acts, a family vibe and people are definitely there for the music. All Tomorrow’s Parties is indie heaven. By indie, of course, I mean old school indie where the bands are actually on indie labels, not merely guys with guitars who’ve been on the cover of the NME. It’s indie snobbery at it’s finest, where you talk to people about the obscure stuff on the bill that they love and you’ve never heard of, and you compare gig stories. Reading, and later Leeds, is, or used to be, somewhere in between ATP, Download and T. It was the rock, metal and indie festival for music lovers. Used to be.

In prior years when we went to Leeds Festival – and we’ve been all but about 2 years since it started – it was an ecclectic audience of young emo/skater kids in hoodies with chains attached to their baggy trousers, aging, grey-haired rockers and goths and old school indie types like The Ledge and myself. It was a proper rock festival and even if the three groups didn’t necessarily mix happily, we all had our stages and bands and could look on at the other lots, slightly bemused. Leeds was a festival that put acts like The Moldy Peaches, Whale, Pavement and Eels on the main stage. One year we watched Sparklehorse in a tent while the sounds of Ice T spilled over from next door. We’ve seen Guided By Voices, Stereolab, Richard Hawley, Arab Strap, The Shins, Adam Green, Clor, Evan Dando, Frank Black and the Catholics and others over the years. It was a festival where if it was metal day on the main stage, you could count on seeing unusual and ecclectic indie acts in the tents that you’d been meaning to check out for months, if not years. It was great. We would buy our tickets based on a couple of main stage acts and tent headliners and wait for the joys of the smaller stages to be announced. This year, in fact, we did the same, thrilled at the prospect of Interpol, The Arcade Fire, Smashing Pumpkins and The Shins. Apart from The Hold Steady being added a month later, as expected, that was as good as it got.

No mind, we thought, Leeds is always an interesting festival with a crowd deeply into their music, we’ll go, we’ll watch a few bands, we’ll have fun. And then the rest of the lineup came out. Gone were the vast range of indie bands, replaced by NME favourites. It was as if the bookers could not be arsed, picked up an issue of the NME and booked everything mentioned. Tents and main stage were no different, all the bands were either second rate emo acts or sounded like poor imitations of the very poor Arctic Monkeys and Babyshambles. Oh and Razorshite. Who the fuck booked Razorshite as a headliner? Does anyone really even like them or do they just tolerate them?

Ok, so the bands were a bit shite, but maybe the crowds really are into these acts and we’ve just morphed into the world’s biggest indie snobs and we just don’t get it anymore? Except the Leeds crowd was not the same Leeds crowd. Gone the hairy rockers. Gone the goths. Gone the emo kids with their bad behavior and their love of screamo and metal. In fact, the whole crowd looked like they’d been vomited up by Topshop aged 18-22. And these kids were not at this festival cause of the bands. These kids were at this festival cause Kate Moss says it’s cool. How could we tell? There were far more girls wearing wellies ala Moss at Glastonbury (in subtropical conditions, no less) than there were people wearing band T-shirts. We experienced about 2 crowd singalongs – during The Hold Steady and, oddly, the 1990s. These kids weren’t even drinking! Nope, the campsite was can-free, sans puking kids, sans early morning drunkenness. It was sterile and full of people who simply wanted to be seen – often in matching, specially printed T-shirts announcing “Sal’s Girls at Leeds 2007” or “Lads out and about from Newcastle to Leeds 2007” complete with names on the back. These kids didn’t care if they were in the Carling Tent, the LockUp Stage or the Main Stage – it all sounded the same anyway – all they wanted to do was stand around, look cool and throw their £3.30 pints into the people trying to enjoy the music.

I have never – not even at V – had such a bland and sterile festival experience. There was no, bite, no kick and no sense of real rebellion. This was “indie” as defined by the NME, packaged up by Topshop and sold at £145 a ticket to kids who don’t understand that it’s not rebellion if 80,000 other people are doing it exactly the same way.

Sadly, this lack of atmosphere affected the music as well. Whereas 3 years ago I stood unable to see at the main stage screaming along with the whole crowd to The Hives and Franz Ferdinand, this year, packed in at nearly the same place, the crowd all but talked through The Arcade Fire and Interpol. There was a hint of attitude during the Hold Steady but possibly because the crowd contained the freaks and outcasts who had come for the music and again, the few remaining indie fans danced during Battles, but the tent was only half-full. While we saw a few acts we’d genuinely wanted to see – Devendra Banhart pulling a fan out of the crowd to play a song he’d written was charming; The Hold Steady were as amazing as ever and Tad Kubler’s guitar spin was a seriously great rock moment; Peter, Bjorn & John were brilliant and I need to buy their newest album now; Brakes were as cheery and enjoyable as ever and The Shins had me jumping and singing like a drunken fool – I fear that this will be the last time we attempt a whole weekend at Leeds. There’s too many great boutique festivals now that do have the atmosphere and do challenge festival-goers to broaden their musical horizons.

It is a sad day to see Reading/Leeds sell its soul for a few bucks. Leeds Festival R.I.P. You were a great festival once.

Pavement – We Dance

Guided By Voices – Hot Freaks

Whale – Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe

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