Ah, the Leeds Festival. how quickly it comes around. A time for overpriced fizzy lager (and good luck if you’re even thinking about drinking any brand other than Carling), young girls in impossibly tiny shorts and ridiculously over-sized sunglasses, and flags. Millions and millions of flags.
The Carling Weekender, as (together with the sister event at Reading) we must learn to call it since the mighty financing power of the brewery came a-calling, has traditionally been seen as the end of summer, playing hosts to thousands of kids eager to experience their first taste of beer, weed and tents. This year was no different, but there seemed to be a wider age-range in general – as well as the multitudes of teenagers, there was a preponderance of couples with toddlers in tow. Could the Leeds Festival really be a family-friendly day out?
It seems unlikely. This year’s festival was as packed to the rafters as ever, and the first-time festival goer could easily find themselves a bit intimidated by the sheer numbers of people packed into Branham Park. Arriving on site at around 5pm, we tried to get our bearings (“What’s the Carling Tent doing over on the other side of the site?” was our first question) and then consulted the timetable.
Back in April when this year’s line-up was announced, having Kate Nash play the Carling Tent probably seemed like a good idea. A young, cult star with a small but fanatical following, she seemed tailor-made to the third stage. Of course, the organisers weren’t to know that, by the time August rolled around, Nash would have become of the biggest pop stars of the year. We could’ve (and did) warn them, but no matter. Here is where we were.
Of course, the Carling Tent was fit to burst by the time Nash came on stage. With people climbing the poles just to get a decent view, the atmosphere was pretty unnerving and when Nash stabbed out the opening chords to Mariella, that was the cue for a fresh insurgence of people into the tent. As more and more people flooded inside, safety concerns meant that we retreated outside during a particularly good version of Skeleton Song. A shame, as Nash was, by all accounts, one of the highlights of the weekend.
So it was that we made our way back across to the other side of the site to watch Jamie T in action on the NME/Radio 1 stage. The Wimbledon lad has come a long way since Sheila was released last summer, and he powered through the highlights of his Mercury nominated album with real charisma. If You Got The Money provoked a mass singalong, while the woozy Calm Down Dearest proved a highlight.
As good as he is though, there was a definite feeling that the intricate melodies and clever wordplay of his recorded output were lost onstage, leaving some of Jamie’s set feeling a bit flat. Or maybe it was due to the moronic contingent that the Carling Weekender tends to attract, as evidenced by the man stood next to us. He thought it would be a great laugh to piss in a plastic cup and then throw it at the crowd. Cheers for that, dickhead.
After this, we were in desperate need of cheering up, and luckily CSS were on hand to save the day. The sight of the Brazilian band’s stageshow of colourful helium balloons, a giant CSS emblazoned across the back and Lovefoxx gyrating in a kaleidoscopic catsuit meant that it was impossible to watch their set without a huge smile.
While their debut album was not without its highlights, the live arena is still the best place to see CSS. Months and months of touring have beefed these songs into some 24-carat party anthems, and whether it be giving out a bottle of milk or asking the crowd if they like alcohol (can you guess what the answer was?), Lovefoxx and company completely owned the NME/Radio 1 tent. An ecstatic version of Let’s Make Love And Listen To Death From Above brought their set to an end, and if there was anyone leaving the tent looking even slightly disgruntled, they were very hard to spot.
James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem were about to take to the stage, but a slight sense of claustrophobia meant we were compelled to take in some other sights. Sweden’s Peter Bjorn And John were pedalling their slightly twee indie-pop in the Carling Tent (leading possibly the only mass whistle-along of the festival to their best song Young Folks), but most attention was focused on the main stage where Nine Inch Nails were about to unleash a typically intense audio and visual show.
Even though they weren’t headlining, nobody puts on a show like Trent Reznor. The set list was evenly divided between old favourites such as Head Like A Hole, Wish and Only and more recent material from the Year Zero album. Yet, even if the industrial grind left you cold, you could only sit and admire the light show – lasers, strobes, and an enormous amount of dry ice all featured, while at one point it seemed as if a giant cage had been lowered over the set.
The highlight came at the end, when Reznor sat down at a piano and played the song which Johnny Cash made his own, Hurt. It was a spine-tingling rendition, made all the more dramatic by the tiny white lights apparently falling from the sky while he played. A dizzying experience, in all the right ways.
Finally, the main stage saw the return of Smashing Pumpkins. Or rather Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain with some new friends. The reclaiming of the Smashing Pumpkins name hasn’t been welcomed by all, especially going by the somewhat lukewarm reception given to Zeitgeist, but the arrival of the Pumpkins as the first night headliners was certainly an event.
Things got off to a shaky start however, with Corgan opting to open the set with United States, the nine-minute track that forms the centrepiece of Zeitgeist. It’s long and rather self-indulgent, especially when Corgan decides to perform a version of the Star Spangled Banner on his guitar. Note to Billy re being Jimi Hendrix – Billy, you are not Jimi Hendrix.
However, as soon as the unmistakable chords of Tonight Tonight chimed into the Leeds air, all was forgiven. Corgan’s new band actually make his classic songs sound better than ever, and there was similar fawning over Today, Disarm and a quite beautiful acoustic version of 1979. There was even a mass singalong to Bullet With Butterfly Wings, and if the newer material such as Tarantula and Doomsday Clock inspired polite respect rather than outright mayhem, then that’s not such a bad thing.
At the end of the day, this was a chance to hear some classic songs performed again by a band we’d never thought would sing them again. Just goes to show that some reunions do work, as long as they don’t stray too far from their roots. As the hordes of campers headed back to their tents, it was time to speculate on what Day 2 would bring…