Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: Leeds 2019

23-25 August 2019

Foo Fighters at Leeds 2019 (photo: Sarah Koury)

Endurance is often an undervalued commodity in the music industry. Rather than artists being appreciated for their staying power, they are often scoffed at for trying to keep pace with an ever-changing landscape. The focus, instead, is often on the here and the now, discovering the next ‘big thing’ and promoting them to a mass audience. This ongoing dichotomy between the old and new is often most pronounced at festivals as organisers try to appease everyone.

It is certainly a dilemma the Reading and Leeds Festivals have wrestled with over the past few years. While their traditional audience has yearned for rock bands who dominated that recognisable yellow poster around the turn of the millennium, the bid to appeal to a younger crowd has seen the diversity of genres on show steadily expand. The end result is the 2019 edition of the sister festivals, where the balance of power tipped in favour of the new.

This was evident from the announcement of the headliners. Foo Fighters may be the world’s biggest rock band, but their inclusion at the top of the bill felt more like a token gesture alongside The 1975 and co-headliners Twenty One Pilots and Post Malone. In fact, their Friday night slot capped off a day that was very much a throwback to the festival’s roots as they rounded off a bill that included Enter Shikari, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes and A Day To Remember.

Twenty One Pilots at Leeds 2019 (photo: Kyle McLoughlin)

And as Foo Fighters’ performances go, it delivered everything you could possibly expect and a little bit more. The set was filled to the brim with greatest hits from start to finish, kicking off with The Pretender and Learn To Fly before racing through Times Like These, All My Life, Monkey Wrench and Best Of You. There was even the now familiar call to arms after Grohl told the crowd: “I read in the paper that someone said rock’n’roll is dead,” before launching into another juggernaut riff.

A rendition of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock hammered the point home even more, while bringing a Freddy Mercury lookalike up on stage for their trademark cover of Under Pressure brought some fun to the proceedings. Yet while Foo Fighters’ ability to endure has rarely wavered, Grohl’s dad antics – though clearly meant in jest – during his duet with daughter Violet on My Hero only emphasised why the festival has been pressing the accelerator on finding a new generation of headliners.

One of the prime contenders to carry on the torch for rock once Foo Fighters finally call it a day are undoubtedly Royal Blood, who demonstrated their ability to make just as much noise despite only being a two-piece. The Brighton duo have been touted as future headliners ever since their self-titled debut landed in 2014 and hearing the likes of Out Of The Black, Little Monster and Lights Out reverberate around Bramham Park only reinforced their claim to top the bill sooner rather than later.

Royal Blood at Leeds 2019 (photo: David Dillon)

Earlier in the day, Royal Blood’s raw primal energy was embodied in a different form by none other than Charli XCX. Another example of how Leeds – and by extension Reading – has transitioned towards more radio-friendly artists, the 27-year-old hit maker owned the Main Stage during her set as thousands watched on and sung her auto-tuned vocals back to her as she reeled off Blame It On Your Love, I Love It and Fancy with an attitude that put two fingers up to any doubters she may have had.

Elsewhere, respite could be found from the baking hot sun in the shade of the tents that cover many of the festival’s outer stages, with Becky Hill and No Rome attracted substantial crowds of their own to the BBC Radio 1 Dance Stage and Festival Republic Stage, respectively. And as the conditions began to cool in the evening, The Wombats arrived on the Main Stage to continue their renaissance since the release of fourth album, Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, which has seemingly seen the Liverpudlian trio find a brand new audience.

Charli XCX at Leeds 2019 (photo: Ellen Offredy)

Much like Foo Fighters the night before, The Wombats have been able to overcome every obstacle in their way since debut album, A Guide To Love, Loss & Desperation, soundtracked the lives of many Sixth Formers around 2007. Many of the singles from that record were welcomed with open arms during their set – even if many of those in attendance singing along to Let’s Dance To Joy Division were unaware of the irony – while Lemon To A Knife Fight demonstrated why they have remained relevant.

In many ways, The Wombats’ pop-inflected indie rock provided a fitting preview to the evening’s main event as The 1975 stepped up as the second headliners. Love them or loathe them, their set was not short of grand statements and genre-shifting tunes – moving from the synths of I Like America & America Likes Me to the funky Love Me and glossy pop of Chocolate with alarming ease. That said, it is hard to say whether they were worthy of top billing.

Frontman Matt Healy’s determination to mark himself out as the voice of a generation often comes dangerously close to shtick, while lyrically The 1975 are nowhere near as profound as their biggest supporters would often like to claim. Amid all the politically-charged speeches, there were also moments where their set drifted into a lull – most notably Give Yourself A Try and Sincerity Is Scary – but they did have fun towards the end by screening past criticisms of the band on the big screens.

The 1975 at Leeds 2019 (photo: David Dillon)

However, while a question mark still surrounds The 1975’s potential to endure as the Foo Fighters have done so successfully, Twenty One Pilots will surely be back to headline again in the near future. Another band who genre swap in the blink of an eye, the Grammy Award-winning American duo had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hand with singles Stressed Out, Ride and Heathens encouraging some of the biggest sing-a-longs of the weekend.

Their collaboration with co-headliner Post Malone on the Oasis classic Don’t Look Back In Anger in someways detracted from their own achievement – even though the cover (unsurprisingly) went down a storm. But as polished as Sunday’s two joint headliners were, the day and the festival as a whole belonged to one person and one person only – Billie Eilish. In what felt like a truly iconic festival occasion, the 17-year-old delivered a storming set in front of a monster crowd.

Billie Eilish at Leeds 2019 (photo: Kyle Mcloughlin)

From the moment she stepped on stage in a bright green ensemble, the LA native showed exactly why she is regarded as one of the most exciting artists in the world right now. Bad Guy set the tone from the off before You Should See Me In A Crown provided an excuse for multiple mosh pits to form. There was also time for a beautiful moment of reflection on When The Party’s Over – after Eilish urged the audience to put their phones away – as she stole the hearts, minds and souls of everyone lucky enough to be in attendance.

It’s no wonder that Grohl himself has previously expressed his admiration for the teenage sensation, who showed maturity beyond her years as the crowd hung on her every word. Describing it as a watershed moment for the festival almost doesn’t do her performance justice (yes, it really was that good). It’s now just a matter of when she will headline because if Foo Fighters represented the past, Billie Eilish showed she is most definitely the future.

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