Leeds Festival 2011: A volunteer in a big field: Prelude and Friday

In the months leading up to this year’s Leeds and Reading Festivals, there had been a lot of discussion about whether the festivals were actually going to be able to live up to their billing as one of the greatest in the country. With headliners My Chemical Romance considered a band too small for their billing and the same fate befalling the likes of NME/R1 headliners Beady Eye (really Festival Republic, Beady Eye?) it seemed that the sister festivals were going to struggle from the off. Add the rise in ticket prices up to around £200 and a seemingly minimal set of improvements for the money and you’ve got a festival on the back foot before anyone even steps on site.

Feeling the effects of both lineup and funding issues, I personally opted to volunteer to work the festival. I find that with a good enough group of people, working festivals can be just as fun and a little more rewarding in the long term for me and having attended Leeds ritually since I was 16, I decided that I couldn’t really afford to miss the weekend. This meant that I arrived in staff camping, situated on the opposite side of the arena to what my festival virgin described as “pleb camping” (in an endearing way of course, he isn’t that judgemental) on the Wednesday afternoon. To be at a cold, damp festival a day before most people for us, was to contemplate returning to ASDA and to make bacon and drink tea/beer depending on the time, as often as possible.
Once on shift, we were assigned a campsite to keep to, make sure everyone was safe/relatively happy/not on fire and generally keeping to the rules. Walking around these 5 day communities you really get a sense of how, even with some press surrounding the bands and plenty about supposed rioting and law breaking around the festival, for the most part, the festival is a kind of haven for those in attendance. Even before the music starts, people seem genuinely happy to be there and aside from a few who’ve turned up to cause trouble (and are often later evicted, did you know there’s an entire marquee dedicated to evictions? I didn’t,) they’re all settled and ready for music.

Come Friday, the feeling of anticipation has been watered down quite a lot (staff showers were both refreshingly warm and counter-productive for this) as the site is starting to turn to trenches and tents, but in the arena, hay is bundled down to try lessen the rain’s effects. I’m reliably informed that Dananananaykroyd kicked things off in a good fashion, but we were too tired to manage to go in yet.
We make it in just in time to catch Taking Back Sunday, who never really get started by the time they’re off. You have to feel sorry for Lazzara and co. in a way because in a smaller tent, they could get a longer show that might actually resemble a rock show. As it is, they put their all into a losing battle of moderate hits and then vanish again for another year. Once that’s out of everyone’s minds, it’s time for a personal favourite. Having played virtually everywhere at this festival in the past, today Frank Turner and his band of Sleeping Souls have made it to the main stage and they’re not really in the mood to disappoint. Over his last three albums, Turner has amassed a singles collection to challenge those much higher on the billing and a pretty large crowd has managed to leave the indoor stages to see them rifled through in quick succession. It was a “we’ve made it” set similar to that of The King Blues last year, showing that music with context and meaning can still have a place in the mainstream of rock music. Frank later played the secret slot in the Lock Up stage playing some older tracks and even a cover of Queen.

What appeared to have been left unnoticed before the festival was the brilliant bookings over on the Festival Republic stage, which was a highlight for me this year. I took the festival virgin and any other friends I could to it throughout the weekend, starting with a double billing of Little Comets and Benjamin Francis Leftwich. Unfortunately, we arrive a bit early and are forced to endure ten whole minutes of Dutch Uncles. Even going for food can’t escape the simple annoyance of their hyped, generic sound, which would be bearable was it not for the frankly boring sound of the lead singer. Eventually though, it’s time for the next band. Little Comets relentlessly good live show was condensed down to half an hour of the best pieces of their debut album. One Night in October and Isles were standout singalongs in their show whilst BFR’s set was politely quiet and partially in awe at the singer-songwriter’s tracks. Aside from those simply sheltering from the rain at the back talking (yeah, we heard you up front, pricks) everything goes smoothly through the set.

Over on the mainstage, Enter Shikari battle the rain and continue to make the kind of noise I’ve spent years avoiding, but no fear because next up, bringing some of Hawaii to Leeds, via St Albans are Friendly Fires. It’s a truly brave show as the ever energetic frontman Ed MacFarlane dances his way through the rain as if beckoning the sun out, and for a while, it does just that. The singles from their debut album merge effortlessly with Pala’s new tracks and for a moment, everything’s summery again. Some confused crowd members attempt a moshpit but are soon broken up by people more intent on a samba-pit. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
We return later to see the majesty of Elbow. After their triumphant show at Glastonbury, the bar was high and Guy Garvey’s men are keen not to disappoint. Mass singalongs and assorted hand actions including the largest (and only) shout of “fuck the rain” I’ve ever heard. One Day Like This and Grounds for Divorce have now become bona fide anthems and they both receive raucous responses from the assembled, but sadly Elbow’s serenading can only last a certain time before tonight’s main event.

There’d been a lot of speculation surrounding tonight’s headliners. Would they play their second album in full as promised? Would they actually put on a show to entertain everyone? Well, the time has come to find out If Muse can deliver. Since headlining this stage last in 2006, they’ve gone on to become one of the biggest bands in the world, playing Wembley Stadium four times in two separate visits and pretty much every other stadium possible on the way. Their second album celebrates its tenth birthday this year, so in celebration, Origins of Symmetry tonight gets the full live play it’s always deserved.
Beginning with a sort of unnecessary clip of Tom WaitsWhat’s He Building, the crowd are restless for a minute, but kicking in with New Born, it’s an instant hit. Swirling bass lines, tracks once thought lost and a few huge tracks thrown in for good measure. Plug in Baby sounds surprisingly fresh and revitalised amongst it’s old friends, especially the likes of Hyper Music, which sends those in attendance into raptures and by the time the soaring lines of Megalomania set in, the dedicated Muse fans are left in awe. Not that it’s all plain sailing for the Teignmouth trio. Many lose interest in tracks they don’t know from Origins and by the time the ‘singles collection’ set kicks in, they’re all but lost. When the second part of Muse’s show does kick in however, it’s non-stop power as Uprising, Supermassive Black Hole and Stockholm Syndrome all get the usual treatment. For those uninterested, it’s pulling them back from the brink. The thing that gets to me though is the stupid bravado that comes before Undisclosed Desires. I was hoping that this would finally have been dropped from the setlist after two years of touring it, but no, it’s stupid electo-garbage remains implanted in the middle of an otherwise strong setlist. I might just be bitter that on such a special night, Dead Star wasn’t given the outing I crave, hell, deserve!
So after night one, it’s a mixed review. There’s been some hugely underrated music happening across the site, the BBC Introducing had Circles play a fantastic set and over on the Festival Republic, a whole host of other bands made their mark on the Bramham site. Saturday can only bring more.


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