Attempting Leeds Festival

Back in 2010, as a shy and adventurous eighteen-year-old, I ventured from North Wales to Knebworth House in Hertfordshire for the short-lived Sonisphere festival. I did this on my own – the travelling, the camping, the whole festival. And I did the same again the next year. While this might seem quite sad and lonely, there was a reason for going alone when I couldn’t find anyone to join me. And that reason was the music – the bands that made the pain of my adolescence more tolerable; they were all there. Bad Religion, Parkway Drive, Rammstein, Weezer, Iron Maiden, Slipknot. There they were, playing the soundtrack to my teenage hormonal confusion, live. It was spectacular.

I can’t imagine anyone making an independent pilgrimage to Leeds Festival – not least a socially awkward eighteen-year-old. The wholesome community spirit that I experienced at Sonisphere, that welcomed me and put my anxiety at ease, was nowhere to be seen. It’s a party festival above anything else. I came away with the following conclusion; you go to Sonisphere and Download for the music, whereas at Leeds and Reading, you get fucked up.

Of course there’s partying at metal festivals too, but not quite at this level. As I arrived at Leeds on the Thursday, I saw binge drinking in every direction – and this was outside the festival gates. I thought that, perhaps, attendees were just trying to lighten their load before trekking to the campsite. Not so – as we walked through the check-in, past the sniffer dog, and receiving the obligatory search-cum-grope from security, the drinking continued. Under gazebos, around campfires, or just standing around tents, everyone was downing cans of Dark Fruit like alcoholics at the onset of delirium tremens. Sobriety doesn’t seem to be an option at Leeds.

And here’s the tragic part – everyone was so young. At 27, I still think I have a bit of youth left in me. But Leeds tested that belief. In the Guardian, Dave Simpson calls Reading and Leeds an “annual post-GCSE blowout”. The only other people my age or older were A) proper “adults” camping with their kids in the safe campsites, B) so high on stimulants their eyes were 99.9% pupil, or C) just as knackered, grumpy and filled with regret as I was.

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the B category. Because they’re the majority – in both the over 25s and the youth, the toxic combination of hedonism and vanity was what prevailed at Leeds Festival. Outfits are important; most of the guys seemed to be in scruffy tracksuits – the sort I used to get teased for wearing in PE because I couldn’t afford Adidas or Nike; brands like Puma, Reebok and Fila. But now they’re cool. There seem to be an abundance of fishing hats and small circular sunglasses. Essentially, the guys are dressed like it’s the nineties again. And their chief accessory is the duel-wielding cigarette-and-tinny combo in one hand – a hand that is punching to the beat of whatever distant drum and bass track is audible.

On the Friday morning, a couple of party goers seemed to be boasting about how little sleep they’d had; the less, the more impressive (obviously):

“Mate, I’ve had about four hours.”

“Four!? I’ve had about half an hour, me. I had so much coke.”

“Well… maybe I didn’t have four, it just felt like four, you know, because I was so fucked.”

“I slept right through!” chimed in a girl who clearly didn’t understand the game.

I was grumpy on the Friday morning; I hadn’t seen any bands, yet I’d still been kept awake by the drugged-up revelling children. I should say that I used to be one such youth – in fact, I was one way into my twenties. But I’ve descended (ascended?) into a sleep-and-comfort loving adult very quickly over the past few years. That morning I had an epiphany; next time I do a festival, I’m staying in a hotel. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of middle-aged loons who still do festivals the “proper” way, and I’m sure I’m being a wuss. But I don’t care.

But onto that evening. The first act that I saw was A Day to Remember, who Foo Fighters picked themselves to open for them on the main stage. I’ve been following these guys for about fifteen years (they’re one of my teenage pick-me-ups mentioned above) but I’ve never seen them. So they were an absolute must for me. And they didn’t disappoint. Their chaotic mixture of hardcore breakdowns and pop punk choruses shouldn’t work, but it does. Probably because if you’re a fan of extreme punk, you’re likely to have a soft spot for the mellower stuff too. And the whole crowd seemed to love both, as their eclectic genre was showcased in its entirety. From softer melodic tunes like “If it Means a Lot to You” to the brutal “Sticks and Bricks” – there were singalongs and circle-pits galore. The lyrics are wholesome; growing up, love, friendship, embarrassment – they’re Blink-182 for mosher kids.

Continuing with the wholesome spirit, Foo Fighters’ set was a feel-good rock-fest from start to end. Much like the previous band, they brought light and shade with slow songs and lively rippers. I’ve never really been into Foo Fighters. I’ve always gravitated towards Dave Grohl’s other stuff, Nirvana and his metal project, Probot. Foo Fighters have always just been there. But live, my god, they’re up there with Skindred in the top tier of crowd pleasers. Rather than playing their songs with a bit of banter in between, they kept the crowd on their toes as they split songs in two, swapped instruments (Grohl, of course, had a go on drums), and pulled a Freddy Mercury lookalike up from the crowd to dance to a Queen cover.

In lighter moments, things became poignant. Grohl brought his daughter on stage to sing – at her request, apparently – “My Hero.” I usually find this sort of thing sickly, but they did it with such humour – he mocked her in an embarrassing-fatherly way – that it was just lovely. What was really unexpected, however, was the fact that they played an acoustic version of “Wheels”, which has always been my low-key favourite Foos song. I was so lost in the cheesiness that I welled up.

Foo Leeds
Corny, but a touching moment – Dave Grohl and his daughter Violet.

However, the feeling of rapt euphoria didn’t last too long into the night, after Grohl and his band finished with “Everlong” and a firework display. Because A) I was at Leeds festival, and B) I wasn’t on a substance that would have prolonged such a feeling. And I’ve come to the conclusion that B is a necessary component to counteract the difficulties of A, when there are no bands playing. The partying continued around my tent all night; I don’t know if it was the same revellers all night, or if they worked in shifts, but it certainly never stopped. It was a well-oiled machine of debauchery – I’d have been impressed if I didn’t want to murder every single one of them. And I was cold. I thought I’d been smart in buying a lighter sleeping bag (less weight to trudge through the mud) but it had no insulation, and my teeth were chattering like a scared Scooby Doo. My fault, but it didn’t help with the grumpiness.

Saturday went by very quickly, because it was essentially a camping trip – we didn’t go into the arena until the evening, because thankfully nobody had anything they wanted to see. Drinking Pimm’s, wasting money on fairground rides, and buying burgers from stalls. It was a relief. We saw Bowling for Soup in a surprisingly small tent – I thought they were main stage-worthy. But they put on a fantastic show nonetheless, taking twentysomethings back to their early teenage years.

The next day I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only grumpy member of my group; we all were. Because I did something that I’ve never done, in my ten years of attending festivals – I left early.

We saw Billie Eilish, who wasn’t half bad – she made a good point about being in the moment, and requested that everyone put their phones away. But the number of people had tripled – I assume this was the result of Post Malone and Billie Eilish’s pull on the younger ones – and the temperature had quadrupled. (Both these numbers are exaggerations, but it sure seemed true). The queue to get some water lasted about half an hour – and this wasn’t to buy a cool bottle of water, no, this was to save the planet and use a tap. The queues at the food stalls were longer. It was bad enough to spend fifteen quid on a flimsy cardboard container of sixty calories of noodles and raw onion, but to wait so long in the scorching sun? I’m good, thanks. We wanted home comforts. Or pub food. Or shelter from the sun. Or just a cool glass of lemonade. Basically, we wanted out – Leeds had delighted us enough. I do slightly regret missing Post Malone, because I was intrigued what all the fuss is about, but the burger I had at the Wetherspoons by Leeds train station was so good, it’s hard to care that much.

Leeds Billie
Billie Eilish – “not my jam” but enjoyable.

The verdict, then. While it’s difficult to review the whole festival – having missed headliners Twenty-One Pilots and Post Malone – I can say with almost certainty who this festival is for. Or perhaps I should say who it isn’t for – and that’s anyone over 21. Or anyone who doesn’t feel like partying for four days straight. But Foo Fighters were fucking incredible.

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