Live At Leeds brings 2021’s weird but wonderful festival season towards a euphoric close

What a beautiful chance to rack up 25,000+ steps walking in a circle from legendary Leeds venue to legendary Leeds venue, right?
Photo credit: Jamie MacMillan.

Oh, Live at Leeds. What a beautiful chance to rack up 25,000+ steps walking in a circle from legendary Leeds venue to legendary Leeds venue, right?

In a normal, non-pandemic-stricken year, this would usually mark the very beginning of festival season. This time round, our chance to get up close and personal with each far-flung musical oasis instead signifies the ending of a bizarre string of events – all of which have come with a much more heightened sense of elation than ever before. Of course, this is no exception. After almost two years without the beloved day, the opportunity to dance ourselves dizzy to some of the most exciting names in music right now couldn’t be more welcome. 

Floating along with the breeze outside of Nation of Shopkeepers are the sweet, easy guitar hooks of Beaux. Inside, he eases an enamoured crowd into the hectic day ahead with blissful vocals and lowkey beats. It feels distinctly like the calm before the storm as he meanders through a set of hopelessly romantic tracks. Beaux’s sparkling take on dream pop is peppered with distortion and insatiable bass lines, and it turns out to be the perfect way to kickstart the day. It’s pure bliss on stage for Beaux and the band, and a dreamlike haze descends upon the early hours of the festival for the rest of us in attendance.

That storm, however, seems to still be brewing, and so the soothing start to the day continues over at Oporto with Leeds-based duo, Sunflower Thieves. “That was about as exciting as it gets, we’re taking it back down now,” they laugh as they move from one slightly more upbeat track back to their usual melancholy, harmony-laden sounds. It’s a gloriously stripped-back and mellow set, but it’s enough to enrapture the crowd into stunned silence. As they acknowledge, it’s perhaps not the liveliest set of the day, but their capacity for tender, resonant lyrics like on ‘Heavy Weight’ means it is one of the most stirring. 

Heading into Leeds University Union’s Stylus, however, is bracingly intense. Moving around is no easy feat – The Big Moon have packed it to the absolute brim, with a crowd before them completely electrified by the four-piece as they deliver what is arguably the standout set of the day. It’s a set defined by the effortlessly cool – they’re true rockstars, The Big Moon. As they dip into the best of both of their stellar albums, they transform into a thrashing vision against flashing red lights. The only danger here, though, is that the crowd might be a bit too in love. Whether they’re inviting everyone to crouch down before unleashing every ounce of energy at the climax of ‘Bonfire’, or uniting the room in a joyous cover of ‘Praise You’, one thing is for certain. The Big Moon are an unstoppable force. They might have been opening the stage at Stylus this year, but with a set this magnetic, those biggest slots are no doubt in their near future.

A little bit down the road at O2 Academy, Vistas are making their third turn in Leeds in as many months – they just can’t keep away, can they? With two perfectly festival-ready albums now under their belt, it’s about time those anthemic tracks found themselves onto a stage. The entire venue seems to be dancing along as the Scottish lads whirl through a set of their happy-go-lucky indie pop. It may be a borderline chilly October day, but as the opening guitar line to ‘Calm’ sounds out across the room, it could be midsummer. Every Vistas song feels like bottled up sunshine, and it’s a set that provides an instant dose of serotonin for everyone there.

Funnily enough, The Night Café’s last live show was in Leeds, all the way back in summer 2019. Flash forwards two years, and they’re back in the city for their first gig back – they might be Liverpool locals, but this does sort of feel like a homecoming. It’d be a difficult task to wipe the grins from their faces as they finally reunite with a crowd hanging onto their every word, especially one that is so willing to do their bidding as the one inside O2 Academy appears to be that evening. Frontman Sean Martin jokingly requests someone attempt a backflip as the crowd opens up, and much to their delight, one is indeed flawlessly executed. The Night Café’s wish is this crowd’s command. Earlier this year, the band told Dork: “If [we] like what [we’re] doing, [we] don’t care if anyone else likes it.” Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. Whilst fan favourites like ‘Addicted’ have every person reciting the lyrics, newer, more experimental releases like ‘Think It Over’ equally go down a storm. It’s magical – the joy of being united with a crowd who love your music dearly, regardless of the direction you might take, shines through the set. Nestled with some of their best slices of indie-pop from over the last few years and brimming with promise for what’s to come, The Night Café’s set is more than enough to get everyone excited for the band’s return.

From The Night Café, it’s a race back down to Call Lane for Walt Disco’s packed-out closing set at Oporto. The most glittering, enigmatic band of the day completely ooze glamour, so much so that the small stage can barely contain the six-piece. It comes as no surprise, then, that vocalist James Potter cannot resist spending the majority of the set grinningly twirling amidst the crowd. They head full pelt into their latest single, the melodramatic and intimate ‘Weightless’, and it’s pure magic. It’s a transformative moment, taking you far from the spinning disco ball in Oporto’s backroom to a fantastically euphoric universe of Walt Disco’s own creation. It’s all too easy to become completely enamoured with the irresistible, yet mysterious band, but as the room comes back down to earth, there’s a resounding sense that everyone is leaving with that set permanently etched in their minds. 

A brief dalliance with Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes is next on the agenda as they bring absolute raucousness down upon O2 Academy for a closing set. It’s ferocious and fevered, with frontman Frank Carter himself doing his usual tricks of hopping fearlessly into the crowd and commanding a host of all-too-eager fans to hold him aloft so he can roar ‘Kitty Sucker’ right into their faces. One member of the crowd, wide-eyed, simply remarked “This is INSANE,” before launching himself head-first into another swirl of people, and it’s that kind of energy that the formidable band inspire in their crowds. It’s madness, but it’s some of the most undiluted fun of the day. 

Despite the unfortunate clashes that predictably roll around at the 9pm mark, JAWS have managed to entice the masses into the sweaty depths of The Key Club. The dreamy, dazed indie of their sound might seem a bit incongruous to the black, sweat-dripping ceilings of the room, but their frenetic energy completely matches up to it. Opening with wistful deep cut ‘Stay In’ from all the way back in 2013, they bounce between older favourites and more recent releases. ‘Think Too Much, Feel Too Little’ gets everyone moving, whilst ’17’ introduces a much-welcomed moment of tranquillity. It’s a pure arms to the sky dance party for the remainder of the set, however; JAWS are back, and they want you grooving the night away.

For the final set of the night, Circa Waves are invited to bring the house down over at Beckett’s Student Union. They’re festival veterans, aren’t they? Armed with a back catalogue of sing-along anthems, it’s almost second nature for them to deliver a floor-shaking closing set. And that they do. From the incendiary ‘Fire That Burns’ to newer tracks like ‘Jacqueline’ and ‘Move to San Francisco’, the Liverpudlians deliver hit after hit and their crowd completely lap it up. It may as well be one big karaoke session – frontman Kieran Shudall scarcely needs to sing a word. It’s the perfect end to the day; even their slightly less optimistic tracks manage to imbue blissful exhilaration into every corner of the room. It might well be October, but one thing is for sure: Circa Waves are able to deliver ‘T-Shirt Weather’ year-round. As things finally begin to ease back to normality after eighteen months of general weirdness, screaming “It’s gonna be okay!” over and over again in a room full of Circa Waves fans has never, and probably will never, feel more cathartic. 

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