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Festival review: Leeds Festival 2011

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Friday

Leeds festivalThe near monsoon on the drive up the A1 puts us a little behind schedule so TNS misses what would have undoubtedly been amazing sets from Fucked Up and Best Coast.

Kicking off our Leeds is Cage The Elephant who seem to have a bee in their bonnet these days. After the initial hype around their debut, new album Thank You Happy Birthday has received a less than rapturous response. This live incarnation of the group is heavier, darker and suitably more pissed-off. All their tunes have a fuzzy, grunge edge – everything now coated in pure distortion and rage. New album tune ‘Sabretooth Tiger’ ends the set in feedback ridden, punk glory.

Forget all the crap about Hollywood upbringings and celebrity boyfriends, the only fact that matters is that Warpaint have developed into a phenomenal live band. They have more than lived up to the hype! A fresh downpour forces a large crowd into the NME tent for 45 minutes of magnificence. Their ethereal cover of The Supreme’s ‘My Guy’ is as touching as it is unexpected.

For a brief time Death From Above 1979 burned brightly as the most visceral and exciting of rock bands – all crunching bass riffs, and kinetic techno energy. The duo have always been a contradiction and tonight the exuberance of Sebastien Grainger is offset by the dour demeanour of Jesse F. Keeler. But it is not the duo's dynamic that makes it all so amazing as the pair unleash a cacophony of noise proving that on their return DFA1979 can still cut it with the best of them.

Elbow never fail to deliver an astonishing set but in light of the televised ‘love-in’ scenes from this year’s Glasto today’s set feels a little limp – not in the quality of the tunes or performance, the songs are as beautiful as always and Guy Garvey engages the crowd effortlessly – but the sparse crowd just aren’t in the mood. The gathered throng make it hard work for Garvey and Co with everything getting little more than an apathetic, mediocre response. Even the majesty of ‘One Day Like This’ fails to unite everyone in a joyous sing-song.

The big draw today is prog-purveyors Muse who are in nostalgia mode. Playing 2001’s Origin of Symmetry in its entirety for the first time, this is Muse taking a step back to the album that shot their career in to stratosphere. Coming out to Tom Waits’ ‘What’s He Building In There?’ (their staple introduction in 2001) the band launch directly into Origin for a relentless two-hours of prog-bombast.

Muse are fine showmen, doing what they do best, putting on a stunning stage-show that is out of this world. Where Muse fall a little flat is that as a group they have never moved into new territory and within 40 minutes when the shiny awe of the setting dies down, their music follows the same formula throughout – big riffs, classical piano and surging falsetto vocals played at one pace, Muse don’t do nuance. The trio are the perfect style-before-substance band, but in the live arena their style makes them an exciting prospect for most.

As Muse finish up their set 2ManyDJs are tearing up the NME stage with mash-up magnificence. Few DJ acts can lift a crowd like the Soulwax boys, who cut between soaring techno and a plethora of styles – as this is Leeds there is a suitable rock showing, the likes of Queens of the Stone Age dropping into the mix. The set closes with the mind-blowing mix of Max Romeo and the Upsetters ‘I Chase The Devil’ and the Prodigy’s ‘Out of Space’ before a kinetic reworking on Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – TNS leaves sweating, beat and with our ears ringing.

Saturday

It really doesn’t matter what time you put Pulled Apart By Horses on, they are going to give you a kicking – they don’t care about your hangover! The gapping chasm between stage and audience doesn’t stop them clearing it to ride the sea of hands. The new songs sound immense and ‘classic’ ‘High Five Nose Dive Swan Dive,’ is met with excitement en masse. Don’t be shocked to see them taking to the main stage next year.

Cardiff’s Islet do it differently – these guys don’t even have a website! Their sound switches styles as often as the members switch instruments throughout their restless, eccentric and compulsive tunes. They make a chaotic, experimental noise that you can dance to – that is pretty special. Check out Islet ASAP.

Today is all about the Dance Stage with it being packed with pure beatty goodness – Does It Offend You Yeah? do their usual rabble-rousing, including a stunning Nirvana cover whilst Mount Kimbie's grooves are so laid back they almost stop the world revolving.

Crystal Fighters are hotly tipped but as a live prospect they seem a little confused. Their mesh of electronic and traditional Spanish folk sounds never quite works. There’s something a little limp about it all.

Simian Mobile Disco have no such problem. Whilst not the most visually engaging act on the bill – two men pushing buttons, twiddling knobs and pulling out cables (to put them back in again in a different socket) with geeky excitement – their set build brilliantly into their ‘classics’ like the stunning ‘The Hustler’ and recent collaboration with Beth Ditto ‘Cruel Intentions’ which shows as well as pile-driving synth numbers SMD can also make sparkling disco-pop. This is dance music at its best.

Moving away from the Dance Stage the electronic marvels are still out in full force with a welcome return for Tom Vek. It’s like he has never been away, with new album Leisure Seizure taking centre stage the driving beats shattering his oddball pop sensibilities throughout an expertly delivered set. Vek is back to prove exactly why his debut was one of the best pop records of the last decade and why his return warranted such excitement a few months back. This is perfect, intelligent pop.

Poor old James Lavelle! Here he is with the latest incarnation of his legendary act UNKLE, with an exclusive audio/visual show no less, only to be stuck out in no man’s land where only a half-arsed, small crowd has been bothered to attend. The visuals are stunning, Lavelle’s eclectic mix of UNKLE sounds and samples is suitably engaging but the crowd are apathetic, and the vibe is one of fraught anxiety. This is the worst possible setting for a great new live venture from one of dance’s most enduring acts.

Sunday

Local lads Castrovalva are a mess! A glorious, car-crash of a mess. Nothing about them should work – elements of hardcore, techno and hip hop played with no regard for structure or genre convention. It’s all so wrong it’s right.

Shoegaze revivalists Yuck succeed in a perfect facsimilie of the bands they love – namely Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr., and Teenage Fanclub. At times it’s hard to see Yuck as their own band, more a tribute to their influences. Their set also ends abruptly without the unleashing of guitar fury that fans of their heroes would expect.

Jamie Hince’s marriage to some super-model and Alison Mosshart’s work with a guy from some band called the White Stripes seems to have done the trick! The tent is packed for The Kills. Opener ‘No Wow’s’ crunching beats and seductive blues is a top starting point, but after a few tracks you soon realise this band are a one trick pony – a good trick nonetheless but still just one trick. The duo lack depth and I can’t help but wish they would get some new musicians to help open up their monotonous sound. A great band almost refusing to fulfil their potential.

Festivals should be all about those moments you will not experience anywhere else. And roots reggae legend Little Roy performing a set of reggae Nirvana covers is one of those moments. The whole, brilliantly played set is a testament to the quality of Kurt Cobain’s song-writing and is an inspiring tribute. ‘Comes As You Are’ produces a unified sing-a-long like no other all weekend.

On the mainstage last decades great white hype The Strokes prove that marketing and mythology can go a long way to compensate for lack of decent tunes and talent with a set so limp it would take a truck full of Viagra to revive it, while And So I Watch You From Afar throttle the life out of the rock genre on the Festival Republic stage. Complex inter-weaving guitars, crushing riffs and pounding beats make for an awe-inspiring rock spectacle.

Today is all about Pulp – let’s face it the whole weekend has been all about Pulp! They open with ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’ (not that most of the audience do!) and from the first chords it is apparent why Pulp are one of Britain’s greatest ever pop prospects.

Jarvis Cocker is on the form of his life, his middle-age doing nothing to dim his star-quality as he gyrates round the stage like it is still 1995 and charms with his between song banter which highlights his very British humour and eccentricities.

From the perfect pop of ‘Babies’ to the darker, more menacing ‘This Is Hardcore’ nothing is wrong and nothing is out of place. Set bookend ‘Common People’ acts as a glorified karaoke sing-along and ends the weekend’s most perfect set. With their return let’s hope that Pulp stay in our lives for a long time to come, pop music will be a much drabber place without them.

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