Live Review: Leeds Festival – Thursday & Friday

It’s that time of year again when York Calling towers pack up their kit and take it down the A64 to Bramham Park for Leeds Festival. This year promises an eclectic and popular line-up that we couldn’t wait to get stuck into. Here’s our review of Thursday evening and Friday at the festival.

By Graeme Smith

Photos by John Hayhurst

Thursday evening is something of a neglected phase of the festival but its line-up of rock newcomers offers rewards to those who are able to make it down early. A couple of years back we saw Leeds band English Teacher on the Festival Republic stage on Thursday and they’ve now graduated to a Friday opening slot.

This year’s selection of candidates for the next big thing were Bby, Panic Shack, King No-One and James Marriott. Bby opened the stage in the perfect way with their funky, sexy, rap-infused pop rock before Panic Shack proved a highlight with their stomping, chanting punk and garage rock.

King No-One is well-known to us here at York Calling. We’ve been following the local boys since our humble beginnings. They commanded the lively audience before James Marriott rounded off the evening with his disco-rich emotional rock.

Dissenters of Leeds Festival argue that it’s migrated from its rock roots but it’s easy to find bands on the line-up that cater to rock fans. Case in point was Main Stage East openers The Amazons. They finished big with energy and audience participation.

Hot Milk on Main Stage West by contrast gave energy from the start of their set. They represent the new wave of rock but some of their genre elements brought this reporter back to the ’90s, with a cathartic mix of hip hop, emo and (whisper it) rap metal.

The Radio 1 Dance Stage perfectly caters for the younger punters and it’s the place to be on an afternoon to find out who the next big thing might be. This year brought us York Calling favourite Fousheé followed by the hotly-followed Eliza Rose who packed out the tent with a show that was part performance, part DJ set. She of course finished with her number one earworm, B.O.T.A. (Baddest Of Them All).

The afternoon was rounded off back at the Main Stage East with Rina Sawayama. Her set was a soaring, flowing, theatrical highlight, with an impressive number of costume changes and plenty of swagger.

It is true that you don’t get the rock headliners at Leeds you once did. On Friday the main stages were handed over to pop acts, starting with the vibrant, uplifting and political performance of Declan McKenna and his band of misfits.

Becky Hill is a bit of an early evening stalwart at Leeds and it’s easy to see why with her ability to energise the crowd. Imagine Dragons then headlined Main Stage West delivering a drama-filled spectacle with undercurrents of blues rock.

Then it was time for Billie Eilish, the act that clearly half the people at Bramham had come exclusively to see. Even with a set that consisted of a lot of slow ballads, she single-handedly managed to command the sizable Main Stage West. It was an impish performance that finished big with Bad Guy and Happier Than Ever. It was proof if it was ever needed that more women need the opportunity to headline this festival, and that moving on from pure rock was the right move.

Our review of Saturday and Sunday is coming up. In the meantime, here’s a bonus gallery of some of the other acts and atmosphere so far.

Leeds Festival is taking place at Bramham Park, Leeds from 24 to 28 August 2023.