1 Aug 2016

LeeFest: The Neverland | Reviewed

On an intense July weekend, Kendal Calling, Standon Calling and Y Not filled the fields of Britain with a wash of sweat, piss and rock music, but it was a rural corner of Kent that drew our attention. That corner, my friends, is Leefest. Now in its tenth year, the three-day bash started out as the brainchild of one Lee Denny, who aged sixteen threw a festival in his back garden when his parents went on holiday. This year, some of the country’s hottest new musical talents joined a uniquely immersive programme of live performance, art, theatre and more. Here’s what we made of it all.

The Bangarang Stage at Leefest
Upon arrival, a gander around the arena reveals a wonderfully unique landscape, different to any other festival I’ve been to. This year’s theme is ‘The Neverland’, an interpretation of the mystical world from Peter Pan in which children never grow up. The main stages – Bangarang and Tootle’s Circus – lie in The Neverwoods, which backs onto a small lake shrouded in thick trees. Climbing frames sit between food stalls, ornately decked out in ladders and flags that are later inhabited by ‘lost boys’ – men and women dressed like the mischievous fictional gang. Skull Ridge is the area for heavier music, and home to the pirates, who frolic and swagger around Wild West style bars in shades of brown and black. On the other side of the site we find the Mermaids' Lagoon, a disco inspired wonderland filled with bubble machines, palm trees, hot tubs and a beach sound-tracked by DJs all day and night. There are more delights in the woods including Wendy’s Cottage – where acoustic performances and storytelling takes place – and The Goldmine, which quickly turns into a sweaty pit of ravers. At the entrance, everyone is given a charm of their choice that indicates one of these three tribes. It’s a really novel approach to the festival experience, and one that works perfectly in this environment. Perhaps at larger festivals without the zesty reputation of this one it would work less successfully, but it’s certainly something we’d love to see more at grassroots events just starting out.

Then comes the music. Thursday night sees Loyle Carner prove just why he’s tipped as the next big thing on the R&B circuit as he opens proceedings. His set in Tootle's Circus isn’t watched by a huge audience but the predominantly teenage crowd that do pitch up seem to love every second. Ghostpoet is top of the bill tonight but Everything Everything should be, really. They perform in the tent as well (can that be right? Let me look at the programme…) and blow Leefest into action with a phenomenal mix of old and newer material. Jonathan Higgs’ iconic half rap/half falsetto vocal sends chills down spines as Kemosabe and Regret are rattled off effortlessly to a now packed and sweltering tent. The performance peaks with the sublime No Reptiles, plus Distant Past from last year’s ‘Get to Heaven’. As a band easily capable of playing shows far bigger than this one, it’s a humbling and special experience to catch at the start of what promises to be an equally wonderful weekend.

Our Friday opens with a couple of interviews (stay tuned for those!) before we dive head first into an afternoon of exciting new music. Local trio The Bay Rays are our first stop. Oozing cool via an array of messy hair and leather jackets, it’s a good kind of chaotic introduction to this group who are hotly tipped by DIY Magazine, as well as other local lads Slaves. They don’t have a Hey! of their own just yet, but bright things look set to come. 

Clean Cut Kid are our next stop. With a new EP out this month, the sunshine-y quartet has been doing the festival rounds rigorously. “This is our twenty first festival. That means we’re twenty one times more fucked than you all are”, frontman Mike Halls jokes. Today, everything goes down a treat as the clouds part for a taste of some Liverpool indie pop, latest single We Used To Be In Love slotting neatly next to fan favourites like Pick Me Up and Vitamin C.

They’re followed by Formation, who play to an unfairly small crowd. The London based electro-poppers deliver furious percussion driven bangers, with brothers Will and Matt Ritson at the helm. To the few people who do get up and dance, warm feelings are reciprocated. But for a band that has supported Foals, played every festival under the sun and have a frankly immaculate live show, it’s offensive that there’s not a better reception. However, you can check out their new single Pleasure ahead of a headline date at London’s Village Underground this October and show them some love yourself. Trust us, they’re awesome.  

In the tent, Will Joseph Cook also faces a small audience but a livelier one at least. The indie singer/songwriter has been noted as one to watch and been given the remix treatment by Joel Wolf Alice on Take Me Dancing, which is equally as silky in its original form this afternoon. Girls Like Me also goes down a treat, summoning Gengahr vibes with a hint of Beck in the vocals. Afterwards Get Inuit up the tempo with a barrage of upbeat slacker rock, whimsical ad-libs and a general air of total fun. Currently between tours supporting the mighty Spring King, they pack a punch with tracks like Pro Procrastinator, which bristles with potential from this energetic young foursome. Keep an eye out for their new single Teriyaki and a chat we had with them about it (plus Pokémon, pizza toppings and more…)

Headlining tonight it’s a back-to-back all-out hurricane of guitar hooks and summer anthems. On the main stage, Circa Waves blow their debut festival headline slot out of the water, ripping through just over an hour of material from their simmering debut ‘Young Chasers’ with a furious intensity. The crowd lap it up, going crazy for every number, but no more so than for T-Shirt Weather. It’s the Supergrass – Alright of its day, no doubt forming the soundtrack of teenage memories that will stick for a long time to come. The future is uncertain for Circa Waves – will they continue making great pop songs or fall into the ever-growing pile of landfill indie bands loved and lost? We don’t know, but one thing’s for certain which is that right now, they’re top of their game, and we’re loving it.

Bizarrely, Spring King are on last, adding a second dose of madness to the sticky night. But rather than feeling like a drag, Tarek and co pump things to a welcome next level. Detroit and Demons pound through the air offering a chance to mosh for anyone who hasn’t crumbled from exhaustion just yet, and The Summer finishes what T-Shirt Weather started. It’s Rectifier that comes sweet and powerful, closing the night in a sluggish but enthusiastic pit of fans new and old, knackered beyond belief but loving every second. Day two wrapped up in the best of ways.
The Goldmine at Leefest 2016
Saturday starts slow, with the dusky rhythms of Hannah Lou Clark providing the perfect soundtrack to a lazy afternoon by the Bangarang stage. The singer/songwriter performs solo and without her usual drum machine (instead an iPod fills in) and it’s bewitching, but rather seems like the tip of the iceberg of this fresh talent’s capabilities. But it works in this setting, It’s Your Love placing her sonically somewhere around Bat For Lashes and St Vincent. She Drew the Gun bring a similar vibe in the tent. This Wirral quartet won this year’s Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition – in short meaning tons of industry people loved them so much they got a slot at the festival. And well deserved it seems, as frontwoman Louisa Roach leads her band in a charismatic performance, psych-pop in make up with all smiles between songs. One to watch certainly (on their upcoming UK tour perhaps – find them online for all the deets.)

We Are Scientists caused a stir as a surprise last minute addition to the line-up, but when their time comes, they’re by far the biggest let-down of the weekend. It could be argued that the sound levels are off, but the blame lies more in vocalist Keith Murray’s painful drawl through an equally drab setlist. Somehow they draw one of the biggest crowds the main stage sees, but listening from the back we're not the only ones wincing at every other tired key change.

Some girl power coaxes in the evening, first in the form of Girli, a Vapour Trail favourite. She and partner DJ Kitty give the Goldmine a taste of their signature bratty hip-hop sound, clambering over the pointless barrier affront the tiny stage to get down and dirty with their buzzy bunch of fans. As if the plastic pop bonanza weren’t entertaining enough, there’s acrobatics too, as Girli takes to climbing the huge metal transmission tower that sits at the front of the dance floor. Which is where we leave her, as we leg it to Shura, whose phenomenal debut 'Nothing’s Real' is barely a month old and yet every song resonates with the crowd in the fresh air as she takes to the main stage. Backed by a band of three (including drummer Ally – “you can’t see him but he’s really pretty”) a wall of intricate and textured sound is unleashed, especially on White Light, nearly ten minutes of electronic magic that closes a phenomenal set from a star well on her way to global takeover. Straight after it’s The Big Moon time. In the tent, this rising four piece do what they do and they do it good, jamming 90s grunge into a hit filled half hour. Silent Movie Suzie is the new single, a rampant 3-minute-something packed with lyrics about summer, that leads into the equally blistering Eureka Moment. A cover of Madonna’s Beautiful Stranger whacks up the tempo, with Sucker providing a peak in energy and spirit. Catch this wonderful lot on tour this autumn, headlining and with Mystery Jets.
Girli, Shura and The Big Moon at Leefest 2016
Again, tonight’s headliners arrive in what might appear the wrong order, but a better one in this reviewer’s opinion. Lianne La Havas tops the bill on the main stage, turning Leefest into a downbeat, bluesy wonderland with her pristine vocals and masterful audience control. She oozes enthusiasm, as do her sizeable entourage, who man a wide range of instruments, and under a clear night sky a real sense of magic can be felt. Green and Gold, about La Havas’ mixed race heritage, is poignant and beautiful, and made all the more touching as we’re told that her own family are here tonight. She ends on Midnight, a grand number brimming with brass goodness that ends a fantastic day of music in a spectacle.
Lianne La Havas and VANT at Leefest 2016
But wait. There’s more. VANT are here and ready to give Leefest one last shot of adrenaline before we head off to the DJ sets. And what a send-off we receive. Some tasty feedback leads into The Answer, which echoes around the rapidly filling tent, before a decent slice of new music shows off some of the delights we have to look forward to from these guys. Birth Certificate is debatably the group’s most political song and resonates aptly amidst current affairs, but the punchier numbers like Parasite and Fly-By Alien keep spirits up. Do You Know Me? is our closer, for which we’re encouraged to use that tiny final scrap of energy and give it hell. With artist and audience worn out and drenched in sweat it seems like that’s it. But an encore comes, after a decent amount of the classic “one more song” chant that only seems to work once in a blue moon. Tonight, Time and Money is our bonus, although “we don’t have much of either”, Matty chirps. And with that, we’re done. Three incredible days of music wrapped up in an emotional and noisy moment that shows Leefest for what is is – a special place filled with special people. Awesome.

Super early bird tickets for Leefest 2017 are on sale now at their official website

Words: Alex Cabré