“Who fancies a party? We’re all out of the house!” yells Wolf Alice bassist Theo Ellis as this festival – traditionally a post-GCSE blowout, with a simultaneous leg in Reading – returns after its 2020 cancellation. Lateral flow tests and daily health checks are as much part of this year’s festival experience as bucket hats and glitter, but it’s otherwise rather eerily as if the pandemic never happened, with 75,000 attendees – many of them teenagers joyously hugging – and no masks or social distancing. The addition of a second main stage makes for a more continuous flow of music, although Wolf Alice’s triumphant, ethereally powerful teatime slot deserves a later billing.
With music in semi-limbo for 18 months and some high-profile US withdrawals, the scattergun bill combines zeitgeisty YouTubers and drill rappers in the tents with tried and trusted festival staples such as Catfish and the Bottlemen or Two Door Cinema Club on the outdoor stages. Friday headliners Biffy Clyro (late replacements for Queens of the Stone Age) first played in 2001, but the audience haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the topless, bearded, tattooed Scottish rockers and Many of Horror, about togetherness after a struggle, becomes a mass singalong.
The 36-year-old Glaswegian Gerry Cinnamon has made a remarkable journey from Sauchiehall Street open mics to stadiums, without major label backing. He charms the eastern main stage like a pub singer, combining 50s rock’n’roll, the La’s, and a dash of Ed Sheeran with just a guitar, beret, grin and a big voice.
Most of the crowd weren’t born when Oasis headlined here in 2000, but Liam Gallagher recreates the experience for them, bringing his trademark cagoule, 90s barnet, original guitarist Bonehead and a whopping 13 Oasis classics to show the kids what made him a Rock ’N’ Roll Star. Stand By Me is enormous and communal; the Beatles-y Once is the pick of his solo stuff; a mass singsong of Live Forever in front of images of late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is a lovely moment.
Mabel at Leeds festival. Photograph: Jason Sheldon/REX/Shutterstock
Mabel’s Afro-Latin pop suits Saturday’s rocketing temperatures and party atmosphere. One of disappointingly few women artists on the main stage, apart from backing singers, she makes a welcome reappearance during rapper AJ Tracey’s otherwise subdued set and the pair’s sparky joint UK garage smash West Ten all but relocates west London to West Yorkshire.
Ahead of his forthcoming arena shows, young Sam Fender’s terrific sundown set further suggests he is the North Shields Bruce Springsteen. He sings about real issues from suicides in Newcastle to “kids in Gaza”, and makes them emotional and epic.
Six years ago Stormzy was a rising star of the Radio 1Xtra tent, but his Saturday headline is a masterclass of personality and staging that shows how the once underground grime scene now permeates our culture. With hyperactive dancers and his large family behind him, the smiling rapper fronts a pop concert, rock gig, grime club, firework display, church spiritual and West End musical in one show. It’s a pandemic party as Stormzy glad-hands the front rows and yells at the crowd to “hold that ‘Fuck Boris’ poster higher!”
Sunday headliner Post Malone’s set is too disjointed and slow-paced to top that and doesn’t quite catch fire in the darkness. No matter – the occasion is seized by electronic duo Disclosure. The Lawrence brothers’ dazzling computer graphics, big beats, live percussionists – and a brass section for the afrobeat-y Tondo – turn their stage into a giant rave-up that fulfils a collective need to – however long it lasts – forget about Covid and dance.