Live at Leeds 2019 – A Fine Confusion; A Rarefied Joy

Undoubtedly one of the biggest musical events of the year, Live at Leeds sees hundreds of artists take over the City and thousands of revellers on the streets.  Now in its twelfth year, Live at Leeds carefully treads a balance between established acts and emerging talent.

This abundance of new talent meant that, for an old man like myself, a quick scan of the Festival programme looked about as familiar as the dishes on the menu of a Latvian-Uighur fusion restaurant.  I hadn’t the first idea who any of these people were.  What the hell is a Bilk?  Is Teeff a person?  A band?  A misprint?  Don’t the kids listen to Oasis any more?  I used to bounce cheerfully on my grandpa’s knee to the sounds of Blurb singing Parkwife on Swapshop. I remember Jason Corker from The Pulp mooning Michael Jackson.  Mars bars cost 10p back then.  The internet was in black and white.  Etc etc…

I was relating all this to the Editor over a beer in Dry Dock.  I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t listening.  Sickened by my whinnying and whingeing, he unceremoniously booted me out into the sunshine.  A stern shove; a loud roar: “Just get the damn story!” There is just no communicating with some people.

With the Editor’s instructions ringing in my ears, I leafed through the Festival programme.  Why must they make the writing so damned small?  I ran my finger down the list of times, making mental calculations . Where could I get to? After all it was 1:58pm, the bands started at 2pm and I needed another beer if I was to endure.  Yes, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard sound like they could fit the bill.  And what luck – they’re just over the road.

Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard

Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard by Barnaby Fairely

Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard sure are a punctual bunch.  It’s 2:01pm and they’re already strumming a merry tune as I come around the corner. “Hey, it’s the 90s!” I grin as the quartet chug out a Britpop-esque number as their first offering, pouting and wrapped up in denim jackets.  Singer Tom Rees is tremendous fun to watch – all Jagger moves and preening while the music’s going and all motormouth between songs.  There’s also the kung fu kicks.  It’s all very enjoyable.  Harmonies come provided by bassist Ed Rees, guitarist Zac White’s tone has more meat than a butcher’s shop on delivery day and drummer Ethan Hurst is having a smashing time behind the drums.  The little stage in Leeds Beckett can’t hold all the people that have come to see Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard. Indeed they’re forced to stretch round the corner.  Rees is delighted. “This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever played to!” he howls. As ‘family favourite’ John Lennon Is My Jesus Christ comes to a close, the audience has a good chuckle along with the band as Rees concludes “Everyone gets involved with that one…well, except John Lennon.”

Verdict: The Bay City Rollers on a strict diet of red meat.

Disorientated and anxious from The Buzzard’s massive concussion of Rock N Roll, I limp down the street, looking for somewhere quiet to have a swift half of ale and take the weight off my feet.  The barlady informs me no such drink is served in her establishment, but she’ll happily make me a Tequila Slammer, a Blitzed Weasel or something called an Oily Melt.  As soon as I take a stool my phone lights up like a Christmas tree and the voice of the Editor cuts through the jukebox whine, disembodied and growling “Drenge. Quarter past three. At the O2.”


Drenge by Mark Wheelwright

After being frisked by some grinning sadist with a metal detector, I set a course to the front of the O2. Today is a very different proposition to Drenge’s recent performance in Leeds.  Previously I had seen the band milling about the stage playing Joey Beltram off their laptop in the half-dark in Headrow House.  That was during their Philharmonic tour.  Today, ambient jazz echoes through the cavernous hall as the huge crowd waits for Drenge to take to the stage.

The jazz cuts out and the stage is backlit by Cyrillic script with the accompanying translation: “Man With a Movie Camera: A 6 Reel Record on Film”. The Loveless brothers stroll on stage with the other members of their live band. A couple of brows furrow on the faces either side of me as the opening chords and listless non-melody of Prom Night ring out.  An odd opener…

The band conjure up an eerie gothic sound on Strange Creatures, but overall it’s a bit of a slow start. It feels like a weird setlist: a bit of a non-starter, not your typical just-play-the-hits-already festival offering. The crowd seem a bit restless and unengaged and a few begin to peel away and wander off from the stage.

Drenge seem to sense this and launch into the angular and aggressive Bonfire of the City Boys, finally urging the crowd into action. This Dance follows with more people pulling friends to the front, juxtaposed against a backdrop of antique photos in black and white.  A toothless crone in a shawl.  Society ladies on the promenade.

A full-on pit breaks out during Never Awake, with fantastic drum breaks under the guitar solo. The band touch on a lot of styles as the set progresses.  Face Like A Skull has an In Utero thing going on in the drums.  Autonomy has a jerky Talking Heads guitar riff.  Rory Loveless has a touch of Billy Cobham in him in the skittish Teenage Love.  A big thumbs up to the sound engineer here – each beat of the drums knocks a little air out of the lungs, giving an ugly physicality to the sound.

At some point late in the set Eoin Loveless shouts out “Lynch May, Farage and Robinson!” and a roar goes up. Pop pickers like myself get a kick out of the suitably wild and raucous We Can Do What We Want and doom-laden closer Let’s Pretend. Then the film ends and the band wander off stage.

Verdict: a set full of rewarding action for those who made it through a dodgy first 15 minutes.

As the crowd clears out, some beluga whale in lurid trousers stands alone in the lager sea, her arm raised, clutching a dropped sneaker in the air like a carnival prize; teeth bared and a fierce expression on her face.  I had enjoyed the band, but her performance gave me a bad jolt.  I made a beeline for the bar, intending to settle my nerves with a stiff whisky, but upon arrival it became apparent they only served overpriced swill from a trough.

Cursing the beluga woman, the bar staff, my accursed Editor and the entire vulgar scene, I struck off down the road. My phone flashed up a message: “DEATH BY UNGA BUNGA STOP KEY CLUB STOP DONT B LATE STOP”

“Unga Bunga”?  Was this some cruel joke?  Was I just some prop, being ordered around like a dancing monkey?  I was certain the Editor was having a great old time.  Why, yes sir, I’ll shake my ass right on down to the Key Club and be sure to report right back on The Unga Bunga Band!  And after that I’ll pull down my shorts and go get the story on that mute albino barbershop quartet down at the Bucket of Blood.

I ordered two burgers and a beer.  The waitress sensed my tension and brought them over in silence. No, wait, calm down. A little subterranean action could be just the trick.  Sure.  Forget your troubles here on the surface. Get down in the basement, roll around a little and come back up smiling.  I choked down my food and stumbled down the stairs into the Key Club.

Death by Unga Bunga

Death by Unga Bunga by Rose McLaughlin

Death by Unga Bunga were a real find.  No need for Russian Silent Films and Fancy Light Shows here.  These were good ole boys following a simpler recipe for mayhem: shouting and choruses that shout “I’m a chorus!”

Singer Sebastian Ulstad Olsen immediately jumps off the stage and comes stomping through the audience. There is no question of stopping him. People back out of the way of the brute as he screams “Follow meeee!” and tramps all the way back to the merch stand. Soon he’s back on stage strangling himself with the mic cable, his face turning purple.

“How many people here aren’t in a band huh?” he yells. Hands go up. “This next song is about you and how much you are dying every day.”

Unga Bunga throw a bunch of s… in a bucket and it sounds great and then they kick the bucket over.  It’s power pop, sure, but the riffs are as much cock-rock and Def Leppard as they are Buzzcocks and Blondie.  The duelling guitar leads are full on Iron Maiden several melodies deep into a middle 8.  There’s punk energy, songs about love, songs about taking medicine, blistering solos that should be far too long but never outstay their welcome.  It’s fun.  We’re all having fun.

The band looks fantastic. The singer looks like Avid Merrion. He looks like the villain from an 80s American high school movie. He’s in character. The guitar player has a Pyongyang  Defense League t-shirt on. The drummer’s huge shining gut pokes out of his denim waistcoat. I can’t help thinking what excellent posture he has.

“How’s it sound out there? Awesome?” Cheering. “Yeah, I know.  We’re brilliant”.

Somewhere towards the end of their set, I hear a familiar melody on the guitars. What could it be? Kiss? Surely not the Allman Brothers? Ah, of course: The Boys Are Back In Town. The band close out the evening with all four guitarists playing their instruments behind their heads in unison. Naturally, the crowd refuse to let them leave.

Verdict: Can’t remember the last time I saw a crowd won over so completely or quickly.

Unga Bunga had lit a firecracker up my ass.  But what was to happen now?  What was next?  So many strange names on this programme.  How does a simple man such as myself decide between Kwassa, Fur and Lice?  They all sound so enticing.  No, no.  Put away the schedule.  Let the universe decide.

Goat Girl

Goat Girl by Claudia Farmer

Three or four songs into Goat Girl’s set I was forced to reappraise whether it had been smart to let the universe decide.  The very antithesis of the Unga Bunga Band.  The songs were boring and the band looked bored and the crowd were bored.  I wasn’t sure, but I think I saw their guitarist fall asleep on stage as they played.  Their synth player never seemed to be quite on the beat.  I walked out.  I wasn’t the only one.

I scootched on over to Leeds University to catch Black Honey. The room where they were playing didn’t look like a gig venue.  I couldn’t divine its regular purpose.  Perhaps it was a cafeteria or refectory?  It was getting difficult to tell through all this booze.  Why do they have to make it so damned strong?

Black Honey

Black Honey by Mark Wheelwright

If you’ve never seen Black Honey perform, close your eyes and imagine a lady on stage in men’s pyjamas with a Dolly Parton hairdo flanked by three male models.  If you want to know how they sound, simply grab your favourite Painting By Numbers Colouring book from your bookshelf, open a page at random and imagine what that sounds like as a song.  Rebellion for the Nike-a-go-go.

They say the chase is better than the catch, but my luck had run dry, I was sure of it.  Any attempt at navigating the programme with any sense of purpose was shot and besides, my physical list of set times and venues was sodden and crumbled.  The Editor was pursuing a steady diet of radio silence, no doubt some calculated strategy to taunt me.  I wanted to head home, climb into the sofa, knock the top off a bottle of something, flick on The Twilight Zone and resurface sometime on Sunday.

Sundara Karma

Sundara Karma by Claudia Farmer

But no rest for the wicked! No illusion of choice for the weird! Sundara Karma had released Ulfilas’ Alphabet earlier this year, an effort which earned them a headline slot at the O2. I had to “Get The Story” after all. I was lucky I did – they rescued the evening.

Within seconds Sundara Karma have instant and total control of the room. Everyone is bouncing up and down. Hipsters with haircuts, weekend sensibles, hooligans on E, failed squares and even Old Ma and Pa together. Good vibrations; wild abandon.

Unlike Drenge, their set is much more conventional, front-loaded with jumpy up tempo numbers. The band lean heavily on the new album but the audience react to both old and new material with equal pleasure.  I couldn’t tell you exactly which tunes were played or what order they came in, but I recall She Said, Symbols of Joy and Eternity, Higher States, Happy Family, Greenhands.  I distinctly remember The Changeover.  A special moment.  I’m uncertain as to how the lyric should be interpreted, but the song is a wonderful calm moment in the tempest.

Aside from the music, the show is a spectacle for the eyes. The musicians look like a band, not like they are in a band.  There is a difference, you know.  The light show is moody – deep, rich colours and beautiful hangings; a boudoir feel.  The band in silhouette and the band in spotlight.

You can see Sundara Karma becoming one of the big bands. If they were around in the 1980s we might have had them instead of U2.  Oscar Pollack is a natural frontman, androgynous and alien, prowling around the stage with complete confidence.  They are able to please a lot of people – touching on moody electronica, out-and-out dance anthems, guitar rockers, cerebral pop.  They can obviously pull it off live.  The songs end time and time again in whipcrack precision.  Their live keyboard player adds a vital extra dimension to the overall cadence and allows them to match the complexity and atmosphere of their albums.

Verdict: Energy and blood and originality. A vital end to the evening.

Bring on Live at Leeds 2020, you savages!


Feature photograph Black Honey by Mark Wheelwright.

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