Festival Review: Leefest 2011

on Friday, August 19, 2011
Leefest (12-13 August '11, Highams Hill Farm) // Words: Kieran Toms

I think if you watched the news a lot last week then you might have decided that humanity was doing badly, with all the riots and financial crises. You could have been forgiven for thinking that we were, or are, all doomed or something. Which is maybe a roundabout way of saying that it was lovely to escape to Leefest, which was just a short bus ride from Bromley High Street in South East London, but felt miles from anything negative.

You might know that Leefest has evolved from a guy called Lee’s garden, where as a teenager in 2006 ago he was banned from having a party, and so put on a festival in his garden instead. Well, you do now. It’s a two-day event this year for the first time ever, and no longer in his garden.

Despite its fairly rapid growth over the last few years, its capacity is limited to two thousand, which has helped it keep its intimate atmosphere, and it still feels like a slightly oversized house party you’ve been personally invited to. At one point the card machine behind the bar breaks down, they call for a technician, and it is Lee himself (the bloke in the video below) who arrives to fix it.

So there was no useless dashing about missing bands, instead you were never more than a few yards away from a well-thought-out detail or amusement, something homely like sofas or a piano, or ‘Lee’s Bed’ where you could get massages in the day, or just lie down and watch the bands later in the evening. There was a sandpit, used for volleyball at some points, and for little kids making sandcastles at others. There was ‘Wonderland’, where you could get swing dancing lessons. I spent a lovely relaxed Friday night watching 'The Big Lebowski' shown in the campsite.

One of the greatest things about this festival is the way that the positivity permeates every attendee. Everyone’s happy - from the security guards to the bar staff, and this ensured a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. And the bands! Of course. Whilst you got the feeling you could still have had a great time without seeing any bands at all, the plethora of quality acts meant that that would have been an extremely silly thing to do.

There was a fantastic spread of bookings, with bands for everyone, from the exuberant teens keen to rave, to families enjoying what felt like a particularly superior village fete. Friday night headliners Fenech Soler were the perfect way to finish the first day, euphorically ensuring everyone went off to the campsite with spirits high.

They topped off a great day of acts, with my personal highlights being a frenetic and tuneful Dutch Uncles on the main stage, and the idiosyncratically brilliant Public Service Broadcasting who added their own black and white TV to the existing living room based d├ęcor in the second stage, named the ‘Colin Denny Lava Lounge’, after Lee’s dad.

STREAM: Every Holiday Is A Disaster by bordeauxxx

Saturday was even more full of bands I wanted to see, yet I caught plenty I hadn’t known about, such as Bordeauxxx. Quite a young looking group, they had a terrific command of melody and song structure that made their show extremely enjoyable. Perhaps a little indebted to the sound of Los Campesinos!, but that’s not a bad band to sound like at all, and as their promising sound develops it will surely bring about a more individual style.

Professor Penguin followed them on the main stage, a year on from their first ever gig here at last year’s festival. Recently championed by Brian Eno of all people on 6 Music they played a set that exuded class, the lush instrumentation that is a feature of their self-released album augmented by singer Jonny Abraham’s voice having noticeably gained dynamism and passion since last year.

STREAM: Calgary (Bon Iver cover) by Professor Penguin

Following a brief flyover by some sort of RAF plane (this sort of unusual event almost seemed normal for a festival like Leefest), I then caught the frankly fantastic Pengilly’s, who I have raved about before on this site, and they did not disappoint.

Saturday’s main stage was full of crowd-pleasers - I must admit that upon first seeing Man Like Me from afar, with their choreographed dance moves and topless, short-wearing singer prancing around, I was sceptical. But they were so thoroughly unpretentious and genuinely fun that they soon won me round.

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly followed, and his set proved he is also an expert at entertaining a festival crowd. Nipping back to the ‘Lava Lounge’ I saw Dinosaur Pile-Up, who did what they do best, which is play extremely good riffs extremely well.

Then the Young Knives, who had kind of dropped off my radar since their success a few years ago with 'Voices Of Animals And Men'. But the songs off that sounded as fresh as ever, and their newer material showed off how just good they are at writing simple but hook-laden pop songs.

British Sea Power were a fantastic choice to close the festival, just like Leefest itself they do things in their own inimitable way yet without ever failing to entertain. By the end of their set the stage was filled with robots, foliage and a man with a fox’s head, but all of this never distracted from the power of their music, with magnificent and bellowing songs that boomed into the South London night.

Then after catching the end of DJ Fresh in a packed Dance tent, I returned to the campfire, where the man from Man Like Me worked up the crowd for the second time that day, inciting a mass sing-along. The fire’s warmth was outdone only by the warmth of those surrounding it, everyone smiling and laughing with strangers becoming ex-strangers, and all was merry.

I woke up the next day with the merriness having subsided somewhat, and maybe regret that all of everything wasn’t like this, but the glow of Leefest’s fire burnt within, my faith in humanity was restored even with the news turned on, and I began to look forward to next year and I couldn’t wait and I still cannot.

For more on the festival, head to Leefest.org.uk.

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