Way back in the jangly indie-pop depths of 2005 Ryan Jarman lyrically vilified his home town’s scene and the temporary love affair that foam-mouthed music journalists had with the unassuming Yorkshire city with the words “Your precious Leeds is dead”. Indeed, while identikit salt-of-the-earth lad rock bands with catastrophic names continued to flourish like a particularly aggressive venereal disease, the press buzz quickly died down and hipsters sort of forgot about Leeds.
But Leeds didn’t forget about music and kept chipping away at the Manchester-centric scene north of London. Five years later, Constellations was born, a celebration of far-flung bands with far-flung influences that illustrated the city still had its finger firmly on the pulse. Now in its second year, Constellations returns to Leeds University and I’m here to take it all in.
After an unrivalled sense of direction that sees me get spectacularly lost while literally a few hundred yards from the union, eventually I find my way there and head down to “Mine”, a venue which would feel very intimate were it not for the sunlight pouring through the windows that serve to uncomfortably remind me that I am drinking spirits at 2 o clock in the afternoon. But this is the price of an all-dayer and Fear Of Men won’t let it put them off…or maybe they will.
Having heard their demos it’s an understatement to say I’m really looking forward to their gorgeous lo-fi pop that sounds like it wears an over-sized cardigan and came straight off a C86 compilation. Suffice to say, they could not be more up my street. The half-boy/half-girl four-piece take to the stage with meek politeness and play an underwhelming set, with all traces of delicate shoegaze replaced by loud guitars that swamp the vocal. And while they’re lacking something in stage presence, surely things will change once they’re out of their infancy and find a way to make the charm of their recordings translate in the live environment.
On to Big Deal, the trans-atlantic duo who have generated a lot of industry excitement over the release of their beautifully simple debut album, Lights Out, and are subsequently are playing one of the larger upstairs venues, which starts off surprisingly empty. Alice informs the- quickly expanding- audience they’ve just got back from Amsterdam and are in “a bit of a daze” but there’s no need for apologies as this is completely imperceptible through their set.
Playing most of their album with an effortless delivery, their “buzz band” status manifests itself with the appearance of a cluster of photographers who remain at the front throughout. While the band remain unfazed, the constant flash from the cameras marrs the atmosphere a little, as do the tuning issues that have to be corrected after most of the songs, but the exchanged glances and Kasey’s crowd banter woos the room, making the other distractions irrelevant.
I find my way to the main venue to wait for Manchester indie band Dutch Uncles, who’ve been labelled math rock, art pop and countless other genres but who render categorisation pointless by sounding like absolutely nothing else in music today. While I’m only familiar with a few songs, they quickly win me over with their sheer gusto and refusal to pander to either the conventions of pop music or the arsenal of postured stage moves that indie boys like to employ. Singer Duncan and one of their guitarists – dressed in chinos and brushed silk shirts – look like they belong to another band and it’s fair to say their aesthetic is as erratic as their jerky sound, which channels Devo and Talking Heads. A lot of their set is slightly too mid paced and ‘Dressage’ is the highlight of the set because of its thumping fast pace and manic vocals, but they’re still a brilliant live prospect, thanks in part to Duncan’s gloriously unhinged dance moves that are truly all his own.
Up next are Spector, a London five piece who stride onstage with sharp suits and perfectly coiffured fringes. They’re the kind of band who wear glasses that force me to ask whether they need them, as a person whose ugly childhood was bitterly suffered through NHS jam jars. They are a very pretty band who make very pretty music – a balance of synths and guitars that’s exceptionally polished and showcases their grasp of melody and proper chorus. Though the notion of “guilty pleasures” is absurd, the fact they’re bringing nothing new to the table makes me feel as though I shouldn’t like them as much as I do, but I don’t have much time to dwell on this, leaving after a few songs so I’m in time to catch Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks.
The low placing on the bill seems weird when the room is packed out but I suspect that most of my fellow gig goers are waiting for Pavementsongs too. While Malkmus doesn’t oblige, The Jicks remain a tight live unit. There are a few too many noodling wig-outs courtesy of Malkmus which draws the energy out but the band’s dynamic is strong enough to pull it off. While I want more electricity, perhaps I was willing too much from a man who is basically the head of the slacker rock movement and, as a performance in itself, it will undoubtedly satiate fans of Malkmus’ solo material.
Yuck are next to follow, a band who feel like the descendants of a brand of Pavement-style rock and the natural choice to follow. Following the first song, everything goes awry and the mics cut out. Leaving the stage while the technical glitches are ironed out, the crowd grows impatient but they return to the stage to a heroic welcome and joke that this will be their longest ever encore. For a band who at times can seem somewhat lofty, their shaky start has rid them of any pretensions and they seem a lot more open and amiable because of it. ‘Get Away’ is a stand-out track, cut straight from the remnants of Dinosaur Jr and played note perfect, while ‘Suicide Policeman’ allows them a more tender, vulnerable moment. They are absolutely my day’s highlight, a beautiful whirl of feedback and gorgeous waves of noise drenched melody and while I loved the album before, it makes even more sense now.
I have to leave after this, missing the likes of the brooding magnificence of 2:54, the eccentric charms of Wild Beasts and a whole mess of partying but after a day of amazing music there’s no need to sulk. Leeds is always adding to its own-home grown musical tapestry but today it proves it also has its ear to the ground for fresh blood from further afield.
The one criticism I might level at Constellations is the setting. The confines of the union venues are oddly clinical and the feeling of being at a gig is interrupted by the impersonal surroundings which means the crowds never really let loose. I can’t help thinking that things might have been improved by taking advantage of the immeasurable number of venues Leeds has to offer (in the same style as another of the city’s annual staple, Live at Leeds).
This is a minor quibble – Constellations is definitely worth paying attention to and will hopefully be given the chance to grow. While the Kaiser Chiefs may nowadays be way past the boundaries of the interests of most, their infamous slogan provide the most fitting riposte to the likes of Jarman, cemented by the growth of grassroots festivals like Constellations: “Everything’s Brilliant In Leeds”. Go find out for yourself.