I arrived at the Belgrave around 15:15 p.m., after a short walk from the train station. Walking through Leeds’ high-rise, hodge podge city centre after a few weeks in the bubble of York’s quaint cobbles and medieval architecture; suddenly I was in a vast space less full of gables than glass-walled office blocks and flashy shopping centres. However, I don’t mean to say that this feeling was unpleasant, rather it added to the feeling of a pleasing uncertainty that carried through the rest of the day.
The ground floor of Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen was full from the moment I arrived until I left around eight hours later. Patrons chatted and mingled at the rows of benches, munching on Dough Boys pizzas and Patty Smith’s Burgers and fries (which I absolutely recommend), and drinking pints of pale ale. Jazz and soul music played from a set of vinyl decks at the back of the room. This is an atmosphere and a combination of things I would never be averse to. As I made myself at home on one of the sofas at the back of the gig room, I thought to myself how far independent venues have come since the early days of DIY gigs – of which I know a little thanks to stories relayed through my parents. The place felt so clean and organised but, thankfully, not at all sterile. The room was still a little empty, mainly occupied by other press folks, as the first band of the afternoon took to the stage.
Despite the relative lack of an audience, 99% Cobra managed to fill the room with a tight and punchy performance of techy metalcore songs fuelled by rage and distortion. ‘This isn’t really jeans and a nice top music, is it?’ I thought, as one member of the trio repeatedly punched his own forehead in between thrashing his guitar to pieces. Overall, the set was impressive, and an energetic start to the show. I can’t say that I’m a great lover of the genre, but 99% Cobra are good at what they do. I would suggest, however, that they cool off with a bath and a Brian Eno record. After a short break, DENSE were the next act to take to the stage. The performance was a strange listen, and I couldn’t quite figure out what to think about it. As was the case with every band throughout the day, they were certainly talented players and tight as a band. But, the music itself was difficult to stay engaged with. At times they were psychedelic and spacey, at others crunchy and accompanied by screamed vocals. The dissonance was hard to reconcile, and I struggled to keep an interest as the set went on.
Dead Naked Hippies, one of the bands I was most looking forward to hearing, did not disappoint. and of all the sets of the show this was probably my favourite. The reason for this was the combination of lively and spirited performance with songs that were impressive in themselves to begin with. Lucy Jowett, the band’s frontwoman, stole the evening with a kind of stage presence that channelled Patti Smith and Bowie – not to say she was not original, though, she had some very idiosyncratic dance moves. They were followed by Calva Louise – the lightest band of the evening – with a set of catchy, bouncy and, at times, dreamy pop tunes which created a jovial atmosphere and got the crowd moving more than any of the previous bands. Highly enjoyable.
Next up were Brooders, who had put the night together. Surrounded by friends and on home turf, they seemed extremely comfortable on stage. So comfortable, in fact, that their rapport extended to riding on the shoulders of fans through the crowd. Their set was raucous, well-played and comradely, playing a mixture of new work and older fan favourites. Brooders gave way to Strange Bones. Like a mixture of Slaves, the Prodigy and amphetamines. Their set was ballsy, boysy and sweaty, as they turned the crowd into a manic slew of limbs. Making frequent use of samples, projections (phallically and literally), electronic breakbeats and trap beats, and a gas mask, their performance was by no means subtle. But they made up for this with an overwhelming, raw energy. Once again, I can’t quite imagine going out of my way to listen to their music on my own, but wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see them live again.
Crows finished off the night to a suitably warmed up and worn out crowd. Their set captured this mood perfectly, with bedraggled yet lively post-punk songs about drowning, anxiety and fear. Sonically they are consistent, with a defined sound that translates well between how they sound on record and in a live setting. Frontman and vocalist James Cox is compelling to watch, as he alternates between two microphones – one standard and one a sort of 50s style piece of kit, laden with delay – using both as props and taking an occasional dip into the pit with the crowd. They will have been encouraged, too, by the favourable reaction from the crowd to the testing out of new music.
The night seemed to end as quickly and shockingly as it started. Exhausted and partially deafened, I left Rifffest with feelings of bemusement, pleasure and contentment.