Getting to Leefest was a lot like finding the legendary, magical city of El Dorado. There were points when walking down a dangerous countryside 40mph road, after waiting for a shuttle bus at Bromley that never arrived, when I wondered if I would ever get to this mysterious golden haven somewhere in Biggin Hill or if I would get run over by a speeding car first. Travel woes continued over the two-day South London festival where last minute bus cancellations meant either the fear of facing that road again (in the dark if it was after the music had finished) or paying a hefty £25 for a taxi. This is something the organisers will hopefully pay closer attention to next year, considering the obscure location of the festival.
However upon arrival my woes were soon forgotten thanks to the sense of magic in the air. The blurb on the £3 festival pack you could buy at the entrance states ‘You, the movers and shakers of our generation. You, think freely, think differently. You, provide the inspiration, the motivation. You, make things happen’. This perfectly encapsulates the festival’s emphasis on individual creative freedom that has been part of its history since its rebellious beginnings as an event that organiser and University of Nottingham graduate Lee Denny threw in his back garden while his parents were on holiday in 2006. At Leefest in this hidden field away from the world, you can be what you want and do what you want; and essentially make your festival experience your own. You could see this attitude in the abundance of free facepaint, gems and glitter you could cover yourself in. You could see it in the bright makeshift costumes of the staff, and the tent where you could have shisha with your cup of tea. You could also see it in the opportunity to climb on top of a giant pig, in the great paint fight that broke out mid Saturday afternoon, and in the unexpected appearance of ping pong tables in the Temple of Boom (the dance tent).
The creative freedom could also be seen in the character of the music lineup. If I am honest, I had heard of, at most, a handful of the acts on the bill, but Leefest has always been known as a chance for local and upcoming talent to perform. It has only been in the last couple of years since it won the Best Grassroots Award in 2009 at the UK Festival Awards that more established acts such as Mystery Jets have appeared. The point is very much about discovering new music, from the likes of Youth Imperial, who were making their first festival appearance and brought unusual blue elements to a very familiar sound heard in most bands today, to local Bromley talent Beech.
My festival experience was mostly based at the main stage; with the relaxed vibe whereby most of the bands were watched sitting on the grass, it was very easy to become stationed there in the sunshine in a state of complete relaxation that was aided by the pop rock and folk sound of the acts. There were a few pleasant surprises in genre, notably ska influenced By the Rivers on Friday and the Afro-Scottish Bwani Junction on Saturday who NME have rated as a ‘Glastonbury institution in waiting’, that made the event suitably varied. If you like to spend a whole festival moshing in the crowd until you are breathless and battered, however, admittedly Leefest probably is not for you. By that though I do not mean that Leefest failed to get the crowd going entirely, but it was largely dependent on individual acts. During his headlining live set on Friday, Jakwob’s singer had to ask the crowd, who were worked up into such a fervor by his brand of pulsating accessible dubstep, in disbelief between the songs, ‘How is there is a mosh pit without music?’ Mystery Jets headlining on Saturday managed to get a loud, appreciative and dancing crowd of almost 2000 people without much audience interaction at all, playing a mixture of old fan favourites such as ‘Flakes’ and ‘Young Love’ and new tracks including their new single ‘Someone Purer’. The headliners were, without doubt, the most exciting of the weekend in terms of performance experience, but the rest of the acts were enjoyable in a more relaxed way.
Keen to get a full picture of Leefest, I ventured away from the main stage to see a heavier rock set from Broken Hands and a dance set from Rattus Rattus in the consistently thumping Temple of Boom. While queuing up to buy a burger for lunch on Friday, I chatted to a girl named Charlotte Clark from Hampshire whose beautiful, haunting acoustic set I ended up watching a couple of hours later in the indoor Clock Tower; a venue that might remind you of your lounge at home with its cushy leather sofas and piano covered in paint handprints. This illustrates perfectly the freedom the performers had to wander about amongst the people and the stages throughout the weekend. Inevitably, there would then be the bizarre experience of waiting to see a band, such as Summer Camp, only to realise the previous act CasioKids are standing right in front of you. Can you imagine getting into conversation with Chris Martin from Coldplay at Glastonbury while waiting in the queue to get chips or watching Bruce Springsteen standing next to Elbow? I am guessing not. There was a disintegration of boundaries at Leefest between fan and artist that you do not see at any other festival, a novelty that I reveled in while at the same time feeling helplessly unnerved. I suppose I was too used to the strict and comfortable separation of barriers and beefy security guards present at other festivals to fully appreciate it.
When it was over and I had left this El Dorado with all its glitter and face paint, all that was left was the memory of the charming, unique character of Leefest, once you forgot about the hassle of getting there. Maybe its colourful atmosphere owes a lot to its smallness in comparison to other festivals, but it did create a very different, varied but wholly enjoyable experience. Its growth is bound to accelerate considering the amount that the press has been involved this year and with the all the profit being split between spending for next year’s festival and the charity ‘Kid’s Company’ who would not want it to? I only hope its creative individuality will not suffer as a result.
…Emily has been listening to: Jakwob – Let it Fall