In some alignment of the stars, the weekend of May 26/27 saw the brilliant Slam Dunk Fest hit the UK in a ray of brilliant sunshine – two distinctly annual events for the price of one – as the two-day celebration of rock, punk and metal arrived in Leeds for its seventh year running. The festival, which also includes a southern leg at Hatfield University, welcomed an absolutely goliath line-up this year which saw Taking Back Sunday headline the main stage, supported on stages across Leeds Students’ Union by bands like Motion City Soundtrack, Architects, Mayday Parade and Fightstar frontman Charlie Simpson in his capacity as a solo artist.
So in the blazing heat of northern England (I just wrote that? Wow) Leeds was a buzz of Converse from the city centre up the hill to the Students’ Union. One of the things that strikes me about Slam Dunk now is how communal it all feels; a huge number of artists play the festival (and for a really good price) but there’s no great sprawl between stages and everything is close enough to feel like everybody present is a part of the same event. This year, the site layout (including a marquee stage: more on that later) was perfect for getting about quickly, and it needed to be, too, with the heat.
After watching Cartel play a stroke of an acoustic set in a secluded spot, the first band I got to catch was Lower Than Atlantis on the Atticus Main Stage. The British post-hardcore band had attracted a hefty crowd to what can only be described as a cauldron atmosphere, and the intensity only increased once the riffs began to thunder round the room. The view from the balcony was a sight to behold as pits opened up beneath, the set and crowd ebbing and flowing to accommodate both the aggression and the melodic edges of the band’s sound. They closed with strong favourite “Deadliest Catch” and left the room to rapturous cheers after an eight-song burst which lived off its rawness and the crowd’s adrenaline. From there, Slam Dunk didn’t look back.
Say Anything got things into full swing, though. To say I was excited to see what verbose vocalist Max Bemis and co. had in store would be a massive understatement; it would be a test of their new material (which has received mixed reviews), sure, but a showcase of their quite superb discography. The first thing to note is that Bemis is far, far cooler than I imagined him to be. The man absolutely dominated the stage, bouncing off the walls at either side and rocketing towards his bandmates (usually before throwing his arms around them).
Oddly, …Is A Real Boy opener (and first track here) “Belt” and third song “Shiksa (Girlfriend)” were arguably upstaged by the lead single from the band’s new album Anarchy, My Dear, and later on the eponymous “Say Anything” went down a complete treat as well. “Hate Everyone” formed the centrepiece of the set, Bemis asserting his love of all things British before bursting into the anti-everything anthem. But the closing trio of songs saw the crowd truly impassioned, screaming along to “Woe” – “I can’t get laid in this town without these pointy fucking shoes!” – and bursting into a mess of flailing arms for the brilliant closer “Alive With The Glory Of Love”. It was a thoroughly on-point performance from all angles, particularly in its closing stages.
The band of the day were undoubtedly Motion City Soundtrack. The energetic pop-rockers from Minnesota are often cited as a pure-fun band, implying that their songs carry enough weight to dance to and little more, but try telling that to the sweat-soaked crowd that witnessed thirteen huge sing-alongs which contained nearly as many poignant moments as dancy ones. “Attractive Today” is nothing short of a brilliant opener, exploding two lines in to relentless abandon, and setting the bar incredibly high. That ever-rising bar was cleared more than a few times during the set, though. “Pulp Fiction” raised the tempo to dizzying levels with Justin Pierre zipping through witty lines; “L.G. FUAD” felt as incisive as it ever has; “Disappear”‘s chorus was the most brilliantly draining moments of the entire day.
I should mention that Motion City Soundtrack sounded more than top-notch – probably better than they do on record, which is no mean feat. “True Romance” was the only song from their upcoming record Go (out June 12), but was received like a fan favourite, its overtly bouncy chorus dropping into an emotive bridge near the end. When I reviewed the band’s brilliant Commit This To Memory a couple of years ago, I said that they could do with finding the heart in their music more frequently, but this was a set full of vulnerable moments alongside the aggressive and carefree ones. Closing duo “The Future Freaks Me Out” and “Everything Is Alright” left everybody in the audience shattered and the quartet visibly exhausted too. Oh, one final word on the gorgeous “Last Night”: it’s, well, gorgeous, and even more so in a hundred passionate voices. You could hardly hear Pierre above the crowd.
Fast-forward a short while and the day took me outside (where it was still roughly a billion degrees centigrade) to the marquee for Cartel, a pop-punk band with very few twists but a superb vocalist and probably the catchiest songs I heard all day. Cartel have always been a primarily fun listen with some killer lines about being young and in 2011 they were one of the best bands at the festival; 2012 was slightly less heavy on their 2005 debut Chroma, and felt different for it. They’re a band who’ve faded considerably from my listening habits for a couple of reasons, but “Burn This City”‘s chants of, “They said we’re wasting our lives!” hold loud and clear, and the closing duo of “Say Anything (Else)” and “Honestly” brought a dynamic and enjoyable set to a close with a decided bang.
Choosing a next (and final) move was a tough call to make. At one point at around 10pm, Gallows, Architects, Mayday Parade, Taking Back Sunday and Charlie Simpson were all scheduled to be on stage at the same time, a strange decision which left many fans with a quandary and a half as to where to find themselves for their personal headline. Thankfully, the soft spot I have for Red Bull Stage headliners Mayday Parade is potent enough that I knew where I was headed, although it was a shame to miss the start of TBS’ set on the main stage.
Mayday Parade, though, delivered in spades. The band, still most famous for their 2007 album A Lesson In Romantics, but who released their self-titled LP a year ago, played a commanding and emotionally charged set to a packed marquee of adoring fans. Perhaps the most notable thing about seeing Mayday Parade live is the way their newer material sits alongside their older material; it doesn’t sound identical, per se, but the two accompany each other very well, tracks like “Jersey” providing an intensity (I mean, the crowd traced every line of every song) that was offset by the more contemplative “When You See My Friends”. The absolute pinnacle of the gig, though, and probably the song of the festival as a whole, was the down-tempo version of “Miserable At Best” mid-way through the set.
There’s a temptation when you play softer songs live to amp them up slightly and stray from the recorded version, but this was just as any Mayday Parade fan would order: solemn, piano-backed vocals which stayed true right to the end. It was a slightly unhinged moment, where an audience of kids who had spent their entire day leaping around to chaotic rock music and throwing their arms in the air just stopped, took a deep breath and sung a heartfelt ballad with no sideways glances. Mayday Parade closed their set with the fantastic “Jamie All Over”, signing off on the indelible “down and to the left!” and leaving Slam Dunk North to ponder a day of passionate, spirited rock music in the still-warm Leeds dusk. Until next year!