Margate is the quintessential seaside town that they forgot to close down. Kent’s former carbuncle has been getting a steady but impressive makeover in recent years, the result being a thriving arts community with the Turner Contemporary and the newly opened Margate School serving the visual end of the cultural spectrum, and independent record shop and music venue Elsewhere serving the more grassroots, gloriously grubby part for gigs and other music events.
Dreamland theme park has also had something of a reinvention in the last few years and it’s here that Leisure festival is held; a one-day event with a great line-up that’s notable due to the significant amount of female artists on the bill. The weather was uncharacteristically great, too.
A few delays here and there mean I get to the gates a little later than hoped, and I’m relieved to get in and find that Léa Sen is on the main stage rather than the indoor Hall by the Sea where she was originally set to play in an earlier slot. In glorious sunshine, Léa is accompanied by just one other musician who plays bass and some occasional synth, and the pair treat a relatively small but entirely attentive crowd to some airy guitar-based R&B tunes that fits the mood of the afternoon perfectly. The songs are delicate, as is her voice, which bristles with an energy that’s assured and forthright. It’s a little offputting when the quiet moments in the songs clash with the intrusive and whirring sirens from the ghost train positioned about 40 metres away, but that all adds to the occasion. A great start to the day.
The Hall by the Sea – the smaller stage of the two – isn’t open, and a crowd is starting to form. This means there have been a few issues here and there and some changes in the timings are likely. It happens, and this explains why Léa Sen was on the main stage. There’s a quick turn around on before L’Rain make an appearance. Singer Taja Cheek clears things up when she says “I’m L’Rain – and my band are L’Rain, too.” There’s an energy to L’Rain’s performance which shifts the songs from last year’s album Fragile into new territory. The angular guitars and elaborate drumming (that guy is awesome!) underpin Cheek’s magnificent voice in great style.
The Hall by the Sea finally opens and offers respite from the sun for a while. HighSchool’s singer is resplendent in a heavy looking jumper in the hottest day of the year so far. Their energetic post-punk gloom works well in the dark surroundings, with “De Facto” and new track “She Loves Me” both sounding oxymoronically lethargic and exuberant all at once. Some of the band’s musical influences (The Cure, most obviously) aren’t so obvious live as on record and there’s an upbeat air to the performance which is a little unexpected and infectious.
Back out in the sun, Surf Curse are on the main stage as late replacements for Clairo who is absent for reasons unknown. “Don’t worry,” says singing drummer Nick Rattigan “we sound a lot like her.” They don’t, obviously. Their surf garage is, however, a real tonic for the crowd that doubles in size after the first few bars of Surf Curse’s opener – people clearly want to dance! “In My Head Til I’m Dead” and “Disco” are absolute blasts and Surf Curse are on fine form today.
Retreating back to the dark of the Hall by the Sea finds CMAT looking like she’s having the time of her life. There’s a huge, receptive crowd here and “I Don’t Really Care For You” and “Every Bottle (Is My Boyfriend)” work really well with Ciara performing solo, even though she vocalises the parts of other instruments from time to time.
“So, we released an album today,” announces Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison back on the main stage with not even the slightest hint of a grin. They play a few tracks from the wonderful new Sometimes, Forever which go down well but you get the idea that it’ll take a while before these songs hit as hard live as the familiar back catalogue such as as set opener “circle the drain”, although the previously released single “Shotgun” gets a rapturous sing-along from the crowd. The band are on fine form and there’s a real sense of commonality in the crowd which makes live music feel like a true blessing.
Sorry are playing to the largest crowd of the day in the Hall by the Sea and it’s clear from the audience reaction that this is a band that means something to a lot of people. “Cigarette Packet” and “There’s a Lot of People That Want to be Loved” get the loudest cheers, and there’s something in this bunch of misfits that’s intriguing and also frustrating. As they mix styles between songs it’s difficult to work out whether this is contrived art school nonsense or the labour of love of a harmonious collective – something to think about for another day, perhaps.
There’s a short break with no acts on either stage and this time is used productively by watching seagulls, some as big as dogs, dive-bombing people for their chips. It feels a bit like a Hitchcock film for a while as it all gets a bit feral. Seagulls are bastards.
Nilüfer Yanya islate on in the Hall by the Sea as the earlier issues seem to have pushed each set further and further back. This is a shame as it means she now clashes with main stage headliner Mitski and the crowd is way too sparse for what she deserves. The setopens with “L/R” from this year’s wonderful Painless album, and there’s also a great version of PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” thrown into the set for good measure. The guitar on “The Dealer” is more urgent than on record, while the brilliant “Stabilise” is cut short almost before it begins as Nilüfer has a problem with her voice which means she can’t continue. It’s a shame, but she’s a force to be reckoned with and one less than brilliant gig won’t tarnish her rise.
Over to the main stage for one last time, and Mitski is a few songs in and already has the crowd in the palm of her hand. “Washing Machine Heart” is a triumph, while “Nobody” incites a mass sing-along as officially the easiest lyric to sing along to. “Francis Forever” sounds fresh after a run of tracks from new album Laurel Hell and “The Pearl” brings things to a close. The sun has set, the crowd are still buzzing, and there’s a joyful sense of community in the air. Roll on Leisure 2023.