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Leeds Festival: Sam Fender crowned king of the North with career-defining set

Sam Fender performs on Day 2 of Leeds Festival 2023 at Bramham Park on August 26, 2023 in Leeds, England.
Sam Fender performs on Day 2 of Leeds Festival 2023 at Bramham Park on August 26, 2023 in Leeds, England.

Sam Fender was crowned king of the North with a career-defining headline set at Leeds Festival on Saturday.

The Geordie rocker's set came a night after his performance at the Reading leg of the event.

But the sheer volume of fans from the North East on site - many visible via a sea of Newcastle United tops - made it extra special for the humbled singer.

"This is the biggest milestone for us", beamed the 29-year-old, whose set pulled from his two number one albums.

Coming on stage to an old Frank Sinatra number, the "Geordie Springsteen" howls out the opener, The Kitchen, backed by his trusted band's big guitars, keys and booming brass section.

"Leeds, come on!" he cries.

Next up, his ode to pre-coital pillow talk, Will We Talk?, brings a first big chorus from the crowd, encouraged by Fender, and phones are held aloft.

"It's good to be back up North," he declares, while dressed in a white Angel of the North T-shirt. "This is party night tonight. I see there's a few Geordies in tonight, always nice to see."

Plugging in his black-and-white striped Fender electric guitar for the occasion, he continues: "I came to Leeds when I was 18, me and [bandmate] Dean and I got black-out drunk watching Kasabian.

"And I got lost and I couldn't find my mates and started doing the [sings] black and white army chant, and that's how I found my mates! So if you get lost tonight do that."

The next song, Dead Boys, which tackles the topic of suicide, is dedicated to "the lads" in his hometown in North Shields "who aren't with us anymore".

Sam fender with lyrics behind him
Sam fender with lyrics behind him

The band then throw in a slowie, or "cruiser" as Fender puts it, called Mantra, encouraging fans to get close to their partners. Those whose relationships have made it through the weekend, that is, he adds jokingly.

Despite some impressive fretwork from the star, the revved up audience's attention drifts somewhat. "Right, that's all the chill for the rest of the set," he reassures them.

"I wanna see you move for this one," says Fender, before ripping into Borders, which sees bucket hat-wearing saxophonist Johnny "Blue Hat" Davis take his first solo of the night.

The introduction of the track Spice sees Fender declare that the time has come "for the famous Leeds mosh pit".

"If anyone goes down pick them up, if you're squeezed down the front let us know," he says, setting out the rules.

This move is reminiscent of how Friday's headliner Billie Eilish looked out for her fans the previous night.

The big chorus of "Spice up your life" is more a reference to the perils of cheap street drugs rather than the 1990s girl group.

Pausing briefly to pay homage to the efforts of the fired-up crowd, Fender declares: "This is why they [TV producers] should film up here instead of at Reading!"

It's all too much for one fan, after a long hot day of music, and the singer has to stop the gig to help them out of the packed crowd.

Chloe, Alfie, Will and David from Gateshead
Chloe, Alfie, Will and David from Gateshead came to see Sam Fender

Fender, who once admitted to being in a bad way himself on the BBC Breakfast sofa due to booze, is a most relatable modern rock star. He had to take a break himself from touring last year to look after his own mental health.

He calls for a round of applause for the security staff - "legends" - for helping out before the gig gets back under way with a thrashy song "about going to Aldi in Howdon the middle of the pandemic". Surely a festival first?

With "the punk ones out the way" he promises to provide a few more singalongs, explaining that "any idiot" could write the simple chorus to the next song, Get You Down.

Another fan is helped from the crowd, with Fender again acting as de facto head steward on the mic.

He introduces Spit of You as "a song about my dad". "I can talk to anyone / I can't talk to you," he belts out, as family photographs are beamed on the big screens.

During the "one of the most monumental days of my life" as the star describes it, he takes a moment to recall Leeds festivals of yore as a punter. "I remember watching bands [on this stage] and thinking I wish I could do that as a job, how do I do that?"

Enter "Deano", his aforementioned bandmate who he credits with having explained that the answer was to record a song - the next song in fact, Alright.

"We always have felt like the underdogs and perhaps that's a good thing," says Fender. "But thanks for letting us be a headliner for once."

His grin while performing another oldie, That Sound, is as wide as the river Tyne before a third stoppage threatens to really derail the momentum of the gig.

All is not lost though as the best is yet to come. "I hope you're having as good a time as I am?" Fender asks. He needn't have bothered.

A ticker tape explosion at the end of The Dying Light brings his set to a close. But then returning for more, on his own initially to test the vocal capabilities of the crowd, a big finish ensues.

First a fitting singalong for his song Saturday, then comes the big one. Fender's modern anthem for doomed youth, Seventeen Going Under.

"Does anyone remember being 17?" he asks, drawing loud cheers. "Is anyone 17 here right now? God bless you, this one is for you."

The rendition ends with the singer leading the crowd in a big round of a Capella "wo-oh-oh-oh-oaaahs", which he could probably milk further in future but we're already into injury time following several stoppages.

It caps a remarkable summer for Fender and co who performed at their beloved St James' Park earlier this summer. There's now only really one bigger festival stage for them to perform on.

Before the final offering of Hypersonic Missiles, a song about finding love in a hopeless, dystopian place, the singer thanks his merry band of men, which includes his "brother" Joe.

"It might be my name on the tin but I'm just the [bloke] at the front."

Local hero

Festival-goer Alfie from Gateshead told us that Fender was an artist who was "true to himself" and with a lot of loyalty for his "hometown", noting how he had brought a Brit Award trophy back to a pub in North Shields to use as a pump head handle.

Musically he says his songs "range in emotion" and "people can relate to them".

Esme from nearby Hexham was also excited to see Fender perform, saying: "It's nice to see someone from near us do well, it's an inspiration."

Sam, whose whole family were resplendent in their dad's old Newcastle United shirts, added it was great that the city "finally have got a great team and Sam Fender".

The rest of the country was well represented across the site earlier on Saturday.

Rhian Teasdale of Wet Leg
Isle of Wight band Wet Leg played earlier in the day

Representing Oxford today were co-headliners Foals. Frontman Yannis Philippakis told the crowd they were "loving every minute of it" out there, mixing danceable grooves with endless hard riffs.

"We want to see end-of-times mosh pits out there," he demanded near the end.

They dedicated one of their last tunes, Black Bull, to the main man Fender - renaming it black and white bull for the occasion - as well as any other budding musicians out there. "One of you in that mosh pit might be up here [in five years]" he declared.

Belfast's Bicep brought an early evening electro rave, before Mercury Prize-nominated rapper Loyle Carner, from South London, called on the audience to "forget about toxic masculinity" and leave all their personal nonsense "in yesterday", just as he had done to emotive effect at Glastonbury.

Isle of Wight band Wet Leg rocked out so hard that frontwoman Rhian Teasdale's bonnet fell out at one point. She soldiered on sans bonnet in the searing sun as they belted out a crowd-pleasing version of their innuendo-filled indie anthem Chaise Longue.

Local Leeds post-punk act Yard Act got the day going with some angular dance moves from frontman James Smith, joined by dancers who had appeared at first to be merely mannequins. Proving the old adage that you can't judge a doll by its cover.

Leeds Festival culminates on Sunday with performances from the likes of the Killers, Central Cee and the 1975.