2019 was always going to be a make or break year for Slam Dunk Festival. In a post-Warped Tour world, with Reading and Leeds distancing themselves from the ‘genre festival’ label, and Download opening their doors to a more diverse swathe of rock fans as a result, it was hard to imagine where a small-scale, predominantly pop-punk festival would fit in, especially one that had begun to feel rooted in nostalgia.
Leeds is still a powerhouse when it comes to new music, but there’s no denying that even in alternative spaces, the relevance of subscribing to specific subcultures is at a (pardon the pun) All Time Low. The diminishing returns in catering to an ageing scene whose relationship to music and community was shifting, as well as the lack of tribalism among those ageing up into Slam Dunk’s prime demographic, meant that it was obvious something had to change.
And change Slam Dunk did. 2019 saw the festival uproot itself from its city centre home, and make camp in the sprawling grounds of Temple Newsam, who is itself no stranger to change. First a manor house, now a museum and rare breeds farm, Temple Newsam has hosted a number of similar events in the past: most notably Party In The Park and its upscale sibling Opera In The Park. This made it a natural fit for Slam Dunk, who transformed the manicured lawns into a sea of crowds, tents and food trucks – while leaving the farm open and the piglets napping by wristband exchange free to pet.
The result is what feels like Slam Dunk version 2.0 – a new iteration with the space and the vision to evolve into something entirely new. The increased stages meant that there was space for the surprising but not exactly profitable, such as the two acoustic sets by Motion City Soundtrack frontman Justin Pierre, in which less than 20 people showed up for an intimate, revealing and fabulously collaborative set. Similarly, Yellowcard’s frontman was able to perform old hits and new material to a crowd of dedicated ageing emos on a stage tucked away in one corner of the site, which somehow felt like an entirely different festival from the main stage antics happening just over the hill.
When the rain descended, people fled to the safety of the tents, trying to keep their vegan hot dogs dry and their craft beers from being diluted. A genius and unique choice meant that the huge tents had one stage at each end that alternated set times, meaning there was enough space to both mosh and eat under the same canvas ceiling. The only downside was that the end of a set meant a mad dash to the other end, to avoid being on the barrier when all you wanted to do was snarf down your pizza in peace. However, it turns out the best way to watch seasoned pros like The Bronx whip their loyal fanbase into a crowd surfing frenzy is from way back with a bunch of bemused teenagers and also some chips.
With that said, the biggest surprise of the night was undoubtedly The Key Club Stage. Though Bullet For My Valentine delivered a blisteringly brutal set with nine-feet-in-the-air drum solos and walls of floodlights (including a rendition of Waking The Demon that garnered the biggest circle pit of the night) and All Time Low turned their headline slot into a love letter for their album Nothing Personal, with laugh-a-minute stage banter and exuberance surpassing even bands two decades younger – it was the eclectic mix of genres at the Key Club stage that kept fans enchanted and excited to see what came next.
Microwave’s achingly vulnerable post-hardcore was punctuated by flashes of pure joy and whimsy, transporting the sodden British crowd to a fairy light-garlanded basement show in Atlanta Georgia. It was the kind of set that had total strangers wrapping their arms around each other and belting out the lyrics over the fuzzy guitars, leaving frontman Nathan Hardy to look on in bemused adoration. Then came Grandson, with an electric blend of hip-hop, EDM and hard rock that forced the crowd to its feet in seconds. Within minutes, Jordan Benjamin had both fans and strangers in the palm of his hand, delivering political sermons, inescapable drops and driving basslines in a symphony of raw anger and activism. He exited the stage after a near-perfect set that ended with anti-corruption anthem Blood // Water, promising to be back and leaving a vaguely shell-shocked audience in breathless applause.
That’s to say nothing of the slick retro rock of high concept duo I Don’t Know How But They Found Me, of their hilarious rendition of Beck’s Deborah, their delightfully affected stage personas, unbelievable vocal skill, or their smattering of Brobecks’ B-sides. That’s without mentioning the glittery bounce-along synth-pop of LIGHTS, the old school ska appeal of Less Than Jake, or the newly reinvented darkness of As It Is. In short, Slam Dunks newest evolution was too big to fit into just one review, and I’ve no doubt that next year will be even bigger.
Pictures by Henry Taylor