This review previously appeared on Respect Your Youngers, an online music publication.
Once a year, the BBC utilizes its status as a media giant to boost local economies across the United Kingdom with BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend. This year the traveling festival descended on Middlesbrough, a post-industrial town in the North-East of England. For a town without a single high-capacity venue, this was the event of the decade. I spent two days covering the festival to experience what happens when you bring some of the biggest names in music to the backyard of average British communities.
Lewis Capaldi, the first act I watched, proved to be a stand-out. The self-proclaimed “chubby guy singing sad songs” took the stage for a half hour set. With the same spirit as unlikely pop-star predecessors like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, Capaldi was sheepish, crass and vulnerable. After one ballad, he became tangential enough to warrant a backstage onlooker talking him out of swearing on national television. In the same breath he went on to sing a tear-inducing song about a lost love. Capaldi breaks conventions at every turn, proving that you can be funny without compromising your musical melancholy.
Later I watched Vampire Weekend flaunt their ivy-league vocabulary with showmanship to boot. While I certainly missed the presence of the departed Rostam Batmanglij, frontman Ezra Koening shined alongside a brilliant touring band. The tracks they played off of Father of the Bride felt lighter than they had in Contra and Modern Vampires of the City, reminding me of a more sophisticated version of their self-titled album. Their sound was polished, complex and layered in a way that it was only starting to become in 2008, a fitting coming-of-age for a band that met in university and went on to become international indie legends. If six years is the time that it takes to produce songs like “This Life” and “Harmony Hall”, I hope Vampire Weekend takes as much time as they need.
I began day two by watching Sigrid. Similar to Lewis Capaldi, she is unorthodox for a rising alternative hero. With tunes ranging from melodic pop anthems to synth-heavy slow songs, Sigrid has a dynamic and unparalleled range. Sigrid is a master at conveying the perils of young-adulthood, guiding her audience through the elation of being loved to the experience of going home with people to feel a little less alone. I particularly enjoyed hearing “In Vain” live. It had just as much raw, stylistic rasp as on the recording. Most remarkable of all was her lack of gimmick. She was comfortable – perhaps more confident even, taking the stage with a minimal set design and wearing jeans and a tanktop. While I love a spectacle as much as the next girl, her ability to capture an audience without relying upon flashy costumes or light designs spoke to her talent.
Afterwards, the crowd got unexpectedly rowdy and I experienced the enthralling and utterly terrifying Middlesbrough mosh. With Two Door Cinema Club as an unsuspecting host, the floor opened up for pure chaos set to the tune of classic, indie hits like “Undercover Martyn” and “What You Know.” In-between fending off body-slams I got to see the band play an eclectic mix of new and old, impressing me most with quick-witted singles like “Satellite”. While I had barely listened to a Two Door album since Changing of the Seasons, their live performance enticed me to do a post-show deep dive. I grow weary of the Orwellian commentary of modern life that seems to be all the rage right now, but holy hell, Two Door Cinema Club does it well.
When Ellie Goulding took to the main-stage she doted on her BBC Radio 1 roots and played hits dating back nearly a decade. I was pleased to hear “I Need Your Love” intermingled with more recent hits like “Sixteen” and “Love Me Like You Do”. While at times her performance appeared tired, no doubt a side-effect of countless hours on the road, the longevity of her career demonstrates excellent musicianship in itself. Goulding was first played on Radio 1 and her performance was proof of Radio 1’s capability to catapult rising artists to superstardom. Goulding has certainly achieved tenure.
The 1975 shined as the finale act. In addition to three records of alternative anthems, much of their appeal comes from their commentary. They recognize the capability of young people to be intelligent consumers and they understand their own positionality - not only as influences but as icons. At times they take active steps to combat, or deliberately entertain, the clichés that come with this classification. In a massive middle-finger to popstars and pop culture, frontman Matty Healy declared the finality of his reign as a Mick Jagger wanna-be: “we’re too self-aware as a generation to buy into the archetypes of rock n’ roll.”
Big Weekend came to a close with fireworks after a charmingly self-aware performance of The Sound. As Healy paraded around stage, the screen behind him displayed criticism directed at The 1975 through the years. Drawing attention to reviewers calling your music “robotic Huey Lewis tunes” is unexpected. Doing so while on national television is even more bold. It was ironic, pretentious even, to display such sentiments while performing to an adoring crowd – but I couldn’t help but find it endearing. There was something poignant about contrasting nuanced ‘expert’ opinions with obvious mass popularity.
Reflecting on BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, I couldn’t help but circle back to the people of Middlesbrough themselves. One question stuck with me: did the BBC really do as much as they claimed for the community or was this all a display of media fortitude with little reward?
The BBC did a brilliant job at securing top-notch food and entertainment, but small businesses in the Middlesbrough town center appeared to be left out of the festivities. The owner of a local coffee shop that I spoke to estimated that his sales had dropped fifty-percent despite claims that the festival would boost the local economy. Upon further inspection, he seemed to be right. While the presence of a Chicken McNuggets stand was abundantly clear, the local touch seemed to be missing. In a town with such fantastic food (I had the best salad of my life from Bedford St Coffee), it would be no compromise to look local for catering.
All qualms aside, I would consider Big Weekend to be a smash success. Having never been to the North of England, I heard many things about Middlesbrough before I went there. Hearsay failed to capture the Boro spirit. The people were friendly, the banter copious and the excitement palpable. BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend brought me closer to wonderful music by some of the most prominent and up-and-coming talents, but it also introduced me to a remarkable community. I met girls immediately willing to share water, students eager to ensure that I had a good view of my favorite bands and families waving North Yorkshire flags with a ferocity I have never seen mimicked by some posh Southern counterparts. If the BBC can facilitate that much love among strangers, long live Big Weekend.