by Bilge Nur Yilmaz

Signs of things are not particularly bright at first: the previous day it rains brutally, planting forecast concerns for Friday; transport becomes tricky due to train strikes coinciding with the last-minute cancellation of the pre-booked coach service; Clairo gets COVID and leaves the line-up a few days before; the set start times get delayed… Real cotton candy luck is needed. But—

Margate greets me with the most gentle sea breeze as I stroll from the train station to a literal ‘Dreamland’: LEISURE Festival leaves a pastel landscape and the softest sad summer ode in my heart. The sun is here to stay but not to suffocate, every set is kindly rejuvenating, and ice cream keeps flowing as I take a few rides on the ‘Ghost Rain’… in a row. Here are the highlights of your getaway and gig combo — a glistening first of many to come. 

There are two stages at LEISURE. The main stage is facing a big green area with a few food trucks on its periphery. I look over from the bar upstairs to the colourful apparels of those who populate the grass, sitting or standing, resembling splashes of paint mirroring the colours of the pink banner. 

The smaller stage is for the indoors concert experience. Aptly named,  ‘Hall by the Sea,’ is where the avid crowd train their hyperfocus on the acoustically contained serenades of Nilüfer Yanya, Sorry, HighSchool, and CMAT through the day. 

HighSchool christens the stage first with their provocative goth glamour. The synths find their deserved fitting in the room’s darkness. The  same stage is later occupied by CMAT who wins all of our hearts by her heartfelt honesty, splurging love, and solo storytelling: ‘If you catch me watching Mitski with a beer in my hand (and I will have a beer in my hand), come talk to me!’ she announces. She’s a friend, you can tell. 

Meanwhile at the other end of the field, Léa Sen is finishing her mellow afternoon set to leave the stage to L’Rain. Taja Creek’s band, L’Rain, ends up being the absolute highlight of my day up there with Mitski. Taja is uncontainable — even with her broken foot, spine, and leg, sitting down in her bright orange plastic sandals — she lets out the most raw and intellectual performance I’ve encountered in LEISURE. Layers of looped saxophone and vocals over critically precise syncopations of claps and drums, her swift swaps between bass and electric guitar diligently commanding every instrument, her primal screams… Everything is in perfect alignment. Her impeccable band makes apparent at every beat that they have been playing in perfect sync for a while now.

Taja suddenly stands up at the end of the last song. ‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ she says. ‘I haven’t stood up on stage in months since this injury. That’s the power of music, I guess.’

Surf Curse takes over the stage after L’Rain. They’re the last minute savers who jumped on the bill to fill up Clairo’s place. The name is very accurate to what I expect — Surf Curse delivers a Nevada surf rock interruption. They’re the exception to the all-female line-up, but they live up to the responsibility before leaving the stage to their fellow Americans: Soccer Mommy. As the sad rock pursues, I’m thinking if this is how watching Avril Lavigne felt like in the 90s. 

We’re back at Hall by the Sea where Sorry’s eclectic and devoted following sings every word. Nilüfer Yanya’s presence is nonchalantly iconic. She captivates the audience with a simple yet solid composure topped with a stellar saxophonist in her band. Everyone rushes off to grab their spot to see Mitski on the main stage. 

There are no curtains for the Scenic Stage in Dreamland, but we’re in for a night at the theatre. After signalling this kind of shift to movement and gesture with her Be The Cowboy tour, Mitski as a performer proves that there is no end to her dramaturgical ideas. There’s not much to her prop: a white door stands centre stage, not actively used except for a few numbers such as Should Have Been Me where she curiously knocks to the beat of the intrusive synths. There are many symbols accompanying Mitski’s confessional narratives: the gun, the phallic mic, the hand, the sun, the moon. Devotedly in character, her Artaudian gestures involve mimed lyrics, sharp expressions, and full-force feral vulnerability as she stretches both her arms outwards like Hercules, shouting ‘‘Cause all I ever wanted is here/All I ever wanted/All I want is/Always you/It’s always you.’ The crowd is fixated with glassy eyes to her blue dress in the wind as she runs from one end of the stage to the other, acting out the story during the instrumental breaks. The band swiftly switches between instruments: two guitars on stage are responsible for many pedalled soundscapes, bass and drums anchor the sentimentality, and the synth – occasionally supplemented by another – delivers the riffs we all sing by heart such as the saxophone solo in Happy that the Moog bravely replaces. Mitski wraps up her set time in military accuracy after the encore with Pearl, which is only the truest sign of equalitarian respect for those of us who need to leave promptly to catch the last train out from Margate. 

The sky is still treating us very kindly as we slowly stroll from festival grounds to the seaside station with the most unbelievable sunset serenading us. It’s a lot to process, but I have two hours in a window seat to wind down and digest this short but packed musical excursion as I plot my return in 2023. LEISURE Festival, with its well-thought location, dream-like scape, and coherent line-up immediately establishes its very own authenticity which will continue to dazzle us in the years to come.

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