What were 5-9 editor, Andrew Belt's favourite performances of the year?
Download Festival, a trio of festivals in Reading and a smattering of gigs in London, an often-sporadic live calendar eventually yielded 53 live performances witnessed in 2023.
Looking back at all of these, I’ve whittled them down into a top 20…
20. Wet Leg, Reading Festival
A band made for summer festivals, the Isle of Wight natives were perfect for the early evening main stage slot at Reading, breezing through crowd-pleasers such as ‘Wet Dream’, ‘Ur Mum’ and ‘Chaise Longue’.
19. Brutus, Download Festival
Scouring the line-up ahead of my first visit to Donnington Park for Download Festival in the summer, Brutus seemed like your typical heavy metal band going by name alone. Researching on YouTube, however, showed that they were an intriguing three-piece rock act whose drummer is also the main vocalist. Sold, I headed to The Dogtooth Stage and was mesmerised by Stephanie Mannaerts’s flawless vocal performance in combination with complex and energetic drumming, while facing side-on to the crowd while her bandmates shred on their guitars. A memorable half-hour set.
18. The Warning, Download Festival
Midday on one of the main stages at a festival veers into ‘graveyard shift’ territory, with a smattering of weary campers checking out your act more out of curiosity than choice. Those of us lucky enough to watch The Warning in this slot at Download Festival, however, were rewarded with a tight, hit-heavy 30 minutes belying their junior slot. A huge band in Mexico, this sister trio will likely return higher up the bill.
17. Hundred Reasons, Download Festival
Comebacks from bands of my youth seem to be all the rage right now, and one of the more exciting names for me on the Download line-up was that of Hundred Reasons – a band who perhaps hit their high point on debut album, Ideas Above Our Station, around 20 years ago. With a set littered with hits from that album plus creditable cuts from comeback album, Glorious Sunset, it was the set which got me working my vocals most all weekend.
16. The Murder Capital, Electric Ballroom
Listeners to 5-9’s Album of the Month podcast will be familiar with the tale, but seeing The Murder Capital in London was a long time coming this year. Having bought a ticket for their show at Kentish Town Forum in February and been refused entry by the strict security for having my work bag on me (barely over the A4 size limit), I moaned on Twitter and the band kindly offered me guestlist for their next show in London. Gratefully accepted and tweet saved, when they announced The Clown’s Reflection tour merely a few months later, I reminded them of their offer and they said it still stood, writing ‘the bag man returns’. Ahead of returning to London last month for this show, I tweeted without a response but thought the tweet would work in case I had been forgotten. Wise move. ‘Bag man’ could have been refused entry again but fortunately the tweet and my desperate overtures saw me waved through at Camden’s Electric Ballroom.
At times raucous and other times reverential, a superb set was often let down by indistinguishable sounds due to the sheer volume being pumped out for some of the songs. Fortunately, the best moments were as good as I’ve come to expect from The Murder Capital and prevented the show from being let down by the sound desk. Personally, it was fantastic to see the band who have defined 2023 for me at their own show.
15. Bombay Bicycle Club, Reading Festival
As I explained during October’s Album of the Month podcast, I’d always associated Bombay Bicycle Club with the forgettable wave of mid-2010s UK indie bands, having grown up on the likes of The Libertines, Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs when first exposed to the genre. How wrong I was. Rocking up early for their secret set at the Dance Stage on the Friday at Reading, their brand of danceable indie was the best start to the day, putting all in the tent in a good mood to start the day and setting the bar high for the acts to follow.
14. Panic Shack, Face Bar
For the second year in a row, the highlight at Reading’s Are You Listening? Festival was the headliner at the town’s Face Bar – certainly not the marquee venue of the multi-venue festival. Like Bob Vylan in 2022, the predominantly female punk act, Panic Shack, from Cardiff pulled off a riotous set, turning the curious into believers through a combination of pure confidence and great tunes. Funnily enough, Panic Shack would then go on to support Bob Vylan on their autumn tour, bringing two of the liveliest and invigorating acts on the live scene together for those lucky enough to have gone.
13. Blondshell, Lafayette
Sabrina Teitelbaum as Blondshell has undoubtedly been one of the breakout stars this year. I was lucky enough to get a preview stream of her debut album earlier in the year and, like most to have also listened, was a huge fan of her ‘90s-style grunge tunes. Live, Teitelbaum rounded off a successful year by putting in a captivating performance at King’s Cross venue, Lafayette – conveniently located right by the station and a great little intimate venue. Great to see the New York native live in her debut year.
12. Teleman, Koko
Another breakout artist this year was 7ebra – a sister duo from Sweden who brought out a brilliant gem of an album in Bird Hour. The band put in an endearing set as the support act for Teleman in May, who then went on to produce a show stacked with hits from their discography, with cuts from this year’s LP, Good Time/Hard Time, not feeling out of place alongside their best songs such as ‘Cristina’, ‘Dusseldorf’ and ‘Glory Hallelujah’. Four albums in, and one band member fewer than their original line-up, Teleman show no signs of slowing down.
11. The Murder Capital, Reading Festival
Incongruously on the Dance Stage, The Murder Capital’s early afternoon set at Reading on the Friday was a furious blast of their punkier tunes in a tight short set. The intensity of their performance was simply unmatched that day.
10. Sam Fender, Reading Festival
It may not have been as intense a performance as The Murder Capital’s, but Sam Fender’s headline slot was the only better one on the Friday at Reading. Having only seen Sam support The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park previously, where understandably the performance was a bit more muted, here, playing to fans who had come to see him and his band, Fender looked at home rolling off tune after tune from his brief career so far. It felt like the night Fender arrived as a heavyweight in the world of festival headliners. Two albums in, Fender is at the top of his game. It will be fascinating to see where he goes next.
9. Pulp, Hammersmith Apollo
I’ll admit to being a latecomer when it comes to Pulp. Blur and Oasis were always the bands I naturally gravitated towards as a young child in the 1990s, though the older I’ve got, the more bands like Suede and Pulp have interested me and this revisionist appreciation meant that when Pulp announced their return, I was very keen to go. Having missed out on tickets for their outdoor show in London, I wasn’t going to miss out again when they announced a further London show at the Apollo and quickly snapped up my ticket. Having not properly brushed up on their deeper cuts, I thought I would be alone in only properly nodding along to the hits, but, surprisingly, it seemed that most of the crowd were also there for the hits, standing up for the likes of ‘Common People’, ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Babies’, yet sitting back down for the songs I was less familiar with. As such, it was a bit of a strange show, but the high moments of those aforementioned hits, plus a stadium level of stage design and barely believable energy from Jarvis Cocker ensured that it was worth the high admission price.
8. Ghost, Download Festival
Not previously familiar with the Swedish rock band, the aesthetic I’d uncovered through my research suggested that they wouldn’t be boring in their Opus Stage headline slot on the Sunday at Download Festival. Every patch of (scorched) grass was taken for their performance and deservedly so, as the theatrical band ran through their classic rock arsenal and fireworks and other pyrotechnics were set off. A performance which had many calling for their return as main stage headliners in future years and you wouldn’t bet against this sooner rather than later.
7. Incubus, Hammersmith Apollo
Roughly 20 years separated the first time I saw Incubus in London and this seemingly random show at the Apollo. The first time I saw them, they were touring in support of A Crow Left of the Murder, this time around, just because. Happily, the bulk of songs came from the aforementioned A Crow… album, as well as Make Yourself and Morning View – a trio of albums which can very much be viewed as Incubus’s golden era. With new music a rare thing these days for the California band, the band seem content with reaching back into their arsenal to please fans – and the only criticism of this show is how concise it felt at 90 minutes-long.
6. Finch, Kentish Town Forum
Another band reaching back into past glories, but one who it was just great to see touring considering the on/off nature of the band was Finch. Touring a 20th anniversary show of seminal debut, What It Is to Burn?, I became a teenager again and was utterly absorbed in stepping back into one of the very best albums of that nu-metal/post-hardcore scene in the early 2000s. The drumming was utterly sensational and, slightly larger frames aside, you could have been fooled for thinking it was 2003 again. The understandably slender encore even included a pitch-perfect cover of Deftones’s ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’. A fantastic night.
5. Paul Weller, Wembley Stadium
Before my attendance at Wembley for the second of Blur’s huge shows in the summer was curtailed due to the antics of others around me, I witnessed a master show the (relatively) young pretenders how to do it. As the sun set on a beautiful evening in north London, Paul Weller ran through a set with highlights from The Jam, The Style Council and his solo work which was utterly satisfying and worthy of such a vast venue. The crowd appreciated it too, and it certainly made me wonder how someone responsible for so many great tracks over such an extended period wasn’t headlining such a venue in their own right.
4. SIPHO, Jazz Café
Shortly after the release of his excellent debut album, PRAYERS AND PARANOIA, SIPHO. took his LP and earlier EP songs to Camden’s intimate Jazz Café. With his band running through rock, jazz, soul and drum ‘n’ bass, SIPHO.’s superb vocals were able to soar and please his crowd. With Shaé Universe joining SIPHO. for a showstopping performance of ‘RUN FOR YOUR LIFE’, all the stops were pulled out for a celebratory show after another brilliant year for the singer from Birmingham.
3. InMe, Islington Assembly Hall
Carrying on the theme of looking back 20 years, high up in my list is InMe’s London show in honour of their debut album, Overgrown Eden, released in 2003. Having missed out on seeing the band during this exciting era (despite seeing them multiple times since), this was one show I wasn’t going to miss out on – even if a Sunday evening spent doing a four-hour round trip for the privilege wasn’t exactly a plus in this regard. Prep for the show meant of course revisiting an album which meant a huge deal to me as a teenager and, judging by the hundreds of others belting out the lyrics, I wasn’t the only one. Nostalgia is a powerful thing but when it is brought back as brilliantly as this, why would you want to listen to anything new? I jest of course, but this was such a great show and this year has taught me that, as galling as it is to see 20-year anniversary shows relating to bands of my youth, there are few better live experiences than reliving those albums which mean so much from beginning to end.
2. Metallica, Download Festival (second night)
1. Metallica, Download Festival (first night)
So, taking the top two slots are the same band, playing one night apart. The novel idea, as part of the festival’s 20th anniversary celebrations (again, I know!), saw Metallica play two completely different sets on the Thursday and Saturday. This, ultimately, also persuaded me to travel to Donnington Park and tick off both attending the legendary venue and seeing the band top of my gig wishlist. Ever since ticking off Stevie Wonder, Foo Fighters and Manic Street Preachers in 2019, Metallica had been top of my wishlist to see and they didn’t let me down. Both shows spanned the entirety of their career, James Hetfield the goofy ringleader, Lars Ulrich drumming better than his naysayers give him credit for, Kirk Hammett shredding like one of the best guitarists around (because he is) and Robert Trujillo putting his digits and neck muscles to good use in the rhythm section. Seeing Hammett’s solo in ‘One’ was probably the highlight, but the two evenings were an education in just what makes a very good band a great band through years of toiling and pushing yourselves to make the very best music you can. A masterclass and an excellent two-in-one having never seen them before. Time to revise the list!
And, here, some more shots from gigs I had the privilege to attend this year: