The rise of the Slam Dunk Festival over the past 10 years has been pretty extraordinary especially when other UK festivals have come and gone and been cancelled in recent years. On paper this years line-up is a who’s who of big names and emerging acts in the underworlds of rock, pop-punk, hardcore and ska punk. But did the day live up to the hype? Let’s see…
Due to size of this years festival, it took awhile to get our bearings of where ever stage was. Nevertheless our day begins at Beckett Student Union bar, ‘Fresh Blood’ competition winners Trash Boat kick things off. Whilst their set doesn’t start off too great, Tobi Duncan blaring vocals aren’t very pleasing but soon sound at home as the quintet showcase their brand of hardcore-infused pop punk. Newer tracks like ‘Perspective’ and ‘As Seen on Screen’ hint at a more melodic side whilst closing track ‘Boneless’ emphasise their energy and musical urgency. (3/5) (SR)
There can’t have ever been too many more appropriately named bands too have opened the Slam Dunk Main Stage then Set It Off. The band did a great job of living up to said name and getting the stage going with a bang, despite the unpleasant and far from ideal circumstances which overshadowed the their preparations for the event. Between Cody Carson’s off the scale charisma and impossible to ignore energy, and his band’s super theatrical brooding but full of life pop-rock sound, Set It Off were exactly what was needed to get a sizeable Millennium square crowd on its feet and dancing. Something achieved particularly well by opener ‘Ancient History’ and the fiery ‘Wolf In Sheeps Clothing’. (3.5/5) (DW)
Knuckle Puck were only the second band on the MacBeth Stage but the place was completely full. From the word go. their blend of American energetic pop punk had everyone on their feet. Despite some sound issues, Knuckle Puck were on top form as they bounced around the stage to the delight of the sizeable crowd. ‘No Good’ provided the first huge pop punk singalong of the day. All in all, a strong set from the Chicago five piece that everyone is talking about. (4/5) (AM)
Next up were the most hotly anticipated of the entire weekend, Pvris, making their UK festival debut. And as debuts go this was pretty much faultless. Lynn Gunn and co coolly took the occasion in their collective stride delivering an electrifying set that flew by in what felt like seconds. Both Millennium Square and the sides of the stage itself were packed long before ‘Smoke’ got a classy performance delivered with aplomb underway. This was quickly followed with ‘St Patrick’, both tracks showcasing that live Gunn’s vocals are every bit as fierce and towering as they are on record. Musically Pvris also sound as excellent as we could be hoped live. Some bands with such a depth to their sound, and one so reliant on synth and electronics, can come across as flat and one dimensional live as they over rely on backing tracks. Not Pvris however, almost all of it is played live, creating the sort of stupendously huge sound and effect that was absolutely made for stages of this size. With an expectant crowd lapping up every second of every song and Pvris carrying themselves like bode-fide superstars in the making, this felt like it could easily have been a headline set. By the time ‘My House’ closed the set in blistering grand stand fashion, AH was more than convinced that Pvris will be hitting Paramore-esque levels of all conquering success in the very near future. Reading and Leeds Fest if you have any sense at all you will get Pvris on your Main Stages at the earliest opportunity. (4.5/5) (DW)
An air of anticipation filled the air as the gathered masses filed into the Monster Stage prior to Beartooth’s set. From the first minute to the last, Caleb Shomo barely stopped moving. This was one of the most intense sets of the day, Opening with ‘Relapse’ the entire set came from their incredible debut full length ‘Disgusting’. Each song whipped the crowd into even more of a frenzy. ‘Body Bag’ featured guest vocals from Kevin Jordan of This Wild Life and was a definite highlight. (4/5) (AM)
AH made its first visit to the Desperado’s stage to find veteran ska-punks Big D and The Kids Table in full flow and spirits in the crowd if anything even higher than at the Main Stage. Admittedly something almost certainly helped by the sponsors dishing out free samples of their wares. In a bit of excellent timing the sun edged out from behind the clouds just as the Boston outfit launched into ‘Shining On’, providing a glorious moment as the packed street got its collective skank on, beers held delightedly aloft. Unfortunately not everything about this stage made for exactly pristine live music conditions, the high buildings at each side of the stage and street creating a tunnel effect that did the sound quality no favours and turned most of the music into a garbled wall of noise. Big D’s raucous feel good vibe during tracks like ‘Shit Tattoos’ did reach most of the street; but its steepness restricting most people’s view, added to the audio issues, made it hard for anyone not already strongly familiar with the band to really get involved or enjoy the set as much as they could have in a different setting. (3/5) (DW)
Neck Deep’s rise to the top of the UK pop punk scene has been incredible. The huge crowd packed into Millennium square prior to them taking the stage was nothing short of astounding. From the word go Neck Deep bounced around the stage playing hit after hit to the eager crowd. ‘A Part Of Me’ was a quieter highlight, with Laura Whiteside providing backing vocals as a huge singalong ensued. New single ‘Can’t Kick Up The Roots had the first few rows bouncing along. This is a band in its prime, fresh from recording their second album and about to leave for the full US Warped Tour, Neck Deep are ones to watch. (4/5) (AM)
Visits to the UK by Cartel are few and far between. As a result they were a band on a mission when they took to the Macbeth Stage, blasting out one stellar emo anthem after another, largely from their fantastic ‘Chroma’ album which is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. ‘Settle Down’, ‘If I Fail’, and especially last song ‘Burn This City’ were all rapturously roared word for word back at Will Pugh by a delighted crowd. In terms of scarcity of chances to see the band and the top notch quality of the delivery and setlist, this was a collector’s item of a Slam Dunk Set. Memorable and lung bursting stuff. (4.5/5) (DW)
Zebrahead have to number among the most regular visitors to Slam Dunk over the years, and were a solid shout to fill that time in the half way point of the bill where energy levels and attention spans hit a bit of a lull. Sadly they were hampered by the exact same issues with the Desperados Stage that dogged Big D’s slot. But anyone who has seen the boys from California live will know it takes an awful lot to derail an MFZB party. The band powered through with sheer force of personality, an ungodly amount of beer chugging and some guest appearances. Namely Santa chugging yet more beer (yes Santa in May, go figure) and the Reel Big Fish horn section for a special rendition of ‘Anthem’. Lewis, Tabatabaee and co leaving the stage to ‘I Will Always Love You’ also provided one of the odder moments of the day as the entire street promptly took up the refrain and were still bellowing it well after the last band member was out of sight. Pretty standard Zebrahead fare overall, but amusing nonetheless and exactly what was needed for that point in the festival. (3.5/5) (DW)
The last 12 months have been huge for Watford 4 piece Lower Than Atlantis. Since parting ways with Island Records, the band have strangely went from strength to strength. Their self titled album was one of the best releases last year and their live shows have always been outstanding. Slam Dunk was no exception, taking to the stage in front of a sun kissed and packed out millennium square, the band were on top form as they rifled their way through hit after hit from the last 3 albums. New single ‘Words Don’t Come So Easily’ got one of the biggest cheers of the day. Old fan favourites ‘Beech Like The Tree’ and ‘Love Someone Else’ provided huge singalongs too. The band are in a great place just now and seem to be having great fun playing live. Frontman Mike Duce is on top form in between songs, his acerbic sense of humour has always been the same.Lower Than Atlantis are consistently one of the best UK rock bands and this set only bolstered their position near the top. (5/5)
John Feldmann and Goldfinger effortlessly kept the party right on rolling with a greatest hits setlist that made for as fun a performance as any on the Slam Dunk site all day. For reasons not entirely clear, an immaculately suited Feldmann lead his band onto the stage to the strains of ‘Let It Go’, promptly setting off the second bonkers full street singalong in half an hour. This did mean that the band had an enthusiastic audience having fun before they’d even played a note. Seasoned campaigner Feldmann astutely kept this up throughout with a mix of praise (“we love playing in the UK. This is the place where live music still lives, its right here”) and playful goading (“Do you want to have some fun to fast songs, or do you want us all to smoke weed to some Jack Johnson songs. Let’s see what you’ve got!”) book ending some joyously received airings of ‘Counting The Days’ and ‘Here In Your Bedroom’. Feldmann keept the stage chat coming with a very funny story about a child mistaking him for ‘Draco Malfoy’s Grandfather’, and thanking ‘Superman’ being featured in the second Tony Hawks game for kickstarting their careers internationally, before launching into said song quickly followed by their ’99 Red Balloons’ cover to end their set on a ridiculously feel good high. (4/5) (DW)
Back at the Beckett SU bar, Rob Lynch was making his full band UK debut. Having played the festival in previous years solo, the transition comes off as smoothly. Lynch has built a small but strong following over the years and this set sees him and his band mates in a celebratory mood. Whilst songs like ‘Whiskey’ and ‘Widow’ allows Lynch to tell deeply personal stories behind them and are warmly apprecaited all in attendance. However its ‘Broken Bones’ and the always enjoyable ‘My Friends and I’ that stir up the biggest reaction. By the end of his set, the crowd take charge by singing back the chorus of the latter something that Lynch seems overwhelmed and humbled by. (4/5) (SR)
AH seems to be making a slightly sad habit of watching Transit play to far less people then they deserve. Much like when we caught them with Such Gold recently, this wasn’t a crowd as large as we’d have hoped. But numbers have never deterred the boys from Boston, and they attacked this set as if the stage was at capacity and received adulation back tenfold from the devotees who were there. The set list did a good job of picking the best of the songs from each of their albums. The likes of ‘Listen and Forgive’, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ and ‘Skipping Stones’ were emphatically delivered by an amped up Joe Boynton and sounded as melodically vibrant and life affirming as ever. Bands don’t really come as criminally under rated or appreciated as Transit. (4/5) (DW)
Canadian pop punk-ers Seaway were next up on the tiny Fresh Blood Stage. Despite the almost unbearable heat inside the venue, their show was as lively and fun as expected. S’abrina The Teenage Bitch’ and ‘Shy Guys’ were both really well received. Despite their best efforts, the onstage energy didn’t quite translate to the packed room. The lesser known songs fell a bit flat. A solid set from another great band, if they had been on the MacBeth stage it could have been a different story. (3/5) (AM)>
Taking Back Sunday were up next on the Main Stage. The veterans of the emo scene were on fire throughout. Adam Lazzara effortlessly commanded the stage. His mic swinging skills remain nothing short of mesmerising. New songs like ‘Flicker, Fade’ sit alongside hits such as ‘Cute without the E’ and M’akeDamnSure’ to provide a well balanced and flowing set. ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ was a highlight, as was the en masse singalong to ‘Timberwolves Of New Jersey’. Taking Back Sunday are a great festival band, with a back catalogue that features 50% of any good club night setlist and the stage moves to back it up, they were an entertaining and worthy penultimate act. (5/5) (AM)
It’s been a fair few years now since Fireworks firmly announced their arrival on the global pop punk scene with standout debut performances at Slam Dunk. Now two albums later the Detroit outfit were treated like returning heroes as they took to the Macbeth Stage just as the sun was going down. The twilight setting only added to an atmospheric and stirringly special performance. The bleak, frustration soaked odes to a hopeless city from ‘All I Have To Offer Is My Own Confusion’ mingled well with the jig inducing, relentlessly jaunty up-tempo organ peppered tracks from newest release ‘Oh Common Life’; fuelling a constant barrage of crowd surfers pouring forward from the rabid mass watching. The raw punk kids who first exploded onto a Slam Dunk stage seemed like mere shadows compared to the composed and well-rounded performers who nailed this showing. Fists galore were pumped and voices shouted to the brink of hoarseness to triumphant closer ‘Detroit’ to round at a set that will live long in the memory. (4.5/5) (DW)
Philadelphia favourites The Wonder Years have the honour of closing the Macbeth stage and even though only four sixths of the band have made it over, they still pull in a set packed full of favourites. From the opening punching moments of ‘Dismantling Summer’, Dan “Soupy” Campbell leads the packed crowd in a mass pop punk singalong. With ‘Don’t Let Me Cave In’, ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’ and ‘Woke Up Older’ quickly coming one after the other, TWY are in full swing. Add to that a full band version of ‘The Living Room Song’ and you’re quickly reminded how many great songs TWY have. There is no let up as they pick out the best cuts from their past 3 albums. In between songs “Soupy” is grateful to the festival organisers and close friends, Fireworks. Ending the 15 song set with ‘Came Out Swinging’, Campbell and company leave us more than satisfied. Now just bring out a new record and get back over here! (4.5/5) (SR)
If it wasn’t for Slam Dunk it’s hard to imagine where You Me At Six would be today. The band’s early success, and both the Slam Dunk label and festival were inseparably linked; the label being the ones to take the punt on releasing a debut long player by the then kids from Surrey, and the festival giving them their first tastes of playing major events. Consequently there wasn’t really any other contender to headline this landmark Slam Dunk. Sure the You Me At Six of 2015 has become a radio rock commercial juggernaut, shifting ticket and album sales that would have seemed unimaginable when they called the Slam Dunk label home. But as live performers and writers You Me At Six aren’t half as exciting or essential listening as when ‘Take Of Your Colours’ first dropped. Or so we thought anyway.
As it turned out there were no reasons to doubt or question the band’s performance. This wasn’t the You Me At Six that AH witnessed put in a mediocre at best showing at last year’s Leeds Fest. This was a You Me At Six buoyed immeasurably by the success of their arena tour with All Time Low, one showing every bit of live experience they’ve amassed over the last decade, and one completely re-energised by refocusing on the set of songs that made them so popular in the first place.
From the moment ‘The Truth Is A Terrible Thing’ and ‘Save It For The Bedroom’ blasted off the set at breakneck speed, this was a performance that brought out every aspect of the band that made them a success. There was an attention holding purpose to everything each member did on stage, holding themselves like the rock superstars they’ve become, while the songs themselves were delivered with genuine swagger and impact and the arena quality visual show made the whole performance completely immersive.
‘Loverboy’ and ‘Stay With Me’ gave enjoyable flashbacks to the ‘Hold Me Down’ years, but it was the drop of ‘Reckless’ that really brought Millennium Square alive with mass dancing. This preceded another run of ‘TOYC’ tracks that saw an infinitely cocksure Francheschi make the massive stage and setting his own in a way he never could have when he sang the songs the first time around, flickering images of the album artwork adding another nice touch of nostalgia.
Former show ender ‘Always Attract’ gave a nice slowed down emotional punch to wrap up the main set. This proved to be the calm before the storm as an encore comprising of ‘Room To Breathe’, ‘Bite My Tongue’ and ‘Underdog’ brought the biggest Slam Dunk North yet to a heady and elated close and drained every bit of energy the thousands packed into the square had left. With this set, a revitalised You Me At Six not only repaid the debt of faith and gratitude to Slam Dunk for giving them their break, but also far surpassed any potential the label can have imagined them fulfilling. (5/5) (SR)
So did Slam Dunk 2015 live up to the hype? Well despite a few minor hiccups; the standard over-crowded issue with indoor stages, the answer is yes. The sheer size of this years festival was both ambitious and natural but the gamble paid off. More or less every band bought their A game. Some produced festival-stealing sets, whilst others lived up to expectations and pulled in some of the best sets you’ll see all summer. It’s safe to say Slam Dunk is no longer a small, regional festival. It’s now one of the most influential rock festivals the UK has to offer. It’ll be interesting to see what they can produce in 2016 as this year has set the bar incredibly high. (SR)
Words by Sean Reid (SR), Dane Wright (DW), and Andy McGonigle (AM). Photos by Carrie-Anne Pollard.
View more of Already Heard’s coverage from Slam Dunk Festival 2015 here.