It’s truly emblematic of the British festival season that on a week boasting a national heatwave, grey skies and rain greet arrivals for the first day of Tramlines Festival. The Sheffield drizzle fails to dampen Sam Fender‘s ongoing victory lap, though: the headlining guitarist continues to relish the summer of his lifetime as he coasts through a soul-shaking set like a born winner.
“Yes Sheffield! How ya doin’, alreet?” announces the Geordie Springsteen to a suitably bevvied 35,000-strong crowd in Hillsborough Park, before launching into the fist-pumping anthem ‘Getting Started’. Already well-versed in headline duties, Fender is capable of inciting both chaos (with the thrashing ‘Howdon Aldi Death Queue’) and tears with heart-wrenching ballads like the wounding ‘Dead Boys’. With Fender fast making big slots such as these his natural habitat, the sky’s surely the limit.
Fender’s set on the Friday tops off a day that’s flooded with the indie heroes of tomorrow. Capitalising on a big crowd fleeing the weather inside The Leadmill Tent, Brooke Combe gets things underway with her disco-tinged set; soaring anthem ‘Are You With Me?’ proving the perfect party-starter. That’s just before Irish shredder Kynsy serves up her angular indie-pop as the pulsing synth lines of ‘Cold Blue Light’ swell euphorically inside the same venue. Elsewhere, Baby Queen brings the pop-punk fizzle to wake up the heavily poncho’d main stage crowd early on in the day.
While these breakthrough names are soaking up their first-ever full festival season, other established favourites are relishing the opportunity to reacquaint themselves. Donning 3D specs, Declan McKenna bounds around on the main stage in front of an adoring crowd. “Alright, we’re gonna play a new one we wrote last week,” he teases before launching into his breakthrough anthem ‘Brazil’, summoning a sea of green and yellow flares and Brazilian flags. Yorkshire locals Working Men’s Club’s punishing rave anthems, meanwhile, cut through the guitar-soaked weekend on The Leadmill Stage to devastating effect as they share tracks from their sinister synth-loaded second record ‘Fear Fear’.
There’s something at Tramlines for everyone: while packs of students roam the site with their pals, fathers hold their ear defender-wearing children atop their shoulders to watch the veterans of the game in action. The oldies aren’t just here to show up, either: Tim Booth from James clambers over the barrier and crowdsurfs over the front rows in a moment of total connection during ‘Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)’. Elsewhere, mid-way through a swaggering set of 90s blues rock, Shed Seven frontman Rick Witter hands down his maracas to a child in the crowd.
The weather thankfully brightens up on Saturday as Liverpool’s Pixey kicks things off with her very own sun-splashed indie-pop. Infused with plucky, tropical guitar lines and feel-good lyricism, ‘Just Move’s sentiment of “give me a shot and I’ll show you I can shine” rings true as the Chess Club-signed artist commands her first ever main stage slot.
She’s not the only Scouser winning hearts, either: Merseyside misfits Crawlers pack The Leadmill tent and arrive to baying screams. “If you’d have told us we’d be doing festival season last year, I’d have shit myself,” singer Holly Minto proclaims after their devastating ballad ‘Come Over (Again)’ turns the tent into a starry night (via phone camera lights) for a mass singalong. It’s a testament to the band’s savvy rise that flyers for their upcoming tour are seen far and wide for the rest of the day.
Tramlines does well to shine a light on its hometown heroes, as well. Self Esteem arrives with her entourage donning matching Sheffield Wednesday kits, a fitting touch given the artists’ dressing rooms are located in Wednesday’s neighbouring Hillsborough Stadium. She receives a hero’s welcome on T’Other Stage: “This sounds better than it did in Suffolk,” she laughs midway through ‘Fucking Wizardry’, which features big choral singalongs and booming tribal percussion. It’s a set that’s worthy of knocking some old heads off the main stage.
After The Vaccines roll back the years on the main stage with their indie disco classics, which are received with the same kind of hunger as when they first burst onto the scene over a decade ago, it’s Kasabian’s turn. Marking their first festival headline performance since firing frontman Tom Meighan in summer 2020, it’s fitting that they go all-guns-blazing here and kick off with their seminal anthem ‘Club Foot’. “Sheffield, how the fuck are you?!” shouts Sergio Pizzorno, scissor-kicking his way across the stage like a man with one mission: to ensure that a British rock’n’roll institution two decades in the making doesn’t fizzle out.
Tonight it feels like Pizzorno was always a frontman-in-waiting, as amid flare fumes and flung-bevvies, rowdiness prevails. A triumphant airing of ‘Underdog’ feels more apt than ever before; the track’s clattering riff opening up and Pizzorno singing words the band have surely stuck by in recent times: “Kill me if you dare / Hold my head up everywhere / Keep myself right on this train.”
“Let’s get this place bouncing, this is fucking beautiful,” he yells just before the band launch into ‘Shoot The Runner’. As much as it feels like a celebration of everything that has come before, we also get a thrilling glimpse into the future of Kasabian. Guitars are downed for ‘Scriptvre’ as Pizzorno squares up to the crowd, brimming with self-belief and his usual indelible energy with more telling lyrics: “Take ’em all / On my own like I’m Rambo.” Guest vocalist Mysie also adds a welcome backing vocal as the rap rager enters into orchestral rave territory.
From one British guitar institution to another, The Coral brave the driving rain to wake up Sunday’s crowd: ”What a city, what a crowd,” declares frontman James Skelly as his band close on their defining anthem ‘Dreaming Of You’. Looking like eccentric drifters back off their travels, the band naturally play their catalogue of classics – but their latest material from ‘Coral Island’ is equally stirring, with whirling seaside keys packing a haunting and emotive quality that suits the grey skies overhead.
Though lacking in match fitness and fighting through sound issues, the mid-00s anthems of Sheffield’s very own Reverend & The Makers’ still have the masses bouncing on the main stage. NME then makes our way over to The Leadmill tent to see Sunday’s stand-out act Yard Act, who duly provide one of the most impulsive and thrilling sets of the weekend.
“I’m gonna level with you, right,” frontman James Smith tells the crowd. “We got here too early: I’ve been sat in Hillsborough Stadium drinking beer for four hours. ‘What’s gonna happen? Can he perform under the influence or what?’ Well, I’ll give it a go.” Donning his signature trench coat and specs, you can’t take your eyes off Smith as he lurches across the stage looking more wired than ever – even taking the time to hurl back a bog roll that’s arched over his head as bedlam prevails.
An emotional drunk, Smith’s lengthy, impassioned and sometimes indecipherable monologues are still delivered straight from the heart. “I know I take the piss. I’m snarky, I know we do joke: but I have nothing but love for anyone who’s trying to make their way in the world,” he says at one point. As the crowd spills out of the tent and into the rain and flare smoke, the unmistakable sounds of ‘One Step Beyond’ by Tramlines’ final headliners Madness can be heard ringing out across the festival site.
As the chants of “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!” which echo across the site this weekend suggest (not to mention the mountain of giant Yorkshire puddings consumed), this festival has again proved itself as a great northern beacon of celebration and escapism.