Neighbourhood Weekender review by Rob Johnson
Warrington is perhaps not the most glamorous location for a prestigious festival but there is no denying the fact that Neighbourhood Weekender has become an important date in the live music calendar. Now in its sixth year since rebranding and moving to Victoria Park (formerly home to the northern leg of V Fest), the festival has gone from strength to strength in recent years – something confirmed by the quality of the acts appearing this year.
Gaz Coombes kicks things off and immediately demonstrates how to win over a bleary-eyed festival crowd as a one-man band. Utilising a drum machine, backing tracks and a variety of guitars, Coombes mainly sticks to his stunning new solo album Turn the Car Around with the title track and ‘Long Live the Strange’ as the highlights. By the time Coombes shreds on his electric guitar throughout the final track ‘Feel Loop (Lizard Dream)’, the Big Top stage crowd is wide awake and clapping along.
Kula Shaker takes to the Main Stage next with the sun beating down and the worrying news that all the bars are running low on beer reverberating throughout the site. Not to worry. It takes Crispian Mills and his band a little while to get going with some early tracks suffering from sound problems, but by the time their classic cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Hush’ rolls around (itself a cover of a Joe South song), all is right with the world. T’attva’ closes things out and the set concludes with the unlikely sound of a sitar echoing across Victoria Park.
Day One Neighbourhood Weekender Photo Copyright © Gary Mather
Back at the Big Top, London four-piece The Big Moon come armed with three albums worth of power pop goodness. The meagre 30-minute slots early on in the day provide a challenge for any act but lead singer Juliette Jackson and her band rise to the task impeccably with a note-perfect rendition of ‘Cupid’ and an emotional version of the instant classic ‘Your Light’ – the latter of which providing the first big ‘moment’ of the afternoon.
If there was ever a band made for performing in front of adoring crowds packed into blue circus tents it is Sheffield heroes, The Reytons. The self-proclaimed “biggest unsigned band in the country” lay waste to the Big Top stage and leave a mess of pyro, sweaty t-shirts and muddy Adidas trainers in their wake. ‘Red Smoke’ is as good a set opener as you’ll hear anywhere and from the first note to the last, frontman Jonny Yerrell throws absolutely everything into his performance, prowling the stage like an unruly toddler after too many Skittles. It’s a brilliant set from one of the best live bands in the country and ‘Kids Off the Estate’ sees arms held aloft, strangers kissing each other and plastic beer cups flying everywhere. It’s a unifying song that creates a sense of community that probably isn’t matched all day. This band mean something.
Staying at the Big Top, Everything Everything have the unenviable task of following The Reytons but as usual they are quietly excellent. All decked out in white and sounding exquisite, Jonathan Higgs and his band play the hits with ‘Can’t Do’ and ‘Distant Past’ providing some sonic variation on a line-up that does occasionally feel a little samey.
The Sheffield takeover continues back at the Main Stage with Self Esteem making a typically bombastic entrance in an oversized white suit and with backing singers to match. As ever, the South Yorkshire songstress puts on an incredible show with choreographed dance moves and festival anthems complemented nicely by Taylor’s incredible voice. Self Esteem’s second album Prioritize Pleasure has not even celebrated its two-year anniversary yet and still these songs feel like classics that have always been with us. The pounding drums of ‘How Can I Help You’, the soaring chorus of ‘Fucking Wizardry’, and of course, the always emotionally crushing ‘I Do This All the Time’ – a true anthem for our times – Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’ for the selfie generation. Somehow, it all feels like a greatest hits set despite Self Esteem being a relatively new artist and only having two albums to her name.
And now, to the main event. Pulp has been away from our stages for an awfully long time. Over ten years in fact. But as a huge set of red curtains draw back to reveal Jarvis Branson Cocker emerging from under the stage on a huge podium, it’s like they’ve never been away. Seeing his iconic skinny frame silhouetted against the Victoria Park skyline is an image that I shall never forget. It’s here. It’s happening. It’s now.
Day Two Neighbourhood Weekender Photo Copyright © Gary Mather
‘I Spy’ kicks things off, and a huge sigh of relief can be heard around Victoria Park as it is clear there are no cobwebs to dust off. The band need no time to time to settle in. They mean business. And I’ll be damned if a series of hand claps don’t segue straight into ‘Disco 2000’ – and that’s it. The crowd are gone. Everyone loses it. The chorus is screamed back at the stage and for a moment, it might as well be 1996 – the last time that Pulp graced Victoria Park. Ah, the good old days.
From there the hit parade rolls on. ‘Something Changed’ is still one of the most beautiful love songs ever written and it sounds beautiful here. ‘Dishes’ gives the crowd a breather and it’s pleasing to see obscure album tracks like ‘Pink Glove’ given a runout also. The stuttering keyboard introduction to ‘Sorted for E’s and Wizz’ sees ’20,000 people standing in a field’ rise in unison to celebrate what is the perfect festival song before the epic sleaze of ‘This is Hardcore’ brings the house down. Jarvis is debonair throughout, often pausing to reflect on past memories and becoming particularly choked up when offering a tribute to recently departed Pulp bassist Steve Mackey.
The first part of the set closes out with the one-two punch of ‘Do You Remember the First Time?’ and ‘Babies’, a giddy and life-affirming duo, before the jaw-dropping outro to ‘Sunrise’ sees the band depart for the sidelines.
What exactly do you do for an encore? Well, if you’re Pulp, you send Cocker out to strum the intro to ‘Like a Friend’ – one of their forgotten classics – before allowing the pounding of Nick Banks’ drums to signal the return of the rest of the band to the stage – upon which time they are duly introduced to the audience one by one by their leader and frontman. It’s a classy touch and one that confirms Cocker as a man of the people.
‘Underwear’ follows and inspires a mass singalong – Pulp being perhaps the only band that could get thousands of people to sing such subversive lyrics – but for a set closer, there can only be one. ‘Common People’ is perhaps the greatest song of the ‘90s and in a northern, industrial town in 2023, it still sounds as relevant, as vital, as ever. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect set closer and it sounds impeccable here. Confetti cannons boom. There are tears. It is special.
And just like that. It’s all over. Hopefully, it won’t be another decade before we see Pulp again.