The Neverland, Leefest
The last weekend of July, deep in the woodlands of Kent, after taking the second star to the right and straight on till morning, Neverland itself appeared for a brief window, boasting a three-day escapade of music, madness, and absolute magic. Surrounded by Pirates, Mermaids and mischievous lost boys, you would be forgiven for truly believing you were in the middle of a fantasy world, but in fact, this was Leefest, 2016.
Small, sweet and charmingly rebellious, the story of Leefest almost writes itself – spawned from a classic act of teenage rebellion, the festival started in Lee’s back garden. Under strict instructions not to have a house party, Lee and a few of his friends built a stage, gathered some bands, got in some food, some booze, and started the adventure of a lifetime.
Map of the Neverland
It may be 10 years old, and have substantially grown in size from its original gathering, but it still boasts that friendly, backyard vibe that many flock from all around to be a part of. It’s still small, it only has a 5000 person capacity – but it has enough life to surpass anyone’s expectations. Lee, masquerading as Peter Pan himself, can often be found floating around the ‘Neverland’ – smiling, cheerful and just generally warm, his refusal to grow up has resulted in an incredibly organic experience that can only be described as Secret Garden Party meets your local village fete.
The site itself is quite small, there’s one large campsite for punters, and the arena is stretched out over three different ‘realms’ yet would probably take about 5 minutes to cross completely, yet it’s littleness gives off a more collective, cosy feel than a cramped one. The three realms are focused around the peoples of Neverland. The Lost Boys rule the roost, the main stage is placed bang in the middle, with tree houses, ropes and various bushcraft surrounding the stage, often with the lost boys and woodland creatures perched in their nooks and crannies. The Pirates rule Skull Ridge, substituting Hook for Captain Morgan, most of the heavier bands played the little garage-like venue Hooks Rock and dirty DJ’s heading the Gold Mine, an alleged old bomb crater that was kitted out to look like a true pirate quarry, complete with a wooden structure complete with a platform and dancing pirates. Heading over the other side, you’ll find Mermaid’s Lagoon, where colourful sea creatures will greet you to the colourful, eclectic 50’s retro style area, with an airstream cocktail bar, the Wondersands beach where Neptune will keep you moving, hot tubs and the Rainbow Rooms. Alongside the realms are those who control it; the mermaids are glamorous and fabulous, and mainly mind their own business, which is a good idea when the Lost Boys pull their own pranks and the Pirates are the chaotic havoc wreckers who are meant to terrorise everyone, but in reality are happy to give you a sip of their rum, or a gold coin if you pledge allegiance.
The Pirates of Skull Ridge
Though there are performers and punters alike going a little crazy, the festival is incredibly family friendly. Throughout the day, the place is awash with kids, there are tonnes of activities from face-painting, to swing dance lessons, and water fights between pirates and lost boys to keep the little ones occupied. As the night gets on, you see fewer kids, but the good-natured attitude doesn’t change.
The Mermaids at Mermaid Lodge
Leefest is pretty famous for discovering bands before they blow up, and a lot of the past performers are now incredibly popular. The bands themselves can quite often be seen wandering around the festival and stopping in on all the various artists, the crowds are just incredibly accepting. The beautiful thing about Leefest that I found was the complete lack of celebrity culture. Everyone just seems to accept each other for who they are, people for people, and just genuinely excited to be there. Maybe that’s even due to Lee himself, who never without a smile, is often wondering around the grounds, happy to stay and chat to people, or jump on wherever necessary, in fact on the Saturday he jumped behind a busy bar to serve me a couple of beers.
Though the crowds aren’t big, they’re lively and loving, and this passes into the acts themselves, many putting so much energy into performances. A lot of bands that play Leefest blow up in the months and years to follow and this is certainly to be the case for a large amount of the artists there. Saturday Headliner Lianne La Havas serenaded an entire festival with her melodic, soulful voice and faultless charming personality. Genuinely humble about the headline slot, and overwhelmed by the love and support of the crowd, her multi-instrumental set was a glorious end to the three-day gathering.
Lianne La Havas at Leefest
In terms of the rest of the music, there is not one artist I could even begin to fault. Leefest is a little different in the way it's a Thursday, Friday, Saturday lineup, which mixes up the whole ‘sunday feeling’ kind of vibe, but it works the way it does. Thursday was a fairly quiet day, everyone was just getting into the swing of it, and performances by Everything Everything and Ghostpoet paved the way for what was to come. Everything Everything were on the bill as special guests, but their impeccable energy and infamous stage presence gave the crowd a perfect start. A contrast, but equally spellbinding performance by Ghostpoet left the festival goers content and blissful as they headed back to the campsite ready for an earlier start on the Friday.
Everything Everything at Leefest
Friday saw an incredible mixture of artists, me myself discovering new bands and artists to fall in love with. Peluche kicked off the main stage, followed by the melodic compilations of Corey Fox-Fardell. Roots Manuva played a brilliant but short sub-headline set, followed by the Liverpudlian indie rockers Circa Waves. In terms of the main stage however, I was most impressed with Lil Simz, the North London, grime-esque artist that completely took over the energy of the crowd, and I fully expect to see her take over the scene in the coming year.
Lil Simz on the main stage
Over the other stages, the growth garage/grunge rock movement and Lo-Fi sound was increasingly obvious, much to my delight, with bands Beaty Heart, Get Inuit and Spring Kings gaining hype and support and playing amazing sets. Otherkin are another of those bands I expect to see blow up in the next year; in the middle of a European tour and set to play the Festival Republic stage at Reading and Leeds this year, the band are a mix of punky pop meets grunge rock and have a live show that’s one of the most ferocious I've ever seen, the band themselves heading into the crowd, complete with mics and instruments, and oozing a carefree attitude, which was easily caught up by the crowd. Inviting the crowd on-stage for the last song, the boys really brought it all, and I'm converted a few more fans than just me.
The crowds at Leefest
As Leefest closes on Saturday, that sloppy Sunday feeling got a bit mixed up, as the latest, busiest night was also the last. Acoustic, Ellie Goulding inspired pop artist Hannah Trigwell took the main stage following her Sofar Sounds set earlier in the day, wooing the crowds with her catchy melodies, a perfect precursor for Lianne La Havas, the soulstress herself and beautiful human to play as the main headliner. Pop punk indie band We Are Scientists also took the main stage, themselves fascinated with the various tribes of Leefest, as did Shura, whose mass popularity after the release of her first album really showed as fans were wowed by her performance. Saturday was also definitely one for strong female artists, with The Big Moon, Skinny Girl Diet, King Kwong, She Drew The Gun and GIRLI playing amazing sets. Vant also hit up the circus tent, with their politically fueled music proving a hit on the Leefest crowds.
Frank Carter and the Rattlesnacks
Though all good things must come to an end, the festival does not stop when the music does, with the pub-like structure on site hosting Electric Swing and DJs Madame Barducci and the fierce Rumpsteppers, plus still serving drinks until the beginning of the sunrise at 5am.
Skull Ridge, Leefest
Honestly, there aren’t even enough words to truly describe how beautiful this little festival is. I don’t know what I was expecting but whatever it was, was truly blown out of the water.
Fire Dancing Pirates, Leefest
Wondersands at the Mermaid's Lodge
All photos supplied by official Leefest Photographers