The portents weren’t good for Parklife on Saturday. First, headliner Cardi B cancelled, due to recovering from plastic surgery. Then it was raining, threatening to leave the site muddier than Morrissey’s name.
But the festival’s hardened hedonists aren’t going to let a little thing like the weather stop them from joyously taking off their tops, dousing themselves in body glitter and going berserk to a pop-temperature-taking line-up that sees the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and Dave collide with newly-promoted headliner Mark Ronson. Throughout the day, references are made to Cardi B’s absence – Loyle Carner dedicates ‘Loose Ends’ to her; Ronson drops ‘Bodak Yellow’ and a limping Dave, recovering from a torn ligament, ominously claims he wouldn’t cancel, insisting “I’d do this show on crutches if I had to.”
Saturday June 8 is also the Queen’s official birthday. And what better way to celebrate than in the raucous company of Slowthai, who, on the eponymous title track of his debut album ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ calls her a cunt?
Live, he proves just as funny and ferocious as his music. In a heaving Sounds of the Near Future tent, the politically-charged rapper is inciting call and responses of “Fuck Theresa May!” and verbally milkshaking a Britain fractured by Brexit and populism.
Alongside producer and hype-man Kwes Darko, he prowls the stage’s catwalk like he means business and comes out swinging, transforming the crowd into a swirling cauldron of flailing limbs during ‘Doorman’ – his punk-rap collaboration with Mura Masa. “I want to see a moshpit here!” he demands as the audience duly oblige. “Bigger than that! I want fucking chaos!” “Why are you looking so scared?”, he asks one quivering punter, who’s surveying the unfolding carnage. “It’s only fun!”
He’s a magnetic presence, stripping down to his boxers like Magic Mike: State Of The Nation Edition, and tossing his socks into the throng (which surely beats getting a souvenir setlist or plectrum) before the blistering ‘IDGAF’ which sounds huge beefed up with a booming sub-bass. He gets the crowd to chant “Happy Birthday Betty!” (no, not dedicated to old Elizabeth 2 – instead, it’s his girlfriend, who he later brings onstage), before an incendiary ‘GTFOMF’ and ‘Why You Wet”, which as he notes, “is very fitting seeing as it’s raining outside”, and scales the lighting rig.
A fan is hauled onstage to fill in for Skepta’s bars on ‘Inglorious’, leaping into the sweat-sodden fray, before Slowthai signs off with his breakthrough single ‘T N Biscuits’. It’s better than Trooping the Colour – someone give the man an MBE.
Over in the Blade Runner city-inspired Valley stage, rap royalty Nas attracts a sparse crowd. It’s hard to tell whether that’s because of an audience actively voting with their feet given brutal allegations of domestic violence by his ex-wife Kelis or simply due to scheduling clashes with other stages As his game-changing album ‘Illmatic’ turns 25 this year, he underlines its influence by dropping cuts like ‘NY State of Mind’, ‘Life’s a Bitch’ and ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, and whips up a party-atmosphere by mixing Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ with his own version ‘Street Dreams’. Last year’s team-up with Kanye (Nasir is one of the few hip-hop artists that Yeezy doffs his MAGA cap to) ‘Cops Shot The Kid’, elicits a strong reaction, and shows he’s not stuck in a heritage cul-de-sac.
“Is there anyone in the crowd who’s ever possessed a cassette tape?” he asks towards the end of his hour-set. Considering the Generation Z audience, he might as well enquire: “Hey, anyone ever owned a penny-fathering?”. He proceeds to explain how in 1992, he put out his ‘Halftime’ tape and ‘pressed play on the motherfucker like this’; as DJ Green Lantern drops the beat on cue.
Back at the Sounds of the Near Future stage, Loyle Carner is perplexed by the walkway that is in place for Christine and the Queens’ set. “What the fuck is happening with this stupid catwalk thing?” he laughs. “What? Am I Miley?”. He then launches into ‘Angel’, his collaboration with schmaltzcore’s Tom Misch. With a set of laid-back nostalgic grooves taken from his two albums (his 2017 Mercury-nominated debut ‘Yesterday’s Gone‘ and this year’s ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, he’s an open-hearted antidote to toxic masculinity.
As he clutches his late stepfather’s Eric Cantona shirt (which he takes everywhere he performs), it’s clear playing Manchester holds extra meaning for him. Songs about loving his mother like ‘Dear Jean’ (“My mum’s an absolute G!” he exclaims – which should earn him a place designing Hallmark’s Mother’s Day range) and fantasising about a sister he never had are big on sincerity and sentimentality, but Loyle’s charisma prevent them from cloying. “I just want to be his friend” remarks one audience member afterwards; echoing the smitten views of many.
On the Parklife stage, this week’s NME Big Read star Mark Ronson DJs his “sad bangers” in front of a broken heart. Opening with Miley Cyrus’ armour-plated ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ – sadly not featuring the woman herself or even Loyle Carner for that matter – he gamely tries to rise to his elevation to headliner. “Manchester, if you feel good tonight, make some noise! We’re going to get into some Late Night Feelings”, he implores, before dropping the Lykke Li collab of the same name, and later gives a rapturously -received shout-out to Amy Winehouse.
At the same time at Sounds of the Near Future, Chris(tine) and the Queens offers a slightly-scaled down version of her arena tour, replete with pyro, theatrical and inventive choreography from contemporary dance collective (La) Horde, and rising platforms.
The tent is dispiritingly empty when she takes to the stage with a dazzling opener, the funky ‘Comme si’ – coming on like the leader of the coolest gang around, like West Side Story meets Paris Is Burning. But then Héloïse Adelaide Letissier is used to turning apparent adversity into triumph: this is someone who, on the day of the referendum result in 2016, managed to wash away Glastonbury’s Brexit blues. “This show is extra special because I can actually see your faces,” she enthuses. She’s right. As rainbow flags fly, it offers a thrillingly rare feeling of seeing a stadium spectacle in a crowd that feels like a house party for outsiders.
“You can call me Chris now,” she says, referring to the alter-ego she’s adopted for the 2018 album of the same name. “We don’t have time for ‘-tine and the Queens. These are urgent times!”. She’s equally at home breathlessly dancing through Fitbit-busting moves to the likes of ‘Tilted’ (“About that delicious moment of seizing the apology”, she says) and the Janet Jackson-referencing ‘Damn (‘What Must a Woman Do)’ as she is purging emotionally, illuminated by a single spotlight, on the ballad ‘St Claude’. Stripped down to her bra, she flexes her back muscles to Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 on It’; a heartening moment of someone reveling in discovering their own physicality.
“You guys just make me want to be naked and vulnerable,” she says, marshaling a spine-tingling acoustic sing-a-long of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. With a theme of reinvention and songs about not fitting into prescribed gender roles – or “Fuck the norm!”, as she more succinctly puts it towards the end – she’s part of a lineage of palliative pop that offers a road-map to a better life. In a world where queer people feel increasingly under assault – and coming amid the aftershock of the attack of a woman and her girlfriend on a bus in London – Chris’s small show provides a life-affirming safe-space where those on the margins feel like winners. Pop music, as she says, can offer a route to being braver. “At one point, I was facing Cardi B. I was really afraid!”, she says, claiming she thought nobody would turn up.
But those in attendance were left in no doubt that it should have been Chris heading the main stage, as she capped off a triumphant Parklife day one.