Your City Festival 2023 – reflecting on a weekend of diversity, passion and homegrown musical talent

The late May bank Holiday weekend saw hundreds of music lovers flock to Hanley for two jam-packed days of emerging artists and home grown talent. Your City Festival, now in its sixth year, took over four city centre grassroots venues for near-17 hours of non-stop talent.

More than 60 acts performed on stages at The Underground, The Sugarmill, The Werkroom and The Backyard, including singers and performers from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire and Cheshire, as well as out of town independent outfits bringing their diverse sounds to the city.

Kicking it all off in The Backyard, where it would all come to a cyclic end the following evening, was Tom Price, performing a range of Best of British indie covers from the likes of Oasis, The Cure, Joy Division and Arctic Monkeys, which got the early starters singing along and geared up for what would be an extremely busy weekend. 

Tom Price

Bass Baby

Spirits high, you could hear the sound of the outdoor venue stretching past Piccadilly and along Marsh Street, until you came to The Sugarmill, where Bass Baby were warming up a new crowd with the best version of Bruno Mars’ Locked Out Of Heaven I’ve come across. Many of the opening acts across both days were students from the nearby Newcastle College, who are mentored by Stoke’s own Lissy Taylor, and Bass Baby were no different. Hailing from Milton, the band is fronted by 17-year-old Tharine, who added attitude to tracks like Blondie’s Call Me, as well as performing an original track called Saviour.

Then it was on to Foul Play at The Underground – the venue which would play host to much of the heavier genres for the weekend – who were setting the bar for acts to follow with energy and volume in equal measure.

Foul Play

Borogoves

Unsuspecting attendees of The Sugarmill were inducted into The Collective as The Borogoves recruited more fans through enchanting harmonies, ritualistic drums and dark mystique, ‘leading them to the truth’ in tracks like Until You and Older, as teen singer Jonah Shaw, from Nantwich, impressed at The Werkroom with a 12-string guitar, belting out tracks that were, ironically, on the clubnight playlist back when the venue was The Exchange, such as The Strokes’ Last Nite and Dakota, by Stereophonics.

Jonah Shaw

South Arcade

Up all the way from Oxford, South Arcade complimented the lineup incredibly well. Frontwoman Harmony Cavell is a powerhouse of a frontwoman, with the band blending 90s Bloc Party style distorted basslines with captivating hooks and phenomenal vocals reminiscent of our own Pale Waves. Their cover of I Kissed a Girl was wonderful, but their original tracks like Danger really showcase their nu metal sound.

It was back over to the brightly-painted Backyard where the cocktails and Hooch cans were flowing amid the disco balls and palm trees for Riverstone. Fans were even sporting a custom jacket down on the dancefloor, where people were beginning to loosen up and get into the Bank Holiday swing before Ecko – a Scottish band sporting varying styles and colours of Adidas Originals trainers performing a glut of working-class indie to get you in the festival mood.

Riverstone

Ecko

The Crystal Teardrop brought the sound of the sixties to The Sugarmill, making their debut in the city with all the sass and psychedelic vibes that would be expected from our Beatles-obsessed frontwoman Alexandra Mason, who’s a total pocket rocket on stage. Their kaleidoscope of a set was mesmerising to watch, featuring their very popular single Nine Times Nine. With the outfits, the look and the sound – they’re an all encompassing music project and their passion for the era is abundantly clear.

The Crystal Teardrop

Yoodoo Voodoo

Down in the basement of The Werkroom, Yoodoo Voodoo were keeping things fresh and funky with their blend of indie, pop and ska sensibilities. Frontwoman Poppy danced around the stage to tracks like Spooks, Echo Chamber and Two Left Feet, her energy as infectious as their melodies while Scott, Bocko and Dave brought the riffs, beats and bass to the party.

The night still young, Queen Cult – a trio from Macclesfield, who happen to be one of the most exciting and immersive rock bands emerging out of Cheshire – opened with Woman That I Know, heading straight into Beautiful Psycho. Although, my personal favourites were the cathartic and emotionally-penned It Matters To Me, followed by Lollipop – both from their latest EP, For Now, Not Forever.

Queen Cult

Meanwhile, Marseille – not to be confused with the heavy metal band Art Attack’s Neil Buchanan was in back in the 70s – performed at The Backyard. The five Derby boys have a sunny psychedelic sound that pairs perfectly with a cold pint, which many in attendance dutifully enjoyed as the sun beamed down on Stoke-on-Trent.

With no time to be wasted, it was back over to The Werkroom to catch a couple of songs by The Intervention, a three-piece alt rock band who have been doing some serious grafting in recent months on the circuit, while 2X4 took on The Underground with a raucous combination of metal/rap/hardcore/beatdown that had the floor bouncing. One of the things so great about Your City is that it really champions diversity and brings real variety to the city, showcasing the different sub-scenes in Stoke-on-Trent that people would perhaps not know about otherwise, and brings them together to form a real sense of community and strength. 

The Intervention

Slowing things down a little in The Backyard was Casino, a band of Scouse pop-rockers drenched in soulful bluesy sounds, before day one was wrapped up by Formal Sppeedwear at The Werkroom. The three-piece post-punk artistes push the boundaries of synth pop and art rock, which recently landed them a signing with Melodic Records, and is something that bleeds into their live performances and on-stage look, too. They’re curating something weirdly wonderful and artistic, and have gained a loyal following in doing so, too.

Sunday saw an even faster pace than the previous day, once again beginning in The Backyard with young rappers Pale Red performing a 20 minute live set, laying down live beats and spitting verses. There’s a real on stage chemistry between the lads who are clearly like blood brothers, and once again brought a totally new genre to the festival. They were followed by LFE, who is a lyrical mastermind and quite literally didn’t miss a beat as he used his platform to rap about mental health and anxiety.

Pale Red

:FE

Newcastle College’s Barracuda performed a cover of Neil Young’s Hey Hey My My to The Sugarmill, before conclusing their short set with the first song they ever performed live together, Dark Imagination. The partnership between the college and Your City is really fantastic for the younger artists in the scene, providing them with a major platform to perform alongside some much bigger names who are breaking it in the industry.  This year, those students can say they performed alongside Calva Louise, Cassia, The Soap Girls and Casino – and who knows where they could be in 12 months’ time. The Lottery Winners were on the bill last year, and their album just made number one in the UK charts.

Morning’s Thief

The ethereal vocals of Morning’s Thief echoed through The Backyard from Last Train all the way through to Bug Song, but unlike his solo set at Lymelight Festival, George was joined by two more musicians on bass and backing vocals, bringing even more depth to his haunting sound. Following his rather gentle and delicate set, ticketholders were given musical whiplash with Eccie The Dog, who brought anti-establishment rhetoric and bad language in copious amounts, with faces painted like skeletons for added dramatics.

Eccie The Dog

Natasha Birks

On Sunday, The Wekroom had unofficially been dubbed the female-fronted stage, just so happening to host some of the scenes most brilliant powerhouse pop talent. Natasha Birks opened the Sunday stage, and I made it in time for her to play Cornelius by Taylor Swift, as she admitted the Era’s icon was one of the reasons she learned to play guitar, before going on to sing Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License, which complimented her vocal tone beautifully.

Swathes of screaming girls shuffled into The Sugarmill for The Crowns, who never fail to entertain with comedy, charm and a string of should-be chart singles. This quartet of loveable lads are both outrageously talented with catchy choruses and earworm riffs, but really put on a show, too, bringing fun and personality to the stage. Hopelessly Obssessed got the room dancing, and despite reaching the end of their set, didn’t disappoint when they threw in their much-loved cover of Dua Lipa’s Break My Heart, which also made an appearance at Lymelight and The Underground. I’m desperate to see what they decide to make their next unconventional cover.

The Crowns

Lucid Waters

Sporting Lee Barber dressed as Barbie on a t-shirt (see here for context) Josh Goodwin made his second appearance at the festival in his band Lucid Waters, after playing synth the previous day for Borogoves. It’s not very often you’d dub the drummer the frontman, too, and while Lucid Waters is very much an ‘ensemble’ band, Josh very much does the work of about three additional band members on drums, vocals and synth. Noisy, unpredictible and deep-rooted in chaos, Lucid Waters were a great fit for The Underground’s Sunday lineup.

Barnsley’s Bedroom High Club brought their new-wave indie rock soundtrack to The Sugarmill, with summer surfer feels akin to Two Door Cinema Club or Circa Waves, perhaps even Red Hot Chili Peppers, with sleaze-soaked guitars and gravelly vocals. This four-piece have already sold-out venues throughout the north of England, as well as appearing at Tramlines Festival, so with an EP out later this year, we can expect to see their name cropping up a lot more.

Bedroom High Club

Mara Liddle

Mara Liddle wore a pink summer co-ord while doused head-to-toe in glitter for her set at The Werkroom – not that I’d have expected anything less from our resident Princess of Pink – performing her dancey set of lo-fi hyperpop, including Facebook Official and Alone. It the third or fourth time I’ve seen Mara perform over the last few months and it’s been a joy to watch her on-stage confidence grow as she finds her feet on the live circuit as a solo artist.

Merrymaker Jack Tasker brightened The Backyard even further with sunshiney indie acoustic numbers from his hefty backcatalogue of solo singles, like Roger Deakin and El Gordo, as well as his work with TASKRZ (Litas) and Don’t Call Me Ishmael (Storm Emma), converting the usually 5-strong instrument tracks to acoustic guitar effortlessly while radiating positivity.

Heave

Down at The Underground, Heave were making an irresistible racket. The noise-punk quarted, fronted by Luke Mansfield, provided a masterclass in performance as they stomped about the stage, warming it up for Patio Gas, The Howlers and The Soap Girls throughout the evening.

While I headed to The Backyard, Captain’s Bar venue manager, Yoodoo Voodoo tech wizz and one half of Behind The Moon, Scott Evans caught Fleur Rouge’s set at The Werkroom. He said:”The Werkroom had been set up for a day of female fronted powerhouse pop and nothing personified that more than Manchester-based Fleur Rouge. Performing all the songs from her latest EP, What Makes U Thinl I Care?, the heavy bass driven electronic songs were delivered with her usual energetic performence, finishing with the incredibly catchy new single, Trust Fund Baby, which is out on June 16.”

Fleur Rouge – Scott Evans

In the meantime, I was listening to the raspy vocals of Walter Kocays on his acoustic guitar as he performed My Left Shoe and the soon-to-be-released Explicitly, I’m Told. The alternative-Folk singer-songwriter blends elements of traditional and contemporary folk, spoken word and acoustic music to create an immediately likeable listen inspired by the likes of Mike Skinner and Bon Iver. Having performed in Stoke-on-Trent for the best part of 10 years in various projects, such as Release, he’s a well respected and lovable local song man, his cheeky personality giving him the permission to poke friendly fun at Foxa Riot, who would later headline The Backyard.

Walter Kocays

Camens

Hooky choruses and storytelling lyrics marked the arrival of Camens, hot on the heels of two 2023 single releases, Jacket Weather and On The Walk From The Picturehouse. As one of Staffordshire’s seasoned guitar bands, they brought a wealth of no-holds-barred indie belters that were made for summer festivals just like this one to The Sugarmill.

Around the corner on Trinity Street at The Werkroom, Maddy Storm was an absolute firecracker in a 4’9″ frame. Empowering pop vocals with heaps of emotion and edge, Maddy’s voice soared as she put on a seriously strong performance in a pair of absolutely killer boots. She delivered a gorgeous ballad joking she’s ‘in her Adele era’, while talking up women in production, having produced all of her own music. She went on to further showcase her versatility as an artist with an almost unrecognisable cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which she made entirely her own.

Maddy Storm

Average Joe

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Average Joe are a band far from average. Perforrming in The Sugarmill’s penultimate slot, the band who burst onto the scene in 2018 with praise from Radio X, NME and Clash, are certainly one that make an impression. Frontman Joe Brennan-Hulme stood in a grey hooded robe and sunglasses, holding a staff like something from Lord of The Rings. The smell of insense burning circulated around the stage as he began to perform recently released singles like Silver Lake against a backgrop of tooting brass and religious connotations.

Having spent the day going to support her students, it was Lissy Taylor’s turn to take to the stage at The Werkwoom, after supporting The Lottery Winners in the city earlier this month, this time, with the backing of her band, too. Her sound is rooted in feminist pop rock with a fiery attitude and dainty vocals that draw influence from artists like HAIM and Phoebe Bridgers, particularly in tracks like Fierce. The indimate audience was even treated to two unreleased tracks, which I hope get to be released and heard by a wider audience soon.

Dark-pop duo Behind The Moon served a spellbinding set of spiritual trip-hop singles featuring hypnotic lead vocals from Hannah Sophie, with Scott Evans manipulating a backdrop of keys, guitar and programming in their deep and haunting signature style. Many of their tracks are penned around mental illness, such as Living on the Borderline, which is written about living with Borderline Personality Disorder. Hannah’s formiddable vocals are incredibly powerful, while Scott’s expertise behind the monitors brings real depth to their music.

Headlining The Werkroom was electro-pop singer/songwriter Darla Jade, complete with her live band, Jay Johnson, Danny Higgins and Jordan Wright. Darla is a bright and budding popstar with bags of potential to go the whole nine yards with her career. She has a distinct and well-branded look that supplements her alternative genre of fun 80s synth hooks and powerful pop vocals, her style somewhere between Ellie Goulding, Halsey and Gayle. The singer maintained a fast pace, delivering beautifully produced tracks like Pretty and her latest single, Buy More Time with real emotion and fire in her belly.

The festival would come to an explosive conclusion at The Backyard, where Bathtub supported headliner Foxa Riot. The noisemongers distribute a cacophony of chaos combining rambunctious drums with distorded bass through tracks like the newly released Gameplay, as well as old favourites Oiled Up and Fallin’ Thru. It’s easy to compare an alternative rock duo like Bathtub to bands like Royal Blood – only, after their behaviour at Radio 1’s big weekend, it would be an insult to compare Stoke’s Bathtub to the tantruming two-piece. Our lads win over every crowd they perform to, and have as much fun playing to an empty room as they do the 100+ people that had squeezed themselves into the Albion Street venue. Their approach is unrelenting and unapologetic, the pair of them alomost appearing possessed by their instruments as they play with otherworldly frenetic force.

And finally, wrapping up a weekend of passionate community, inclusion and wide ranging musical talent was Foxa Riot – the alias of producer and multi-instrumentalist, Rhys Oakes – who was joined on stage by his partner, Ruby, on bass as he navigated guitar, ukulele, synth, programming and vocals. As the last act of the whole fesitval, and sets having finished up around the city, everyone made their way over to the open-air venue to catch his set which took revellers to near-midnight on Sunday.

Upbeat and as vibrant as his usual orange attire, Foxa Riot built tracks brick by brick before our eyes, ramping up the tempo and getting everyone on a bank holiday boogie while masterfully manipulating beats and samples into fully formed tracks with precision and panache. While keeping the good vibes and energy flowing, Rhys managed to tug heartstrings in a tender moment with his sister as he brought her on stage to play tambourine for a track about their shared mental health struggles.

His sound transfers superbly from bedroom to Backyard, and hangs on sweet pop hooks and hopeful lyrics, which make for some contageous listening and the atmosphere as the festival wound down was immaculate. It was incredible to see Hanley so full of life and creativity over the whole weekend, with businesses benefitting from the additional footfall, and artists sharing their sound with likeminded performers and fans on what has grown to be a respected and exciting platform. It really felt like an honour and privilege to be part of for all involved, and I’m looking forward to see how next years event shapes up as the festival expands.


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