Slam Dunk has come around quicker than ever this year. The delays last time mean it’s only been nine months since Leeds and Hatfield got a serving of all that is alternative, pop-punk and hardcore. Despite this edition of the festival going back by a week to line up with the Jubilee weekend (it’s what The Queen would have wanted), it feels like Slammy D was back on track.
With only a few months between both ‘Dunks, you might think only the bands would be different this time out – well, yes and no. Temple Newsam, home of day one in Leeds, is still a bastard made of hills, while Hatfield Park remains a luscious open space fit for any festival. Within those sites though, the layouts have been re-jigged. The side-by-side stages that meant the party never stopped in previous years are gone, and what’s usually the punk/ska Punk in Drublic stage of the last few years is now front and centre for Sum 41 to headline. Pop-punk lovers are hidden away in a big top while the hardcore crowd gets sunburned outside, which definitely feels the wrong way around.
There are no compromises when it comes to the line-up, though. Sum 41 headline the Main Stage (main by name, not by nature – it’s tiny), while Neck Deep and Alexisonfire stand shoulder to shoulder on the billing, each delivering sets worthy of topping such an impressive roster of bands. Elsewhere, the line-up has made more steps towards diversity. Where the festival late last summer was spent wondering if it was really safe yet, this time around, it feels as good as ever to be in a sea of elbows, knees and armpits, beer-soaked and sun-kissed as whatever band kicked up another gear. It feels like the good times are back at Slam Dunk.
Sad girl summer arrives in style as Cassyette kicks things off on the Jagermeister Stage. The singer demands B.P.E (Big Pit Energy) and the fresh-faced crowd duly oblige. With a hot streak of her own singles to work with, Cassyette’s half-hour set is all killer with the brand new ‘Dead Roses’ and the summer anthem ‘Sad Girl Summer’ slotting in comfortably next to ‘Dear Goth’, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘Prison Pocket’. The stage at times feels a bit too big for the singer, but helping open Slam Dunk feels like another huge checkpoint on Cassyette’s way to the very top.
If ever in doubt, a medley of pop-punk tunes will do the trick, and that’s exactly what Meet Me @ The Altar deliver. Sounding great with huge breakdowns, when they cover Jimmy Eat World, New Found Glory, Lit and Limp Bizkit in a quick-fire burst, they have the crowd in the palm of their hand.
If playing a show was like going into battle, then this is a huge victory for Pinkshift. On their first visit to the UK, they manage to turn the Key Club Stage into a tiny punk show. Showing off their one EP ‘Saccharine’ and their brand new tune ‘nothing (in my head)’, they also air some unreleased tracks which all hold the same punchy, feisty feeling as confirmation that the sky is the limit for this band.
The rise and rise of Hot Milk continues with a standout performance. Blazing a trail across the stage like a pair of fireworks, the Manc band bring all the energy and alt-pop hits to back themselves up. The plan is to “show them how we do it in the north”, and with an opening like ‘I JUST WANNA KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I’M DEAD’, there’s a chance they might have been heard down in Hatfield. With some certainty, Hot Milk aren’t future rock stars anymore; they’re already there.
The Bats let fly as they bring their new era under the harsh spotlight of the afternoon sunshine. Backed by their outstanding new album ‘Psychic Jailbreak’, Cancer Bats balance their set with a couple of new tunes and some of their grittiest hits like ‘Hail Destroyer’ and ‘Gatekeeper’. With KT Lamond and Stevis Harrison joining on guitars, the future of Cancer Bats looks bright, and, as Alexis singer George Pettit join for ‘Pneumonia Hawk’, it seems their legacy remains intact too.
They’re going to need a bigger stage for the next time Magnolia Park come to Slam Dunk. The six of them tear up the tiny Key Club stage with a powerful performance. With their new EP just a week away, they open with the feel-good tune ‘Feel Something’ for which they’ve enlisted pop-punk royalty in Derek Sanders on the recorded version. Brimming with confidence, the pull off a ballsy cover of ‘Sugar We’re Going Down’, attracting people straight from out on the grass and front and centre.
Bouncing all over the place in the North, then refined and reset a day later, Knuckle Puck have some fun at the “best fucking festival in the entire world”. Unusually, it would seem Knuckle Puck’s idea of “fun” is some crushing emo heartbreakers, but it works as a few hundred people come together to lift songs ‘Want Me Around’ and ‘Untitled’ to a level where they’re totally devastating anymore.
Temporarily on ice at the beginning due to some technical issues, Hot Mulligan play on undeterred, surrounded by guys with leads and crew in hi-vis vests. In their first visit to the festival, their wholesome good vibes are warmly received as they play a flurry of songs, old and new. After promising there’s a new album coming soon, Hot Mully are drowned out by the crowd as they close on ‘BCKYRD’, proving that there is still room for emo kids singing sad songs at summer festivals.
A real standout moment at this year’s festival, KennyHoopla is a little late on, but he comes, sees and conquers. Like Mentos in a Coke bottle, the singer fizzes and spins around the stage, moving so quick he even jumps the gun on the lightning-fast intro to ‘Hollywood Sucks’. Going solo on ‘how will i rest in peace i’m buried by a highway?’, the singer does get a chance to show some restraint in amongst the boundless energy he brings to most of his set.
Picking up from where Hot Mulligan leave things, Mom Jeans continue the Midwest emo vibes in the lazy, hazy, late afternoon. They come in search of the “legendary circle pits”, and the crowd muster a few pockets of chaos as they blast through new tunes from their latest album ‘Sweet Tooth’.
Playing the longest sets in Slam Dunk history, The Wonder Years step in the vacant slot left by Motion City Soundtrack’s absense to play both ‘The Upsides’ and ‘Suburbia…’ in full on both days. “I didn’t think we’d be around to celebrate the first birthday of ‘The Upsides’,” admits Soupy in Leeds, but with the crowd singing every word, the continued importance of these albums could not be more evident. Slammy and The Wonder Years go hand in hand, both growing exponentially and always championing the next wave that follows closely behind; it’s only fitting to celebrate such seminal records in this setting. As if to rubber-stamp their set going down in Slam Dunk history, the band are joined by members of Neck Deep, Trash Boat, Hot Mulligan, Pinkshift, Mom Jeans, and more, highlighting the role those albums had in shaping the bands we have now.
Beartooth run up a huge gas bill with an incendiary show full of as many flames, smoke, bangs and whistles as possible. Six months sober and in fine form, Caleb Shomo leads the charge for an audition of future festival headliners. Whether it’s new numbers like ‘Devastation’ and ‘Dominate’ from their latest album or throwbacks to ‘In Between’ or ‘Aggressive’, it’s a performance that rarely lets up.
With the tropical weather and trees hugging the back of the stage, the Jurassic Park theme tune is perfectly placed as the Aussie quartet stumble out on stage. There are no dinosaurs to be found, but instead plenty of fresh new tunes from their month-old new album ‘f.e.a.r’. New numbers ‘pity party’ and ‘deathwish’ sit comfortably alongside old favourites ‘Lavender Bones’ and ‘Lost My Cool’. And, judging by the one solo shoe flying overhead, it’s clear the crowd are loving it. “If you don’t lose a shoe, you’re not pitting hard enough,” encourages Bonnie Fraser.
From competition winners to stage headliners in nine short years, Neck Deep seize the opportunity with both hands. From the comfort of their onstage bedroom, they seem right at home as they kick off with brand new single ‘STFU’. Marking their tenth anniversary as a band and first new single as independent again, it’s clear Neck Deep’s ambitions are still set on world domination, but this set is all about looking back. Genuinely humbled and grateful, Ben Barlow repeatedly thanks those who helped get Neck Deep to this stage as they throw back with some really old cuts like ‘What Did You Expect?’ and ‘Over and Over’. Promising some small, no barrier shows to come later in the year, Neck Deep show they’ve got all the bases covered, whether it’s playing a headline festival slot, sweaty bar gig, a two-minute punk song at breakneck speed or some cheesy love song. “We’ll get you with a love song, and then we’ll make you fucking two-step,” jokes the singer as they chop and change from ‘A Part of Me’ to ‘Can’t Kick Up The Roots’. It won’t be long before they’re headlining the whole festival, and no one will begrudge them that.
No band can do it like Alexisonfire. Walking out to the soundtrack of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, leather vests, overalls and double denim, then exploding into ‘Drunk, Lovers, Sinners and Saints’ with pinpoint precision is the sort of opening only Alexis could make. When, drowned in purple light, they perform Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’, you realise how utterly ridiculous this band is – in a good way, of course. Between those moments, they wax and wane through expansive instrumental moments and intense flashes like in ‘Dog’s Blood’ or ‘.44 Caliber Love Letter’. It’s a special headline slot on the Jagermeister Stage; one that will live long in the memory.
Some killer. Some filler. But with the Devil as their backdrop, blood dripping amps and flames galore, Sum 41 bring one hell of a show to close out Slam Dunk. Topping a bill that celebrated a lot of the emerging new wave of bands, it’s fitting to finish on a pioneer of the pop-punk boom. That said, the super-fast turbo-charged cover of “one of the best British rock songs ever written” in Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ is criminal. “Thank you for putting up with all our stupid bullshit tonight,” Deryck Whibley adds afterwards. Despite this, ‘In Too Deep’ and ‘Fat Lip’ remain undisputed classics of the genre and send the crowd into a frenzy from the very first note. Closing out the day on ‘Still Waiting’, it serves as a reminder to the new generation that sometimes you just need a simple hook and lots of heart to go make something special.
Having only played two shows since 2019, Deaf Havana are thrown straight in the deep end with a late headline slot on the Rock Sound Stage. With brothers James and Matt Veck-Gilodi the only remaining members since the last album and three new musicians as part of their live set-up, it feels like a band still figuring their dynamic out. It’s a blessing to still have Deaf Havana, in any form, still around, and the crowd warmly celebrate three new tracks from their upcoming album, ‘The Present Is a Foreign Land’. Moving forward and feeling their way into a half-hour set, moments like ‘Caro Padre’ still hit as hard as ever as James shows that while every other part of Deaf Havana can change, his voice still remains as devastating as ever.