Leeds Festival: Billie Eilish brings Barbie to life during cathartic headline set

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By Paul Glynn
Entertainment reporter at Leeds Festival

Billie Eilish brought Barbie to life at Leeds Festival on Friday, performing her latest celluloid hit in the middle of a cathartic and career-spanning set.

It saw her become the event’s youngest solo headliner, surpassing London rapper Dave from last year.

At the age of 21, Eilish – who also has a hit Bond song under her belt – has now headlined both of the UK’s biggest festivals, following her headline slot at Glastonbury last year.

This latest set was one for the ages.

Backed by her brother and producer Finneas on keys and guitars, Eilish bursts out on stage in a baggy LA sports outfit and woolly hat combo, bouncing and bounding her way through the opening strains of Bury a Friend.

Cue screams. And then fire.

“You feel good England?” she asks with a smile. “Are you ready to have some fun?” Duh!

Since last performing here as a teenager four years ago, Eilish has gone on to pop megastardom and it shows. Swaggering, running and at-times sliding and humping down the runway, she conducts the adoring crowd at will.

A sea of camera phones capture her performing one of her earlier songs, I Don’t Wanna Be You Anymore.

Eilish has spoken recently about feeling most at home channelling what she says is her more powerful, masculine side and she clearly revels in the role on her darker, more upbeat and playful material from her 2019 debut album, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?

On a chilly Yorkshire summer evening, she leads fans in an early set warm-up exercise of sorts, that involves jumping around, stretching and screaming.

“I’m giving you permission right now to lose your minds,” she commands, before playing You Should See Me in a Crown.

But it’s often the softer, slower songs, some of which cribbed from her more reflective and introspective follow-up album Happier Than Ever, that show her in a different, more vulnerable light, and also truly show off her deep vocal range.

Billie Eilish has two UK number one albums and two number one singles

The keyboard introduction to What Was I Made For?, taken from the recent soundtrack to the Barbie movie, draws gasps and “awes” from around the field. As well as being a new fans’ favourite, it’s a song that Eilish recently admitted to interviewer Zane Lowe had helped her and her brother out of a creative slump.

The star was able to briefly break away from the emotion of what was a powerful moment to mimic a TikiTok meme – of some women singing the song too loudly – before bursting into laughter and composing herself once again for a tender finish. It’s her all over; the joker and the queen of hearts, all wrapped into one.

Flipping effortlessly back into full party mode she then urges the crowd to get low, all the way to the floor, then back up for a dance.

Settling down to join her brother on guitar for a quieter acoustic segment, she introduces him as “my best friend in the world”.

“We write everything together and I hope we get to do that forever because it’s wonderful,” she says. “I love you dude.” “I love you guys too,” she adds, not forgetting their adoring onlookers, before playing a poignant version of Your Power, a song about older men who abuse their position.

Another very early career track, Bellache, follows, and she tells the audience to light their phones up. Being the headliner these days – usually a night-time slot – she can no longer see their faces, she notes.

Having swapped into a cap bearing the words: “I love being me it [angers] all the right people”, the star asks if anyone had been at her last Leeds show, drawing more loud cheers. “Can you believe what my life turned into, because I can’t,” shrugs the now-Brit, Grammy and Oscar-winner.

Prodigious musical talents aside, Eilish’s appeal lies also in her progressive attitudes around modern issues and identity.

An impromptu meditation session is called for, as she tells fans to now put down their phones and look around and check in on their concert neighbours. “I want us to be really grateful of what we have,” she says, before shifting the focus back on the fans whose adoration has helped her to to the top at warp speed.

“I’m so grateful for you.”

Following faultless renditions of When the Party is Over, and All the Good Girls Go To Hell, Eilish – who will bring her climate change show to London on Wednesday – finishes with a final thought. She tells fans “we all need to do a much better job of protecting our world”, starting with each other.

“I hope you feel comfortable to be yourself here tonight.”

After performing Everything I Wanted, she thanks almost everyone in the entire field, before sending them all off into the night with the knock-out, one-two punch of Bad Guy – her signature, heavy breathing, first US number one – and Happier than Ever. Two songs that perfectly showcase the singer’s inner devil and angel.

Having collected so many musical accolades before her 22nd birthday, it’s exciting to see where she will go next.

Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons

Before Billie, second headliners, Las Vegas rock band Imagine Dragons made an explosive impression firing out paper into the crowd while belting out their hit Believer, Spotify’s ninth most-streamed song ever.

There were slight groans when frontman Dan Reynolds committed the age old Northern sin of announcing it was great to be back at Reading, Leeds’ sister festival, where they’ll play on Sunday.

But he soon won the crowd back, first by referencing the city he was actually in, before removing his shirt to bare his stacked torso and then dedicating another singalong for Thunder to a young girl in the crowd. All was forgiven.

Before that Steve Lacy, who may have seen in/on The Internet, brought his California neo-soul vibes as the sun set in a “magical” way, as he noted, over the main stage east.

Earlier Becky Hill drew scores of people over for an old school rave with added strings, while almost everyone else headed over to see singer-songwriter Tom Odell pack out the Festival Republic tent with only a few days’ notice.

Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama saw her profile rocket this summer, thanks to appearing alongside Sir Elton John at Glastonbury (in the Kiki Dee role).

She provided the first big call-and-response crowd singalong of the weekend, earlier on Friday afternoon, on her track This Hell.

After declaring she was “a proud queer woman” she invited all of the “sinners” in the crowd to “revel in eternal damnation” with her.

Los Angeles Indie pop-rockers Muna got things going at Branham Park with a lunchtime performance of their track Silk Chiffon, which features fellow US singer Phoebe Bridgers but alas, there was no surprise guest appearance.

Lead singer Katie Gavin urged fans to have safe sex and be careful with drugs.

The father of a teenager who died after taking drugs at last year’s event told the BBC the event was “on probation” this year, and the increased presence of sniffer dogs was noticeable on arrival.

The festival which, as always, kicks off the GCSE results celebrations/commiserations, remains a right of passage for teenagers across the country – it’s southern leg at Reading also got under way on Friday.

Rapper TS Lagga marked the occasion by opening his results live on the BBC Introducing Stage.

Leeds Festival continues tomorrow with performances from Sam Fender, Loyle Carner, Wet Leg and Foals.

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