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  • Writer's pictureLeon Riccio

REVIEW: Self Esteem headlines Bristol Sounds 2023

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Self Esteem.

Self Esteem, Anna Calvi, Lynks, and Divorce played Bristol Sounds 2023 on Sunday, bringing the five-day festival to an explosive conclusion over the past weekend.

At first I thought there was something curiously cynical about a festival taking place in an amphitheatre funded and constructed by a bank, however the setting (perched between a shopping mall and an industrial harbour) felt like a microcosm for the city itself - bursting with creativity, despite the gnarly backdrop.

I arrived at the site shortly after 3pm in anticipation for the festival gates to open, with a mysterious ‘to be confirmed’ slot expected to take stage around 4pm.

As 4.20pm rolls around and both stage and arena remain barren, it becomes apparent that the festival organisers failed to book anyone to cover the slot in time. Whoops. Thankfully enough the gates open shortly after, and the first few dozens of the expected three-and-a-half thousand ticket holders roll through.

While Saturday’s line-up had the 30+ category in mind, Sunday’s bill was far trendier, with country-infused indie band Divorce opening, followed by Lynks and their self-described “drag monster” stage theatrics, followed by Peaky Blinders composer and all-round rockstar Anna Calvi, and one-woman pop powerhouse Self Esteem drawing a close to the long weekend.

Divorce - the alt-country four-piece from Nottingham - piled on to the stage at around 5pm, playing a series of saccharine indie-pop tunes like “Checking Out,” “Services,” and “Birds.” Their introspective, melodic guitar and country-twinged harmonic singing quickly warmed the crowd into the rest of the day.
As I returned from the photography pit to the back of the crowd, I saw none other than Bristol legend Big Jeff, sitting in a camping chair atop a flight of stairs, directly above the crowd and in-front of the audience. His usual jovial manner, as well as his perfect viewing spot, made him look a bit like a benign king from an old play. As many of us gig-goers know, if the gig has Jeff’s blessing, it’ll be a show you can’t miss.

If Divorce was a gentle introduction into the day’s performances, self-professed “merchant of pure gay chaos” Lynks (himself a Bristolian) was not taking any prisoners, appearing on stage in black-and-red leather bondage gear alongside three dancers and launching into a flurry of perfectly choreographed dance-pop bangers.

The queer-themed tracks - including “Silly Boy,” “Str8 Acting,” and “Hey Joe” - were underpinned by expertly-executed stage antics, from suggestively reviving a ‘dead’ male backup dancer to having the stage ensemble swap printed images of cooking instructions in-sync with the comically over-sexualised recipe on “How to Make Bechamel Sauce in 10 Steps (With Pictures)”.

“I was at Glastonbury six hours ago, I didn’t think this would go well!” Lynks - real name Elliott Brett - told the crowd, adding: “It’s Glastonbury this weekend, does anyone feel FOMO?

“I’m telling you now, you're not missing out.” Big applause. By the end of the set I started to believe him.

Rolling on into to the early evening, Anna Calvi took to the stage, her distressed-sunburst Fender Telecaster rigged up for maximum impact, as she played virtuosic levels of prog-rock shredding, each ambient lick wrapping around the bass notes and partnered with operatic singing.

A setlist including “Don’t Beat The Girl out of My Boy”, “Hunter,” and “Wish” contained everything you would want from the Mercury-Prize nominee - beefy riffs, razor-sharp solos, big percussion, and electrifying contralto vocals reaching octaves I didn't know were possible.
Anna Calvi.

The visuals alone - blood red backdrop, Calvi dressed in all black, sunglasses, thick hair blowing in the wind, arching back to let each note come to life - were iconic. Speaking very little between each song, the Peaky Blinders composer’s performance really did all the talking.

It became pretty apparent after Calvi’s show ended that no-one wanted to miss out on the night’s headliner, as very few people dispersed between the end of Calvi’s set and the start of Self Esteem, despite the hour-long intermission.

Self Esteem, real name Rebecca Lucy Taylor, trailed behind her three support singers/dancers as they ran on stage, ‘PRIORITISE PLEASURE’ written boldly over and over on the screen behind them. She took to the marble platform at the centre of the stage, donning an oversized grey power suit, her blonde hair slicked back.

Cue “Prioritise Pleasure”, “I Do This All The Time,” and “How Can I Help You.” Before you know it, the stage ensemble is stripping from the grey into cherry-red one-piece garments. The lights go red, the background text changes to “I Recommend Listening,” and a previously-unreleased empowering dance-track “I Am Not Your Mother” spurs into life.

Self Esteem.

As expected by long-standing fans, the choreography, unrelenting beats, and the punchy, direct lyrics all conveyed a palpable sense of unity with all those out there who have genuinely had enough of men’s bullshit. Needless to say, the DIY-pop powerhouse performed with flawless execution, and the crowd ate up every second of it.

Once again changing outfits and returning to the stage, this time in a black power suit and picking up a white Fender Jazz guitar, a solitary stage light beamed down on her. Taylor slowed the pace of the gig with a steady rendition of “John Elton.” Hundreds of fans listening fall eerily silent as she finger-picks the guitar in an unflinchingly intimate moment, in a stark contrast to everything leading up until now.

Soon enough, the power-pop plays on. A series of excited shrieks, all in unison, singing back her own lyrics confirm just how much her work resonates. In the encore, an audio-byte describes a woman and her friends barking at men approaching them and stating “there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged.”

Self Esteem.

The sentiment is once again written in block capitals, in black and white, in the background. Taylor and her trope then bark madly, in a huge symbolic act of female solidarity that everyone in the audience - gender aside - could understand.

“I will never forget this, thank you,” Taylor tells the crowd, before playing “Still Reigning” and leaving the stage as Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life” plays on every monitor. Taylor positively owns the day, with a performance that outshines all expectations. Despite it being a sunday night, the festival ended with a definitive bang.

This article was originally written for and published by Freestyle Bristol.

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