Hosting 80,000 rain-resistant punters each day, Parklife festival encapsulates the energy of Manchester as an enclave of rave. This year’s edition boasts one of the UK’s most ambitious lineups, mixing blockbuster international acts such as Burna Boy and Megan Thee Stallion with domestic talent in the form of Dave, the soulful sounds of Celeste, on-the-rise acts such as Shygirl and pop favourites Mabel. The lifeblood of the festival, aunque, is arguably dance music, with the BPM of stages including The Valley – which has excellent production values, modelled like a block of flats with a fake ad billboard for dystopian food gels declaring “food is boring” – or The Temple soaring throughout each of the two days for a baby-faced, happy crowd.
The prospect of being sandwiched between hordes of drug-enhanced teenagers could have been enough to trigger an existential crisis, but while even 27-year-olds could feel like fossils here, the bracing euphoria of Manchester’s premier music event returning after a year away is palpable. The nation watched as Andy Burnham passionately battled for more money as the city bore the brunt of the Covid-19 tier system; disgruntled Mancunians spent more of the last 18 months living under restrictions than London, prompting graffiti around the city declaring: “The North is not a petri dish.”
Parklife is therefore a cathartic release for a city’s youth who have been robbed of the chance to gather and revel in their thousands. Sartorially the festival is somewhere between a bucket hat convention and the “avant basic” aesthetic that now dominates Gen Z. And as an elated boy turned to me during Bicep’s set to hoarsely tell me “I feel so happy even though I sound like Shrek”, in between sniffs from an emptying baggy, I was clearly witnessing a delayed rite of passage.
Saturday gifted the crowd with sunny spells and pleasant temperatures as Burna Boy’s Afro-fusion sound lifted spirits further. The self-styled African Giant performed in a Manchester United shirt and even brought out Paul Pogba, who was surely still knackered from the 4-1 win against Newcastle a few hours earlier. Megan Thee Stallion wowed crowds with thot-friendly hits such as WAP; phones lit up to capture footage as her twerking bum cheeks troubled the Richter scale. An emotional Dave closed the day by charming the Parklife stage crowd, declaring that it was the only festival he would play this year because of the dedication Mancunians show him via streaming. Said fans are treated to a Stormzy cameo as the pair rap Clash and hug each other jubilantly.
Sunday was cursed by semi-apocalyptic weather, and with no indoor music tents or covered stages (presumably due to pandemic fears) attendees were showered for a large part of the afternoon. When the skies open, the only thing that saves you is good music, or getting so wasted that you’re unfazed by the elements, and this crowd eagerly indulged in both. With dreads towering above her head, Little Simz looks like she is stepping into her power. She gave a rousing performance of tracks from her near-perfect album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, and confidently breezed through the rapid-fire verses of Venom before bringing out guest star Ghetts.
Bicep bench-pressed the crowd’s mood with a buoyant set and dazzling light show for Shrek et al, and the pounding beats of Eats Everything and Disclosure meant that the crowds didn’t lose their energy even as their alcopop money ran low. Skepta, clad in a bandolier reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl outfit, finally shut down the festival with a flurry of his greatest hits. He jumped excitedly – almost Gangnam style – to his mocking lines “ring, ring pussy / it’s your mummy on the phone”, and brought out his brother JME for BBK classic That’s Not Me, proving both firebrands retain the screwface-inducing flows and stamina they have always possessed.
A new generation of Mancs are clearly maturing, however unevenly, and accepting a civic mantle: to preserve reverence for rave culture come rain or shine. Despite acts including Young Thug and Raye dropping out, challenges with the weather, and the logistical nightmare of getting away from this year’s event, Parklife was a return to what makes Manchester such a spirited cultural force.