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  • Sahar Ghadirian

Rock N Roll Circus 2023: A Weekend of Pop Superstars, Rock Legends, and Circus Magic!

Rock N Roll Circus debuted in Sheffield at the start of September, providing lucky attendees with a successful weekend of pop, rock, and circus magic at Don Valley’s beloved Grass Bowl. It didn’t just bring three days of great music, food, and entertainment but brought plenty of sunshine on top!

The Don Valley site had a complete makeover, with a beautiful big circus tent pitched on the grass in all its red glory, and the Friday line-up was destined to be a great one with its indie legends on the Main Stage and its showcase of up-and-coming stars on the BBC Introducing Stage. Whether you were initially there to see Noel Gallagher, The Cribs, or Happy Mondays, it was easy to stumble upon a new obsession with acts like The Joy Formidable and Harri Larkin on the bill.

Just outside of the Main Arena, there was plenty to do. From a range of food vendors to keep you going through the transition from day to night, there was also a great selection of drink choices and water points to keep you hydrated, a kingdom of sweets, ice cream vans, and even a mini Henderson's Relish tent selling merch and giving out free crisps.

From the beginning of the event, it was clear how much work had gone into the festival's design, catering to a range of age groups and keeping everyone occupied. The Green Top Circus had fantastic entertainment for kids and adults alike. If you wanted to relive your childhood via a spinning plate or help your kids learn some fun and harmless circus activities while new music played by the Introducing Stage, you weren’t short of options.

Rock N Roll Circus reimagined recent events at Don Valley, offering a Glastonbury-like viewing point on the hill, with their very own “Rock N Roll Circus” sign towering above the festival for a scenic moment as the sun set and crowds bustled below.

Heading into the tent for a set of fan favourites by Wakefield’s very own The Cribs, the trio commented on how good it is to be up North and play in Sheffield again, referencing visiting Don Valley in the 90s to see iconic gigs. After all, the grounds have welcomed legendary acts like Tina Turner, Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and not to forget Arctic Monkeys! As their performance continued, tracks like “Running Into You,” “We Share the Same Skies,” and “Mirror Kissers” were full of the infectious and anthemic beats we know and love.

Between acts, the Main Arena transformed from a gig venue into a magical space thanks to the Circus Podium towards the back of the tent. Circus performers took to the stage to wow and shock the crowd, and it certainly made for a truly unique festival experience.

By the time Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds arrived, the Main Arena had filled with eager fans. When playing newer tracks like “Council Skies” or a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” the crowd was ready to sing as loud as they could. Standouts included a surprise performance of his classic “You Know We Can't Go Back,” “Dead in the Water,” “If I Had a Gun,” and (of course) a string of Oasis songs at the end, offering everyone the nostalgia and escapism they hoped for. From “Going Nowhere” to “Little By Little” and “Don't Look Back in Anger,” it seemed like everyone was satisfied with the rock legend and his stellar setlist decisions.

Saturday rolled around as quickly as you could put your 6 music dad cap on, with the highlight coming courtesy of Self Esteem. With the sun blaring, the morning promised a great day ahead with icons across the board from Arctic Numpties, Bimini, Natalie Imbruglia, Confidence Man, and Self Esteem. A day filled with musicians curated by Rebecca Lucy Taylor herself, what more could we ask for? Starting with the BBC Introducing Stage, artists like Gia Ford and Precious Pepala were exceptionally good, spearheading the local up-and-coming stars Sheffield has to offer. Gia Ford’s latest single, “Alligator,” was poignant and filled the dusk-filled air with its dark melodies and mesmerising vocals.

Back to the arena, Arctic Numpties were the first to bless the stage. Admired by Taylor, who joined them to sing “There’d Better Be a Mirrorball” back in March at her final O2 Academy hometown show, the tribute group warmed up the crowd perfectly, especially when the closer “Body Paint” played, you could have been fooled that the Monkeys themselves were there. Between interludes of the circus and podium acts came the iconic Bimini. Feel-good music and political messages intertwined, they performed tracks such as “On Pause” and “Don’t F*ck With My Groove,” forever charming the crowd.

To follow, Nathalie Imbruglia's hits “Shiver” and “Torn” were crowd-pleasers, but her newer music was equally as catchy as the arena was filling up. From Australian pop to Aussie indie electro hits, now was the time to carry on the groove. If there ever was a moment to dance, Confidence Man were the one to help anyone who needed a hand. From “On & On (Again)” to “Don't You Know I'm in a Band” and “C.O.O.L Party,” the energy was high and the crowd was lively. The euphoric and soaring rhythms had absolutely everyone ready for Self Esteem.

With all roads leading us to the final show of her Prioritise Pleasure era, Self Esteem delivered an unforgettable performance. Standing not far from where she grew up, lived, and worked, this headline slot felt fuelled by so many emotions, from those onstage and those witnessing her journey behind the barrier. There’s no other way to put it – Rebecca Lucy Taylor is a superstar made for the stage, and by that, we mean the biggest of stages. Her talent and presence are limitless as she strives for the best. Her brand of meaningful and empowering pop is just what people need right now.

With a sprinkle of lightheartedness and northern not taking yourself too seriously attitude, Taylor thrived onstage with her incredible team of dancers, backing singers, and musicians. A highlight of the weekend and the entirety of the festival season, Self Esteem performed a selection of tracks from her debut record and Prioritise Pleasure, with the addition of “Mother” and its dramatic and entrancing red lighting.

Standout songs included “Fucking Wizardry,” “Still Reigning,” "The Best," and “I’m Fine,” as Taylor’s gig embraced everything you could ever hope for (and more) – it was liberating and carefree. During “The 345” and “I Do This All The Time,” the show felt even more intimate. Each song felt healing as the crowd sang back word for word like a choir. Certain moments saw Taylor hug her live band and settle in at home on the stage. Self Esteem is truly a modern superstar who deserves her flowers as a best-selling headline artist, along with a well-earned break and all the success to come with her new ventures as she joins the cast of the West End’s production of Cabaret as Sally Bowles.

Rock N Roll Circus' innaugral Sheffield bow proved to be a fantastic and diverse weekend that fitted perfectly at Don Valley. Having a range of unique festivals in Sheffield is certainly what the city needs, with Rock N Roll Circus acting as one final summer party before we reluctantly hang our outdoor festival clothing up for another year. Luckily, we're being treated to a return next year with the festival promising even more homegrown talent and national icons from Friday 30th August to Sunday 1st September. Registration is open for priority access to early bird tickets and line up news when available here.


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