Elbow and Muse weather the storm at Leeds festival 2011

Torrential rain sends the crowd heading for shelter in the tents – and not always towards the best music. Luckily, Elbow and Muse aren't afraid of a bit of rain ...

Torrential rain since Thursday has left "beautiful Bramham Park" looking like something from – to use a tried and trusted metaphor – the Battle of the Somme. Traditional Leeds festival fashion combinations such as painted green faces and undergarments worn fetchingly on the head have been eschewed in favour of the sort of cover-all rainwear you'd expect to see on a pack of nature ramblers.

Still, the spirit is still here if you look around – three or four topless men pose for photographers after doing bellyflops in the mud, while a teenage girl wins the day's most ridiculous outfit award by going topless except for some delicately placed parcel tape reading "fragile." Mail (hoho) voyeurs aside, the biggest beneficiaries of the continual downpour are the artists in the tents, as people will watch anything to escape the rain. Thus, young York singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich packs the Festival Republic tent past bursting despite some of his acoustic love songs sounding as drippy as the weather. You can't help wondering if this is a good way to experience music, especially as it's difficult to get within viewing distance of some of the bands at all.

It's easier on the notably less busy than usual main stage, where the ground is covered with inches of a chocolate sauce-like goo. Trance/post-hardcore band Enter Shikari entertain the moshpit, although their "If you stand for anything, you'll fall for anything" backdrop should probably be amended to read, "If you try to stand up, you will fall over". Warpaint play an NME tent in three inches of water, their shimmering guitars and understated funk rhythms receiving respectful rather than rapturous applause. The all-girl Los Angeles art rockers have a haunting sound but lack the unashamed anthems needed to cheer this crowd, although their transformation of Mary Wells' swinging old Motown hit My Guy into the hushed, devotional love song that is Billie Holiday is one of the day's stellar musical moments.

Back on the main stage, the soaking Friendly Fires' Hawaiian shirts seem like a bad joke but their set coincides with the rain stopping for a while, which is celebrated around the site like the Second Coming. Ed Macfarlane's trio seem to be contractually obliged to play every festival, ever, but their exuberant pop-funk grooves hit the spot again. Such fresher faces aside, some of the day's line-up has a slightly ageing feel, typified by black-clad doom rock poseurs Interpol, whose dreary set feels like it has been going on since 2002.

Guy Garvey's Elbow have, of course, being going much longer, but still feel like a band of the moment. A soggy main stage full of mudmen and moshers – one who is intriguingly carried out with his trousers around his thighs – is not The Garv's natural constituency, but he soon wins them over with a chant of "Fuck the rain". The huge screens allow an intriguing glimpse into his stagecraft. The man is a total pro, eyes forever darting around the crowd on the lookout for any less than exuberant sections or opportunity for a quip. Thus, the beleaguered security men are "a beautiful orange dance troupe." The Garv's constant "Is everybody OK?"/"Lemme see your hands" schtick is getting a bit Simple Minds, but songs like Mirrorball and Lippy Kids bring moments of beautifully constructed personal intimacy to a crowded field. One Day Like This – about throwing open the curtains and welcoming in the sun – couldn't be more inappropriate, but provides a triumphant, unifying, Mexican wave-generating moment which seems impossible to follow.

Not that Muse aren't determined to have a go, bringing a grand piano, hard rock, daft garb, Brian May-esque guitar solos, Prince/operatic falsettos and lasers, along with images of little green men, pulsating brains, giant forks, eyeballs, robots, flying aliens over London and possibly an actual Martian landing to the day's most audio-visual spectacular. Just as when they headlined here in 2006, the torrential rain seems to be part of the stage set, as if Matt Bellamy had insisted on it accompanying his bonkers anthems about the end of the world. It's a magnificently preposterous spectacle, although playing 2001's Origin Of Symmetry album in its entirety seems a curious choice for a festival set. The trio finally wheel out big hitters Supermassive Black Hole, Time Is Running Out and Knights Of Cydonia towards the end, by which time many in the thinning crowd would welcome the four horsemen of the apocalypse if they came bearing a long, hot bath.

• This article was amended on 28 August 2011. In the original, Lippy Kids was mis-titled Build a Rocket Boys. This has been corrected.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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