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It’s true, nothing compares to jostling through a crowd, in the sweltering heat, to catch a glimpse of your favourite act. Well, that’s festival season for you. And, this year, Mad Cool 2023 are proving to be tastemakers with their well-balanced line-up. 

The Madrid festival – which has relocated to the Villaverde district – looks something like a city funfair. Kitted out with a ferris wheel, a micro McDonald’s McFlurry station (yes, really), and stages galore, there was plenty to get lost in. With its new breezy set-up, Mad Cool is proving it’s got plenty for everyone. 

This year, the established festival has traded in a five-day run to a compact three days packed buzzing with big names. With a heavy dose of rock artists on the roster (Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Kaleo, Queens of the Stone Age, The Prodigy, The Black Keys), fans swamped stages in their band merch and, occasionally, in actual red chilli costumes. But, for all the plentiful rock and indie tunes, there’s a glowing presence of uplifting pop and queer talent just around the corner. 

Kicking this off on the festival’s inaugural day, New York queer popstar King Princess, aka Mikaela Straus, makes her debut to a Spanish crowd on the Region of Madrid stage. Straus’ rich soft-rock set soothed an energetic crowd taking shelter in the stage’s shade. From then on, the opening Thursday is crammed with back-to-back queer and LGBTQ+ adjacent talent almost to a fault.

Breakthrough British indie artist Girli lights up the smaller Mahou Cino Estrellas stage with a set strong enough to distract you from the glaring commercial branding. Elsewhere, with an overlapping set, Raye freely hands out advice, from the Ouigo stage, on splitting up with a rapper. Repping bangers ‘Flip A Switch’ and chart-topper ‘Escapism’, the UK fast-riser proving her stardom lands both on the charts and on stage. 

The pop party doesn’t end there either. While Rina Sawayama’s immensely anticipated set falls to the wayside due to technical difficulties, Lizzo and Lil Nas X  set the main stage ablaze with their killer performances – though their shows didn’t stray too far from their standout performances at Glastonbury or Roskilde. From trusted flute appearances to a mechanical stage-trotting horse, the headliner duo delivered engaging sets in gloriously camp style. And if you weren’t quite ready to wrap up the night, Honey Dijon’s anthems, housed in the busting The Loop stage, can tide you over into the early hours of the morning. 

In all, Mad Cool made music manageable and memorable in the relentless heat. However, tight corridors proved difficult to meander through, so rocking up at stages, at times, could be quite the task. Yet, across the festival’s flight of stages, there remains a commitment to showcasing LGBTQ+ talent. On Friday, Sam Smith graces the mainstage in a maximalist glimmering gold dress unveiling a slew of pop hits. Then, later in the evening, The XX’s Romy took over The Loop in style.

Although these double acts felt fitting for the pop and electronica crowd, the queer alternative felt like it was missing out. The event’s oversight felt especially noticeable with its collection of edgy favourites (Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams) hitting up stages, while the queer alternative was not. If you had said Phoebe Bridgers played Mad Cool last year, it would take some persuading for us to believe you. 

But still, Mad Cool maintains its celebration of queer talent – although its furore dwindled across the days – as Years & Years’ Olly Alexander joyously dominates the main stage in towering black stilettos. And, a few hours later, Ava Max brings the sentiment of queer joy full circle. Decked out in a fierce red dress and powerhouse vocals to match, Max rewards the crowd with scream-worthy dance tunes ‘Maybe You’re The Problem’ and the questionably named chart hit ‘Sweet But Psycho’. With a stacked line-up and a few teething problems, Mad Cool put a step in the right direction and, as for next year, we’re sure they’ll get it right. 

GAY TIMES rating: ★★★★