The inaugural Liverpool International Music Festival held over the Bank Holiday weekend turned the spotlight on the city’s pop musical landscape, Getintothis’ Peter Guy reflects on the highs, lows and the future of LIMF.
Like Robin Thicke and good taste, politicians and music don’t mix.
So when it was announced the Mathew Street Festival was being axed and rebranded as the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) eyebrows were raised pretty much across the board.
Spiralling costs coupled with outdated ideas and a reputation for transforming Liverpool’s streets into an overblown Stag Party – complete with a ritualistic punch-up and vomit-fuelled finish – meant the decision to end Mathew Street was the right one.
Yet while the reasons made sense, the intentions left question marks. Costing was to be dramatically reduced. It was to be moved away from city centre businesses to Sefton Park. And that word ‘international’ stuck out like a sore thumb – a byword used by the suits to umbrella anything and everything which usually equates to very little. Then there was the small matter of the music, with little touted from the off, but The Beatles. The inspiration radars were not amused.
Yet there was a beacon of LIMF light early doors; and it arrived in the shape of Yaw Owusu. Named LIMF curator, Owusu’s appointment was the first fine judgement call – here was a Scouser with a strong track record for cultivating young talent within his home city and abroad; a keen entrepreneurial business spirit all wrapped up in a humble, affable personality. Quick to assert his opinion but eager to listen and open-minded enough to know when to take a back seat. Best of all, he knew how Liverpool’s contemporary music scene ticked.
He was also wise as to why he was selected. And under no illusion that he was the poster boy to which fingers would be pointed should this new deck of cards come tumbling down. Yet, Owusu rarely, if ever, seemed worried. And his belief and spirit resonated into a tidal wave of goodwill at LIMF’s launch at Leaf‘s new Water Street venue back in June. In the cynical and back-stabbing world of politics and music it was refreshing to see so much positivity aimed in the new festival’s direction. Particularly given the slight – and far from world-beating programme that was initially rolled out.
Yet goodwill will only go so far. And it’s here where Getintothis has been impressed. For working in tandem with Owusu was a team, strategically led by council director of culture, Claire McColgan, who recognised that if funding was to be reduced investment in Liverpool’s rich music and artistic talent had to be mined.
Where in previous years Mathew Street’s cabaret-by-numbers acts together with tired programming neglected to share developing talents within the city’s music community, LIMF’s key players knew the best way to make use of the reduced funds was to dig deeper into the grassroots and invest in the new. The irony of booking an expensive Amy Winehouse rent-a-vocal over fresh new talent on your doorstep was seemingly not lost on those involved. And what evolved was something much greater than what on paper had the appearance of being somewhat slim pickings.
From a slight brief, thanks to the involvement of Liverpool’s independent cultural core, grew something with purpose and promise.
Yet it all could have been so different. Mere days before LIMF 2013 was set to begin, Neil Young‘s ‘official’ opening gig at the Echo Arena was cancelled when Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro of backing band Crazy Horse fractured his hand.
A week later, and worse followed, with the tragic news The Charlatans drummer Jon Brookes had died after battling a brain tumour. The band had been set to headline an all-dayer at St George’s Hall on Bank Holiday Monday, however, that too was cancelled with frontman Tim Burgess saying the band had been ‘torn apart’ by the news.
Liverpool Philharmonic thrills the Sefton Park crowd beneath a shower of fireworks
Yet LIMF, and Liverpool, characteristically rallied. What with Neil Young’s cancellation (a gig which let’s face it, was part of a scheduled Arena tour with or without Liverpool’s International Festival) – it allowed an opportune gateway for one of the city’s most celebrated, and rightfully heralded musical traditions – the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – to blow everyone’s socks off in spectacular fashion with a LIMF 2013 opening to remember.
Led by Vasily Petrenko, the Phil’s masterful musicians blended the popular classics (Holst‘s Mars from his Planets Suite), with leftfield classicism (Shostakovich‘s Jazz Suite) and a variety of soundtrack crowd-pleasers (Pirates of the Caribbean, James Bond) which thrilled the 10,000 gathered – marking the start of what became LIMF 2013’s lasting legacy: a largely free festival which managed to embrace both families and music lovers.
Serving as a stark contrast to the grim Mathew Street debacle, inclusion was everywhere.
Especially, down at the Pier Head, where Pop was covered unanimously. Despite the varying degrees of quality; (JLS, Little Mix – yep! Union J, Stooshe – nay!) positivity positively oozed along the Mersey with a raft of Liverpool’s hometown current crop, including Esco Williams and The Hummingbirds, dazzling and cementing themselves as more than simply also-rans.
In keeping with the spirit of old, the raft of cover acts also added to the Pier Head festivities. Yet it should be noted, these add-ons should be simply that – an additional slice of bonhomie linking the past to the present.
Mount Kimbie at Summercamp at Camp and Furnace
The theme continued in the Baltic Triangle were LIMF offshoot Summercamp Festival was staged over the Bank Holiday weekend at Camp and Furnace. The emphasis was on a family-friendly two-dayer which incorporated music, a food festival, art events and children’s activities.
The result saw large groups of families entertained during the afternoon with various workshops, while at night the cavernous Furnace transformed into a supersonic space with a quite epic soundsystem and largely superb live drawers; Mount Kimbie, Steve Mason and Merchandise the stand outs.
Once again, the Liverpool factor played a key role – the venue itself was magnificent, the Kazimier-curated outdoor stage added a decadent Eastern-European cosmopolitan charm while the Jennifer John-led Sense of Sound-backed gig was a profound triumph matched only by Mugstar‘s EARTH score – a tour de force of improvisational power. Sadly watched by but a handful.
If there were Summercamp criticisms, the price was an obvious one: £50 weekend tickets seemed over the top as bigger drawers Ghostpoet, Mount Kimbie, Joy Formidable, Delphic and Dutch Uncles all featured at least once this year in Liverpool. Sometimes twice.
Coupled with the amount of free events throughout the city, the knock on effect saw the likes of super-cool DJs Ewan Pearson and Optimo playing to a distinctly uncool four people. While the street food stalls, though offering great choice and quality, were again on the costly side.
These though, were Year One concerns – Summercamp was a must-have addition to LIMF allowing celebrated and internationally regarded artists to blend among innovative Liverpool-orchestrated gig programming while Ex-Easter Island‘s additional instrument-building exercise with Dutch luthier and musician Yuri Landman was an inspired addendum.
Cost, however, was no issue for the thousands that attended Sefton Park – the vast jewel of greenery in LIMF’s crown. Organisers were helped by glorious sun, yet, you’d be a fool if you didn’t spot the attention to detail that had gone into making it such a success.
Steve Mason at Summercamp at Camp and Furnace
The facilities were first rate – clean toilets, easy access, reasonably priced food stalls (which rarely imposed on the actual performing areas), superb soundsystems set up in exquisite positions (the tree line which welcomed in visitors for the itsLiverpool Stage acting as an ideal arc for both spectacle and audio pleasure) while the Mellowtone-curated Bandstand proved the mini marvel as hundreds lazily basked in the ‘riverside’ vibes across the extended weekend. Simple ideas, effectively executed.
Given the populist tastes of the Sefton Park listenership and the relative budget, the bigger live drawers were on the money; Soul II Soul proved an irresistible pop curveball, Portico Quartet an oddball jazz nugget with only Damien Marley and The Ghetto Youths International Crew leaving something to be desired with a 15 minute blink and you miss it cameo.
Once again, though, Liverpool artists delivered. GIT Award nominees The Tea Street Band underlined their promise drawing a sizeable crowd on Saturday’s itsLiverpool Stage delivering their characteristic warehouse-infused Baleària.
On the Sunday, the eclectica was limitless – All We Are‘s pop funk straddled soulful sets from Merki and Ady Suleiman while Bonnacons of Doom were the undoubted triumph donning white cloaks before playing thirty minutes and two tracks of Hawkwind-assisted psychedelia backed with menacing vocal samples and percussive propulsion. The toddlers and heads danced in unison.
Old schoolers Deaf School mixed it up a day later with Rebecca Ferguson easing through a set which showcased new material from her forthcoming second album. It all seemed so easy, so relaxed, and the estimated 150,000 Sefton Park visitors seemed to back it up.
Bonnacons of Doom at Getintothis & Bido Lito! curated itsLiverpool Stage on Sefton Park
The post-script? The numbers read like a dream for all involved: with a budget of £540,000, LIMF was 40% lower than the £900,000 spent on the previous Mathew Street festival. More than 21,000 bought tickets for the paid for stages at the Pier Head. Underlining the family-feel, only nine arrests were reported compared to more than 120 at Mathew Street in 2011.
So many positives. There were, however, negatives. The sheer volume of events crammed into an already busy Bank Holiday weekend (Creamfields, Leeds & Reading Festivals, anyone fancy a breather?) meant attendances at LIMF events away from the Park and Pier Head were low.
The LIMF Fringe, which seemed to have gathered momentum in 2011, barely registered. Did it even happen? The website says it all. The list of events we were handed resembled an afterthought. Yet with the sheer wealth of artists involved across LIMF it’s hard to think who organisers would have asked to prop up a half decent Fringe event.
That curious ‘international’ tag too stood out as a misleading misnomer. Yes, it’s year one, and time was a factor, but it will be intriguing to see where LIMF takes us next year – and which overseas artists they approach and which musical flavours they adopt.
But this is simply the beginning. The plan, according to curator Owusu is to go big – very big. “In five years we want to be the biggest city-based music festival in Europe,” he declared on Monday.
A bold statement of intent. Especially when obvious comparisons are drawn to the likes of Manchester’s own International Festival which drew mass plaudits for their recent programme complete with big-hitters the xx, Kenneth Branagh and Massive Attack.
Key to everything is LIMF’s budget – but perhaps, as exemplified with LIMF 2013, it’s keeping Liverpool’s people, artists and partnerships central to the plan that could help Owusu and co. fulfil that dream.
Is it doable? We sincerely hope so.
Lead photograph by Marvin Herron, Mount Kimbie by Keith Ainsworth, Liverpool Philharmonic by Mark McNulty & video by Pete Carr, all other pictures Getintothis’ Peter Guy.
LIMF continues until Sunday September 22. The Farm performing at Stanley Park Festival on Sunday September 8, for full listings visit here.
The Kazimier Krunk Band at Summercamp at Camp and Furnace
Merki at Getintothis & Bido Lito! curated itsLiverpool Stage on Sefton Park
Ady Suleiman at Getintothis & Bido Lito! curated itsLiverpool Stage on Sefton Park
All We Are at Getintothis & Bido Lito! curated itsLiverpool Stage on Sefton Park
GhostChant at Getintothis & Bido Lito! curated itsLiverpool Stage on Sefton Park
Harlequin Dynamite Band at Summercamp at Camp and Furnace