As the third annual Acoustic Festival hits Liverpool across The Philharmonic Music Room, The Unity and various Fringe venues, Getintothis’ Del Pike enjoys some great acts and reports back, with a little help from his friends.
Shenanigans kick off on Friday night, as the Philharmonic Music Room plays host to an all-inclusive evening of acoustic music but with an emphasis on poetry. Phrased and Confused, a traveling festival in its own right, set out to be as interactive as possible with fun activities and a tick-list of achieved activities on a lanyard. We were invited to donate words for poems and draw our dream buildings on large sheets of paper (Del’s Dreamhouse of Clouds, Yay – a thing of beauty).
Our host for the evening is jovial Essex boy, Luke Wright, with a dandy physique like Russell Brand and a delivery like John Cooper Clarke. Some uncomfortable droppings of F and C bombs with a five year old girl in the room aside, Wright is a perfect host. Popping up between acts with his rapid-fire character driven tales of 19th century hatters, Upper class twits and family members, he is always entertaining. When told of the departure of Iain Duncan Smith, Wright delivers an attack on the man that only includes the vowel I. A univocalism we are told. Another that only utilises the U vowel is a little more shocking.
First act up is the young streetwise Isiah Hull from Manchester. His charming witty, affected unsure manner belies the dour nature of his barbed poetry. “Do you want something happy and uplifting?” he asks. “I haven’t got any of them, it’s all doom and gloom”, and then he laughs. Forever searching within for his feelings, armed only with pen and paper, Isiah Hull is quite a force. Similarly, Sudanese Asma Elbadawi is powerful in her beautifully delivered poetry. Poems like Cold deal with adjusting to life in Sudan after a brief period of Anglicisation in England as a child. Another poem tells of her inability to identify with the plight of a Gaza Strip survivor who she ceases contact with after a pen pal relationship.
Lizzie Nunnery and her band may well have provided the centrepiece to the evening with a 20 minute exquisite beat poem, based around a line from a piece by original Merseybeat poet, the late Adrian Henri. A swelling, rollercoaster of a piece, a love story of Liverpool life from the wasted artists of Gambier Terrace to the Toxteth riots and beyond. A privilege to witness, this epic poem set to a laid back yet unnerving jazz backing was captivating from start to finish. Hollie McNish is fast becoming a star in the poetry world and her presence tonight is most welcome. Her new book, Nobody Told Me, part poetry collection / part diary, centres around her surprise pregnancy and the proceeding labour, birth and parenthood. Selections range from the painful conflict between partner and baby, vying for attention and the difficulty of returning naked to the mirror after the ravages of pregnancy. Hollie’s second act is a return to her older work, revisiting fond conversations with her grandmothers and their fascination with modern day sexual relations. The hilarious Eat My Fig is a breakdown of Flo Rida’s misogynistic music video for Blow my Whistle and is hilarious.
Lizzie Nunnery returns with a slightly expanded line-up and a more traditional set of songs. “Songs of loss and transcience, cheerful things like that” is how Lizzie explains her offerings tonight. Opening lyrics to Sand, “I’ve been sleeping with the dead...” set the tone. There is an almost structural approach to the band with each musician very much occupying their space and yet finding a miraculous harmony. Nunnery’s signature England Loves a Poor Boy, telling the tale of a Caribbean boy thrust into the British Navy then cast aside to a life on the streets is as heart-breaking as it is thrilling. Nunnery’s band provides a laid back jazz layer that is ready to explode at any second, often veering into traditional beat poet territory. Horns-man, Martin Smith tends to sound so much like the Andy Diagram’s work with The Pale Fountains with some frequency during this incredible set.
Peterborough’s Mark Grist provides light relief with his story of how running a lunch club with troublesome teens at his school led to him being a finalist in a rap contest. The resulting rap is performed in all its excruciating glory with its theme of board games; Very funny. A poem-off with a robot in the bar leads to the show’s finale, a sublime set from singer / songwriter Ana Silvera.
An elegant performer with a Spanish flavour to her music, Silvera alternates between guitar, keyboard and ukelele. She is masterful in both voice and dexterity. The Fragile Greenwich Pier has echoes of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work and there are undeniable strains in her songs of All about Eve’s Martha’s Harbour. The Tarot card inspired Queen of Swords is a highlight and she finishes the set and the evening with a spine-chilling version of Bjork’s Hyperballad. A wonderful end to an absolutely riveting night with some very special and unique moments and some welcome surprises.
Over at The Unity, Sean Bradbury managed to catch a stand out performance from Scott Matthews:
There is sometimes no better barometer of how well a gig in Liverpool is going than the shouts from the crowd between tunes. For a Mersey hero such as Mick Head, or a visiting favourite like the late John Martyn, the cries and comments of appreciation and encouragement have been off the scale, and often hilarious, in this city. For Scott Matthews tonight, it began with a chipped but sprightly “GO ‘ED!” after the last strum of each song but built steadily into something more fervent, reaching an unexpectedly tender crescendo with an almost romantically drawled “Yer like an angel from the Midlands”.
Matthews was unruffled by the first few contributions, offering a polite smile or knowing nod each time, but was moved to respond to the angelic comparison: “I’m keeping that one for the next sleeve notes“. It was immediately obvious why there was a lot of love for Matthews: words and melody that feel like they were destined to be together; a voice that can soar like Jeff Buckley, beautifully exhale like Nick Drake and occasionally growl like John Martyn; allied to an inventive and industrious guitar technique that allows him to explore all possibilities of folk, blues and beyond.
Much of his set was taken from fourth studio album Home Part 1 released in 2014 – rumbling in to focus with The City And The Lie before Sunlight, The Outsider and more get an outing. While there was no sign of the Ivor Novello Award winning Elusive, Matthews delivered a couple of treats from debut album Passing Stranger, notably a delicate take on Eyes Wider Then Before and a spin through City Headache. A fifth album is set for release before the summer – unsurprisingly Home Part 2 – and fresh material such as the delicate ode to lying in, Stay In Bed, as well as other offerings The Rush and Drifter all bode well. This was a real festival highlight, clearly delighting long term Matthews fans and no doubt winning him plenty of new ones.
Saturday lunchtime in The Music Room is relaxing and airy and sets the tone for a chilled afternoon, despite the severely depleted audience. Compared to the atmospheric evening the space offered last night, this feels a little hollow now.
The fresh faced Rosenblume opens the session to about 20 respectful listeners, and as the smell of coffee fills the room, so does his positive selection of melodious folk and Americana with a distinct Merseyside edge. Haunting Rodriguez style chords merge with uplifting acoustic crescendos reminiscent of Glen Hansard. Rosenblume has a strong set of his own compositions that he usually performs with his seven piece band, today he stands alone, and he also throws in some choice covers. The Brendan Behan penned The Auld Triangle and Jackson T Frank’s Blues Run The Game, popularised by Simon and Garfunkel, are welcome additions to the set. It’s a sublime session and promises great things from his show with Rob Vincent at the Epstein on April 14.
Getintothis favourite Thom Morecroft is up next. Born and raised in Shrewsbury, he is now very much part of Liverpool’s musical landscape, although he feels we see him as a “Posh farmer”. His act is polished and crisp, with songs like Coming Up For Air and Daisy showing great commercial potential. It’s a varied set that includes a seemingly impromptu duet with Daniel Astles who recently silenced a very rowdy audience at a Sound Food and Drink Open mic night. Thom also throws in an eerily laid back version of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. Set closer The Beast lives up to its name with aggressive bursts of energy spurting forth from his trademark mellow tones.
London born FABIA, sat at the keyboard like she was born for it, changes the tone with some shimmering soul and jazz tunes, delivered with a meditative vocal style. Her songs are character driven and tell tales of identity and self-discovery, and occasional burst of theatrical intonations help to hammer home the message of the songs. From the quirky tales of a boy who “Really annoyed” her and a person who demands she “be like everyone else” to the more serious tale of a female refugee who has worked hard to help others in a similar plight, each provocative song remains in the mind for a good while after she has left the stage.
A trip over to the Unity finds sixteen year old powerhouse Eleanor Nelly, completely rocking the stage with her infectious rockabilly and slower country blues songs. The girl is an absolute star and her Johhny Cash riffs have the whole theatre toe-tapping. The beautiful Blue Eyes is a standout in the set and the maturity of her song writing contradicts her youth. Eleanor was a LIMF academy winner and deservedly so, she deserves to be heard by much larger audiences. A true talent. Her contribution to the Female is Not a Genre panel also shows further maturity and confidence.
A walk along Hope St reveals some more acts of varying interest in selected Fringe venues. The Everyman in particular has an eclectic range of acts performing short sets, but unlike the wristband venues, less respect is shown as punters talk over the music and the acts feel a little anonymous in comparison. An exception to the rule is the excellent Roxanne de Bastion, holding the 92 Degree Coffee crowd mesmerised with her song about blood cells. This is one of two appearances by Roxanne who also took the stage at The Unity.
Back in The Music Room and the effortlessly entertaining Nick Ellis is playing to a tiny crowd only just in double figures. He is un-phased and keeps us rapt with his stabbing guitar chords that sound like soundtracks to some very dark dramas. One song is about some people who “Went out one Saturday…and never came back”. This is Scouse Americana with one foot in the 50s and the other here and now. His lack of patter between songs spells out his passion for his music. Nick Ellis is great and it’s a shame only a few were there to find out. One to check out if you’ve not already heard him.
Stephen Langstaff’s set feels epic and it is clear that this is a seriously talented man. Accompanied by Satin Beige on Cello, fresh from her earlier solo set at The Unity, this is a partnership made in heaven Their shared composition Soulmates is definitely more soulful than sappy and provides a respite from the rest of the set which like Nick Ellis is a perfect crossover of Liverpool folk and Americana. There is variety here from the High pitched delivery of Sleep On It that has an undeniable nod to Ed Sheeran to the stripped down Restless, an electronica track stripped right down for the festival crowd. The slow blues of Alligator, partly written in Nashville plays along the lines of T Bone Burnett’s soundtrack work and Bold Street brings us back home, “My version of Penny Lane” he tells us. Beige’s deep resonant cello adds drama to each moving track.
Keeping the mood of the afternoon high and celebrating her first day back in Liverpool after finishing Uni is Sophia Ben Yousef, a young and classy performer who has absolute star potential. She is one of the true pop acts on the stage today, blending a well-chosen Drake cover with her own equally smooth compositions. An incredible keyboard player and vocalist, Sophie introduces direct love songs like Fall and Perfect with absolute clarity of meaning. A jazzy torch song style is undertaken for the closing track All I Need co-written with Liverpool’s KOF. A brilliant set from someone we will definitely see more of in the future.
Another trip to The Unity finds Gary Edward Jones on absolute fine form. One band member down but still a powerful force, Gary plays mainly songs from his excellent The Cabinet Maker album, including forthcoming single, the catchy Bang Bang Bang, which has a launch at Constellations on April 28.The band make a beautiful sound and the bearlike singer / songwriter has a voice that floats on air. There is much humour in the talk between band members and genuine warmth emanates from the stage. The band end their set with an audience invasion of sorts after providing one of the most enjoyable sets of the day.
After a break, we are treated to the widescreen cowboy blues of Dave O’Grady and friends. It’s hard to believe Dave is not American, not only by his unique drawl but his straight from the canyon appearance, all three have the best beards since ZZ Top. The Dublin born performer’s album was produced by Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson and its unsurprising as this is one talented singer songwriter. Dave O’Grady has raised the bar in terms of ballsy acoustics and despite being a hard act to follow, Marcus Bonfanti makes a damn good try. Again, richly American in sound but this British star has his heart set firmly in Liverpool where he lived til’ he almost died some years ago. “This beer aint doin’ it” he sighs pulling a flask of whisky out and swigging hard.
From beneath his long black hair, he tells tales of women who didn’t just break his heart, but also broke his things. This is as witty and warm as the blues can be, and songs with the darkly irresistible titles of Devil Girl, Jezebel and Layla “There’s already a song called Layla” admits Marcus “But it wasn’t very good”. Devil Girl was co-written by Marcus and the late Jimmy Carl Black, formerly Frank Zappa’s drummer. Humour aside, each song drives us further and further into the backwaters until we get blues so deep down and dirty it hurts. Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues gets a welcome outing and the closer Cheap Whiskey is described as a ”Real tear up” and doesn’t disappoint. Possibly the best act of the day.
Poor old Tommy Scott with his softer tones and lacking the back up of Space has a lot to live up to after the raucous bombast of Marcus Bonfanti, but a couple of tunes in and he’s bang on track. Ably assisted by Paul Hemmings they rattle through the hits with some vigour. Avenging Angels, Mr Psycho, and Female of the Species will never fail to please, while new material like Treasure Chest adds a new dimension to the session. Tommy is currently working on material with both Space and Hemmings, so both camps are sampled tonight. Looking ever the amiable outcast in his trilby, Planet of the Apes T shirt and guitar collaged with images from classic horror movies, Tommy is a great entertainer and Scouse legend. Tonight’s closer Neighbourhood is his anthem and he clearly loves performing it. There’s no stage invasion like the Christmas show at the Epstein this time, just a respectful, appreciative applause from the audience. Tommy seems a little disgruntled at the lack of hecklers until Ian McNabb shouts “Get off!” from the back.
Ian McNabb closes The Music Room leg of the festival and appears as shabby and comfortable in his own skin as ever. What is most impressive about the man is his voice, unchanged since his Icicle Works days, and the enjoyment he still clearly gets from those songs. Mixing a relatively short set with Icicle Works classics and the more well known of his solo output, the audience are of course clearly satisfied. Love is a Wonderful Colour the track that paid for his house (almost) is note perfect (almost), as is A Whisper to a Scream with a few bars of George Michael’s Faith thrown in. Gravy is a highlight as is the obvious favourite, Liverpool Girl, interjected with piss-takes of Liverpool lasses out on the lash. Ian McNabb is perhaps the perfect choice of a festival closer, he may not have the powerhouse approach of some of the earlier acts, but he knows his way around a guitar and is evidently loved by the Liverpool crowd tonight, helped by his ever amusing tales of life in the music biz.
Tommy Scott once again compliments me on my hair, and speaks kind words about fellow legend McNabb before we all disperse into the night after a long but joyful day in The Music Room. The expanded version of the festival has offered a wide range of styles and approaches to the acoustic genre and has reminded us of what real music-writing is, compared to, as Ian McNabb called The X Factor this evening, “The one eyed monster in the corner”. Good work.
Picture by Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody, Marty Saleh and Martin Waters.