As another Liverpool Sound City draws to a close, Getintothis’ Paul Higham reflects on the quiet triumph of the ever evolving festival that is fast becoming a Liverpool institution.
If a week is a long time in politics then a year feels like a lifetime in the evolution of a music festival. Indeed it was with a distinct sense of apprehensive anticipation that we arrived at Bramley-Moore Dock for 2016’s Liverpool Sound City festival, the second in its new North Liverpool home.
It is fair that the early signs weren’t altogether positive. Last year’s festival was riddled with first year teething problems but found ultimate salvation in its top-drawer line-up. Although the prospect of The Coral returning was tantalising, when compared to the likes of The Flaming Lips, Belle and Sebastian and Swans, Catfish and the Bottlemen offered insufficient enticement to many, with some questioning the direction and identity of the festival.
The reduction of the main festival from three days to two coupled with the, at first glance, slightly underwhelming line-up and a weekend ticket price costing £80 prompted many festival stalwarts and regular attendees in its earlier guise to use social media to vociferously signal their intent to stay away. While many pointed out that the festival was staying true to its identity by booking emerging artists and showcasing aspiring talent from Merseyside and beyond, the sentiment seemed one of a resentment at paying what was perceived to be over-the-odds to see smaller artists that can readily be seen in more intimate settings to finance what was seen as unappealing more mainstream acts.
Anxiety was increased by the news that the site would be operating a strict midnight curfew; while also offering no readmission and requiring everyone to be on-site each day by 4pm it seemed to suggest inherent limitations of the site as organisers cited licensing restrictions. With the line-up offering, for the first time ever, a dedicated dance stage ably curated by Freeze pre-festival doubts were raised about how this would sit with the earlier finish time.
While it would not be unfair to suggest that initial expectations were muted, what is undeniable is that the festival ultimately succeeded, not without hiccup, in delivering a triumphantly enjoyable weekend.
Last year we asked that the festival learn from its mistakes and iron out some of the teething problems that had so blighted its debut year in its new riverside location. Immediately it was obvious that the festival had taken on board the criticisms fairly levelled at it in 2015 and made significant changes that contributed greatly to its success in 2016.
Although not eradicating sound leakage issues altogether the relocation of stages – in particular the ditching of the largely unloved fun fair – and moving the North stage to the north end of the dock, made for a more fruitful experience enabling artists to be heard and not be drowned out by competing sounds on nearby stages. It also made the festival more navigable removing at a stroke some of the bottlenecks that had proved a source of frustration last year.
In addition, the look of the festival was substantially improved by replacing many of the non-descriptly utilitarian white tents with outdoor stages, particularly around the centre of the site where the single Cavern stage provided something of a focal point. Similarly the non-overlapping timings of acts on Kathleen and May Tall Ship and the North stage offered evidence that the more thought had been given to the experience of both the performing artists and the festival goer alike.
Let’s not pretend that there weren’t sound issues. The positioning of the Cargo stage outside the Baltic Warehouse made little sense and felt like a stage too far. Particularly on Saturday, some of the more plaintive acoustic acts were drowned out by the dance happenings next door. At other times the Cargo stage was forced to employ a loud-war policy to be heard over the Baltic’s bass resulting in a tremoring distasteful echo. Likewise Sunday saw more in the way of sound bleeding, perhaps on account of a more evident sea breeze but also due to inexplicable timings.
This was none more so evident than on the Tall Ship were an eager crowd gathered to hear She Drew The Gun celebrate not only their debut album but also winning the Glastonbury Emerging Talent competition. Unfortunately much of the set was drowned out by competing influences elsewhere. As Bill Ryder-Jones himself commented on when opening his main-stage set, “what’s that noise coming from over there, it’s silly“.
Another change that was welcome was the integration of the Sound City conference with the main festival itself. For many the two events have felt largely separate with the festival goer having little opportunity to mingle with and hear keynote speakers. As such the decision to include the likes of Paddy Considine, Sleaford Mods and Alexei Sayle as part of the main festival is to be applauded.
The main conference was held at the Titanic Hotel on Friday, Alan McGee was the big name of the day for Sound City+ 2016, and guaranteed to deliver. As witty and dry as ever, he shared acute observations on the music industry, the idea that bands aren’t competing against each together nowadays, but with social media instead, a depressing but valid one.
The mix of panel discussions and TED-style talks this year was good, Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s story about her own Prince fandom a very personal recollection, and the more practical panels such as Drowned In Sound’s Doing It Yourself In The Digital Age gave advice about how musicians can earn money, an increasingly sticky issue in recent times.
Still, it all felt flat somehow until Def poet Black Ice, not well known in the UK, took up the keynote speaker mantel, with his powerful spoken word. The irony though of hosting the bigger boutique names on the music orientated days of the festival left the balk of the conference feeling somewhat underwhelming. How organisers balance this next year is one left to ponder.
Many of the big names were slotted into the main Sound City festival over the weekend, the Tim Peaks Diner snaffling away the more varied speakers. While Dave Haslam and X Radio’s John Kennedy in conversation with the likes of Peaky Blinders actor Paddy Considine, Roisin Murphy and Alexei Sayle on Saturday and Sunday may have diluted the specialness of Sound City+, it certainly enhanced the festival itself. Nonetheless the conference part of the festival was more subdued than last year, when Edwyn Collins and The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne added a distinct glamour to the proceedings.
Having said all that, there was a quality selection of new singer songwriters and bands playing short acoustic sets on the mezzanine at the hotel on Friday, a pleasing proportion of them from the Merseyside region who went on to play the Merseyrail Sound Station stage over the weekend. Both events showcased what young talent we have on Merseyside. And that is boss.
One of the frustrations of the 2015 festival was the paucity of available food and drink offerings, in particular the concessions provided no link to the ever-expanding wealth of independent restaurants in Liverpool. When the festival was based in the city centre the increased footfall generated by the event would have had an undoubtedly positive knock-on effect on local businesses and their exclusion last year felt like an aberration that helped deprive the event of a distinctive identity.
No such accusations could be levelled this year. The range of food outlets and their quality was beyond reproach. With the likes of Maray, Chicha, a Peruvian Street Food restaurant soon to come to Bold Street providing exemplary cuisine there was almost as much social-media buzz generated by the food as the music. It took a while for the penny to drop that Disco Cauliflower was in fact delicious scran rather than next on in the Baltic Warehouse.
The improvements to the overall experience should not mask its continuing problems. While everyone moans about festival toilets, often with only minimal justification, it is clear that there was a real problem brewing here. Not only were there too few the layout left a lot to be desired, as the proximity of urinal blocks, unscreened in the middle of the unisex portable toilets, felt, even for the not so prudish, a tad unsavoury. While queuing is an occupational hazard for the festival-goer the conditions on both days were highly insanitary. Pools of urine gathered as the urinals quickly filled to capacity and proceeded to overflow as quickly as they were being filled. Traipsing through ankle deep pools of piss? Nice.
Equally more work needs to be done to the site itself. For all that its starkly bleak, barren and concrete setting finds beauty in the sense of industrial decay and urban renewal something seems missing. Its banks-of-the-Mersey location feels downplayed; from ground level there’s barely a glimpse out to sea through two corrugated barriers. Unforgivingly uneven under foot, the concessions to visual improvement felt too few and far between to have any meaningful effect. Being bathed in sunlight and under blue skies, as it was for much of the weekend, made the brutalism easier on the eye; in the wind and the rain it might have made for a different story altogether.
It is clear that hosting the festival at Bramley-Moore Dock presents logistical and operational challenges aplenty and although organisers have done their best to combat there remains a nagging doubt that the scale of ambition is not matched by the capabilities of the site. It feels too small, too restricted for the number of acts and number of stages yet some small alterations could significantly enhance the overall experience.
What the festival offered was ultimately a relaxed and enjoyable experience. Good vibes and good times abounded aided by the glorious weather. Musically the triumph of the weekend was the Freeze takeover of the Baltic Warehouse. Stand out sets by Floating Points and Leftfield were unmistakable Saturday highlights while the back-to-back sets from Motor City Drum Ensemble, Hot Chip and 2manydjs saw the packed-to-the-rafters warehouse bouncing with an infectious Sunday night energy.
Energy that might have been used to power the main stage on Sunday evening when twin power cuts threatened to place a dampener on proceedings. First Circa Waves were forced offstage before The Coral‘s newly-found brand of muscularly swirling psychedelia was brought to a prematurely abrupt halt. You can’t keep the comeback kings down however as they returned to blast out hits like Pass it On, In the Morning and Dreaming of You to a sea of devoted followers. Without dwelling on the reason for the power cut, credit needs to be given to the organisers. Curfews were broken to ensure the crowd got what they came for and everyone went home happy.
Although true that the festival continues to champion newer acts and provides a platform for the emerging and the adventurous it has in many ways, and by necessity, had to relinquish some of which made it special without yet having forged a revised identity. When the festival had its home in Liverpool city centre, spread across various venues the excitement and buzz was palpable as queues snaked round corners and, inside, sweat dripped from the ceiling. This intimacy cannot be recreated in an outdoor stage.
Additionally there felt like a paucity of truly experimental and alternative acts as the festival setting has perhaps prompted organisers to look to bigger acts to fill the bigger stages. This has potentially had a diluting effect. Yet on Saturday night the festival revelled in the continuing capacity of music to shock and offend. Narrow outlooks were expanded and closed minds opened as Sleaford Mods played to bewildered members of Catfish and the Bottlemen fan club who had taken up position early for the latter’s headlining set. It was quickly apparent that they had not seen anything like the Mods and their distinctive brand of bilious outrage laced with humour and delivered with a near Shakespearean sense of cadence and timing.
If the reaction on social media provided Twitter gold, one can hope that this broadens the musical perspectives of the young and opens their eyes to the possibilities that exist outside anthemically bland guitar bands. Whoever was responsible for that scheduling deserves a huge pat on the back.
While the tradition of regional and label showcases was maintained it was pleasing that the cream of Merseyside’s talent was able to hold its own and in many ways exceed more established performers. The standouts, Pink Kink, blasted their way though a buoyantly exuberant set that blended a diverse range of influences into something that felt both wild and perfectly controlled. The continuing discovery of unknown artists from overseas reminded us that what has long been felt to be the festival’s raison d’être remains cemented in its core.
The festival remains very much at a crossroads yet one thing is for certain: it cannot go back. The old formula cannot be revived. The destruction of Wolstenholme Square has put paid to that. Available venues are too far apart, and too small to meet the festival’s ambitions and its ever-growing popularity. It has to be made to work as a standalone festival while remaining true to its distinctive ethos.
This year’s festival went some way to achieving that but it cannot be denied that unresolved issues remain. The Baltic Warehouse remains the site’s best asset but elsewhere it just feels too tight and too small with the overall experience feeling ever so slightly compromised. We may be being unduly critical for notwithstanding all the issues the festival was a success: we came, we partied, we saw some good music without ever being truly blown away, we had a heap of fun, and went home happily contented.
However more can be done, more can be accomplished and issues can be remedied. Thankfully a year is ample time to put things right.
Top 17 of Liverpool Sound City 2016:
The Mail Chimp Record store stage didn’t know what hit it when Brazilian band of brothers Aldo took to the stage. By the end of their set the crowd spilt out into the walkways as passers by craned their necks in an attempt to get a glimpse of those responsible for the insane mix of electro synth, punky combinations of bass and guitar and massive beats emanating from the tent, or what their energetic performance left of the tent. They list their references as Happy Mondays, Prince, Chic, LCD Soundsystem and Chemical Brothers. Imagine that if you will.
As if to affirm the Baltic Warehouse as one of the 2016 festival’s real success stories, Âme provided early indication on Saturday afternoon that confounded the sceptics who had doubted the wisdom of a dedicated dance stage starting in the stark afternoon daylight. Ramping up the tempo, Âme delivered a set built around tough techno and rumbling bass that sent the warehouse shuddering and drew in the early day hedonists.
3. Atlas Wynd
Bringing a much needed change of pace, grunge-rock two piece Atlas Wynd livened things up with energetic, Nirvana-tinged sounds. Offering something different from that available elsewhere, the duo channelled the spirit of In Utero with a series of monster riffs.
4. Bantam Lyons
Warming up for their September date at Liverpool Psych Fest, French outfit Bantam Lyons made a big Sunday afternoon impression in the Mailchimp Record Store. With a sound betraying Anglophile tendencies they are rooted in eerie atmospherics of British post-punk, marrying it with elements of shoegaze. Ending their set with a track that looked into an effortlessly repetitive never ending groove they had heads bobbing in unison indicating that they are most definitely an act to keep an eye on.
Another French band making a striking impression on the North Stage was Barbagallo, the band of former Pond and Tame Impala drummer Julien Barbagallo. Not that the sound betrayed even the merest hint of his work in those bands. This was deliciously off-kilter psych pop with a very gallic flair delivered with an insouciant jazzy swagger. A perfect sunny afternoon festival moment.
6. Cherie and Reno
Tel Aviv lunatics Cherie & Renno employ a hacked up violin as guitar capable of producing sounds new to even the most experienced of ears, with an injection keys and minimal drums into their odd-ball pop. It’s bonkers and certainly not what you think of when someone says Israeli pop, although maybe it will be now?
7. Floating Points
Nothing managed to blow our minds until mid-afternoon when Floating Points (one of many acts to benefit from the expansive, and superbly homed dance acts in the Baltic Warehouse) combine the terrifying Taxi Driver squall of Bernard Herrmann, the high-octane jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis with the intelligent progressive electronica of Jon Hopkins – it’s sublime on so many levels; collapsing and arching, almost post-rock in its execution yet remaining jazzy and rockist – recalling Mahavishnu Orchestra‘s Inner Mounting Flame but with greater BPM. It’s outstanding stuff. The only slight drawback it’s at 5.30pm.
Horsebeach were another band who suited the feel good sunshine vibe that took hold on Sunday afternoon. Playing with an economy and ease that provided indication of skill and knowhow, their easy on the ear jangle offered nods towards Real Estate but also pointed towards that slightly more jazz influenced Sea and the Cake. A band proving that sometimes understatement can pack a punch to rival more extroverted bands.
9. Las Aves
French glitter-pop quartet, Las Aves, arrive from planet disco-ball plugging into the main sails aboard the tall ship Kathleen and May, drawing a vivacious crowd late afternoon which spills overboard and ten-rows deep as they deliver what one festival veteran describes as a ‘top 5 Sound City set ever‘. High praise, yet indicative of what unfolded in irregular spurts.
Levelz brought a swaggering Mancunian arrogance to the North Stage on Saturday evening with a performance high on bravado that was hare not to fall into.
11. Pink Kink
Providing a much needed adrenaline kick, Pink Kink stepped up to the plate at just the right time in the day. With shimmering guitars, keys and a kazoo thrown in for good measure, anyone feeling the effects were soon given a new lease of life. Cryptically described as “their last show of the fruit season”. What that in fact means we’re sure to find out soon. A new artistic direction, new material or perhaps more drastic changes are planned however we hope it’s not a departure from what the band are doing now, as it’s a crowd and critic pleaser without a doubt.
12. Shrinking Minds
Proving the enduring influence of Thee Oh Sees‘ John Dwyer, Shrinking Minds race through a set of rib-cage rattling garage rock that thrives on a sense of youthful exuberance and irrepressibly infectious rock with a pop sensibility. One of the stand-outs of the Label Recordings showcase, Shrinking Minds provided indication that all remains healthy over at Edge Hill University.
13. Sky Valley Mistress
Sunday on the North Stage got off to an impressive start with the rock double espresso of Sky Valley Mistress. With their Dead Weather/Patti Smith ferociousness, they delivered a set of burning energy that even included bass solos that people actually listened to. This was a performance that announced the band as one of the most surprising talents brought to the our eyes by Sound City 2016.
14. Tally Spear
Tally Spear’s country songs markedly raised the bar. She shares new song Wrong Side of the Road, and does an effective cover of Neil Young’s Ohio though personally we’d prefer to hear more of her own work.
15. Trudy and the Romance
Sunday afternoon welcomed 2016 GIT Award nominees Trudy and The Romance. Their doo-wop sound and frontman Oliver Taylor‘s irrepressible dance moves through Baby, I’m Blue felt fresh and charming even in such a musically rich festival. The high point came when fellow Sound City act and friends, Pink Kink joined them as backing vocalists for a cover of The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down, which caught nicely on the breeze in the summer sun
After a hit and miss Saturday on the Cargo stage Chilean outfit Tunacola made the most of their late night slot by brining a party so good that neither passers by, or those queueing for the loos could resist. A hybrid of combination of pop, hip hop, ska and disco all seasoned with South American spices that resulted in an irresistible street samba of ‘crazy motherfuckers’. Their words, not ours.
17. Youth Hostel
With a performance so rich in promise it is difficult to believe that Youth Hostel are right at the beginning of their career. With barely a single under their belt you’d be forgiven for expecting some nerves. Well, if there were any they were well disguised as the band delivered a confident that brimmed with vim and attitude right from the off. From the never-ending production line at Edge Hill’s Label Recordings, it looks like Carl Hunter might just have unearthed another gem.
Photos by Getintothis’ Martin Waters, Marty Saleh, Mark Holmes, Gaz Jones, Vicky Pea, Tom Adam, Brian Sayle and Ryan Jafarzadeh. Getintothis‘ 2016 writing team – Cath Bore, Paul Higham, Adam Lowerson, Amaan Khan, Ste Knight, Tom Konstantynowicz, Vicky Pea, Shaun Ponsonby and Peter Guy.