Van Morrison, Shane MacGowan, Damien Dempsey and a host of Ireland’s finest follow the pied piper that is Vince Power to descend on Liverpool’s Pier Head for Feis Festival and Getintothis’ Chris Flack was treated to a special day.
Given the Hope & Glory fiasco you would think that starting a new festival in Liverpool would be a fools’ errand, let’s face it, no one needs another one of those.
The Liverpool Feis comes from a different stable, one that includes Reading and Leeds, Benicassim, Mean Fiddler and the Roundhouse. Vince Power needs no introduction to anyone in the gig business. When he took on Reading it was breathing its last, the same for Benicassim; when Power says he’s bringing a party to town, you pay attention.
This is one promoter who has been through the mill but still manages to do it for the music. Consider the line up for his inaugural shindig: Van Morrison, Shane McGowan, Imelda May, Damien Dempsey, Therapy?, The Stunning, The Hothouse Flowers, it is a pretty impressive list.
Take Morrison for example, if you love Morrison, you show up and you get what you get, and as our dear friend would say, “you don’t get upset”. The last time we saw Morrison was on Cyprus Avenue, yes, that Cyprus Avenue, the one of Madam George, myth and mysticism.
Here’s the thing, he didn’t play Cyprus Avenue. Imagine a Beatles reunion on Penny Lane where they avoid the song like the plague, a Beach Boys show in California where California Girls are steadfastly avoided. Morrison is that kind of headliner and quite frankly, putting him on a stage on Pier Head for your first foray into this town on this scale is a gamble in anyone’s money.
For our ears the early afternoon’s line up involves a lot of traditional music, which isn’t really where our love of Irish music lies, so we start our day by catching Jack Lukeman playing on the second stage, nestled in between the Port of Liverpool Building and Mann Island. Lukeman sings with a baritone that is so low it would shake the foundations of anything within 100 metres. Lukeman is a busy man, he is about to set off on a tour that takes him right through to Christmas and a final show in Ireland on New Year Eve. He delivers a set filled with joy, The King of Soho generates a proper sing along, which isn’t bad for a sunny sluggish Saturday lunchtime.
Sharon Shannon takes to the stage not long after Lukeman. We first witnessed Shannon in 1995 as one of a few acts supporting REM at Slane, just outside Dublin. She managed to make 70,000 people do a jig in ways that we thought were impossible; while Mann Island doesn’t quite match the scale of Slane, the jigs come freely to the soundtrack of Shannon’s ‘squeeze box’ and banter.
The concept of Therapy? taking to the stage almost immediately after Shannon is one that we pondered for quite a while in the run up to the Feis. Quite how ‘James Joyce Fucked My Sister’ would follow Shannon’s rendition of ‘Galway Girl’ was answered by a rousing version of ‘Living in the Shadow of a Terrible Thing’, and in fine Therapy? fashion it was followed by ‘Trigger Inside’, ‘Disgracelands’, dedicated to Donald Trump and ‘Piggies’, dedicated to one Boris Johnson. In a set that was cruelly cut short, Therapy? managed to rummage through a couple of decades of guttural anger and Larne based laughs. Just what the afternoon ordered, even if it did scare some of Shannon’s die hards.
The Stunning are a proper Irish rock band, too cool for U2 and too far away from Four Men and a Dog to be pigeon holed, they bring a sense of joy to the second stage, its all Hawaiian shirts and swagger. With the stage times being what they were, for us it was too short a time to behold their splendour, but there was the small matter of The Hothouse Flowers on the main stage to contend with.
To anyone with even a passing interest in Irish music The Hothouse Flowers are a force of nature, from ‘Don’t Go’ to ‘I Can See Clearly’ and ‘Give it Up’ they lash out a set filled with hits, gags and Liam’s bare feet. Honestly, we’ve seen him traipse through city streets and forests bereft of footwear, it’s a wonder he makes it anywhere. With the sun baring down on Pier Head their set brings pretty much everyone back to heady college days and cider, speaking of which…
We had hoped to grab a beer between The Hothouse Flowers and Foy Vance but the queues for the bars were remarkable. Remarkable in the sense that you couldn’t get near them and in the sheer sluggishness of the speed they moved. Now, we don’t want to teach an old, trusted dog new tricks, but this is an Irish festival and quite frankly, this was verging on the unforgivable.
Bereft of a pint to wet our whistles we headed back to the main stage to catch Foy Vance’s set and it was a wonderous thing to behold. He may be small but he is a massive presence on stage and it shows in the reaction on Pier Head. We assumed that Foy would be followed by Imelda May as the timing suggested, but true to form Van Morrison pulls another blinder, by proving he can time travel. He is the only man in the business that can turn up to a stage running an hour behind and start playing five minutes before his allotted time, with the very patient Imelda May held in place backstage to make way for his Royal Hattedness. He whips his band into shape and skulks around the stage like a man possessed, the reverence* shown on stage and off is a remarkable sight.
The shifting of time allowed us to catch some of Damien Dempsey’s set on the second stage, also running fantastically behind, though in this instance we were fine with the timing. Seeing Damien Dempsey live, anywhere, is almost a spiritual experience, there is a tantric bass, a performance that delivers every ounce of passion and energy he has stored up, it’s an incredible thing. With Morrison as competition 500 meters away he holds his own and stuns anyone brave enough to be near Mann Island; if it wasn’t for the lack of beer and dehydration there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house.
We high tailed it back to the main stage for the delayed Imelda May set, though at this point we’d missed so much and spent so long looking at our watches and lists it was hard to tell where anything was. May makes up for the confusion by launching into a sultry sashay through some soul, some sweetness and a lot of rock and roll. She sings for her supper, sends love to Vince Power and swells the crowd in anticipation of the main event.
There is little that anyone can say about Shane MacGowan that hasn’t been said before, forget Morrison, forget Damo, forget anyone else on this line up, MacGowan was the main event. As front man to The Pogues he is perhaps rightly considered one of the greatest Irish lyricists of all time. His recent 60th birthday celebrations in Dublin were a staggering display of affection for a man who penned some of the most well known Irish songs in existence.
The Finale was an unabashed love song to MacGowan, Nathan Carter, Mary Coughlan, Mundy, Albert Hammond, Sharon Shannon, Damo, everyone turned out to give the man a hug on stage. He may have only been there for four songs but the energy on Pier Head was unlike anything we had ever seen.
Again, there would have been tears had it not been for the dehydration. The one thing that was apparent to us was the camaraderie among those assembled onstage for the final fling, there was a lot of love, a lot of joy, and an awful lot of light thrown toward Vince Power. Its good to see him back.
Seven things we learned at Feis.
- You can start a new thing in Liverpool and get away with it, just.
- The bars at an Irish festival need to be well stocked and free flowing.
- Your crew need to know what’s happening where and how to read a clock.
- Van Morrison can time travel with a golden microphone and an unbeatable back catalogue.
- Foy Vance might be small, but he can fill a festival site with enough energy to start riots.
- The Port of Liverpool building makes a pretty neat backdrop for Irish Dancers.
- Forget Michael D, Shane MacGowan is the undisputed King of Ireland, and Soho.
Images by Getintothis’ Chris Flack