Future Yard festival review, pictures, best acts and what we learnt from Birkenhead

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Black Country, New Road

Future Yard is putting Birkenhead firmly on the map, Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield, Steven Doherty and Orla Foster were there to experience a first for the town.

Weird Wirral wonderment” was promised in the Future Yard festival PR, and the peninisula certainly has some strange qualities.

Lying between the international city of Liverpool and the Celtic mountains of Wales, stretching up from the ‘Roman shell’ of Chester towards the Irish Sea, it’s surrounded by contrasting places but not possessed by any of them.

It has uncanny shifting features – marshes that used to be river, islands you can walk to and the suburbs and golf courses still have an air of the ‘wyldrenesse’ wandered by mythical Arthurian knights. The Land of the CH postcode is full of CH-CH-CH-CH CHanges. It is not surprising that the undulating oblong of the ‘paradise peninsula’ is a fertile source of musical talent.

Future Yard is a new festival designed to give a focus for Wirral musicians, by showcasing its rising artists alongside international acts. There’s a clear agenda to bring a Wirral musical identity into focus – to step out of the shadow of Liverpool. And the late-summer sunshine is providing some major brightness to step into.

A keen ticket price, promised re-imagining of venues and spaces and striking marketing campaign centred on captivating brutalist graphics have all gone to build excitement for the inaugural event.

The zesty bill put together by Bido Lito! includes local contingent Queen Zee, Bill Nickson, Eyesore & the Jinx and Friday headliner Bill Ryder-Jones. Alongside these are a beguiling range of incoming acts: Saturday headliner Anna Calvi, Nilüfer Yanya, Audiobooks, Squid and Black Country, New Road.

We arrive ready to be Wirralised.

Pylon installation – Roy Bayfield

The first musical sounds we hear are not made by human beings, at least not directly. PYLON, an installation in the red sandstone refectory of the 850-year-old Birkenhead Priory, comprises a pyramid of cymbals playing themselves using audio and computer data.

Inviting mattress-sized bean bags surround the metallic structure, encouraging a meditative immersive experience. The creation of electronic artist Forest Swords in collaboration with the Kazimier, PYLON hums, clanks, clangs, chimes and vibrates the wooden floor.

It is tempting just to lie here over the two days, but curiosity compels us to wander through into the Priory gardens.

Here, surrounded by monastic ruins and a warship, is the festival’s open air space. With one bar and one food truck, it’s a modestly sized and pleasant bare bones of the outdoor music experience – the smell of crushed grass, food and drifting smoke is all present and correct.

Samurai Kip take the first live band slot, playing to a reasonable crowd considering it isn’t yet Friday workers’ hometime. ‘Hello Birkenhead!’ gets declaimed for the first, but by no means the last time and the quintet ease us into the weekend with some deftly-delivered soulful jazz-funk grooves. The lead singer delivers an authentic bluesy growl and there’s a trombone.

A minute’s walk takes us to the Bloom Building, a brightly-painted steel box that combines a cafe, venue and co-working spaces and is going to be the site for many of the most interesting Future Yard acts. On stage Runcorn grunge psych outfit Spilt clearly have zero fucks to give that it’s still teatime, pounding out spiralling hypnotic riffs with starey-eyed Stooges-like intensity.

Back at the Priory there’s a massive queue of optimists outside the tiny chapel for a Bill Ryder-Jones piano set (see below), with sounds of carnivalesque craziness rising above the ancient holy stonework.

This proves to be Organ Freeman, that well known ‘music band from Birkenhead’, working the Priory grounds as if it’s a massive arena, raising some smiles with their enchanting synth-rock merry pranksterism.

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Back in Bloom, Wild Fruit Art Collective deliver theatrics at a quieter level, a sardonic off-kilter art-rock cabaret. The second trombone of the day is sighted – perhaps the Trombone Marketing Board are one of the event’s many supporters.

Meanwhile The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo demand the Priory Gardens get on their feet and step up as this is not a show to sit down at – not even on the handy picnic tables. Dressed in white attire like an apocalyptic cult IROK they summon up ecstatic energies with their Afro-futurist synth rock. A few audience stars are dancing properly amidst the appreciative cross-armed head-nodders.

The pattern is set now – oscillating between the cluster of venues, rarely missing a set start due to tightly-managed stages.

Queen Zee, arguably the most crucial punk band of the moment, explode in the pressurised container of the Bloom building. Sound isn’t always great at this point but the lashing power of the anarchic speed-glam performance is irresistible.

Given the growing reputation of Black Country, New Road we expected a bigger audience for their outdoor set, which takes a while to get going due to some tech issues.

Once unleashed the immense multi-layered noise produced by the London six-piece is a thing to behold in the fading light of the Priory grounds. Spoken-word lyrics that sound by turns desperate, abject and forcefully acerbic are delivered over insistent abrasive monster of sound inflected with violin and sax. Darkly compelling.

If the Priory Gardens weren’t the ideal setting for BC,NR, Bloom is the perfect venue for their Speedy Wunderground labelmates Squid Their driving jump-cut epics have the entire audience pulsating and flailing while yet more people strain to get in. A new Brighton (Sussex) band (as opposed to a New Brighton (Wirral) band), Squid are sublime underwater noisemakers.

Forest exhibition

Now that it is dark, the exhibition Forest, curated by the Open Eye Gallery, can be seen to best effect. Illuminated in lightboxes, Yan Wang Preston’s large format photographs of trees transplanted into Chinese super cities are arresting and a striking contrast with the gravestones and walls of the Priory at night.

In the cool slightly damp-seeming air of the Chapel an electronica set by Dialect makes a reflective and haunting space, cascades of sound unfolding over throbbing rhythms. There may be echoes of voices and natural sounds in the music, or we might be hearing bleed through from outside. All feels well.

Bill Ryder-Jones – credit Roy Bayfield

We’re slowly cooking in the vestibule of the tiny Priory chapel when Bill Ryder-Jones sidles up. He’s about to assume his place at the altar, but first clocks the crowd, all melted lipstick and sodden brows.

Yanking back the curtain of the confession booth, he lands upon a tower of water bottles — cheers, God — and wastes no time passing them out.

You’re not getting in, so you may as well have some water,” he shrugs, as volunteers hurry by with speakers, trying to appease the fans outside. There’s still a long line snaking across the courtyard, masses of people still hoping they’ll make it into Bill’s “secret” gig.

Those who do are welcomed in like old friends. He laughs at their awestruck reverence and subtitles every bum note with a joke; he hands over the reins of the setlist, asking for requests and groaning at half of them. A Bad Wind Blows Through My Heart is denied, but Wild Roses is a winner, as is Daniel, his voice cracking with emotion on every line.

There Are Worse Things I Could Do comes prefaced with a short speech about Grease. Sandy rewrites her whole personality to please a boy, Bill muses, while Rizzo confronts her sexuality and emerges still hurting but wiser, more self-knowing. He’s Rizzo.

Outside the chapel people compete for Bill’s attention, each longing to spill their guts right back at him and confess just what his songs have meant. He’s got time for all of them.

It’s a different story later that night at the Town Hall. Being a headline act isn’t always the endgame, it can be an anxiety-laden ordeal, a battle. While Bill spots and acknowledges tons of old friends and relatives and hairdressers in the crowd, it’s the chattering faces of strangers which unnerve him.

Yes, it’s one of those gigs where half the room just wants to have a pint and talk over the music like it’s some distant pub jukebox. Bill responds with acerbic asides, tilting between sunny and saturnine.

The songs sound unreal, the band are flawless, but it’s tense. Every so often there’s a round of industrial-strength shushing, but it’s too late.

So when inevitable set-closer Two Singles to Birkenhead finally kicks in, there’s a weird subtext, like he’s singing a paean to a place that has put him on edge all night. Meanwhile, at the mention of its own name, the town’s ears suddenly prick up. Raise the crowdsurfers, belt out the chorus, we’re listening now.

Is it all an act?” my dad asks in the car. No, but maybe it’s the hangover of being in a huge indie band and getting their fanbase as a free side.

People will snap up your records and adopt you as a favourite son, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hang on to every word. Which, for songwriting as raw and introspective as this, is a big mistake. The set was brilliant, but bittersweet.

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Dry Cleaning (Credit: Cheryl Doherty)

I know it’s only August, but we’re calling this one early. Dry Cleaning will be one of the bands of 2020.

They roll straight into latest single Goodnight, and it’s huge, far meatier than the recorded version.

The deadpan delivery of the exquisite, at times scathing lyric writing is glorious and coupled with a magnificent musical backing which seems to grow with each passing track, makes them such a mouthwatering prospect.

They end with Conversations from their new Sweet Princess EP, with its sorrowful one line refrain repeated over and over, “E-mailed by the takeaway again” as the guitar howl rages and the drum thrash becomes heavier.

Just special.

Follow that, Pottery.

And they sure did.

Opening with the epic Lifeline Costume, they didn’t let up for a second. Absolutely relentless versions of Lady Solinas and The Craft followed, they are an engaging live prospect.

The fact there was no Hank Williams is a minor gripe, it was another engrossing half hour.

It was getting even hotter in the Bloom Building as Eyesore & The Jinx took to the stage, and they sweated their way through another masterclass in catchy songwriting.

A mixture of old and new, with no let up in quality, they are really starting to look like masters of their craft, On An Island still clearly being one of the best singles of modern times.

Alas, in every life some rain must fall, and this run of enjoyable sets sadly came to an end in the form of Working Men’s Club.

We were intrigued to see them, as they are building up quite the fuss, with Teeth being played to death on 6 Music, but that single apart, there didn’t seem to be that much substance to them. File under work in progress.

There’s a degree of panic moments before the headliners come on, as the venue has emptied out almost entirely.

Thankfully it seems that the good folk of Birkenhead were just taking a collective breather, and as SPQR take to the stage, it’s to a full house after all.

Tonight they have a look. All four of them clad in all white, they look like a washing powder advert.

They roar into their opening salvo of Blood Pump and Our Mother’s Sons with the a furious spirit of a band keen to show just why they are headlining.

Their set now feels like a greatest hits set, finely tuned banger after banger, even the new track sounds like a hit in the making.

The shorter than expected set closes with This Gore and they are gone into the night.

They are, to these ears, the finest of Liverpool’s current crop, and nationwide success and recognition is surely to come sooner rather than later. National treasures in the making.

Day two begins with a walk, billed as A Walk on the Weird Side. The 90 minute perambulation led by local historian Gavin Chapell takes in pagan sacrifices, cross-dressing May Day festivities, riots, ghosts and pirates, giving a group of 20 or so a sense of the people and forces that have shaped the peninsula. Particularly interesting to hear about the Georgian-era plans for Birkenhead as a ‘city of the future’, as we’re here today in a future-facing event.

Delivered back to a present, we encounter Ani Glass, who together with Meinir and HMS Morris brings the North Wales connection to life. Her soaring synth pop is an airy and pleasing listen in the 80-degree sunshine.

The Gardens have settled into sedate mode in the heat, Welsh duo HMS Morris and their breezy tunes entertain a relaxed crowd without inspiring any outbreaks of dancing in the sweltering sunshine.

Meanwhile the Chapel provides an ideal setting for rising artist Podge and his glitchy manga-infused electronica. On this occasion a guitar has been added, giving additional wonky textures to his playful and unpredictable tunes. His woozy conjuring of electronic paradise might just be genius.

They’re followed but a band that straddles Wales and Liverpool, Gintis – their ‘melanchodelia’ perfectly suited to what has become the tame polite garden-party venue of the festival. (And trombone number three is sighted.)

Seatbelts are magnificent in the Town Hall, playing beneath the carved names of noted composers, artists and scientists. Their melodic hook-filled elliptical charm never let’s up through a 30-minutes set that feels way too short. Abigail Woods stagecraft is arresting, like a Wilko Johnson of keyboards.

Virtually the entire festival audience converge on the Town Hall for Anna Calvi, yet the venue isn’t rammed.

This makes for a pleasant experience though makes us wonder if ticket sales reached their target. Never mind, it’s a special experience for those of us there, Calvi on superb form delivering a set that goes from primal to heartrending to electrifying, often in the course of one song.

Playing against the illuminated backdrop she commands the audience as a shadowy icon of power, taking the audience on a rapturous journey. Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy is a set highlight, and an encore comprising Jezebel and her unforgettable reimagining of Suicide’s Ghost Rider leaves the crowd shaken and satisfied.

A final walk back to Bloom where a hardcore of survivors gather for Audiobooks. The Heavenly duo provide a cataclysmic finale, Evangaline Ling’s text-message tales unspooling alarmingly and compellingly over David Wrench’s heavy-duty proggy electronica creating a transcendent dance imperative.

Future Yard volunteers – credit Roy Bayfield

Future Yard has been a friendly and well-managed couple of days in what is for many an undiscovered place. The programme has been quality with several new bands reaching new ears. Is the future Birkenhead, as the t-shirts say? Only time will tell.

Getintothis’ nine best acts of the weekend

Bill Ryder-Jones

Bill Ryder-Jones

Bill Ryder-Jones presence infused the festival as he brought his art to the smallest and the largest venues. His two beautiful and memorable shows took audiences on an emotive ride with wit and charm.

Stella Donnelly 

The Welsh-Australian singer-songwriter captivated the Priory audience in one of the festival’s most talked about shows. Engaging and intimate, tender and gutsy, Stella Donnelly’s performance was witty, biting and unforgettable.

Forest Swords and collaborators

The PYLON installation was visually beautiful and created an absorbing, rhythmic sound environment throughout the festival. Activations by artists including Scalping, Godwosh and Luke Abbott showed a collaborative spirit and the whole thing demonstrated than non-band work can be part of a festival, not just a sideshow.

Eliza Mai

One of Saturday’s highlights arrived in the shape of Eliza Mai, a homegrown artist whose talent reinforces this festival’s mantra: that the Wirral is so much more than just Liverpool’s unsung sibling.

Having started to build up a repertoire of elegant, brooding R&B while still at school, Eliza is somehow already an old hand at this, delivering a set that is polished and precise and makes you glad you stumbled into the Town Hall when you did.

Dry Cleaning

We were excited to be seeing them after spending the last week gorging on their new EP, but what struck us was how much heavier they were than on record.
This extra layer just helped cement our belief that they are going to be so many people’s new favourite band, with their mix of humour and pathos.

Pottery

Have to admit they were far better live than we had suspected they might be, though it may lose some of the nuance of the recorded stuff.
They looked like they’d been playing for years not just releasing their first EP. A must see live.

SPQR

SPQR

One of those names that we’d heard mentioned but never listened to before seeing them earlier in the year, and once you see them live, you are hooked.
Listening to their whole Spotify output over and over (highly recommended) is all well and good but live is where they come into their own. Just glorious.

Audiobooks

Blindingly bonkers and brilliant, the duo’s performance destroyed the dancefloor while opening up strange sonic horizons and narrative weirdness – totally compelling and unlike anything else.

Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi

An artist at the top of her game performing a stunning set in a medium-sized venue to a mesmerised crowd – a truly special experience and a stunning climax to the festival. Passion, power and tenderness unleashed.

 

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