Fusion Festival has been running as a two day pop and dance event since 2013. Initially located in Birmingham, it moved to Liverpool in 2016. This year it changed location within the city to Sefton Park, expanding to three days with the addition of Fusion Presents, a day of indie guitar based music.
First act of the day was Sam Fender, delivering a set filled with urgency, social comment and in songs like, “The Borders” with its soaring sax and extended guitar solo, unashamedly under the influence of “Born to Run” era Springsteen. It was great for 25 minutes, such a pity he spoiled it by ending with an Oasis cover; it seemed a wasted opportunity to air his own material when his debut album comes out next week.
Set over, it was time to get my bearings and have a wander around the site. As a photographer I can usually judge the nature of an audience when I take my camera out among crowds at a festival. Some people ignore its presence, others politely smile when it’s pointed in their direction; and then there those who’s egos get the better of them and rush up to you wanting their photo taken. Given a couple of hours and a few more beers and this type will be demanding that you photograph them, insisting that they see what you’ve done, then getting aggressive if they don’t like the image. Unfortunately, the latter were very much in evidence at Fusion Presents.
Liverpool’s Circa Waves playing a home town gig really couldn’t do any wrong. They’re a band with a pleasing guitar based sound and onstage energy, visually focused chiefly on vocalist / guitarist Kieran Shudall and flailing drummer Colin Jones. Their current album seems to have brought a change in direction with slower, more melodic tracks and more harmony vocals. They’re an enjoyable listen, delivering a performance enhanced by the variation in pace that the new songs bring. By the time they close with “T shirt weather” it takes little encouragement for many at the front to sing along or hoist others on their shoulders.
I feel sorry for Jake Bugg. Anyone who has seen his gigs or listened to his music over the past six or seven years will appreciate the progression that his music and guitar playing has made. His audiences may be smaller but they have embraced the journey he is travelling. Unfortunately, the casual festival listener tends to know little of his material beyond his highly successful first album. The crowd at Fusion was no different. He opens with two acoustic numbers including, “Trouble Town” which predictably gets an enthusiastic response. From there on it’s a band performance with a familiar pattern; appreciative applause for his earliest material and at times almost embarrassing silence for newer tracks. He inevitably closes with “Lightning Bolt” which also inevitably receives the most enthusiast response. In truth this now sounds simplistic and trite compared to some of what has gone before but it seems that Mr Bugg is stuck with it as a millstone around his neck. He’s never the most animated or communicative when it comes to between song banter but you sense that he’s increasingly frustrated by festival crowds stuck in 2012.
Echo and the Bunnymen are an embarrassment. Actually the band is workmanlike; it’s Ian McCullough who’s an embarrassment. They begin with more obscure tracks from their back catalogue, all performed adequately. About four songs into the set “Villiers Terrace” morphs into a dreadful attempt to play The Doors, “Roadhouse Blues.” A little later their rendition of “Walk on the Wild Side” is even worse, while between songs we were treated to occasional unintelligible mumbling from McCullough. In one barely intelligible moment he appeared to dedicate a song to ex footballer Dean Saunders, recently imprisoned on drunk-driving charges. Why would you! The last twenty minutes should have been an absolute triumph. Not many bands can put together a sequence that runs: Bring on the Dancing Horses / Nothing lasts forever / The Cutter / The Killing Moon / Lips like Sugar. The truth is it was awful. McCullough’s voice wasn’t great at the start of the set; by the time they reached Dancing Horses it was going and he finished by what can only be described as shouting. They left to lukewarm applause which told its own story for a gig in their home city. To add to this, they were the only act on the day to ban photographers, they refused to let sponsors MTV film them and insisted in turning off the large side of stage screens so those further back in the audience couldn’t see them.
It was time for another walk around the site which was now becoming increasingly crowded. I’m not sure of the official capacity or whether the event sold out but I would estimate that there were probably around 25,000 present by the end of proceedings; a quite mixed group generally aged from their early twenties upward with some families bringing small children. Generally the atmosphere was good although there was a degree of macho posturing from a small minority. At its most basic this was manifest in the way that these individuals glared, and then stomped or staggered their way through people en-route to bars or to relieve themselves. Much more worrying was a mass brawl involving around fifteen men and women that erupted around twenty metres in front of me midway through Kings of Leon’s performance and moved through the crowd. Fortunately its direction of travel was away from me. It was an unpleasant incident and something I haven’t witnessed among festival goers for many years.
Food was fairly typical in terms of quality, variety and price and queues seemed reasonable at around 5pm. At the rear of the site were a number of fairground rides which didn’t seem to be doing great business. There were three large bars in the arena which should have been adequate. They had well organised queuing systems but service seemed slow and by the time early evening arrived it was apparently taking 30 minutes to get served. Unfortunately there was no draught alcohol on sale and with prices starting at £6 for a 400ml bottle, Fusion proved to be the most expensive of the six or seven festivals I’ve covered this summer. So, I’ve eaten my food and drunk my bottle of beer; what do I do with my waste. Thus began the great dustbin hunt! To be fair there were small bins outside some food stalls but trying to find others around the site proved difficult. What about re-cycling / environmental awareness? Never heard of it; or so it seemed! Unsurprisingly, as the day progressed, so did the piles of litter; particularly the thousands of plastic beer and cider bottles being served by bars. It’s difficult to blame punters, I consciously searched for somewhere to put my waste and found it difficult so it’s no surprise that many people just dumped it where they stood.
With my litter eventually disposed of, I came across two huge queues snaking through the fairground area. Were these for exceptionally popular rides? No these were toilet queues. By the time that Kings of Leon began their set at 8.30 it was apparently taking people 45 minutes for people to reach their destination! A fifty metre long section of wall close to the stage became a mixed public convenience. Some more modest souls were actually queuing to find a degree of privacy behind an ice cream van parked adjacent to the wall. Meanwhile others queued at its front for ice cream.
Although the above are significant criticisms it’s important to stress that the majority of those present appeared to thoroughly enjoy themselves; helped chiefly by the quality of the musical experience provided by those at the top of the bill.
Franz Ferdinand were simply stunning; the best I’ve ever seen them. In their hour plus set they delivered what can only be described as a headline performance. Opening numbers, “Dark of the Matinee” and “No you girls” set the pace in a set culled mainly from early material but including recent tracks which oozed the same quality. Great stage presence with incredible energy and delivered without a hint of arrogance; all you could hope for in a performance. They even enticed the sun to appear and when a rainbow ached over the stage during, “Michael” it conjured one of those magical festival moments. To say that the crowd were won over by the time they closed with, “Take me out” and an extended “Fire” would be a gross understatement.
A discussion subsequently ensued which distilled to a simple question. How would Kings of Leon follow that? I’d seen KOL at the peak of their popularity and not been impressed. Last year I watched them play a long, slow burning but initially subdued set in Glasgow and really enjoyed it, but they were going to need something more to match Franz Ferdinand’s performance. It’s a pleasure to say that they delivered.
They began with “Slow Night, So Long” before things came to life with “Crawl” followed by the excellent “Waste a moment” from under rated (in my opinion) recent album Walls. Over the next hour and three quarters we were treated to tracks from all of their albums. Material from “Only the Night” dominated but there was plenty from “Because the Times,” “Come around sundown” and “Walls.” It wasn’t just the selection of material that worked, the Followill brothers appeared to be in an upbeat mood with Caleb, smiling and speaking more than I’ve witnessed previously. Credit too must go to the lighting and set designers. This was an altogether more upbeat production with brighter lighting and backdrops to complement the music than they’d presented last year; all of which added to the atmosphere. Sefton Park became a mass of singing and arm waving, with countless bodies held aloft on shoulders, complemented by a succession of audience held flares periodically illuminated as stage lighting turned on the ecstatic crowd; all of which was relayed back to them through the large stage side screens. Inevitably, the performance built toward the climactic “Sex on Fire” with the party atmosphere going into overdrive. Yet the party wasn’t quite over; they gave us one final treat with the rocky “Black Thumbnail.”
The first Fusion Presents had given us some great music with special performances from Franz Ferdinand and KOL. I hope it returns next year. Sefton Park proved a good location and with the right bands it’s a strong addition to the festival circuit for Merseyside and the North West of England. From a production perspective it was well organised with everything running on time. Promoters must however address the issues of toilets, bar queues and litter to make it a more audience friendly experience.
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