Liverpool is a city rich with musical history and pedigree. Of that, there can be no doubt. So, it feels highly appropriate that the Liverpool International Music Festival, ‘Europe's largest free festival' (I wonder what Coventry's Godiva has to say about that tagline) takes place in Sefton park, a beautiful site that's not short of a bit of history and pedigree itself.
I get hideously stuck in motorway traffic on the Friday night and so conspire to miss the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra's opening to the park event. I'm told by others that I chat with the following day that they put on a jubilant set – tunes from the movies and tunes written by bands from this fine city given some full-on pomp and classical rendering. I'm disappointed to miss what for many was clearly a highlight.
But when Saturday comes, I'm raring to go. Picnic blankets and boxes of cider sorted, we make our way to the park. This isn't a festival where you get rigorously searched on entrance. Festival goers are told that there's little car parking around Sefton Park and many of the roads are blocked off. But Ali used to live a stone's throw from here and knows the backstreets well. We leave the car in some undergrowth and head into the park.
Strictly speaking, we're going to the LIMF Summer Jam. I suspect that for many this entertainment on Sefton Park is the entirety of the LIMF but it would be remiss to not mention events that take place in other venues across the city. Gilles Peterson does a soul night that involves Omar, and Incognito on the Thursday; the Buzzcocks have a punk night on the Saturday and the Lightning Seeds alongside Pete Wylie play Liverpool's O2 Academy on the Sunday. I managed to win a competition ticket for the latter but flaked out on a sofa and cursed my over-indulgence from the night before.
The sense for the Summer Jam is one of friendly, family anticipation. There are no signs but people seem to know where they're headed. There's two main stages – the central stage is where most people congregate; on the Saturday it has a youthful, almost commercial radio roadshow feel to it. This might be down to the acts scheduled to play. But it's where people bring their garden furniture, deck chairs and family pets to sit in the humid heat whilst watching acts such as Ms Dynamite, and Shakka. (He makes a point of telling us that his name has 2 k's). The second stage feels like it's much more my territory. The ‘It's Liverpool' stage has a more traditional, laidback festival vibe going on. Acts from Liverpool such as China Crisis (30 years and still going strong) and Stealing Sheep (as brilliant as ever in their white costumes and face paint) entertain the noticeably older crowd here.
Away from the two main stages, other assets of the park are used. Some people walk up and down the tree-lined avenues, largely oblivious that there's a festival going on. Cyclists and joggers still pass, on missions to keep fit. We marvel at some of the water features within the park and stop for a while to feed the ducks on a large pond. In the distance, we spy a Victorian bandstand where DJs seem to be playing mellow tunes. It's very relaxed.
According to the LIMF website, there are more stages; the Academy stage seems to promote the up and coming and the Laces Out stage seems to specialise in DJ sets. Despite buying a lanyard for £5 from a merchandise stall and trying to read the small map that comes with it, I concede defeat in finding these other places. Perhaps more signs or larger maps positioned around the park would prove helpful in future years. Stewards seem similarly confused when I ask them and vaguely point their fingers in a style reminiscent of terrible disco dancers. All roads seem to lead to one of the two main stages.
“There's 200 individual toilets you know”. That useful snippet of information comes from my Dad, recently moved to the Wirral, who has heard this fact on local media broadcasts. The two that I went in were all beautifully maintained. Perhaps, on the busier side of the site by the central stage this wasn't the case but top marks for cleanliness and the respect that the crowd here seem to show for others. It's one of the things that most surprises me in truth. Sometimes, free urban festivals can attract a rum element, keen on kicking off their own turf wars. I see very little sign of bother at all. The family, caring spirit wins through.
There's an incredible amount of food on offer and more community based stalls. Dotted around the perimeter of the central stage and to one side of the ‘It's Liverpool' stage, the community stalls give this a feel of a massive garden fete or country show. I'm sure that the Mayor of Liverpool is putting big bucks into this as are the range of partners that are involved so it's perfectly reasonable that they get space for their wares. As a result, there's opportunity to try some sneaky samples of new Strawberry and Rhubarb ciders and Shed Head Pale Ales.
Not that there's a shortage of bars either. Some have that snake like queuing system - the sort employed by theme parks to ensure there's order before we get on the ride. There's San Miguel at £4.50 a pint and bitters, ciders and ales at £4. Not the cheapest you'll find this summer but not outlandish either considering this is free festival.
I spy 'Burger Theory' in the 'It's Liverpool' field and am a bit surprised. I'd had one of their excellent burgers a month before at Barn On The Farm. I get into a decent conversation with the proprietor of this Bristol based pop-up outlet. He concedes it's a long way to travel but worth it to get their name wider known. I choose a different burger and it's as unbelievably delicious as the one I had a month ago. There's a lot of great food at festivals now.
Whilst you feel in the middle of nowhere, there's a fair few residential houses around the park. It might explain why the music is curtailed by 8PM on both Saturday and Sunday. Maybe, the park needs to use less lighting this way as well. You get the slightly odd scenario in which headline acts take to the stage when the night is still young. On Saturday evening, I catch a little bit of John Power before heading back to the mass crowd to watch Sigma. "They're hardly playing any of their tunes", says somebody standing near to me. "This is much more of a dubstep thing like Pendulum", says another. "They've got to do that to sound like proper headliners", says a third. I doubt that I'm the target demographic for this high-energy carnival yet it leaves a smile on my face so I can't be too sniffy.
And I'd already had my Saturday evening joy - fifty minutes of Greg Wilson doing a DJ thing on the 'It's Liverpool' stage. The fab burger had been washed down with cider and now I was able to dance like it was going out of fashion. Judging from the looks I got from the beautiful people of Liverpool, I probably was never in fashion. But, I had a lovely time. Snippets of the Clash and New Order's Blue Monday merged together with less recognisable joyful tunes to make a pretty euphoric atmosphere as the sun shone down and made me sweat.
With markedly less enthusiasm, I try to do it all again on the Sunday. Arguably, this is a day where the line up is better even if the hangover is more disabling. On the central stage, Craig Charles gets the crowd up and dancing with his funk and soul grooves from the heart. Later, Lianne La Havas shows spirit and puts down a marker to say that she's ready for bigger billing in festivals across the country. The Wombats headline - not entirely my thing but they're appreciated here in their hometown. Earlier on the 'It's Liverpool' stage, I'd caught the end of Natalie McCool doing a shimmering folky cool thing. I'd watched Clean Cut Kid play what they describe as their 30th festival show this year (it's feels like I've seen most of those - I'm not a stalker). I'd sheltered from a heavy rainstorm by sitting on a park bench covered by a canopy of trees, when Dave McCabe & The Ramifications blast out tunes from last year (and a couple of better known songs such as 'You Will, You Won't') that sound like The Zutons have never gone away.
The LIMF ( "not to be confused with MILF") is clearly something that is cherished within the annual calendar of Liverpool. In times of austerity, most councils across the country are cutting back on their free music celebrations or finding ways to charge for them. Trust Liverpool to go against the grain. There's a lot to be said for successfully bringing people together in a park to feel good. And the LIMF doesn't fail to give us that collective slap on the back and a spring in our step. Top marks.
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