It's Sunday evening and headliners, The Kooks, are about to take to the Liverpool Sound City stage. Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, the recently elected Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, are called to the arena. They proceed to host an impeccably observed minutes silence for the 22 victims of the recent bomb attacks. The unity between the two neighbouring cities is highlighted; the musical heritage of both places noted. We're all ridiculously aware that the festival landscape might now have changed forever. Increased security checks, patrols by armed police with menacing guns and sniffer dogs on the lookout for explosives. This is what to expect in 2017.
In truth, the organisers of Liverpool Sound City have got the tone spot on. We feared that the queues might be excessive and that the controls too rigid. It's only on the Friday night when things creak a little. This sold out show of a gaggle of excited stars, put together by the earnest John Cale, celebrates fifty years since the release of the Velvet Underground's seminal album with Nico. And, with everybody arriving together, the roads get a bit gridlocked as queues almost snake back into Liverpool's city centre, a twenty minute walk away. Perhaps that explains why this plethora of people from bands as diverse as the Fat White Family, Wild Beasts, Clinic and The Kills take to the stage behind schedule. Once they do appear, it doesn't matter one jot. This is not the stuff of your typical tribute act and exact copycat mimicry seems slightly scorned upon. Instead, we get reinterpretations of the originals; the sense of cool, laidback fuzz remains from the classic album but updated for today's crowd. People, who are in bands yet to form, make mental notes to mention this night as one that inspired them. Yep, it's that good.
Liverpool Sound City takes place in the Clarence dock area, a post-industrial concrete wasteland - a car park on the edge of the city. Decrepit warehouses, ripe for regeneration, line the streets around the docks. Some entrepreneurs have already taken the risk and have started to develop the area. It won't be like this for long. On the Saturday, a gust-laden wind blows up a regular storm of dust across the main stage area. This swirling typhoon is nothing if not atmospheric as we look out to the Mersey. I'm grateful for my sunglasses.
There are five stages of note within the space. The site can be crossed within minutes. Sometimes, the proximity of the stages causes sound-bleed on some of the smaller ones. If you stand right In the middle of this circle of stages, you're met with such a bewildering cacophony of sound that it's almost unpleasant on the ears. Two of the stages are under canvas; the marquee that is the Baltic Stage and the tent that's Tim Peaks Diner. Two of the smaller stages, the Cavern Stage and the Pirate stage blast out to an open air audience. And then, there's the Atlantic stage, the daddy of them all, sitting proudly as the main venue, on the banks of the Mersey.
Liverpool is a city well known for its drinking culture and so you'd expect the bars here to be decent. There are two main bars, positioned either side of the Atlantic stage. To approach them, you have to navigate through a snake-like path of metal barriers that's akin to queuing at airport security. I guess this does eliminate queue pushing and negates the 'I was next' arguments but it almost seems a little excessive at times when you're the only person waiting for a beer. Staff behind the bars (and in fact across the site) remain smiley, chatty and friendly throughout. It's not a cheap festival with pints coming in at £4.50 but neither is it the most expensive you'll ever attend. To cut down on waste, you purchase a stronger plastic glass for an extra £1 when you first get to the bar which you can then exchange each time you return. By early Saturday evening, the bar to the right of the Atlantic stage is taken out of service. I assume it could be because one bar can cope with the demand. Elsewhere, there's a truck set up to sell Meantime brewery craft ales. The beer might be a bit tastier but you'll be paying £5 for a pint here.
You’re not going to starve at Liverpool Sound City. Around the site, there’s a decent range of food vans to keep the fussiest eater happy. The vegan stall up by the Pirate stage does a fine platter of spicy treats for £8 which we find substantial enough for two of us. Photographer Sarah declares that she’s hungry on Sunday evening and proudly returns from a stall with an epic portion of halloumi fries that she paid a fiver for. Seriously, there was a lot of halloumi involved. “The staff who served me did seem a little bit out of it”, explained Sarah.
I’ve got a healthy mistrust for festivals that have more VIP attendees than general punters. It just doesn’t feel right. Here, there seems to be a bewildering array of options for special treatment if that’s your particular bag. Slap bang in the middle of the site, there’s a series of wigwams and yurts. Access is limited to people who’ve paid more for the privilege. Like a scene from the film ‘High-Rise’, punters lounge around on sofas and in hammocks (perhaps) drinking cocktails and looking out on the riff-raff. OK, perhaps it’s not that extreme but it is unnecessarily in yer face and the taste it leaves is a little bit odd. Ever the hypocrite, when I discover that the corporate beer tent allows access for those with a press pass (on some days but not all days), I make a bee line straight for it. There are seats here; wooden benches on which you can rest your weary legs. It’s a comment observed by many I chat with over the weekend; “Outside of the VIP areas, there’s not enough places to sit down”, they say. The site is hardly green and luscious. A blanket or rug is unlikely to mask the indent of a rock or stone on your bum cheeks.
Bum cheeks – toilet provision is plentiful and they seem to be well maintained over the course of the weekend. Paper is often found in the cubicles and there’s rarely any substantial queues to use them.
Liverpool Sound City is essentially a music festival but there are valid attempts at adding to that with the extras. I suspect this is something that can be developed in future years to give it a more rounded feel. We stop for a while to watch dance troupes do their thing; we enjoy the carnival feel as processions pass us by and we watch with interest as a life drawing session attracts wannabe artists.
There's a fair chunk of music to watch during the day at Liverpool Sound City but if you've not been able to get your complete fill, you can head off-site and into one of the after-party venues once Clarence Dock grinds to a halt. We pass on this opportunity on Saturday night as we're beaten and worn out but Sunday sees us with extra fuel in the tank so we stumble into the Invisible Wind Factory, the incredible new venue recently established by the people who once ran the Kazimier in the City Centre. Early adopters, they've taken ownership of one of those industrial spaces and transformed it into an exceptional party venue. The music runs until the late morning in their two spaces, stylishly adorned and full of happy, festival punters. I'm keen to watch Stealth from Birmingham but he doesn't seem to appear when the programme suggests he should. He later confirms to me by Facebook message that the times were all over the place and he went on later than anticipated. We do catch John Joseph Brill and make a note that his literate, orchestrated sound is something to check out when we get home. A taxi picks us up and gets us lost on the Wirral. It's been a long weekend.
But let's go back to the very beginning for it's a good place to start. Before the festival starts proper, there are two evening shows. I've already mentioned the Velvet Underground extravaganza on the Friday night. Thursday evening and it's the turn of The Human League to get us all kinds of nostalgic with a trip through their admittedly impressive back catalogue. "Ooh, I'd forgotten about this one", said pretty much every casual fan in attendance at some point during the set. When Phil and gang break out into 'Louise', we all recall the friend we had of that name back in the day. As the set builds to the inevitable end and the first bars of 'Don't You Want Me' ring out across the car park, our throats are raw from singing along. I dash to catch the last bus just as the encore of 'Being Boiled' kicks in. It's been a gloriously hot day in the North West and the Human League have helped the sunshine to last longer.
It's worth noting that before The Human League did their thing, there was an impressive set from Jeczalik, Dudley and Langan (or The Art of Noise as we all want to call them). It's a show that many fans of the Fairlight sound have waited years to see and they're not disappointed. 'Close (to the edit)' still sounds as vibrant and fresh today as it did back in the 1980's when it was first released. Always an act with an eye on the future, we all clap appreciatively when samples of Theresa May's voice are cut up to produce an irreverent Tory manifesto during the playing of 'Peter Gunn'. This is how reminiscing should be and it's a shame that more punters aren't here to witness it.
Crowd numbers at this year’s Sound City are best described as unpredictable. With quality line ups on the two evenings and across the weekend, attendance should have been solid throughout. But, it's disappointingly sparse on the Saturday when some of the best acts are playing and much busier on the Sunday when more of the indie landfill hits town. Actually, that's unfair. Across the range of stages, there's more than enough variety to keep even the grumpiest of festival goers happy on both days. We get into our stride by the Sunday and realise that, if something's not to your immediate taste, it's best to walk on by to see what's occurring in one of the smaller tents. Back when this festival happened in bars, cafes and pop-up venues in the city centre, it had a knack for unearthing some fine, up and coming talent. It's a principle that still holds true.
Sunday afternoon on the Cavern Stage and we accidentally stumble upon a band so captivating that the image of their performance still seems to be printed into my head. Ssing Ssing are from Korea and sing traditional folk songs from their country. But, they mix it up with a sound that's partly glam, partly disco and all sorts of psychedelic rock. On stage, gender becomes neutral and a sort of unisex power bewitches all who watch. It's world music that wouldn't be out of place at Womad. It's a fabulous highlight and an enticing alternative from Milburn who draw the crowds over on the main stage.
We drop in on the Pirate Stage and stay throughout the set by Empathy Test. A friend, who's one of the biggest Depeche Mode fans I know, had previously recommended them and it's clear to see why he's drawn to Empathy Test. Their sound is 1980’s synth-based electronica; the songs stand out and are delivered with confidence and charm that settles on the right side of arrogance. Singer, Isaac Howlett, wonders why nobody in the UK has heard of his band when Spotify downloads for their tune, Losing Touch, have almost hit the half million mark. Perhaps, their sound is more appealing to the European market now? Generously, Empathy Test give out all of their merchandise (T-shirts and CDs) at the end of their set. I'd watch them again if I was to see their name on a bill.
Dapz On The Map is a revelation in Tim Peaks Diner on the Saturday afternoon. Urban, grimey hip hop from Birmingham can hardly be described as my thing but this is done with such a cheeky charm that it's hard not to be drawn to Dapz. At times, his commentary on the challenges of growing up in the West Midlands strikes well-worn chords yet there are also new perspectives offered that are well worth a listen. Think Dizzee if mixed by Mike Skinner and you'd be in the Dapz On The Map space. It's a show worth seeing.
Proletariat possibly have the best band name of the weekend, a fact acknowledged by Lee Broadbent, lead singer of Cabbage, when he introduces them on stage. All part of an emerging creative scene that's developing from the Mossley area of Manchester, Proletariat have got a way to go until they hit the heights that Cabbage seem to be. Nevertheless, there's enough post punk spirit and energetic ramblings on display to indicate that they have a sound that works in 2017.
Cabbage are everywhere. It's lovely to see a band enjoying themselves at the festival once their set is done and here's a band who evidently don't care how bad their hangovers will be on Monday. After seeing them play a slightly mooted set at Handmade festival a month ago, I'm pleased to report that they're heading back to their riotous, shambolic best. From the off, they encourage a mate to join them on stage wearing a bag of space raiders crisps on his head as a disguise. For some, it might be a bit too frenetic and gobby but for me they remain as important a band as they were when I first saw them in a sweaty basement club last year. Never shy of making simple political statements, it doesn't get better than when Lee triumphantly dismantles the drum kit at the end of the set and precariously holds the 'Vote Corbyn' slogan on the bass drum above his head as if he's about to attempt to throw it into the crowd.
The smaller, up and coming acts make some inevitable noise but they're not to be outdone by those with more experience either. It's something of a coup to attract Peaches to this party and the Canadian doesn't disappoint as she leaves mouths aghast by performing a pumped-up set of high energy electronica. Previously, Merrill Beth Nisker has only been on my periphery but her boundless fizz, dancefloor delights, emphatic choruses and eccentric costume changes make this an incredible spectacle of performance art. "It's hard to believe that she's the same age as Sergeant Pepper", says a friend I bump into after her set. Fifty seems to be the magic number at this year's Liverpool Sound City.
!!! (Chk Chk Chk) offer a similar sound as Peaches the following night but with less performance art. It's still got enough bounce to ensure enjoyment though. Elsewhere, across the weekend, other acts to impress include Slaves, The Kooks and Tim Burgess (doing a chilled out acoustic set, mostly consisting of songs from The Charlatans back- catalogue). For me, it's difficult to see the point of existence for some bands but it's easy to walk away from acts like The Hunna and The Sherlocks to find other things to watch. I'll always have a soft spot for Metronomy but the smaller Saturday crowds seem to wilt even more during their headline set. This seems to visibly knock Joseph Mount's confidence. It's fair to say that they'll have better days. The award for most captivating car-crash of a set over the course of the weekend probably goes to Carl Barat & The Jackals. It must take lots of practice to sound so under-rehearsed. Many leave the Tim Peaks Diner when the legend that is John Cale gives an in-conversation chat. The Prince Of Wales comes across as pompous, dull and pretty far removed from reality. I guess this is a classic case of when it's sometimes better to leave your music to do the talking.
Liverpool Sound City is by no means flawless. I can't help thinking that it was better when it made use of city centre venues. But the creases are surely things that can be ironed out and it'd be easy to underestimate those extra challenges in the week leading up to the festival, which were handled very well. On the whole, this has been a great festival to attend. Staffed with friendly smiles and Scouse charm, we've had a weekend where we've been able to both get nostalgic and to see some of the next big things. There's considerable regeneration potential up here in the Docks area of the city and little doubt in my mind that Sound City will yield some of the benefit when that all kicks in. Overall, I had a lot of fun and you can't say fairer than that.
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