Yes, we've had some winter and spring festivals so far in 2014 but this is where it really begins. The mould on the tent in the shed is within nostril distance but before it gets an airing there's a couple of city based festivals to navigate. Early May is a fine time to have these. Up and coming bands can put a tent peg in the streets and mark out their summer plans. This is our first chance to spot what they've got to offer; an opportunity to drill through the buzz of bloggers and work out what is being hyped with justice and what should be left to the long drop.
Liverpool Sound City - 360 bands wanting to make an impression across 27 venues. Three days of music, too many clashes, one great festival.
Acutely aware that last year I failed to fully explore the delights of Liverpool, I decide upon a different approach when planning my itinerary on the train journey up. Rather than limit myself to key venues, I'm going to attempt to visit all of the places listed. A look at the map suggests that apart from those venues lying outside of a core square this should be achievable. Less certain is whether or not I'll see anything of worth but this is going to be one hell of a magical mystery tour. I'm going on a Sound City crawl.
First stop - The Hilton. The Hilton houses the festival conference that accompanies Sound City. In here, from early on Thursday morning, delegates from glamorous sounding companies discuss those things that are currently consuming the world of music, fashion and football. To my shame, I miss in-conversation sessions with FIFA presidential candidate Jerome Champagne, Gruff Rhys, Rick Parry and Thurston Moore but do go to a fascinating discussion on how promoters, artists and musicians can work better together. The Musician's Union offers me a piece of jigsaw that I'm able to exchange at the hotel bar for alcohol. I'm given further pieces of jigsaw but rather than see if they fit together, I spend the afternoon 'networking' and getting a bit drunk. A chat with Ben Robinson, one of the main guys behind Kendal Calling and bass player in Slamboree, confirms what others have told me that his is a festival with a decent, ambitious spirit. Friday’s conference at the Hilton is equally as impressive although there are less jigsaw pieces to distract me from the events. I take in an informative discussion, hosted by Janice Long, about the growing art of gig posters. Some of the work on display is phenomenal which distracts from the room being too hot.
A feature of Sound City is the international showcase events it puts on. Cultural ambassadors from various embassies delight in sharing a range of their musical talents to punters. Early on Thursday evening, I head to my first music venue of the festival to take in a bit of the Israeli showcase. It's the offer of free falafel that draws me into Studio 2 but once there I'm moved by the keyboard driven, electronic pop of Skyroads from Tel Aviv. I stay around in this neat, relaxed and cosy venue after I'm given another jigsaw piece. Maya Agvar takes to the stage with an acoustic guitar and a set of dark folk songs. It's the sort of stuff I might listen to at home but I've got more venues to see.
I quickly dart to the Moon Museum on the promise of real ale. I'm slightly disappointed to discover that this venue, sponsored by Wychwood, is no more than a converted outdoor car park with open air stage. It's not really a real ale bar of note either with just one ale on offer. The Maybirds promise much on record with their plush songs, plucked instruments and pleasing harmonies and do their utmost to deliver in this open space. But I can't help thinking that their tunes would be better suited to a building with a roof. The Australian delegation hold their now famous Saturday afternoon Barbecue in this space (although when I arrive I see no sign of the BBQ and just a noodle van). Sounds Australia programme a strong afternoon of ten acts. I catch the end of the tuneful and exciting rock band, Money For Rope, and send a friend who likes bands with drummers a picture (they have two). After a quick wander, I return to catch the end of an energetic set from dance duo DJ's,Hermitude. They mix it up like a Basement Jaxx tribute and we respond to their pleas by jumping around. It's a clear, clean style worthy of headlining this Aussie BBQ showcase.
Sandwiched between this Australian meat, I head to Sound Food And Drink to watch Leicester based band, Clubs. This small, stylish venue doesn't have wristband checks and as a result seems to also house stag do drinkers and bewildered diners. But, industry types flock like beardy foals to see this band that have created a healthy mystery by understating. It's a confident set that predicts a bright future even before the band gently bludgeon us with stand-out track, 'Bleed'.
Saturday evening and we are stood in a queue. Earlier tonight, we spectacularly failed to see Jagwar Ma in the Duke Street Garage, one of Liverpool Sound City's larger venues, even though we'd arrived with plenty of time to spare. We don't want to make the same mistake for Jungle so we queue at least 45 minutes before show time. We feel the need to grumble. Last year, we don't remember such extreme queuing. It must be a tough ask for festival organisers to balance out the crowds. A popular, talked about band is always going to put demands on the planning and you can't always predict how a crowd with different musical tastes will split. But this Saturday night has proved disappointing and we wonder if tickets have been oversold. Some people threaten not to return next year if this is the way that Liverpool Sound City is developing. A victim of its own success perhaps? I chose not to see Drenge and other more hyped acts earlier in the weekend but heard similar stories of reported overcrowding.
Our grumbles soon become mumbles when we tumble headlong into Jungle's set. Maintaining their air of mystery that projected them into the Sound of 2014 list, you can just about make out the shadows of the band as they take to a dimly lit stage in another pop up venue, Factory. We dance, smile and stand in awe as Jungle deliver a masterclass in taking us higher than their hype. When they launch into crowd pleaser, 'Heat', we're pretty sure we're watching an act that'll bounce us through this summer. Must sees.
On Thursday evening much of my time is spent alternating between two venues that are separated by no more than 99 steps. The Zanzibar is a functional gig-going space in which I catch two fine acts. Kagoule have just been playlisted by Radio One after making some noise in Nottingham for the past couple of years. There's a grungy yet frantic rock thing going on with this three-piece. Bass player, Lucy, is feeling the full effects of flu but this doesn't stop the band grabbing your attention with their smashing sonics. I nip the short distance to the underground cave that sits beneath the fine Shipping Forecast pub to see Jaws. It seems unfair that they've been tagged alongside fellow Brummies, Peace and Swim Deep, for there's more to their sound than shambling, summery style. Tonight, the guitars bite as Jaws give us a fuzzy filling. Back around the corner in Zanzibar again, the exceptional Courtney Barnett is joined on stage by her backing band, the Courtney Barnetts, for a short(ish) set that astounds the packed room. 'Avant Gardener' sounds so great I buy a T-shirt.
The Shipping Forecast also gives us some cracking bands on the Friday night. Happyness are harnessing a growing reputation for their pavement like stoner fuzz punk. And in this basement tonight they show they've got the tunes to back up the talk. Lizzo, a rapper from Houston and now based in Minneapolis, stuns us with elaborate wordplay and bundles of energy. She jumps to the stage in the Shipping Forecast later in the evening and whizzes like a sparkler. This is perhaps the first time many of those in the audience have seen this fizzing glitterball but many agree it won't be the last. I shake her hand as I leave.
In terms of quality of act seen, the Shipping Forecast very nearly wins best venue of the weekend. But it has challengers to that mantle. The friendly welcome I receive when buying a beer at the Leaf Cafe is joyful. The venue itself, an upstairs ballroom, kitted out with colourful lights and a swish of red says decadent glamour and Rosie Lowe does not disappoint when she takes to the stage. With a band full of artistic style, she swings through a set of laidback dance like a complex XX. Perhaps, her sound mix isn't quite right but, my goodness, when she consistently hits the heights that she sometimes touches in this set, she'll be stunning. Despite my best efforts, this is the only show I see in the Leaf Cafe.
Like the Leaf Cafe, the Kazimier is another of my favourites on this circuit. A square box like venue with an upstairs balcony that houses a gypsy caravan, it seems to offer decent views from wherever I stand. I see lots in here. It's late on Friday night/Saturday morning when Raleigh Ritchie, takes to the stage but he nails it to a lively crowd. The stage is Raleigh's throne and the audience know his game. When he unleashes 'Bloodsport' onto us, we fight (peacefully) to our gig-going limits. Sharp and sound. Fickle Friends need stage dynamics such as this to go with their clever tunes earlier on the Friday. Many of the crowd enjoy, We Have Band’s set on Saturday night but I can't get beyond the fact that they perhaps should be competing in the Eurovision in Copenhagen. No such doubts exist with the pulsating rhythms that Mixhell provide, dance music played by the drummer from Sepultura.
Saturday afternoon and I catch up with my brother who lives in Liverpool. It's a sunny afternoon so we meet in the Tavern On The Green. This is a city centre bar that overlooks a green space, Chavasse Park. It's here that the annual John Peel Sound City World Cup football tournament takes place. Acoustic sounds are provided by a range of local, Liverpool based artists. Visual support, a samba beat and a carnival atmosphere are supplied by Brazilica,a bevy of beauties dressed in yellow.
I should keep moving. Norma Jean Martine sounds like she's got the Adele records but holds the punters captive all the same in East Village Loft. To be fair, she fares better than, Bipolar Sunshine who struggles to get his fine tunes across to a busy room a couple of hours later. Spring King play at the same time as Norma Jean downstairs from the loft in the East Village theatre. I can only assume that their sound guy isn't working tonight for their noise is too much for my ears. I pop into Heebie Jeebies, The Brooklyn Mixer, Mello Mello, Bold Street Coffee, The Brink, Kazimier Gardens, Bluecoat Gardens, Korova and The Attic but there's either nothing on within or a noise that hurts in a similar way.
The boy's done good. He makes this 21 of the 26 venues visited. The boy is broken and his liver is poorly. He has the choice to head up to the Anglican Cathedral to find some salvation but as marvellous as this venue is for live music, the headliners on each night of Clean Bandit, Albert Hammond Jr, and Kodaline do little for his soul. It's mostly a similar tale at The Black-E but he knows from last year how great this venue is and he's disappointed not to get to the screen poster exhibition within its walls. It would have been fun to have taken a Ferry across the Mersey whilst listening to music (this is an option) or head to the Cavern Club but there's not eight days a weekend. Instead, he wanders into the nightclub space that is Nation. This is where Cream bases itself but tonight The Radiophonic Workshop take to the stage. Amidst a baffling array of equipment and a captivating visual show, he stands hypnotised as old TV soundtracks are reworked and replayed by the old men who wrote the music that once accompanied programmes such as Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. And he's reminded that though this is a weekend of shooting stars, of rising planets and venturing into the unknown, there's still a place for the elders.
It's not faultless; the queues and sometime surly staff mean it drops a couple of half marks but mostly this is a stunning way to begin a summer of festivals. It's vast and I cannot begin to think what a logistical nightmare this is to organise. But mostly, that organisation is seamless. There are a few delayed stage times but, by and large, bands take to their stage when scheduled. Liverpool Sound City has the ambition and intent to keep developing and growing. I hope that it can maintain this general level of quality when it does.
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