Liverpool Sound City is an undeniably exciting, ambitious, fun and downright riotous event which has staked its claim over the last three years as one of the highlights of Merseyside’s cultural calendar.
There’s something slightly chaotic about the feel of the four-day festival that seems to fit in with Liverpool’s underground music scene – but at the same time, like an annoying younger brother at the dinner table, it seems to crave acceptance and attention from the mainstream music industry in the form of its rather spurious music business conference.
I know for a fact that the tiny team behind the event work miracles to stage a festival that features 400 bands, and there is a slight feeling that perhaps they need to reign themselves in somewhat or at least concentrate on what they are good at.
This feeling crossed my mind while being sent back and forth from the Hilton to a tiny ticket office on Seel Street in search of my wristband. Along the way, in the various queues I stood in, I came across people trying to pick up tickets for shows which they had paid for; people attempting to find out where certain gigs had been moved to; and even a band trying to get payment for the gig they had just played.
The exasperated students manning the ‘box office’, bless ‘em, didn’t seem to have a clue on any subject, and to be honest I think people these days expect a bit more, especially when they’ve paid good money for gig tickets, and in the case of one couple I spoke to, driven over 100 miles.
Still, I suppose these seem spurious complaints when confronted with a line-up which is surely as good as any festival this year. I’ve tried to pick out a few highlights I managed to take in across a manic and rather drunken few days in May…
Sound City – Day One
First port of call is the rather wonderful Kazimier club in Wolstenholme Square. A quick word about the Kazimier, which has quickly become my favourite venue in Liverpool, is probably needed as for me it was one of the stars of the festival.
Housed in a tacky old ‘Roxy’s-style club next to Cream, it’s got that rough, faded glamour thing going on which has been missing from Liverpool since the closure of the Royal Court.
Add to this an excellent sound, great views, assorted random sofas, a pleasant smoking area and a lack of intrusive security and you have a brilliant venue.
It’s the perfect setting to watch the wonderful Mugstar. One of Liverpool’s finest bands, Mugstar are not for the faint-hearted: endless pulsing rhythms; pounding guitar and repetitive circular keyboard riffs all combine in a thrilling stew of German motorik and Hawkwind-esque power.
Playing tracks from their superb album Sun, Broken; Mugstar serve up a powerful reminder that instrumental music can be just as engaging, emotive and involving than anything strummed on an acoustic guitar.
The original plan had been to stroll over to the O2 Academy to catch the weird and wonderful world of The Fall, but there is only so many times you need to be shouted at by an old, drunk man in this life and a decision is made to nip down Seel Street instead and to the Masque Theatre.
A criminally-underused venue, its church hall atmosphere is the perfect spot to take in one of Britain’s finest bands, British Sea Power.
Since emerging ten years ago from Brighton via Cumbria, BSP have mined a brilliantly eccentric seam of arts school rock. I was a sucker immediately for their Victorian uniformed stage chic and tendency to decorate gigs with stuffed birds and copious foliage.
Songs about the shipping forecast, bird spotting and the great Canvey Island flood of the 1950s only sealed the deal, as did their rather excellent combination of angular UK post-punk with a touch of proto-Pixies grunge dynamics. It’s a winning formula and although I was dismayed not to see an appearance of their huge bass drum or alarming bear costume I will forgive them for songs such as ‘Fear of Drowning’, ‘Remember Me’ and ‘Carrion’ more than make up for it. Superb.
With so many bands playing the event clashes are inevitable, but as BSP finish, the wonderful Archie Bronson Outfit are beginning back at the Kazimier.
Back in 2006, this Bath three-piece released an album with the onomatopoeic title ‘Derdang Derdang’, a perfect encapsulation of the sound and aesthetics of a band for whom less is so much more. Yes, it’s a restrictive palette of blues and garage rock but with ‘Funhouse’-esque skronk and Monk-ish Mo Tucker drums they make a stunning and claustrophobic noise, which even has the metal-loving member of our party stroking his bum fluff and muttering things about Slayer. A definite highlight.
Sound City – Day Two
Once more the Kazimier is the place to be and the first band I catch is the rare psychedelic treat of Ganglians.
Sloppily fuzzy riffs unravel themselves like frayed knots as these beardy strummers reveal themselves as both fans of wired folk and the more pastoral moments of the Kinks. Pretty difficult to classify but I guess that’s my job, so I’ll merely point you in the direction of their excellent long player, Monster Head Room; out now on the ever excellent City Slang label.
I’d wrongly assumed that any band with the ‘Oscillation’ in their title could not be all bad but Scottish proggers North Atlantic Oscillation became one of the few bands to disappoint. It’s very hard to look cool while typing away at a lap top but even harder when you’re dressed in combat trousers and trainers and have the look of a geography student with a late assignment due in. For all their Floydian guitar riffs and synthesised vocals, this is prog at its dullest, sounding like a bored Doves. So much for Oscillating Wildly.
Something fresh was called for and thankfully a jog down and then up to the Masque loft found Sunderland’s Field Music doing their thing. That thing is a delightful mix up of XTC’s melodic punch combined with a busy and inventing power pop sheen that takes in hand claps, harmonies and just about every musical trick known to man to make their sound seem like the poppiest, tightest thing since Pete Waterman’s hit factory.
Occasionally it just smacks of showing off in bad 10cc kind of way but when they pull it off Field Music could almost be the new wave Beach Boys. A curate’s egg but a tasty, runny one for sure.
In a repeat of the previous night’s athletics we then hot foot it back to the Kazimier to find a huge crowd for hometown heroes Wave Machines.
It has been so refreshing to see a band come from Liverpool and achieve success without thinking Beatles, La’s, Love, The Coral in that order. Wave Machines instead take the musical chops from those other masters of melody, the Bee Gees and produce such a hyperactive blend of falsetto-driven synth pop that even when they sound a bit like Howard Jones you can’t help but grinning ear to ear.
I Go, I Go, I Go is sort of brilliantly off-kilter tune that should soundtrack Japanese pop tart adverts, while you could imagine Madonna hearing a copy of debut album Wave If You’re Really There and proclaiming “That’s it. That’s the new sound!”
Pleasingly it’s not all pop cheese, with ‘Punk Spirit’ laying claim to the laziest protest anthem of all time. These guys know exactly what they are doing and all the credit to them – they are clever bastards.
Sound City – Day Three
After two days solid boozing it was time for a rest and a catch up with old friends. Which is exactly what I did at a packed and sweaty Leaf Café where Liverpool five piece Hey Tourists were playing their debut gig.
Featuring the annoyingly youthful John Robinson, ex of Liverpool’s most-likely-tos of six years ago, The Bandits, the band also feature the mesmeric charms of front woman Cheryl. A move away from the cosmic scouse of his previous band, Hey Tourists now add a post punk angularity that can’t help but bring to mind the likes of Blondie and the Banshees. Cheryl, meanwhile is a star in waiting who the word coquette might have invented for.
By now the combination of Red Stripe and a heatwave was causing me to wilt and an enforced stop off at new Slater Street bar The Shipping Forecast was necessary. What a treat this place looks to be! Not only a venue but they also sell bitter and pies. Further investigation is needed.
Final stop tonight was another return to the Kazimier to catch hip young things Wild Beasts. I’d been quietly impressed with their last album Two Dancers, although vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s overly-mannered vocals had grated after a while and I felt it distracted from the Beasts’ rather alluring mixture of art funk and 80s jangle.
Likewise the same problem appeared live where, too often, the band’s excellent metromonic groove was derailed by Thorpe’s stylings. Still, there’s a lot to admire here and when they hit their peaks, Wild Beasts display a metallic surge as thrilling as PIL. More shimmer and less glimmer please.
Sound City – Day Four
On to the final lap, and with the heatwave kicking in, Liverpool’s streets were beginning to resemble an indie version of Apocalypse Now with the corpses of be-cardiganed graphic designers lying by the side of the road while photographers and journalists ran from venue to venue foaming at the mouth like Dennis Hopper.
I decided to take it easy and check out someone I’d been looking forward to seeing since being entranced by Nightswimmer on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone radio show.
In my mind Beth Jeans Houghton is the new Kate Bush. In reality she’s even better – a genuinely original mix of Fairport Convention medieval and Lamb-esque folktronica.
Foghorn and the Machine has become huge peddling something slightly similar but much, much worse and I’d like to think her success might even make a space for someone as talented and interesting as Beth. I think fame would sit well on her shoulders – her wigs, revealing stage wear and witty banter show an artist prepared to play with conventions and every tune she plays tonight draws a rapt attention from the small but beautifully-formed audience in Studio 2 on Parr Street.
One more trip to the Kazimier beckoned after the high of Houghton, where an immediately intriguing Errors entertained with their Mogwai-affiliated brand of post rock electro.
Basically to these ears they take the best bits of New Order’s Low Life album, remove the vocals and then add a more modern rave sensibility. Well, it works anyway and what’s great is that they don’t seem as serious or annoying as yer Foals, Fuck Buttons or Metronomy sometimes do. Sure it made feel a bit old to see the kids freaking out to a band who didn’t sound that dissimilar to EMF but, hey, I enjoyed it and if you stand still long enough everyone catches up with you.
After four days, many cans of strong Jamaican lager and annoying case of chef’s arse to contend with due to the damn heatwave, Liverpool Sound City 2010 was over. Long may it continue.