Sound City 2015

Sound City 2015


It has been said that Peter Cook was a comedians’ comedian and something of a hidden gem during his time. To hijack this vein of thought, Liverpool Sound City is most certainly a creatives’ festival.

From the first day, with action centred around Q&As with industry veterans including Slits guitarist and seasoned punkess Viv Albertine, Mark E Smith, Edwin Collins and Wayne Coyne, bands are weaving in and out of the crowds, rushing around, setting their own equipment up and chatting to the uncommonly large number of press representatives in among the common folk.

The likes of Thurston Moore walk quietly through the masses unnoticed while ironically, those who are not here to be on stage attract waves of attention in the crowd – namely the rather conspicuous Abigail Clancy and Peter Crouch.

Following the revelry of the conference in the lavish Titanic Hotel, which stands opposite the beautiful, silently decaying Bramley Dock Tobacco Warehouse, the festival begins in earnest over the road at the river’s edge, underneath the watchful Docker’s Clock.

Making the transition from a festival scattered around city centre venues was a brave move and one bound to attract complaints about transport links, weather and health and safety.

However this crumbling, industrial setting won’t exist in its current form for much longer, offers the promise of an unrepeatable experience and gels with the festival’s philosophy of independent discovery and unearthing hidden treasures of bands.

Friday night’s centrepiece is the Vaccines who take to the main stage and pull off a respectable set nodding to both their more commercially palatable recent material and their promising and some may say more interesting initial tunes, such as ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts are unavoidable but a trip to the Baltic Stage to catch the final half of Swans’ is essential.

A man on the ground informed me that frontman Michael Gira cranked the sound so high to start that his throat rattled to almost vomiting stage, several people moved to a safer distance and he had to lodge paper in his ears for fear of perforating an ear drum. Yep, the Swans are not a band renowned for their pandering and their soaring guitars, relentless ripping riffs and gritty sound feels strangely hypnotic. Their uncompromising two-and-a-half-hour set lays testimony to the fact that Swans make the rules and anyone watching them can stay or go. A rare chance to see an unapologetic, original and influential band.

The festival’s late sessions are housed in the vacuous Baltic Stage, an old coal warehouse perfect for dancing and atmosphere – something Roni Size takes full advantage of in front of an energetic crowd until the early hours. You can only wonder what the flat-capped dockers hauling coal into the building decades earlier would have made of it all.

Sound City 2015

Sound City 2015

On Saturday, Sound City really flourishes as crowds flock and two-piece Mouses pull off a low-key but tonsil-ripping twenty-minute set lodged between a coffee stand and a Desperados tent. Despite this, Mouses play like they’re in a stadium with an effort and Violent Femmes-esque sound much more ambitious than their humble surrounds.

At the Cavern stage, expecting to catch Beat Market but discovering a passionate solo wordsmith belting his lungs out to a modest but astounded crowd, I come across Forest in His Heart, or Ira Lee.  Forest in His Heart equals one man, one tonne of passion and one formidable performer. It’s one of those rare moments in live music when a whole room is in complete sync’. His frank and well-crafted lyrics are delivered with an infectious conviction as he walks among his audience, absorbed in his soulful craft and clawing at his shirt. Providing a sharp contrast to the bells and whistles of Flaming Lips, there’s not a laurel in sight here – this is a singer who knows and seems to revel in the fact that he has a living to earn and an impression to make.

The last time I saw Sean Lennon play was on a sun-drenched beach outside of Tokyo when ‘Dead Meat’ had enchanted critics and his career had taken a safer indie route in contrast to 1998’s jazzy, ambient ‘Into the Sun’. Now it seems his imagination belongs to psychedelic rock as one half of duo The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Their set is great music to zone out to in the late afternoon, but not one that brings thunderbolts to the Sound City landscape.

Colonel Mustard and the Dijon Five soak up rare shards of sunlight as they stop traffic from the North Stage. The Glaswegian quintet, whose vocalist informed me in the toilet queue that they started as a political meetup group, suddenly clarify why people dressed in yellow and disco-ball helmets have been wandering around all day. For all the undeniable laughs, breakdancing and sailing over their crowd in a rubber dinghy, it’s hard to tell if showmanship and the pushing of visual and performance boundaries are their prime motivators or their fun, contagious tracks. Analysing aside, they bring a lot of joy to what can sometimes be a serious chin-stroker of a festival.

The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips

As the sun sets on Saturday, Unknown Mortal Orchestra demonstrate why they are the current toast of the music press. Their tight set at the Baltic Stage shows the band to be promising and solid performers, despite being temporarily hijacked by the wonderful Lantern Company’s giant illuminated sculptures. From day of the dead skeletons to luminous court jesters, the beautifully imaginative parade readies the crowd for the surrealism on the horizon.

Anyone who has seen a Flaming Lips festival set would struggle to deem this one of their finest. Showmanship-wise, it certainly delivers, warming the punishing waterfront winds with an on-stage marriage proposal, the usual glitter cannon, a dancing inflatable sun and, wisely playing on the civic pride the city is famous for, an enormous silver inflatable “FUCK YEAH LIVERPOOL”.  Wayne Coyne’s usual onstage sartorial quirk, including a psychedelic frog outfit, does not disappoint.

However, the set list and general performance is decidedly flimsy for a band normally so engaged in what they do, especially outdoors where their energy usually knows no bounds. Delays between songs, gratuitous instrumentals and even a comparatively short stint in the space bubble (a straight line into the crowd and back) renders this one of their less memorable performances. Still, it provides a spectacular end to Saturday’s revelries, but not before the Baltic Stage comes into its own. The much-lauded, 25-year-old local producer Evian Christ puts in a strong turn getting loitering main stage refugees moving to his varied and experimental direction before a Northern Soul, dancing-on-upturned-crates disco stretches well into the early hours.

Sunday sees a promising series of themed line-ups. The Kraken stage’s lunchtime stint is allocated to bands with Welsh origins – a highlight being the passionate, anthemic Peasant’s King. The four-piece suffers an unfortunate setback in the absence of their drummer but pulls off an accomplished acoustic set that will no doubt provoke their onlookers to check them out fully plugged in.

The spotlight shifting to the Atlantic Stage, Cymbals Eat Guitars rip the afternoon air with a renewed energy no doubt bestowed by their highly commended recent material, after pulling off the strange anomaly of an insipid first album followed by a much more impressive effort.

Clarence Clarity, a man who has conjured a smokescreen around himself since his first material surfaced two years back, melds heavy rock guitars with a tinge of psychedelia and throws his moniker as an electronic artist into question – he seriously knows his way around a guitar and comes across as a more varied musician than this implies. However, the connection with his audience needs work as something is lacking in the atmosphere, whether that be aloofness, shyness or a lack of enjoyment in performing live, it’s hard to tell.

Over on the North Stage, the mesmerising C.A.R stops crowds – if not for her obvious experience as a performer, then for her infectious cheer juxtaposed with a punky edge fuelling her magnetic presence.

Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian have a challenge on their hands tackling the biting Mersey winds, the shaky sound quality of the main stage, the lethargy of the final night and large craters of rainwater posing problems for the audience.

Their genteel disposition would be better suited to an intimate setting or at least an earlier set, but nonetheless this is musical royalty with a reputation for getting involved with and adoring their fans. Classics drive the evening forward, from ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, ‘I Want the World to Stop’, ‘Expectations’ and perfect encore track ‘The Blues are Still Blue’. However, the night lacks that spectacular touch and whether such large environs do them justice or vice versa is debatable.

Another reason why Belle and Sebastian seem as tame as a night in with a Horlicks is the Korean showcase at the Cavern Stage – a genius move by organisers. It introduces a city sluggish with Beatles nostalgia to the likes of Dead Buttons with their Black Keys-esque dirty riffs and angsty blues-shot vocals.

However, if there’s one name to take away from this years’ Sound City its Jambinai. Having seen this incredibly innovative band at the conference, I took a chunk from Belle and Sebastian to go back for more.

Jambinai make you feel like an ignorant guitar-singer-drummer-expectant traditionalist and obliterate the depressingly dismissive phrase ‘world music’, weaving tradition with the cutting-edge and armed with some incredible instruments. The geomungo takes up the most room, looking like an enlarged fretboard lying across the floor and tended to by the kneeling Shim Eun-yong, but the most intriguing focal point is haegeum player Kim Bo-mi, whose instrument, resembling a small cylindrical fiddle, seems to scream like a damsel in a horror film. All of this penetrates a fierce hard rock/metal soundscape and unrelenting breakneck drumbeat. It seems that that much of their apparently unruly approach is improvised, but a power cut sees them resume the exact note they left off on. Jambinai illustrate that much of the western world’s music business influencers need a cold bucket of water from burgeoning regions and scenes.

It’s not glamorous and it’s not polished, but neither is the reality of being an artist and in that respect, Liverpool Sound City is the Peter Cook of festivals – one organised and populated by do-ers, artists, innovators and yeasayers.

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