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2011 | Liverpool Sound City

Lisa Bentley


Very few places in England equal Liverpool for its rich and diverse music history.  Throughout the past seven decades of popular music it has played host and home to so many musicians, creating its own style and generating a plethora of internationally coveted artists.  For the past four years Liverpool Sound City has celebrated this illustrious heritage by showcasing the best new music and honouring established artists with top billing in world famous venues across the city.

This year’s Sound City was no exception.

With the likes of Frank Turner, Miles Kane, Sound of Guns, Alessi’s Ark, Stealing Sheep and The Kooks (to name but a mere six of the 300+ bands) gracing the Liverpool stages over the three days I was initially left in a quandary, the usual festival chestnut of which bands to see and dammit why are they clashing with the other bands I want to watch.  However once the definitive decisions had been made it was time to take in some music.

Day One – Thursday May 19th 2011

Wristband on, timetable of bands at the ready I queued up with my fellow gig goers outside The Bombed Out Church hoping to witness Liverpool’s own Ragz deliver her subtle but unforgettable ambient sound and the distinctive drawl of fellow Liverpudlian Delta Maid whose album MTTM reviewed in April, however rather confusingly the venue had sold tickets to the event and were holding the wristband wearers at bay.  The crowd became understandably petulant but rather than let this precarious start ruin my festival I altered my plans and went along my merry way and due to this unfortunate yet serendipitous turn of events I uncovered my first rare find of the festival.  John Ainsworth.

Performing an electro-acoustic set to no more than 12 people, alone on stage he created his own rhythm section tapping with metronomic precision on the front of his guitar whilst simultaneously using it to hide his scrawny frame.  With echoic affect, Ainsworth created a sense of unified isolation richly enveloping the audience into his lonely world, a sound made all the more epic with his presence swamped by a plethora of instruments and amplifiers crowding the stage.

Wielding his 12 string, Ainsworth managed to keep you guessing till the last string was pulled.  With a mixture of bluesy guitar riffs, melodic melancholic ponderings and a twisty changeable tempo the set was nothing short of exciting.  The impression left by Ainsworth was that of awe.

The night continued with Aaron Wright whose pop folk style set the pace for the early part of the festival, the band gave a charming performance cleverly blending harmonica with upbeat style that bespoke of a long gone era.  This flavour of music continued through the rest of the night with performances from Ben Marwood and Franz Nikolay both performing in the Cathedral Crypt before headline act – Frank Turner.

The first sight of the singer at the side of the stage sent ripples of applause through the audience who had waited in anticipation for Turner’s set.   From beginning to end, Turner rip-roared through his anthem driven set list, singing his best known songs as if they were as fresh and exciting as the tracks he poured through from his soon to be released album England Keep My Bones, aptly titled album considering the venue for this astounding set.  Liverpool’s Cathedral Crypt, once the home to many a corpse none of which were laid to rest tonight, Turner’s warp speed set had everyone alive, singing along with his catchy choruses and call and response repertoire.  The congregation were there to worship.  Their minister – Frank Turner.

Turner’s style precariously flirts with football stadium chants with intelligent and witty social commentary delivered with folksy gravel and troubadour wisdom.  His lyrics demonstrably proving he has the ability to connect with his disaffected generation, understanding the decidedly painful process of aging and sticking two loaded fingers up to the social rule book by waxing lyrical about the hypocrisy of an ordinary existence, affording them the opportunity to look at their own life and ask ‘Is this it?’

When he sang his biggest crowd pleaser Photosynthesise Turner was not alone, he was joined by the 100+ backing singers – the audience.  It was one of those moments, the hair on the back of your neck moments that remind you why you love live music. From the moment he came on the stage, Frank Turner had the audience in his hypnotic hold.  He could have asked the audience to spit on their neighbour – and they would.  He has the power and audience control of a seasoned professional and proved to be one of the highlights of the whole festival.

Day Two – Friday May 20th 2011

Again Friday, like Thursday got off to a rather shaky start with Brazillian band Músicas intermináveis para Viagem. Whilst they are without a doubt are and extremely accomplished duo with faultless playing, the lack of lyrical content made it difficult to connect with the band.  The instrumentals quickly became tedious and begged the question ‘what is the point?’  They didn’t really have anything of any import to say.  The audience appeared to agree to the extent were we stopped clapping after each song.  Never a good sign.

Personally I believe the music could benefit a lead singer – someone to be able to connect the dots, to take the instrumental flour and make it rise into musical bread.  They appeared to be a band on the precipice of something spectacular but there was definitely something missing from the combination.

Next up was Club Smith, a Leeds based band that are ready to take on the world with fists swinging at anyone who gets in their way.  Their youthful exuberance and semi-anarchic style was ever present through the set.  The band came on stage, introduced themselves “We’re Club Smith” and bam straight into aggressive guitar playing accompanied by snarls and turned up jeans, reminiscent of the 80s post punk skinhead culture.  A barrage of noise hit you through their songs to the point where you were not able to distinguish instrumentation.  Nightmarish in description but in actuality it was bloody brilliant.  Rock steady and chock full of attitude – this band are potentially something pretty special.

Lead singer, Sam Robson confessed nerves but you would never have guessed from the playing it was only with the inbetween song banter that betrayed the angry and dissident facade portrayed in the spotlight, whereby the young singer seemed to be searching for approval of his random and awkward quirks.  The set was aggressive, full of vim – the band remaining in control, arguing with the music techy, refusing to leave the stage when their time was up, not until they had played one final song.  Basically, the band nailed it.  They had a purpose and they achieved it.  Kudos to Club Smith.

After watching Club Smith I managed to catch the tail end of Fiction, a band whose African lilt and Beach Boys meets Vampire Weekend pop was enough to get me bopping along only to have the euphoria cut short – darn scheduling conflicts, certainly a band to try and catch another time.

Liverpool’s Masque theatre was the stage for New York based band Cults, who were preparing to play.  They are a band who so overtly demonstrates heavy influences from 60s pop yet manage to effortlessly remain not only relevant but important in the contemporary music scene it is almost mind boggling.

They walked on stage with unassuming cool and from the first song you knew – you just knew – you were about to witness something special.  The band played their best known songs Abducted, Go Outside (a song with a glorious glockenspiel arrangement) and You Know What I Mean each song making you marvel at pint sized lead singer Madeline Follin whose voice defies logic.  She bellows out the chorus ‘Cause I am afraid of the light/yeah you know what I mean/And I can’t sleep alone at night/Yeah you know what I mean’ which had all the qualities of an unashamed tantrum but it is just perfect.  The set was captivating and I did not want it to end.

Follin was fascinating to watch, her stage presence was impeccable yet at times you almost wondered if she wasn’t just acting out the youthful fantasies of being a singer on stage.  She danced with her microphone like it was her lover, singing sweet nothings into it and at everyone and no one in particular at the self same time.  Was she really performing to the audience or just having a self indulgent good time?  Rather paradoxically the band seemed so reachable.  The set was intimate and you felt like you were a part of a scene, there were no barriers between you and the music, a quality not easy to achieve.

Cults debut album is due for release next week and with the promise and hope given from this set alone they can be guaranteed some brand new fans will be buying it.

Day Three – Saturday 21st May 2011

After the first two wobbly starts the third day proved more fruitful and with not having to travel from venue to venue I was able to take in random band after random band and enjoying the collective gratification of the overall festival.  Wafts floated past from the mouth watering Aussie BBQ at Heebee Jeebies whose three floors (and 10 hours) of entertainment meant that you really didn’t have to leave the building for a great time.

Sound Australia and Stage Mothers played host at the venue offering the crème de la crème of music from down under.  Little Red started the day creating a chilled mood, drink music and friends – what every festival should be about.  The band was followed by the likes of Dan Parsons, a singer whose blend of indie and pop is certain to be a festival favourite.  Closing the daytime set at Heebees were The Jezabels whose folksy sound fits in so perfectly with the burgeoning earthy music scene that Liverpool is currently protecting.

The evening’s entertainment ended at Liverpool’s St Georges Hall – a building so colossal in architect that it had to house an immense band – Liverpool’s own Sound of Guns.  Having grown in popularity and sound over the past year the band released their debut album, toured with the likes of Adam Green and now at Liverpool’s own music festival, they get to be a headline act.  Not too shabby for the five piece.

The band was tight and they gave a worthy performance.  A personal tip of the hat has to go to Nate Crowley who plays with such natural and graceful understanding and amazing delivery it was a pleasure to be part of the audience.  Well done boys.

For a fourth year running Liverpool’s Sound City has managed yet again to remind all who attended that Liverpool is not just a city whose music history and contemporary scene is based around Mersey Beat and The Beatles (although this makes them no less important), but that this is a city with musical and cultural relevance which is worth sharing, so whether the bands are local or have come from further afield – the chance to be a part of something special is something to relish.  One of the best music festivals for up and coming artists to parade their goods, 2011s Liverpool Sound City was as good as it sounds.