FESTIVAL REVIEW: LIVERPOOL SOUND CITY

Liverpool Sound City

Various venues, Liverpool, 1-3 October 2021

Words and Photos by Gary Lambert

It has been a long time since Liverpool Sound City has taken place in Liverpool city centre proper, and it was wonderful to be back there.  Getting a wristband and press lanyards at The Bombed Out Church brought back memories of my first Sound City watching The Kooks in there on a summer evening.  Obviously because of circumstances, the festival had been moved to autumn instead of late spring / early summer which at times had a dampener on the mood, but being able to have a choice of restaurants, break out times in local bars, and no portaloos required at all more than made up for having to get my waterproof jacket out of my bag a couple of times.

Liverpool city centre has changed a lot since Sound City was last here.  Culturally we have been decimated by a municipal policy of encouraging city living from students and cheap apartments for AirBnB stag and hen party usage; as a consequence of this we’ve had enough venues to run a second Sound City destroyed or forced to repurpose themselves in order to keep newly arrived neighbours onside.  The result of this was that Liverpool Sound City at times felt that it was a couple of moderate-sized venues short – but unless yours truly (or someone similarly minded) wins the EuroMillions this week, the artistic-element of the city centre isn’t going to be able to change that in a hurry.

The first act to perform was Scottish rocker Morrell at the wonderful Grand Central Hall.  His opulent rock music meant the kilt-clad singer filled the room immaculately.  Given the size of the venue and the expected thin crowd for such an early slot, Morrell gave a confident, bold performance that has me looking forward to his debut single which will be out soon.

Sound City is a Liverpool festival, so my first local act was Joeys at Arts Club.  I was very surprised at Joeys as I’d presumptuously expected a standard scouse indie act which would take up about ten minutes of my time to offer some paraochial support, but with a healthy dollop of inspiration coming from Only By The Night era Kings of Leon I found myself engrossed to the point of getting myself a comfy slot sitting on the floor at the back of the room to catch the entire set.  With emotive songs about the real nature of a toxic relationship, Joeys really grabbed my attention.

Frankie Beetlestone had been a recommended act to catch, and the Sheffield singer was definitely worth my time.  His indie pop music is the sort which will grab fans easily, and his friendly stage persona makes you want him to do well.  I really enjoyed watching him.  This was a similar vibe to Liverpool’s friendliest four-piece Spinn, although Spinn are much further down the line to Frankie and deservedly played in front of a good audience at Grand Central Hall.  With Stargazing being released a few days earlier to great acclaim the band seemed to be confident and were definitely in fine form.  Watching Spinn just makes you smile and dance.  They’ve got a big hometown show coming up at Liverpool’s o2 Academy on 12 November, and I’m certain people will have bought tickets for that on the back of this ace performance so we’ll see you there.

I did want to watch Bandit at Arts Club, but being billed before The Snuts meant that the room was far too busy for me to squeeze in.  I really hope Bandit enjoyed playing in front of that crowd. Literally as soon as I opened the doors to Arts Club Theatre, the heat blasted back like an oven. I think that this was one bit of planning that the organisers got wrong, The Snuts needed to be on the biggest venue such was the pull they had. Apparently the queue was down Seel Street in the hope of one-out, one-in by the time their set took place.

I have wanted to see Baby Queen since the first moment I heard Buzzkill and fell totally in love with the smart, grown-up pop music.  Baby Queen did not disappoint!  Her set was quirky, fun and made my heart swell.  It is quite a tightrope to walk too bringing beautiful lo-fi pop music into a big room, and there probably needs to be a bit of work done on getting the sound right to ensure that the band have the necessary oomph to match the venue without losing what makes Baby Queen so special.  But there’s no doubt that Baby Queen is going on to play even bigger venues as her personality shone on stage, and with pop music that entertains such a wide demographic more and more people will want to see her.  Her music has everything, and I cannot wait for the next chance to see her play live.

I could have happily finished dancing at the back of the room and gone home at the end of the Baby Queen set with a giant grin on my face, but I decided to stay around and satisfy my Beabadoobee curiosity.  I’d never listened to her prior to this set as I was put off by the instant Stan culture that seemed to result from her obvious cool, but with a global following and this being her first festival headline show I thought I might as well.  I did not regret the decision.   Beabadoobee’s music reminded me of the soundtracks to some of my favourite films like 10 Things I Hate About You and Empire Records in how she created abundant sunshine and joy with every song.  So I’m a Beabadoobee Stan now, and I will be trawling social media looking for arguments with anybody who disparages her.

I had been looking forward to watching King No One in Liverpool for ages, and I didn’t get to see them.  With a massive sudden downpour turning traffic to a standstill I got to Jimmy’s about ten minutes after their set had started, and the room was packed out to the point of one in, one out.  After queueing in the rain to get into Jimmys, for some illogical reason there was no separate Sound City entrance so you had to queue with people waiting to find out if their table for lunch was ready, and then queueing inside for my chance to see the band, I was able to get in to the basement – and as I was not able to grow a foot in an instant to look over the crowd I was only able to hear the stompy rock I hoped for.  They sounded great, and speaking to people afterwards the set went down very well.

Sad Boys Club are a band we like here at Popped Music, and they definitely created a reaction with their audience at Sound City.  The reaction was definitely though one of extremes.  For some people in the room it was one of the finest performances of the weekend, whereas for others they found the performance of frontman to be overbearing.  I was kind of trapped in the middle.  Musically I loved their set, but as a live experience I was pretty uncomfortable.  For me it came across as a bit self-satisfied and self-congratulatory; and excluding to people who weren’t there to immediately heap praise on them. But they sounded great.

But it is much better to push the boat out than be a safe, cookie cutter band of which there were several that had me leaving after one song feeling completely bored.  You don’t have to be experimental or wild to grab my attention, but you do have to create a sound that is your own and have enough personality on stage to make it seem like you want to be there.  Male-fronted indie bands from the north west of England especially need to realise that the reason Oasis seemed so cool when they were nonchalant on stage was that they had these fucking enormous tunes coming out of their amps.  It was a beautiful juxtaposition.

It was also obvious at Liverpool Sound City that there are several acts who are considerably undercooked as a live offering. Whilst we all know that the opportunity to play live has been taken away enormously over the last year, bands still need the chance to evolve and mature as a live proposition. Building hype with a few singles and corporate support for a band who are not ready for a relatively high profile slot can be damaging. I love being optimistic and supportive of bands from my local scene and beyond, but there were a couple of performances where I couldn’t wait to get out of the room. There was one performance in particular which could have been soundtracked by Public Enemy’s Don’t Believe The Hype, and it was a band that people messaged me about afterwards asking if I’d seen them and if so what did I think.  I honestly felt sorry for the band, which is why I’m not naming them here, because they were so far from being ready to play on a stage in front of an audience not made up of their friends and family.

One of the most delightful sets of the Sound City weekend came from Molly Burman.  With her band alongside her, the sound was bigger than bedroom pop, but with her personable and honest lyrics you couldn’t help but feel the association even though it was far more grand.  Imagine a mix of Kate Nash and First Aid Kit, and you’ll be somewhere towards the music of Molly Burman.  It was the kind of set that makes you message a couple of people when you’re walking to the next venue in order to spread the word.

There always seems to be a greater level of opportunity when a band takes a last minute offer to play a festival.  Like the fates are coinciding for them, so it was great that The Post Romantics were added to the Sound City bill late on Friday.  They were cool, sounded fantastic, and had all the moody drama of a sky seconds before a storm.  Exactly what I expected from them.

An artist I had zero expectations about was Cate.  Purely by virtue of another stage running considerably late, I found myself in the Shipping Forecast instead to see what was on.  This Canadian-but-based-in-London artist offered a stripped back set accompanied by an acoustic guitar compared to her recent single Stupid, but this enabled her to showcase a vocal that blew me away.  Such simplicity yet nothing was lost.  Brilliant!

The attention of Saturday at Sound City was definitely on Liverpool artists with the main stage seeing a triumphant trio of The Mysterines, Jamie Webster and Red Rum Club.  With massive queues for those artists, I decided that my time would be best spent elsewhere.  In keeping with the Liverpool scene vibe, I caught Crawlers and Courting.  Both bands are hopefuls for the next wave from the city, and each provided a very different sound.

Crawlers combine a massive heavy rock sound with tight melodies and the occasional trumpet.  It has seen them organically build up a strong following with fans willing to travel far to catch their live shows. As a live band they are thriving, mixing singalong accessibility, approachable personality, and ambitious cool to great aplomb.  This performance was the best I have seen them yet as the bigger stage of Arts Club Theatre suited them perfectly.

I’ve seen Courting at this venue before, so I knew it would suit them, but it was still uplifting to see a huge amount of growth in the band since the last time I caught them.  You’re never going to get a smooth sound from Courting because their genius lies in creating great music from chaos and doing whatever they want, and more importantly saying what they want about subjects such as toxic masculinity and right-wing attitudes to immigration.  This is a band that I love, and I love watching them grow.

Over in the chilled surroundings of Leaf, I got to see the four-piece version of Wyldest for the first time.  In a completely unsurprising turn of events, four-piece version was fantastic.  Just like three-piece Wyldest and solo Wyldest were.  The dream pop of Wyldest is one of our favourites and this set cemented it.  If you get the chance to watch this band you really should, their performance leaves you feeling uplifted and energised yet relaxed kind of like a spa treatment but without the dressing gown.

When it became obvious earlier in the evening that I would not be able to get in to Red Rum Club, I was advised by pretty much everybody I bemoaned my misfortune to that I should go to see The Murder Capital instead.  Was that right decision compared to the various other headline acts on different stages?  In no way a slight on any of the bands I chose not to see… Fuck yeah this was the right decision!  Everything from start to finish was raw, raucous, sharp, and designed purely to give the audience the time of their life, and in frontman James McGovern they have one of the very best I have seen.  His ability to include moments of intimacy within the wildness without them seeming off-beat was astounding.  The whole band were outstanding too.  So I’ll say a massive thank you to everybody who told me to go to see The Murder Capital.

Like Saturday, Sunday started in the basement of Jimmy’s with a very healthy crowd to watch Pacific.  The piano-driven indie band cracked into their performance from the start with power and gusto that got an audience mixed of both their own fans and curious festival goers on side with them immediately.  It offered a great kick start for the always tired/tiring final day of a festival.

Mid-afternoon in October in the Kazimier Stockroom was still hotter than a summer’s day in most of England, but I risked melting in order to catch Katy Alex.  Slowly building momentum with her big pop tunes, Katy’s set at Sound City was, like Cate the previous day, performed on an acoustic guitar.  This meant that centre of attention for everybody was Katy’s voice.  Oh what a voice she has!  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but she’s like a scouse Kylie in how warm and fun she sounds.  Even if she’s singing about something sad, you know there’s a smile underpinning it, and it makes you want to be on her side.  If you think that this is your cup of tea, then go to Soundcloud and search for her Mixtape.  It’s brilliant.

I’m always a big supporter of fate telling you who you should watch at festivals, and I had a couple of acts pencilled in to watch mid-afternoon, but when I parked my car in the multi-storey I ended up in the lift with Cobain Jones and his team, so the other options were rubbed out.  I would have preferred to see him in a less luscious setting than Leaf as I think he’d be great in a basement, but the audience would not have fit in those subterranean rooms.  Whilst the touchstones of The Beatles and The Stone Roses do stand out a bit more than I would like in his work, this was one of the most enjoyable sets of the weekend for me.  It was proper festival fun indie music that made me wish I had a paper cup in my hand and a quarter mile hike to the next stage (the latter being only a fleeting wish, 50 yards to five other stages is much better).  Go along to see Cobain Jones, you’ll enjoy it.

L’Objectif are an indie band from Leeds who were given the task of opening up Grand Central Hall.  Playing the biggest venue on the earliest slot on Sunday in a city centre is a tough ask.  Chances are people are hungover, having lunch, coming out later, or watching whoever played on Super Sunday in the pub next door, but whoever wasn’t there missed a cracking set.  It was a bit of a slow burner as the opening two tracks seemed to show a band looking to find their feet in the room, but as the set progressed and their confidence grew I found myself drawn to them.  There was a great feeling of a band doing their best for each other on stage, and the hugs they shared at the end cemented that.

“I am Chinese, and he is Korean, so if you don’t like us then you’re racist” was how Half Long Poem smilingly greeted the audience in The Shipping Forecast.  There was no chance of the audience not liking them though. There was something beautiful and wholesome in the way they took us all with them that you could not stop yourself being drawn in.  Even if the song was sung in Mandarin, it felt like it was already there at the back of your mind.

Sunday was dominated by The Lathums.  Newly crowned as the number one band in Britain (on the album charts for their debut How Beautiful Life Can Be), it felt like everybody was going to be there, so they didn’t need my help.  Instead I decided to make my way to EBGBS in order to check out Social Contract.  With noisy post-punk being one of my favourite things, I loved this set as they punched us all straight in the gut with fuzz and bass.  If you’re interested in them, Buzzards Wake EP is ace.

One of the saddest moments of the weekend was getting to Grand Central Hall and seeing the audience waiting for Nuha Ruby Ra.  I guess it was too much of a contrast following The Lathums and the vast majority of their audience had left and not returned.

However, I have never seen an artist take to an empty room like her.  There was a fuck you smile on her face as she laid waste to all in front of her.  This was not one of the best sets I’ve seen in a long while, but one of the best live experiences I’ve had in all my years of gig going.  Musically, her avant garde mix of ethereal, pop and punk was beautiful and engrossing, surreal and visceral; and the drama she put into her performance at the same time elevated her into the heights of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.  It was the kind of performance that I am going to bang on about for years, and I still don’t know how to describe it properly.  And the final ten minutes of the set when Nuha broke the fourth wall, well climbed over the safety barrier, and performed in the centre of the audience who formed a horseshoe around her was punk AF.

Liverpool Sound City wasn’t perfect (no festival is), but it was three absolutely wonderful days of music, discovery and that pit of your stomach excitement that few things in life provide.

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