The festival’s previous carnation as a regressive catastrophe of tribute bands is a distant memory as we set out to take in all that this year’s extensive LIMF has to offer. Like-minded individuals have flocked to St George’s Hall for the first of the Liverpool International Music Festival Commissions on the opening night: The Revolution Will Be Live’s tribute to the late Gil Scott-Heron. Our host for the evening, Radio Merseyside’s Ngunan Adamu, introduces SOPHIA BEN-YOUSEF, whose rich, velvety tones and accomplished keyboard-playing get the evening off to a soulful start. Her song Perfect includes the refrain “who is perfect?” and is perhaps an apposite reference to Scott-Heron’s more self-destructive traits.
Scott-Heron’s son, Rumal Rackley, makes a brief and understated speech, as much about the warm Liverpudlian welcome as it is about his father’s legacy, and introduces MALIK AND THE O.G’S. Fronted by Malik Al Nasir, the creator of tonight’s tribute, two things quickly become apparent as the band commence their set. Firstly, the O.G’s, veterans of the international jazz scene, are an incredible bunch of musicians, all snappy drum patterns, crisp percussion and funked-up bass, blistering guitar and sinuous sax and vibe solos. Secondly, the Great Hall may look magnificent, but it certainly doesn’t sound it; you have to search for the musicianship through a blanket of woolly reverb that threatens to bury an evening of otherwise great performances. You know it’s bad when the artists themselves feel compelled to comment, like Garry Christian during a cracking set of THE CHRISTIANS’ soulful, harmony-laden hits, including Scott-Heron’s The Bottle.
The crowd has grown by the time ASWAD appear, crunchy drum and bass and a vibrant horn section managing to punch through the distortion, and CRAIG CHARLES keeps the crowd dancing for the next hour with a pop/soul set. By the time headliner TALIB KWELI hits the stage with another brief nod to Gil Scott-Heron, the crowd has dwindled somewhat. The faithful are treated to a crowd-participation set of machine-gun rapping and heavy beats. A final eulogy from a clearly delighted Malik Al-Nasir brings the curtain down.
There have been a few strange decisions in the curation of Friday’s LIMF Commission event at the Epstein Theatre, Routes Jukebox: why, for example, are we watching a video of film critic Mark Kermode’s THE DODGE BROTHERS perform when Liverpool still has some of the finest purveyors of skiffle and bluegrass plying their trade week-in, week-out in places like The Caledonia? Also, do DAVE MCCABE AND THE RAMIFICATIONS really bring the story of Liverpool’s transatlantic relationship “bang up to date” when there are bands like Outfit and Hooton Tennis Club who are more relevant and possess much more obvious links to the US?
However, this does little to detract from a night that is obviously geared towards music fans of a certain age having a fab time. Early performances from an assembled house band which span decades and geographical area delight. Widnes’ NATALIE MCCOOL delivers her trademark version of Billy Fury’s Wondrous Place to fantastic effect, while Washington’s JALEN NGONDA brings some genuine Motown style to proceedings. Local vocal stars MIC LOWRY get one of the best receptions of the night when they perform Sweet Was The Wine.
It’s obvious who many punters are here to see, as well as their musical era of choice, when both CHRIS DIFFORD of Squeeze and THE FARM are welcomed vociferously by a sold-out Epstein Theatre. Squeeze hits Up The Junction, Pulling Mussels (From The Shell), and Cool For Cats get full singalong treatment and Difford’s tales from his long career are warmly received. There’s a genuine love for this Londoner in these parts but, again, it’s difficult to see where he fits in with the narrative of the evening.
JANICE LONG does well to weave a story around the acts who make up the evening’s first half, which climaxes with a stripped-back set from The Farm. Presenting the Routes Jukebox radio show, she picks out local landmarks which have hosted the various musical traditions which have crossed the Pond over the years and line the memory lane down which we have taken this quite satisfactory trip.
So many people enjoy dance music in its various forms, whether it’s on the radio on the way to work, in a bar or even a rave in a warehouse. But not enough people acknowledge the origins of where it all started, or its relevance within the city of Liverpool. Over at the Palm House we have a selection of the finest selectors, all paying their dues to the most influential black American music as part of yet another fascinating LIMF Commission, Liverpool: Next Stop New York.
Approaching the venue is an experience in itself, elegant but striking, simple yet intricate. The tiered shape, filled with glass panels and framed by white rims of beamed light, illuminates the shell of the venue – resembling The Great Gatsby’s tastes. Inside, the towering, verdant plants draped over the temporary stage create a tropical backdrop laced with bulbs.
The sounds of LES SPAINE’s set has everyone inside twirling around the dancefloor as he delivers feel-good track after feel-good track, laying down classics as attendees sip their drinks and absorb the unique surroundings.
GREG WILSON is next on stage. Known for bringing the sounds of the past to audiences of the present, Wilson has an appeal that resonates not only with older crowds but with youngsters too. He takes to the mic to thank Les and fellow DJ Norman Killen, and reminds us why we were all here – to celebrate a truly special kind of music.
Wilson takes the crowd on a journey, delivering tracks like Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Gino Soccio’s Try It Out that everyone from their early 20s to late 50s lap up. Unfortunately, the sound system in the Palm House doesn’t always manage to keep up. However, Next Stop New York is a respectful and enjoyable homage to the music that’s been before us. Represented by a triumphant roster of artists, the soundtrack is every bit as spectacular as the venue.
LIMF offers a change of pace the following day, with an evening recreating Nashville’s world-renowned Bluebird Café in the Bluecoat as part of a long-running partnership between the two venues struck up through the festival this year. The event is split into two shows: the first features the two local singer-songwriters, KIRSTY MCGEE and KAREN TURLEY, who were selected from an open call earlier in the year to go to Nashville to hone their craft by collaborating with other musicians and songwriters, and Grammy Award-recognised US singer-songwriters Don Henry and Kim Richey.
Being sequestered with press and guests on the balcony makes it more difficult to fully experience the Bluebird’s famed ‘in the round’ format, but the complimentary Jack Daniel’s cushions the blow. It also means that, when an eerie, wailing sound not unlike a Theremin echoes around the room, it is at first difficult to identify the source, until the comments of the other musicians provide enlightenment: McGee is playing a saw, with a bow, and it’s utterly brilliant – a definite highlight. They close their part of the evening with a song about how Nashville brought them together, which contains the lyric, “We’ve all come here on love and speculation”, which encapsulates the vibe of the city.
The second session is hosted by Bob Harris with award-wining singer-songwriters BETH NIELSEN CHAPMAN and JIM LAUDERDALE, and ANDREA DAVIDSON. It again follows the ‘in the round’ format, with Harris’s contribution being to engage the musicians in discussing their craft. All stress the importance of collaboration on their work, and mention how Nashville today is a magnet for all artists, not just musicians and songwriters but visual artists as well, all tuning into the city’s authenticity and capacity to enhance creativity. Lauderdale also comments on Liverpool as being “a musical energy vortex”. The event is advertised as ending at 11pm, but it’s still going strong almost an hour later when it’s time for us to leave, sated on love and speculation – and a drop of Jack Daniel’s.
The bank holiday weekend brings a jam-packed bill of acts playing across four stages in Sefton Park. They say LIMF bring in punters from all corners of the world but it seems ESA SHIELDS has arrived from another galaxy, over on the It’s Liverpool Stage. With an out-of-this-world sound from another astral plain, the surreal art popper takes the audience on a voyage through his eclectic soundscapes. Creating songs of every genre, from electronica to folk, the artist’s voice flies over his musical environments with swooping notes like some exotic bird over a rainforest.
Keeping within the otherworldly realm are Wirral’s very own psych rockers HOLY THURSDAY. Doing what Merseyside is infamous for, the seaside 60s revivalists dig out retro vibrations with a modern spin. It was almost as though their song She, with its distinctly Indian-inspired sound, beautiful harmonies and trippy guitar, was born to flow freely through the oaks of Sefton Park.
Helping to hold the nostalgic theme is LOUIS BERRY, holding up the flag for Scouse rebel rock. Forget Folsom Prison Blues it’s time for Walton Prison Blues. Armed with his trusty acoustic guitar, Liverpool’s answer to Johnny Cash arrives on stage and thrashes straight into his harsh country-inspired brand of good ol’-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, getting the crowd feet-stamping, head-bopping and dancing along throughout his set.
The first real Liverpool love-in of the weekend happens on the It’s Liverpool Stage with Jayne Casey leading the all-female supergroup HERSTORY. Liverpool’s princess of post-punk is joined by Sense Of Sound director Jennifer John and the tireless Natalie McCool for a rousing rendition of All You Fascists Bound To Lose, which is met with an enthusiastic response from the families enjoying the last of the days warmth. Local legends and two fingers to the establishment make for a fitting way to see out day two.
A dark and moody sky greets the crowds walking across the fields of Sefton Park on Monday and it is echoed by some dark and moody riffage blasting from the main stage courtesy of LIAM BAILEY’s tight blues/soul four-piece.
JALEN NGONDA’s blend of 60s-inspired pop/soul plays to relaxed crowds over at the LIMF Academy stage, which showcases the best up-and-comers; a fantastic string which has been added to this festival’s burgeoning bow. At the beautifully tree-ringed It’s Liverpool Stage, masked drum and synth trio BARBEROS are blasting out a prog/dance mash-up to an enthusiastic crowd which continues to grow during the pop/indie fun of HOOTON TENNIS CLUB and the dancey synth of the TEA STREET BAND.
Over on the main stage, LAURA MVULA and her band present a superb set of classy jazz and soul. Her cool delivery belies the strength and depth of her vocal range. The band deliver a bravely slow tempo but captivating set before pushing up the tempo with some syncopated crowd-clapping and a magnificent version of See-Line Woman.
When SPACE take to the It’s Liverpool Stage to a field of cheering aficionados – ones who have braved the only inclement weather of the weekend – the assembled crowd lap up a set which gets progressively better, culminating in singalong versions of their big hits Ballad Of Tom Jones (with a friend stepping in, slightly unconvincingly, on Cerys Matthews’ vocal parts), Neighbourhood and Female Of The Species.
The thousands of Space watchers then make a beeline for the festival’s main Central Stage, which is already besieged by a massive, expectant crowd for headliners ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN, augmented by the LIVERPOOL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA string section. No live shots of the band on the giant screens, no spotlight for Ian McCulloch who, eternally sun-glassed, remains the epitome of rock star cool. He sounds tremendous too, as do the band, and each song is welcomed by an adoring crowd like the arrival of an old friend. Will Sergeant’s guitar soars and the strings add to the emotional punch as The Cutter, Killing Moon, Villiers Terrace et al transport the crowd. A beautiful Ocean Rain fades as fireworks whoosh and crackle in the night sky, rising as quickly as the LIMF star has in its short existence. A lump in the throat moment to end an event-packed and, at times, thrilling five days. Bravo, and more of the same next year, please.