Future YardBirkenhead 23/8/19
As you stand at the ferry terminal at Woodside and gaze across the water, Liverpool is mesmerising. Its iconography is laid bare; the outlines of the buildings will forever be etched on the minds of those who stare at them. It’s been the subject of a thousand memoirs, the subject of a million photographs and a billion conversations. Rightly so. The image is one of this planet’s urban glories. But there’s more to it. More in the sense of the spot in which you stand to view it, the place that allows this view to be real. This place below your feet, behind your back: Birkenhead, the downtrodden younger brother of the city. It’s a place that hasn’t had the confidence to celebrate itself and hasn’t even bothered trying – until now.
So, let’s begin and start the celebrations – here, at the inaugural FUTURE YARD. Let’s provide an excuse to get down here and do something other than revere the blindingly beautiful architecture across the water. Let’s create a festival that celebrates the area, the talent and the beauty that on the surface seems to be gazing across the water and shrugging. Birkenhead has already started the slow process of hauling itself upwards with the recent run of gigs at Fresh Goods Studios, taking place among the post-industrial buildings to the north of the vague centre-point of the festival, around Hamilton Square.
Yes, this weekend is very much about the bands and artists, but there is more to this fledgling gathering than meets the eye. There’s yoga to help with the first night hangover as well as screenings, talks, walks and installations. Well, one installation that is stunning, relaxing and mindful. It’s called PYLON, a collaboration between Forest Swords and The Kazimier, and focuses on the transfer of energy between place and object. It takes place in the Birkenhead Priory refectory, a stone’s throw from the Priory Green and Chapel stages, yet worlds apart in aura and atmosphere. As the sun sets, its true colours begin to show as the lighting design contorts around the building’s fixtures. The healing patterns chiming from the pylon-like structure complete the momentary sanctuary found just yards from the industrial centre of Cammell Laird, the once mighty shipyard.
But, it’s the acts that take centre stage. Friday sees Wirral’s very own BILL RYDER-JONES perform an impromptu piano-only set in the crushed confines of the Priory Chapel. With a capacity of hardly anyone (and the desire of almost everyone to see it), the tech crew are beavering hard to ensure the folk outside can hear Bill do his thing, which is moan here and there and play his softly melancholic piano vignettes to a rapt throng. Bill swigs his beer, smiles, shakes his fist at God and bowls the tightly packed chapel over with his fragile talent.
BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD are a wonderful, shambolic mess. Too many members are bumping into each other on the packed Priory Stage, but the crowd are won over by erratic saxophony and Black Midi-style free jazz. Props also go to the wonderful JOHANNA SAMUELS, whose beautiful Americana singer-songwriter lilt brightens up the handful of curious folk padding out the Chapel.
The new Bloom Building is now packed as the anticipation and vibes of curiosity are reaching fever pitch. SQUID set up their instruments and then just start. Currently the darlings of most London A&R departments, Squid play for about 10 minutes. It’s more, obviously, but they cram so much in so quickly that it feels like they were hardly here. Perhaps they shouldn’t have changed the bonkers screaming of Houseplants to a more weary yelp, but The Cleaner is such a splendid bout of indie-pop nuttiness that no-one seems to mind. There’s a mosh pit, too, and a piece of Birkenhead bay driftwood surfing the crowd. It’s all rather nice to witness.
Passing to see the end of the brilliant DIALECT in the chapel, all drones and glitch peace, the highlight is an extended play from our very own Bill Ryder-Jones in full band mode, in the Town Hall. Welcomed onto the stage like a returning war hero, this is a slightly nervous but commanding return home. Bill swigs his beer, smiles, shakes his fist at his mates and bowls the tightly packed Town Hall over with his massive talent. Opening with Mither and And Then There’s You from Yawn and ending, obviously, with Two To Birkenhead, this wonderful listed building has the roof taken off by the power and love for West Kirby’s finest. Simply a joy, and not just the performance, the whole day gets the nod of approval.
At 20 past the witching hour at the aforementioned Bloom Building, the best new band in Britain amble on. SCALPING are from Bristol and they have never heard of Birkenhead until this booking, but they are quite simply incredible. Their fusion of post-rock grooves, techno bass and industrial dance darkness may not be ‘nu’, but a 40-minute set of eye-bleeding visuals and machine guitar abuse is more than enough to sate the hunger after Ryder-Jones’ introspection. Scalping end on the anthemic Chamber and this writer cries a really tiny bit. What a way to end the most wonderful day.
If one wakes up on the weird side, one must learn the ways of the weird side. Luckily, for the unaccustomed, there’s a wholesome and accessible exploration of the pockets of Birkenhead surrounding the festival. WALK ON THE WEIRD SIDE – a tongue-in-cheek walking tour taken in the company of local historian Gavin Chappell – drinks in the history of the Priory, the docks, its merchants and the town’s journey from prosperity to near neglect, sweeping from the Bloom Building down to the River Mersey, via Hamilton Square, through Woodside Ferry Village and along the promenade. It’s a welcome break that resets the eyes and minds shaken up by Scalping.
Saturday sees another collage of creativity, with the intimate Priory Chapel being taken over by the electronic music collective Emotion Wave. Their showcase of four acts is a neat representation of what they do best. First up is Emotion Wave main-man LO FIVE, performing tracks from his new album Geography Of The Abyss. Lo Five creates a calming atmosphere of lulling ambience, unfurling huge swathes of melodic resonance that perfectly suits the monastic surroundings. BYE LOUIS previews his debut album, The Same Boy, during his set, telling stories and rendering the mundane sweetly poetic with songs of everyday tribulations. Armed only with a guitar and keyboard, he holds the audience spellbound with lo-fi pop of the most delicate and intricate nature.
FOXEN CYN then follows with a set of darkening electro-pop and glam theatrics. Dressed in a black lace basque, sheer black tights, make-up and false eyelashes, Foxen Cyn is avant-garde and experimental with a knack for composing witty electronic pop. Dramatic and probably supernatural, he is a proper one-off, a glitch in the matrix, who conjures tunes from the seemingly possessed realm. POLYPORES is the final act on the Emotion Wave showcase and his form of transcendental radiophonics is hypnotic and meditative. There’s something about the setting and the sonorous refrain of humming synthesizers that transports us into the welcoming void. Polypores’ sound is one of warped tape saturation and machine hum, chiming with ambient echoes of transformer coils and the static charge of a post-storm downpour.
The Bloom Building reprises its role on Saturday as the home of those acts bringing renewed mystery and excitement to guitar rock. Canadian-British troupe POTTERY show us why the fuss around their angular debut LP No. 1 is so justified, while new Heavenly Recordings signings WORKING MEN’S CLUB bring the spirit of post-punk clubbing to their ferocious set. But it’s DRY CLEANING who are the most affecting of this band of resurgent beatniks, Florence Shaw’s deadpan delivery of tales about sordid hotel encounters and showbiz royalty the perfect front to the quartet’s anxiety-ridden rocking.
BEIJA FLO offers a thrilling glimpse into the glam cabaret she is building around her highly affecting masterclass of pop theatrics. The planners of Birkenhead Town Hall’s Assembly Rooms would not have foreseen it playing host to entertainment quite like this when they designed it, but they weren’t to know that Beija Flo was to be one of the more astute technicians of the room’s ornate surroundings. There’s still enough time to dart over to Birkenhead Priory to catch the hugely affecting pop-rock star NILÜFER YANYA as the light fades. The crowd drink it all in from their seats on the grass, with Yanya and the tower of the Priory looming in front of them. It’s a moment of relatively relaxed enjoyment after the hectic day that’s gone before, giving time for pause before Saturday’s headliner takes us on yet another journey.
ANNA CALVI is an awe-inspiring presence on stage at the Town Hall. She stands before us silhouetted against the blood red, pulsing bank of lights and, right from the off, we are pummelled with intense noise. Calvi’s voice sweeps throughout the space during her headline set and her guitar roars its approval, beckoning the now bouncing audience. It’s a two-way thing here: her guitar is seemingly weaponised, being pushed beyond its intended purpose. She channels Robert Plant and Janis Joplin with supernatural ability. It’s pure shock and awe as I’ll Be Your Man tears through the coalescing air and the audience cheer their approval, like a group hallucination or the witnessing of an alien encounter.
Anna Calvi is a juggernaut, jack-knifing its way down the highway, screeching tires and shearing metal; each song is propulsive, cacophonous, crackling the air around us, seemingly punching holes in space and creating mini-wormholes. It seems something bordering on alchemy to wring so much sound from so few components.
The enormity of Future Yard and its participants hangs heavy as there’s a stagger back to the Bloom Building to groove to Elliot Hutchinson of Dig Vinyl’s 7” set. He is the complete DJ and his soulful overview paints a glorious picture of The One Eyed City in the dark.
The early hours have set in and Birkenhead is peaceful, beautiful and fucked up. The stillness stops that being a problem, for now. And it awaits Future Yard 2020. Coupled with the success of the Wirral Food And Drink Festival in Birkenhead Park, Skeleton Coast and the Fresh Goods events, we may just have a town that is relevant and alive – regardless of what Marks & Spencer think.
Ian R. Abraham / @scrash
Mike Stanton / @DepartmentEss