Threshold FestivalThe Baltic Triangle 1/4/16
The sixth instalment of THRESHOLD FESTIVAL kicks off for three days of what always promises to be a varied and eclectic event. As usual the line-up over the weekend boasts some of the most innovative local talents as well as an array of performers from across the globe, and it is a daunting process to have to pick a path through so many inviting prospects.
Getting things started on the Unit 51 Stage on Friday night are SILENT CITIES. Consisting of drums, vocals and heavily effected acoustic guitar, they create a subdued and poignant atmosphere that befits the intimacy of the venue. The song-crafting is impressive and the vocal performance even more so, capturing a sense of fragility present in both the lyrical content and tonal aesthetic. It is a subtle and satisfying way to begin the evening.
Over at the Black Lodge stage, INDIGO SKY provide a set that could be not be more different in terms of tempo and ambience. A sort of classic, indie rock five-piece, their songs are tight, driving and well-polished but lacking in any real substance. The up-beat choruses and climatic middle-eights are enjoyable enough and the crowd are clearly having a good time, but the bland lyrics and circa-2003 winkle-picker guitar fiddling quickly grow tiresome. It is, nevertheless a rousing display that sets the stage for tonight’s headliner.
Local favourite NATALIE MCCOOL is met with a predictably warm reception by what is now a capacity crowd. An early rendition of new single Fortress showcases her new, stripped-back sound and it is an approach that appears to give the singer-songwriter a fresh take on her own output. Accompanied by a drummer and backing track, McCool’s guitar is bass-laden and rhythmic, giving a fairly flat foundation for her textured vocals to build upon. This works particularly well for overtly pop-orientated tracks like Oh Danger, where the subtle instrumentation is complimented perfectly by the hooky vocals and restrained guitar playing.
Just across the road at 24 Kitchen Street something far more beguiling awaits. Inside, the room is sparsely populated and the darkness only disturbed by a large disco ball suspended from the ceiling. On stage are five shadowy figures producing slowly swirling psychedelia reminiscent of early BJM mixed with Stereolab. As it turns out, they are REFLECKTOR, an enigmatic group comprising DJs and more ‘traditional’ musicians. It quickly develops into the most enthralling show of the night with repetitive, melodic female vocals and drawn-out, progressive tracks that ebb and flow but never lose momentum. To me this is what Threshold is all about. Standing in an old, dark room on the outskirts of Liverpool with 20 other people watching an amazing band for the very first time.
Up at The Baltic Social, whose gig space is decked out like a living room – sofa, easy chair, and old lampstand – all-female band PEANESS take to the stage. The brash, confrontational attitude of the performance, music and lyrics is tempered by a bouncy, almost Bangles, feel; all found in Fortune Favours The Bold. RAIN MAY FALL follow, and, my, they’re heavy (with a grungey side). I rediscover my inner headbanger, getting down to tracks like the anthemic, driving No Second Chances.
Saturday’s action eases in with a solo set from RONY BERREBI (RONY TRIO) in Unit 51, where there’s a nice vibe going on over brunch. The delicate acoustic folk of tracks like Mystery has an upbeat, reggae feel. Soulful RnB act DELIAH follow on in Unit 51, a duo (with added drums and synthesiser) whose female vocalist’s spine-tingling vocals are utilised to great effect on new single Marble Heart.
This uplifting start to the second day is continued at The Baltic Social, where CHARLIE MCKEOWN cements his growing reputation with a set of folk/blues notable for its exceptional fretwork and songwriting. The Bicycle Thieves gives an age-old tale of vengeance a neat, humorous twist, and My Love Is A Preacher airs McKeon’s bluesy inclinations with some sneaky little riffs.
Sultry, sensual trip hop band I AM OF THE UNIVERSE and their female vocalist’s gorgeous vocals are showcased in Unit 51, with The Hierophant, with its more upbeat feel and theremin, being a standout. They finish with The Alchemist, asking “Is this love or alchemy?” – how appropriate for Threshold Six.
Evening comes and THE MONO LPS, a mixture of swooping guitar riffs and strings, squeeze on to 24 Kitchen Street’s small stage. It’s a rousing set, with crowd-favourite Emilia pulsing through the room not once but twice – as Emilia (Threshold’s own) missed it first time round. Following The Mono LPs are SCARLET., and it’s clear that their sound and stage presence have matured. They seem less self-conscious on stage, which allows them the space to develop their sound. There’s still a Cranberries feel to earlier tunes, the bloody gorgeous Anyway being a case in point, but there’s also an exciting heavier edge in their new material.
Down at the fabulous Hobo Kiosk, amongst the vintage oddities and rarities, sits LISA WRIGHT, fresh from recording an EP in Nashville. She introduces Before I Die, from said EP, as “a happy song”, and, with a pure, vintage country voice, strong melodies and her clean picking style, it proves to be just so.
Over to Constellations, where out in the garden THE FRANKLEYS blow away any lingering cobwebs with a Styrene-esque vocal, post-punk barrage, while indoors at the Merseyrail Sound Station stage, DAN WILSON and his band lay down an excellent set of bluesy, jazzy virtuosity. Wilson’s gritty voice evokes Waits and Cave, and there are some lovely sax and clarinet passages to embellish the slapping, skipping bass lines. A treat for what is a pretty good sized and appreciative mid-afternoon crowd.
There is certainly no (Miss)representation at Threshold. The evening sees CHANEL AND THE CIRCUS’ infectious blend of pop and speakeasy jazz get the crowd dancing at Constellations. Back at Kitchen Street, the much-anticipated PINK KINK set lives up to the hype. There is plenty of light and shade in their songs, which build in intensity and are repeatedly stripped back to the rhythmic bones. The melodies are bright, the harmonies tight, there’s even a kazoo, and a riotous 100 mph ending sees band and audience bouncing off the Kitchen Street walls. BATHYMETRY’s set is a darker but no less assured affair, which sees them shift gears between power-pop surges, laid-back skanks and some dreamy psych pop with their by now expected vitality.
Sometimes you walk into a venue and think, “Nah – this isn’t gonna be my thing”. Such was the case with ELEVANT’s guitar squall at Kitchen Street on Sunday evening, but after a couple of numbers the band’s energy starts to worm its way under my skin and when they shred their way through a brilliant cover of Brian Eno’s Baby’s On Fire I am converted. The dynamic between guitarist/vocalist Michael Edward and bassist Hannah Lodge is electric and when Edward thrusts his guitar into the hands of the crowd, falls to his knees and just screams while they flail away, you can’t help but love it.
Lest we forget, Threshold is never just about the music and, staged at various venues, this year’s visual arts exhibition is entitled Alchemy, and what a broad spectrum of interpretations that theme has elicited. Painting, photography and 3D installations demand your attention. There are some striking pieces, too many to do justice to here: JEN ALLANSON’s strangely alluring manikin fortune teller tells me, somewhat disturbingly, that I have “a heart of ice”; ROBYN WOOLSTON’s display cabinet full of animal skulls, jawbones and small scent bottles has a beautifully balanced, earthy colour palette; JAMES MASSIE’s hanging crocuses bring life and colour into Unit 51. The whole exhibition is a superb realisation of the brief from the region’s visual artists.
There’s something thrilling about the multi-venue festival model that is quite difficult to grasp unless you’ve been in the middle of it. Each of Threshold’s venues in the Baltic quarter add as much to the feel of this celebratory festival as any of the artists, and it creates a unifying bond for all who experience it. Long may that continue.
Words: Alastair Dunn, Debra Williams and Glyn Akroyd