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Three Songs No Flash

Woolstock: Future Yard Festival Reviewed
Jamie Walker , August 28th, 2019 11:29

In beautiful Birkenhead, the inaugural edition of Future Yard festival builds a bridge across the Mersey, with help from Bill Ryder-Jones, Anna Calvi and more

Dry Cleaning, photo by Keith Ainsworth

On one side of the River Mersey is the city of Liverpool, on the opposite side is Birkenhead. The estuary is all that separates the two places, yet the absence of a connecting bridge grants the distance a symbolic weight. It was a relationship fraught from the beginning: Birkenhead would build the ships at Cammell Laird, but the industrial docks were in Liverpool. The result would be a booming Liverpool and a neglected Birkenhead.

Despite the frequent protestations made by local musicians during their sets at new Birkenhead festival Future Yard, a divide between the two sides of the Mersey is evident. The tourists who come to Liverpool will cross the river to Birkenhead, but only to get a better snap of the Liverpool skyline. Crime is high in Birkenhead, and poverty is rife. One cabbie tells me that Birkenhead is“dead and buried”, another simply shakes his head when I talk about how the festival could impact the town. Yet the town also lays claim to the second highest concentration of Grade-I listed buildings in the country after Trafalgar Square, an 800-year-old Priory founded by Benedictine monks, and is home to England’s first tramway system.

The aim of Future Yard is to refocus the spotlight onto Birkenhead. As Bill Ryder-Jones suggested in a recent tQ interview, "if the musical identity of the Wirral was more celebrated, perhaps people wouldn’t feel the need to just move you over to the nearest city.”

“But”, as Ryder-Jones mumbles during his Friday night headline set, “no divisions”. Future Yard celebrates the creative energy that is alive throughout Birkenhead and across the Wirral, but it does so without turning its back on its twin over the water. Instead, Future Yard aims to bridge the River Mersey.

As a festival Future Yard is spread across four unique venues. Birkenhead Town Hall houses the biggest stage with a coalescence of projection and professional lighting crafting a brilliant atmosphere for the headline performances. The 800-year-old priory seats fifty and offers a necessary escape from the intense heat that runs throughout Friday and Saturday. Nestled among the ruins of the Priory is an open-air stage where Nilufer Yanya, The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo and Strawberry Guy entertain a congregation of happy families and drunken friends, whilst around the corner the renovated Priory Refectory exhibits Pylon, the new music and art installation from Forest Swords and The Kazimier.

Photo by Keith Ainsworth

Yet it is the Bloom Building that gives the best representation for the direction in which Birkenhead is moving. A recently renovated, colourful Peter Blake-inspired industrial container opens its belly for a two-day whirlwind of impressive post-punk, mosh-pit infested grunge and the most beautifully stylised noise the weekend has to offer.

SPILT are the first band to play the Bloom Building and they tear the venue a new one. The crowd are only just warming up to the weekend’s festivities , but lead-singer and guitarist Mo Molyneux is never cool to begin with. Muscle-strained, eyes-wide and topless he conducts one of the most spirited performances this writer can recently remember, snapping a string amid the frenzy and borrowing a guitar from fellow stage-mates Wild Fruit Art Collective for the remainder of the set. Later on in the night Squid play the same stage and build upon the energy of the aforementioned.They play a tight set of acrylic post-punk, redolent of Crack Cloud and the best parts of Bodega. Refusing to let the compositions slip into murky territory, drummer and periodic singer Ollie Judge keeps the tightest reins on the performance.

Birkenhead-based Bill Nickson opens the Town Hall with a set of delicate hits. Overlaying twiddly string melodies with a quivering falsetto he is the Wirral’s answer to (Sandy) Alex G. Nickson’s music is simple, lo-fi and gentle; however the intuition that here is a musician honing a craft makes him highly respected in the area’s burgeoning scene. His performance is the most unassuming of the weekend as Nickson still seems underconfident on stage, his long hair acting as something of an impermeable visor (a shame as his music suits intimacy and intensity). Yet his wistful indie has earnt him a popular name across Liverpool and the Wirral, and there’s potential for a national cult following.

A group of us rush the few hundred metres from Birkenhead Town Hall to the Priory to catch the beginning of Black Country, New Road. Thankfully their crowd is spacious and bubbling as the band begin their set, pulling the final dregs of light from the night sky and replacing them with a black blanket punctured with diamond stars. The tops of the ships being built in the Cammell Laird shipyard are visible from the Priory green and provide a fitting backdrop for the clanking mechanics of their music . Lewis Evans’ screaming saxophone battles the tightly plucked strings of Georgia Ellery’s violin as frontman Isaac Wood weaves surreal narratives into the musical tapestry.

Wood’s dark story-telling is replaced by Stella Donnelly’s satiric musical discourse on sexism and sexual sterotypes. “Your personality traits don’t count if you put your dick in someone’s face”, the Welsh-born Australian sings to an up-for-it crowd while performing ‘Old Man’. By now the night sky had accomplished its descent and Donnelly is awash in an opalescent purple-hue from the background stage lighting. A free spirited lyricist, combining astute observation with a tongue-in-cheek delivery, Donnelly offers up a melodious and very enjoyable set to take the crowd into the friday night headliner.

Bill Ryder-Jones, photo by Michael Driffill

Earlier on in the day, Bill Ryder-Jones played a secret piano set within the walls of the 800-year-old priory. The set is delayed by fifteen minutes in order for sound technicians to erect speakers outside of the vestibule, for a crowd of perhaps four times the seating allocation had amassed in anticipation of hearing the local boy. Ryder-Jones can be read as the epitome of Birkenhead: somnolent, but with a hidden edge of pluck. Sat beneath the stained-glass, asking the audience to suggest songs as he “can’t be bothered” (a confession most of the audience felt was only partly in jest), Bill endearingly fumbled through a handful of his most tender songs, including ‘Daniel’ and ‘Wild Roses’. His unvarnished performance style, accepting and embracing mistakes, apologising for discordant aberrations with a polite raise of the hand, is one of the reasons the musician is so adored.

Back in the Town Hall the largest crowd of the weekend has amassed to catch Bill in electric form. The atmosphere is surprisingly unchanged between the two sets, as an eloquently crafted intimacy is deployed with set opener ‘Mither’. Anyone who has seen Bill Ryder-Jones perform understands how the experience is akin to a one-on-one performance, as if the songwriter is sat on the edge of your living-room sofa or taking a turn on your great-grandmother’s dusty piano. His best songs build into a swelling diapason that is orchestrated with persuasive intensity when he has the entire band on-stage. As this writer’s initial understanding of the town we’re currently in is from his track ‘Two to Birkenhead’, from breakout solo album West Kirby County Primary, the experience of this performance has a certain Droste effect. As waves of distortion and emotive lyricism ripple over the entranced crowd I enter into myself, experiencing introspection, community and a belief in the romanticism of Birkenhead.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Friday night was brought to a close by Bristol-based techno-pirates Scalping. By this point my notes have downgraded from illegible to insensible. The bruises that cover my shins and forearms can be read as an indication of the set’s brutal and expected intensity.

The Wirral Peninsula is bounded to the east by the River Mersey, but to the west it is broken by the River Dee, forming a boundary with North Wales. The relationship between the Wirral and the Welsh is surprisingly close and can be drawn back to 1917, when Birkenhead held the Welsh National Eisteddfod. At the ceremony’s Chairing of the Bard it was announced that Hedd Wyn, the Welsh poet who had won the competition with his adyl ‘Yr Arwr’, had been recently killed at the Battle of the Passchendaele. Wyn’s druidical chair was draped in a black sheet and the 1917 ceremony would become known as the ‘Eisteddfod of the Black Chair’.

In celebration of the unique relationship between Wales and Birkenhead, the Priory is opened on the Saturday by a diverse collection of Welsh artists. Representing a new breed of Welsh performer, Meilir, Ani Glass and HMS Morris deliver an original soundtrack of experimental sounds and Welsh language songwriting.

By early evening a sedate crowd has congregated in supine position on the Priory lawn to catch local favourites Trudy and the Romance. Following an accumulation of singles, EPs and band members, the band released their debut album Sandman this year. Frontman Oliver Taylor croons these love-sick lullabies to an adoring crowd. It is my first experience of the band in its new incarnation as the old three piece has morphed into a new six-piece. To make things a little more discombobulating, the old Trudy drummer Brad Mullins is now Brad Stank, the technicolour hipster who makes ‘sexistential pop’ and is performing the Birkenhead Priory’s penultimate Saturday night set. Unfortunately the performance is the only occasion across the weekend in which the sound levels are a little awry, but in true Trudy style the performance is an impassioned display as Taylor jerks about with the widest grin of the night plastered across his face.

In one of the standout performances of the weekend, Beija Flo reveals herself to be a potential future star as she captivates and amazes a tight crowd at the Birkenhead Town Hall. Beija Flo is authentic in the way Amy Winehouse was authentic. Vocally proud of her birthplace Essex, she speaks with hilarious sincerity on everything from suicidal tendencies and heartbreak to vaginal agenesis. Interrupting thrash-about backing-tracked songs, that are a little reminiscent of the intensity of Slowthai, with passages of spoken-word Beija Flo refreshingly serves up one of the best sets of the weekend.

SPQR, photo by Keith Ainsworth

Back in the Bloom Building, Liverpool band SPQR convince this writer beyond doubt that Liverpool and the Wirral have one of the great new music scenes in the country. Standing with my ear planted next to the stage-left stack, I watch as bassist Jack Sanders drips in an unbelievable amount of his own sweat and I lose all sense of nuanced hearing. SPQR remind me of Idles, but without all of the posturing. A dedicated hard-rock band that are turning the heat back up on guitar music. Above anything, you can see how much this performance, and this festival, means to the band and frontman Peter Harrison. With Nilüfer Yanya performing a beautiful set over on the Priory lawn the Bloom Building is light on the ground, nontheless SPQR rouse us into a frenzy.

Once more I’m caught up in an excited bunch who hurry from the Bloom Building to the Town Hall to catch Anna Calvi take to the stage in a cinematic rush of crimson. A recent writer in tQ claimed that “guitar music is on the cusp of irrelevance”. Surely, with the likes of Calvi ripping eviscerating guitar lines that are magnified by her sustained and powerful vocals, this cannot be the case. Songs such as ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘As a Man’ raise the atmosphere inside the Town Hall to a new, unprecedented level. The Saturday headline slot is my first experience of Anna Calvi onstage and I am struck by the percussive dimension of her live performance, drawing terrific similarities with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. A regrettably short performance, Anna Calvi could have entertained the noisy crowd for a further handful of songs.

It is back to Bloom Building to catch an early morning, and festival closing, performance by Audiobooks that is the weekend’s purest experience of joy. Evangeline Ling and David Wrench move their set through wonky pop to a techno climax which is one of the heaviest moments of the weekend. At the beginning of the set there is only a couple dozen of us in front of the stage, but every single one of us is jumping and flailing their arms out of time with the off-beat synth hits which, for what has been on the whole a relaxed festival crowd, is enlivening to see and be a part of. By the end of the set the Bloom Building is packed.

Stella Donnelly, photo by Michael Driffill

Future Yard has succeeded in bringing together the two banks of the River Mersey. Whether the festival can build upon its successes and further entwine the two creative hubs will be a question for the future. Many of the older taxi drivers I spoke to shared a sense of pessimism at the prospect. If Future Yard can receive the funding and support it needs to continue for the years to come Birkenhead can begin to re-identify itself.

It is a treat to be present at the first offering from a brand new festival. Future Yard is still inchoate, with only a single food stall supplying the revellers and ad-hoc, sand-filled buckets indicating smoking areas. Signs are laminated and tied to lamp-posts, whilst most of the bars had run out of ice by the early afternoon on the Saturday. This was already a weekend of big commercial festivals, with EDM goliath Creamfields taking place locally, but Future Yard provided an alternative: an intimate festival experience that allowed festival-goers to build relationships with security, bar staff and sound personnel, and venues that encourage performing artists to sit among audience members before and after their sets. Inscribed on the back of the Future Yard t-shirt was a phrase that came to be mocked a little bit by the older locals, but are worn with pride by the younger generation who were largely running the festival: ‘The Future is Birkenhead’.