Sound City 2019: Review and Gallery
Broadening the names of the top of the bill appeared to give Sound City 2019 a whole new audience. The Planet Slop team spend the weekend in the Baltic Triangle.
Sound City’s reputation has fluctuated in the last few years.
Initially, there was excitement about the move to the docks. It looked like a new chapter of growth, but it ultimately didn’t pan out. That isn’t a knock; they fucking tried, and they deserve kudos for trying. Everybody does. And there were things that happened on the docks that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise; the John Cale show in particular was a massive coup.
Still, it didn’t quite work. So perhaps a move back to the city was inevitable.
But there was another issue that seemed to raise its head during the years on the docks; Sound City went from a music festival, to an indie festival.
Well, maybe that isn’t strictly true. There was always stuff further down the bill that was more interesting and diverse. But what always sells a festival is the names on top; they set the tone. Keeping that to just one style of music is damaging in the long run. It becomes a cycle, which is dangerous in a guestlist town like Liverpool. If you want the scene to grow, you have to constantly invite new people in.
We’re not usually ones to publish private conversations as “on the record” statements, it’s a prime dick move. But these were amongst our complaints when one of our team – who shall remain nameless – was having a half drunken rant at one of the Sound City higher ups (who shall also remain nameless) after last year’s festival. And, incredibly, they listened. That’s not us blowing smoke up our own arses, we were informed of this.
So we couldn’t have been happier when Loyle Carner and Mabel were announced as headliners. It was clear that they brought in an audience who wouldn’t ordinarily pay attention to Sound City. Looking around, we spotted a far more diverse, and even a younger crowd. It paid off.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t continue to appeal to the Sound City faithful. On Saturday, District was packed for the entire day, hosting a showcase for Modern Sky, who are intrinsically linked to Sound City. The local acts drew particularly big crowds, which was perhaps a doubled edged sword. Great for the bands, but a bit disheartening to see the locals in lines around the block for bands they can see, and probably already have seen, many times rather than investing their time in seeing an act they haven’t seen before.
There were good performances in there throughout the day, with one of our team having particular fun during Red Rum Club. But, as tends to be the case during label showcases at a festival, staying there got a bit monotonous and we were ready for something different.
What struck us most in that room was the sound. Rarely in a venue such as District have we experienced a sound so full. Whoever was at the desk deserves some kind of accolade. And as we made our way around the festival, we realised that this wasn’t unique to District.
New Bird Street was blocked off for the main stage. We headed in there the first time to see Life, who began their set by repeatedly shouting “Liverpool is excited” to dissipating half arsed “woos” from the thin, early afternoon crowd that didn’t exactly scream excitement. Still, there was something compelling about them. Their frontman danced around the stage in a peculiar way. Two of our team members debated whether he more resembled Mark E. Smith, or when Peter Gabriel was in Genesis and walked around the stage pretending to be a lawnmower. They were followed by Shame, who thrilled pretty much everyone in sight, and not just because they performed in front of a picture of Tommy Robinson covered in milkshake.
Constellations is always one of the best venues of the city. To say it didn’t let us down on Saturday is an understatement. They hosted Levi’s, who have been mentoring the artists performing with headliner Loyle Carner project with Levi’s as a community-based support project to give young artists the stage they deserve. With Carner being a rapper, it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of these artists were hip hop and R&B, and it was especially pleasing to see local MC’s like That’s Juvey? being given a proper platform at an event like Sound City, and killing it too.
TxT was the first act we caught – with our old friend DJ 2Kind on the decks – and also one of the favourites of the day. Being on early at a festival is always a challenge and they rose to it and brought the goods. Their poetic lyrics over trap beats meant for a chilled set. They had style and charisma in spades. It was clear and compelling to see the passion they had.
We found ourselves returning again and again to Constellations. The vibe in there was so different; fresh, young, exciting. Every time we went in, we saw something special. Even the staging was different. The giant screen behind the stage projected this wonderful, modern imagery created by local artists that undoubtedly helped with the feeling in the room.
Keedz was a particular highlight. She came on stage joking about getting free clothes from Levi’s and for the next 15 minutes, stalked the stage with possibly the most explosive personality we saw all weekend. It was all in the expression. The little things; facial expressions or subtle movements. At times she seemed overwhelmed by the reception she received, and concluded by filming the crowd shouting her name. We enthusiastically obliged.
After that, everything was a bit quiet for a while. We potted around from venue to venue, catching a few cool things, but nothing that particularly wowed us. Rvby was cool over at Brick Street, but the lack of lighting in there (like, any, at all) gave it a bit of a weird vibe.
It was clear we needed an energy boost. We headed back to Constellations for Remee, who had a fabulous mixture of electronica and neo soul. But with her music being somewhat moody, it didn’t give us the boost we needed at that time. It just goes to show how important timining is at festivals. In any other circumstance, we are 100% confident that she would have been one of our highlights.
Then we headed out to the garden and just happened to bump into the Flat Cap Brass Band. They were playing brass covers of Beyonce, Rihanna, Cee Lo Green, Van Halen, White Stripes and ended on a mass singalong of Robbie Williams’ Angels. If you’d have told us that Robbie Williams would be responsible for a Sound City highlight, we’d have laughed in your face.
And yet, there was something about the unpretentiousness of it all that seemed to create a real moment. People were dancing on tables and enjoying themselves in a way that we didn’t really see at the other stages. Peppering pure, unabashed fun into the proceedings made all the difference, and we left totally re-energised. And if you think we’re exaggerating, check this; they were the only act of the entire weekend where we saw a packed audience chanting for an encore.J
Some venues seemed a bit out of the way from the action and, from what we saw, suffered in attendance as a result. It was surprising that one of these venues appeared to be 24 Kitchen St, where we saw two piece Welsh rockers Alffa. If heavy rock is your thing, you missed out. Singing in Welsh, they made me realise that with rock of the Motörhead sort you don’t have to understand the lyrics.
The Brick St Garden was another good stage, but seemed a bit out of the way and was often a little quiet. On the one hand it gave it a more relaxed atmosphere than a place like District, which was heaving all weekend. On the other, it was a shame with the likes of Javeon playing in there.
We had to go and see him. Javeon we had to go and see. Imagine being recommended by the King himself (Idris Elba) and missing out. There’s something a bit lazy about comparing new artists to old ones, but imagine if you combined Craig David and Usher and then added a heap of swag, then that’s him. He sounded incredible, even after the temperature started to drop. At one point he said “This is half cover, half original” and played a ballad that we slowly realised was based on Nickleback’s How You Remind Me. And it was genuinely fantastic. How do you just casually make us like Nickelback?
It was a shame that Katy Alex played to so few people on the main stage. She has been popular in the soulful circles of town for a number of years, and she has a wonderful voice. Her artistry seems to have been refined every time we see her. It was heartening to see her on the main stage, but perhaps she was put on at the wrong time. The small crowd was no reflection on her.
Artistically, Saturday probably belonged to Kara Marni for us. She has been to Liverpool before, courtesy of Soul Inspired Events – which just shows you how ahead of the curve they are. She has an old soul vibe and a voice beyond her years. Her debut single Golden, aired gloriously tonight, was so good that we questioned whether we could top it.
She absolutely OWNED the stage. Her presence was overwhelming and you couldn’t help but smile watching her. She’s almost like a mini Kali Uchis, a girl with an amazing attitude and even better voice. There couldn’t have been a better opener for Mabel.
Although the stage in the street was a good idea, in practice there were some issues. Extra checks on the way in held the queue up, and were confusing given that none of the other venues were operating it. There were no portable toilets inside the area, which meant that if you needed the bathroom you had to leave the area and come back – joining the back of a very long queue at the busiest moments. Aside from the inconvenience, we couldn’t help but wonder if people would circumvent the inconvenience by simply pissing where they were.
The area also proved to be a wind trap. It wasn’t too bad in the afternoon, but by the time Mabel arrived everybody was freezing their little booties off. Thankfully, her set was the fire we needed to warm up. Everybody dancing and singing was the best finish and she was definitely humbled to have the headline spot, and so many people turn up despite the chilliness of the night.
Right after Mabel, Queen Zee played a secret set at Best Before. Well, we say “secret set”, they announced they were playing a secret set in Liverpool on that date weeks before, and there was a “secret set” alert on the Clashfinder. So it wasn’t hard to piece that puzzle together.
But that Queen Zee can do a secret set at Sound City shows how far they have come, and it shouldn’t be a surprise. We have covered them plenty over the years – to the point where we probably don’t have anything new to say about them at this point. But, needless to say, Zena will be an icon for this era of Liverpool music. Culturally, they have tapped into something that goes beyond music. That they are an incredible band with arguably the greatest showperson that we have produced since Pete Burns is almost beside the point.
We spent Sunday afternoon checking out some of the smaller venues – or attempted to. Some were so packed that we didn’t even consider trying to get in. Acoustic acts were squashed into the corner of Ditto Coffee, with the audience spilling onto the street.
Yet the audiences remained respectful. Mersey Wylie played to a silent room; just her and a guitar player. Somehow the duo managed to keep the groove that is so central to Wylie’s music with a full band, and the set didn’t descend into the kind of one note plodding that acoustic sets so often fall into. Far from it. It’s all in the groove.
It was during one of the highlights of Sunday – Benin City, epitomising summer 2019 with trap beats and electronica at District – that we sadly had a break in our enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, a member of our team was attacked by the lead singer in the band ShortParis during their performance in Hangar 34.
One of the reasons we have published this review a week after the festival began was that we wanted to be sure to deal with this issue in a way that did right by our team, but was also fair to Sound City. They are, of course, not to blame, and it is unfortunate that it happened at their festival.
The team member agreed that we should report on the incident, but has asked to remain anonymous.
The singer from ShortParis made his way to the barrier, and grabbed their hair. He didn’t let go. He tightened his grip, and when our team member tried to push him off, he put his arm around their head, squeezed their neck and held them in a choke hold, before digging his fist into the back of their neck. It was a shockingly aggressive attack, presumably because they think they’re an “edgy” band.
Most disappointingly, nobody helped them, and after the attack – which resulted in bruising on their neck and scalp – they looked around to find people laughing at them.
Needless to say, this is not OK. Frankly, if this happened the other way around, we’d never hear the end of the outcry about a member of the audience coming up on stage and attacking a performer.
We logged a complaint, and the staff were extremely sympathetic and as helpful as they could possibly have been. We also had a meeting with Sound City MD Rebecca Ayres earlier in the week, who condemned the attack and provided an official response; ““We at Sound City are shocked and disappointed at this incident with ShortParis. We do not condone this kind of behaviour, and were not aware that ShortParis would do this kind of thing as part of their act. I and our team have seen them perform in the past, and have never witnessed such an incident. Everybody has the right to attend any event with safety and in relative comfort, and we are deeply sorry that this happened.”
It shouldn’t have happened. But we thank Sound City for keeping the dialogue open.
Feeling a little agitated after this incident, we returned to retrieve our half-finished drink from District (except it had gone missing, so were substituted a new full one – thanks, guys!) to find Pizzagirl going down a storm with a touch of eccentric 80s synthpop. He did a lot to lift our spirits and raised a smile after an unfortunate incident. Thanks, Pizzagirl.
We had to rush to the main stage on New Bird Street, and already the queue for Loyle Carner was starting to swell. That number would continue, with hundreds of people aching to get in. If you wanted to go to the bathroom? Forget it. There was a chance you couldn’t return.
Carner first came on stage to introduce the artists he is mentoring from the Levi’s project. It would have been useful if each would have been introduced individually. Some, such as TxT, we recognised from performances in Constellations. Others, like That’s Juvey?, we knew from the local scene.
For others we were clueless, and certainly the mass of people entering for Carner’s headline set wouldn’t have known. Each went down a storm, there was a mixture of afrobeat, one guy with a nu soul vibe, another that reminded us of Khalid. But we just didn’t know who was who. They all joined together for their finale, which briefly made us chuckle at the idea of a hip hop Band Aid-type arrangement. But we came away from it realising that the main, outdoor stage at Sound City had given way to a style of music that isn’t immediately associated with the festival at its peak time.
As the numbers increased, the crowd could barely move – which, thankfully, kept us all warm as the cold breeze from the night before made its return. One woman behind us loudly exclaimed “I’ve never had so many beers in my face”.
And, finally, there he was. The capacity crowd went nuts. Without sounding conceited, we felt vindicated. It was by far the biggest crowd of the weekend, and everybody was hanging on his every word.
He has a relaxed demeanour that draws you in, and he was playful with the crowd. When introducing Angel, he asked “Does anyone know my friend Tom Misch?” Everybody went suitably nuts, apparently expecting Misch to be brought on stage. “I mean, he’s not here.” Disappointed groan. “But, I’ll tell you what, you be Tom and I’ll be Loyle.”
Even as a non-football fan, I had to chuckle when he asked if there were any Everton supporters out there. He was met by a mixture of cheers and boos. When he removed his hoodie to reveal a Liverpool shirt, the roles reversed and Carner had a cheeky smile on his face.
But he united the crowd again by shouting “Fuck The Sun. No, seriously…FUCK THE SUN”.
His set was political, yet personable. He read poetry. He made us laugh. He made us think. By the time he ended his main set with No CD, it was clear that Sound City shifting gears like this was possibly the best move they have made in years. And one of the best main stage headliners we’ve ever seen. This is how it’s done.
The night wasn’t done, but it was won. We caught a blistering secret set by Confidence Man in a packed Hangar 34, and the Noisey after party in Constellations saw Aystar prove once and for all that defiantly scouse hip hop has a genuine future.
It feels like Sound City is very much in a period of transition. Now that former C.O.O. Rebecca Ayers has been promoted within the ranks, it feels like she has brought a fresh, new agenda with her. One that should help expand the entire Liverpool music scene. Things become stale when you keep bringing back the same people night after night – hell, it’s probably contributing to venue closures.
At times, the overall feel was difficult to tell apart from Threshold, which also takes part in the Baltic Triangle. The heart of that festival is the community feel. For Sound City, it is hard to pinpoint right now. There is certainly more ambition, or at least the funding for that ambition.
Flor, a band from California, said on stage that we are “lucky to have a festival like this in the city” and compared it to SXSW. And it’s true. It is easy to take these things for granted. Perhaps Sound City is in a period of transition after a slightly shaky period, but they showed a way forward. And as a result, we saw demographics of age, gender and race that we’ve never seen before at Sound City, or even being involved in the Liverpool music scene.
They have opened up. It will be interesting to see how far they go, and if anybody else follows.
Thank you to our writers and photographers: Brian Sayle, Gary Dougherty, Lorna Dougherty, Matthew Thomas, Shaun Ponsonby, Tony Nwachukwu