Threshold Festival 2019: Review & Gallery
Despite the competition, Threshold Festival proved that they remain a vital date in Liverpool’s cultural calendar. Shaun Ponsonby and Lorna Dougherty go the distance with one of the most welcoming and diverse events in the city.
Threshold is a grassroots festival that behaves how all the biggest festivals should. The diversity, inclusiveness and welcoming behaviour of all the acts and staff is one that should be imitated. It’s so pleasing to be at a festival and know that everyone is there for the music, not for the clout, or the best dressed competition or the Instagramable pictures.
Of all the venues for the opening night, it was District and 92 Degrees Coffee where we probably spent the most time.
District was given over to more soulful acts, starting with Saint and Nicola Jane. Most of the movers and shakers in the local scene are collectively guilty of ignoring artists like this, so for Threshold to open their entire festival with a local MC (Saint) and R&B singer (Nicola Jane) almost makes a statement about their intentions and what they’re about.
It is difficult to open a festival, but we were surprised at the number of people who had showed up for them. OK, hardly a full room – the doors had only just opened, after all – but more than enough for an atmosphere, one that the duo only added to. It was a chilled out set that got us grooving, and even singing along to a cover of The Fugees’ Fug-a-lee. Special shout out to MJ Ruckus of Dub Defenders DJing behind them too.
Due to some technical issues, both Brick Street and 92 Degrees Coffee were running behind, which made it difficult to keep up to date with what was happening on either stage.
That said, at least one of our team would have been content to have stayed at 92 Degrees. It was so refreshing to see a stage dedicated to hip hop and rap, and every act was amazing in their own unique way. The venue suited the vibe perfectly; the rustic furniture, the fairy lights and the art gallery in a little room next to the stage. It was a treat for both ears and eyes.
With the venue running behind, we weren’t able to catch everything we planned to – though it has to be said that KingFast has come on such a long way since we last saw him, sounding more soulful than ever and improving on his heavenly falsetto. That said, the whole stage seemed to be geared towards LUNA and DBA.
The former – a Swedish MC – performed completely solo; no band, no DJ. Just her, a microphone and her own laptop playing her self-written tunes. It’s a bold choice to perform this way, but she was able to lure the audience in.
She had a genuine aura about her, and you could not take your eyes of her, staring back at the audience and into the photographers cameras with confidence. This was her time and she knows she’s good.
She rapped about how shit it is for women in the music industry, and the passion for her message was clear as day. However, not only can she rap and control and audience solo, but we were very surprised when she appeared as we had just caught the end of People In Museum’s set of post-punk groove over at Brick Street where she was the lead singer, far removed from what she was doing solo. She must have literally finished that set, skipped over, ready to start and completely different genre. What a woman.
DBA combined the energy of three individual vocalists and the five members of their band. It was a real contrast to have a solo artist with an eight person act, showing how diverse this genre can be. DBA had the whole crowd smiling; their energy and positive vibes were infectious. Their sound was a kaleidoscope of rap, hip-hop, grime, afrobeat, pop and a touch of soul, and a range of heart-felt love songs to up-beat feel good toe tappers. It was the first point of the weekend where we felt like it was truly going off.
Back at District, which was emceed by London drag queen Taylor Trash, which only added to the feeling of inclusiveness (more on that later), and Mersey Wylie was taking the stage with her seven piece band. Although Mersey has been performing around the city for a number of years, it is clear that she has found her voice as an artist as of late, and she seems to be revelling in every moment as a live performer. Given that on top of this, she made three further appearances over the two days (an acoustic set at Ditto Coffee, a guest spot with Jazamin Sinclair and with Sense of Sound during SK Shlomo’s headline set), this seems unlikely to change any time soon. And on the evidence of this and all of her recent performances, that can only be a good thing.
The Soul Rays’ name does actually epitomise them; a soulful ray of light. The house was packed for them and it was hard not to smile, cheer and boogie. They may not have the depth and ambition of Wylie, but as a showband they are second to none, and just as vital to the proceedings as Wylie was before them.
The issues at Brick Street meant we missed some of the more anticipated acts. Emilio Pinchi, by all accounts, played better with his current band than he has before, and we’re not entirely sure when SKAAR finally took to the stage.
Thankfully, though, we did manage to catch Skinner’s Lane, who almost sounded too big to contain in the venue. Sonically, it was huge and seemed to vibrate across the room, with an energetic performance to match.
We’re glad that Taylor Trash had a spot to perform properly at District, but we would have liked it to have been earlier in the night. Still, she had us in hysterics with very 18+ renditions of ABBA and Spice Girls songs.
The central moment for our weekend was…well, us.
Planet Slop ran a panel on diversity within Liverpool arts early on Saturday afternoon, and discussed a number of pressing issues with XamVolo, Iona Fazer, Joan Burnett from Film With Pride and Little Peaches from Secret Circus.
It is difficult to be truly diverse with only four seats, but we believe we managed it as well as we could. To our surprise, the room ended up full, with people having to stand at the back for over an hour, as our panellists discussed the lack of support for hip hop and R&B artists, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community in Liverpool.
The reaction from the floor was encouraging. Everyone listened to what the minorities with microphones had to say, and when we opened up the floor, the only response from the audience was to compliment the panel.
We may not have reached any concrete conclusions and some of the people who maybe should have heard what was being sent seemed to absent (likely sucking up to Steve Lamacq at the BBC 6 Music Fringe Festival). But it is encouraging that we were welcomed to have the conversation, and we can’t imagine many of the other events in the city letting us do it.
Mellowtone seemed to have their own world over at 24 Kitchen St. It is a little more out of the way than the other venues, and people who went there seemed to stay there as a result. DJ Richie Vegas spun a host of tunes between a handful of bands with a more chilled out vibe.
The Tosin Trio may have turned up the volume and have one of the most charismatic frontmen in the city, but Tosin himself is also almost impossibly laid back. It’s always a pleasure to be in his company. Their set was cut short, but the dose of blues-rock and soul was more than enough to rev us up for later happenings.
Seaform Green closed out Kitchen St, and did so with the level of class we’ve come to expect. Had Threshold been extended to day three, it would have been perfect for the Sunday evening wind down.
Brick Street focussed on a coming together between Secret Circus and Threshold. The bands – Elevant, Science of the Lamps etc – were provided by Threshold, whilst the between band shenanigans were provided by Secret Circus.
Elevant were actually debuting a new format tonight. They’ve become a four piece, and had a stand in bass player for the performance (this was actually pretty obvious to even people who had never seen them before, with one person commenting on how the bass player seemed out of place). Although we have seen them play better – which isn’t surprising given the circumstances – it is also clear that the extra member has fattened their sound. Give it a few gigs and they’ll have reached new heights.
Secret Circus’ performances were as eccentric as we have come to expect. The burlesque is always a surprise to some who just wander into the room. These were probably summed up by drag king and Secret Circus co-founder Prince Alarming riding an inflatable unicorn singing Some Day My Prince Will Come from Snow White, before seguing into Kiss by Prince and proceeding to strip on stage.
But nothing could prepare us for Paddy Steer. Dressed as what appeared to either be a frog or a sort of alien Frank Sidebottom, he sat behind makeshift drum and synth contraption that he apparently made himself and proceeded to create music that we’re not entirely sure the world is ready for.
Popped Music seemed to get the coup of the weekend when they bagged BANG BANG ROMEO ahead of their stadium tour with P!nk. We were told to expect the unexpected, though that turned out to be a bit of an overstatement given what we’d been seeing at Brick Street all day.
Still, the three piece delivered. Or at least frontwoman Anastasia Walker did. The two guys kinda faded into the background as Walker pulled every last bit of focus from the crowd, many of whom seemed to show up just for her.
Unstoppable Sweeties Show being the band to close out Brick Street just seems right. They somehow summed up all the shenanigans that went on in there all day within their short set. You genuinely never know what will happen next with them.
It’s just as fun to watch the audience as it is them. Half of them get it and are completely into it. The other half are totally bemused. They’re actually extremely funny. A lot of avant garde music is. And if you think you’re laughing at them, you’re probably laughing with them. Despite being incredibly intricate, in a Captain Beefheart kind of way, they never lose their sense of humour.
Their performance was followed up by Little Peaches – who had joined us earlier in the day for our diversity panel. She was, quite bravely, making her debut performance since being confined to her wheelchair. It was an emotional moment, and you could see it in not only her face, but that of the people around her.
And that really just left SK Shlomo’s electronic love-in at District.
Being a beatboxer doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting experience on paper, but seeing Shlomo create music out of thin air was surprisingly exhilarating, and for most of his set he held the audience in the palm of his hand.
He even opened up somewhat. His debut album was released just one day earlier, and sees him addressing some pretty deep issues. One song tonight, The Future, is about the miscarriage of his child and shows how adept he is at dealing with tough issues with a level of accessibility with which many would struggle.
Threshold appears to have taken a lesson from their smaller Across The Threshold event from last year. Traditionally, this has always been a three day affair. But often we find things winding down a little on the third day. Keeping it down to two days kept the energy up. There was no lagging.
It was pretty disappointing that BBC 6 Music decided to do their festival in the city over the same period of time. Granted, like many events in the city they made it part of the fringe events, but that basically just amounted to them being allowed to stick a logo on the poster. I didn’t see any actual support beyond that, and some of the city’s gatekeepers were notable by their absence. So, this large organisation basically barged in and trampled over this small, grass roots event.
But, at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter.
Threshold seem to have built a community around them – one that is among the most welcoming in the city. Noting the line-up, we realised the sheer amount of women performing. They dominated, and performed in a variety of ways; singer-songwriters, rappers, bands, actors, dancers, burlesque performers. When I brought this up with the organisers themselves, they were pretty blasé about it. As if it isn’t something they had to actively cultivate – it’s who they are.
We actually can’t imagine many of the other big festivals in the city allowing us to speak so openly about the diversity problems within the city’s arts scene. Perhaps this is because they aren’t threatened by it. They don’t really have any reason to be.
Next year they celebrate ten years, and we hope they do it in style and recognise what they have built. Leaving the Baltic Triangle after SK Shlomo’s set, it occurred to us how long they have been there. I recalled my first Threshold, long before Bongo’s Bingo or the Baltic Market. Before I was writing about the arts, or before I started spewing my stupid opinions. There was nothing there – a wasteland of disused warehouses, and The Picket (now District).
They really have been a major part of building that area and making it the vibrant place it is today. So, next year should be a celebration, where everyone is invited. We always are.
Pictures by Matthew Thomas, Tony Nwachukwu and Brian Sayle