Clash loves Sound City... ever since it evolved from pub table dreaming to it’s first iteration in 2008, we’ve attended every year and seen it grow to become the fully fledged urban music festival it is today. But it’s painfully clear that these are the difficult, transitional teenage years.
Sound City used to see the wonderfully friendly and striking city of Liverpool crackle with energy as numerous venues across the town centre hosted an array of established and breaking bands. Hordes of music fans ebbed and flowed and ploughed money and vitality into the city centre. But in 2015, the sheer popularity of the event meant that the civic infrastructure was pushed to the limit, the volume of people in town needed to be reduced and the organisers were effectively forced to relocate Sound City elsewhere. The Bramley Moore Dock in North Liverpool, a disused wasteland opposite the fantastically renovated Titanic Hotel and Rum Warehouse, is Sound City’s new home. Last year the new site was embraced, and despite widespread reservations about this new enclosed format, the debut event proved to be a successful leap into the dark.
This year it has landed in a bit of a crumple. More changes saw the conference arm of the event, Sound City+, cut from two days to just one and be merged with the music festival itself – which was also reduced from three days to two – with little movement in price at £82 a weekend ticket. While this means that a wider general audience can see some keynote speakers, such as Paddy Considine, Roisin Murphy and Alexei Sayle, the conference was undeniably affected. There were a slew of highly relevant music industry talks and interactive sessions laid on, but it just felt anaemic in comparison to previous years. The heavyweight music figures like Mark E Smith, Wayne Coyne, Viv Albertine, Edwyn Collins, Thurston Moore and John Cale were conspicuously absent. The closest in terms of notable mark on music was Alan McGee, who turned in a predictably amusing talk. There are highlights though and the multi-award-winning poet Black Ice discussed his career to date and performed a few rousing poems that gave a lift to the conference’s close.
With the blessing of sunny weather, it was time for the music. Here again the big-hitters had given way to the lower leagues. Catfish and the Bottlemen had their first festival headline date on Saturday, whilst Sunday was a “scouseathon” according to Sound City CEO Dave Pichilingi, with Bill Ryder-Jones and The Coral taking the main stage. Spirits were for the most part high and bouncing between the various stages – one on an old tall ship, another in a cavernous old warehouse – the atmosphere was certainly lively.
Poignancy infused the air during the Viola Beach time slot, as the band’s last ever performance was played out to the assembled faithful. The Warrington four-piece tragically died earlier this year in a car accident following a gig in Sweden. At the other end of the scale Saturday saw a piss funny performance by Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5, a local band that’s carved out a reputation for daft parochial lyrics matched with Flaming Lips style performance antics involving inflatables etc. Another interesting hour came in the juxtaposition between Saturday’s penultimate act Sleaford Mods and closers Catfish and the Bottlemen. The scathing social commentary and Tourette Syndrome delivery style of Jason Williamson was obviously new to some festival-goers, but sadly the crowd seemed to react only to the expletives, rather than the urban sage eloquence of Williamson’s lyrics.
The debut of a dedicated dance element, curated by Freeze, went down well this year and Leftfield played a storming set to close the first day at the new earlier curfew of midnight – which seems at odds with the genre.
Midway through Sunday the cracks were starting to show in the new version of Sound City. Whilst some problems, such as neighbouring stage sound leakage, had been mitigated from the inaugural year, other issues remained the same if not worse. The toilet situation is quite literally a piss-take. Everyone knows that needing a pee or – ‘please no’ – a dump at a festival is not good, but at Sound City it’s simply not an option, such are the abysmal conditions laid on. Way too few cubicles for the event capacity, a poor lay out plan and a lack of maintenance is just plain shit.
But the real shitter from this year’s event is a new rule, which may well not be at the organiser’s behest and is more likely due to licensing restrictions, enforcing a 4pm arrival time, with admittance or re-admittance after that hour. What if you paid full price for a weekend ticket but only wanted to see the headline acts on both nights? But you’re not permitted to arrive at 6pm to do that? Or what if you simply have to go out between 4pm and 7pm to do something important? Or what about all the people that travel and stay in hotels – maybe a few hours rest in the afternoon is appealing. Maybe some people just don’t want to be forcibly made to stay in one place and just want to go for a walk? Apparently though, all wristband-holders must be on site by 4pm and stay there. Stuck with the atrocious toilet facilities, cash machines that charge £2.95, and over-priced food and beverage options (£8 for fish n’chips) – that is not only outrageous, it’s untenable.
Things like this, more than the 20-minute power outages that affected both sets from Circa Waves and local heroes The Coral on Sunday, are the key issues that need to be ironed out. People can wait while some engineering or electrics is sorted out – but effectively trapping them on a fairly small industrial site, even with its savage beauty, just won’t work long term.
Still, teething problems aside, the event culminated in a high, ending on consecutive charged sets from Motor City Drum Ensemble, Hot Chip and 2ManyDJs.
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Words: Nick Rice