1st – 6th May 2019
Reviewed by Steve Moss
We are blessed to live in Liverpool. Do other cities boast as many opportunities to see quality live music for free as we do? I don’t have any hard scientific facts to offer you but I very much doubt it. So let’s make the most of these opportunities, is what I’m trying to say, and support the good people putting these events on. Who knows, you might see your new favourite band playing in intimate surroundings for nothing, or you could miss them and 2 years later, when you’re paying through the nose to watch them at Olympia, be left ruing missing that chance.
Smithdown Festival is one of the best chances a human can have to see a whole bucketload of bands from all over the country over the course of a few days, and all for free (though donations are gratefully accepted and help to make it happen again the next year). This time around funds didn’t extend to being able to have the big outdoor stage in the Mystery, a bit of a shame as the sun was out for much of the long weekend, but it helped to keep the festival in a smaller area, with less distance to walk from one stage to another, and that certainly helps by Day 4!
I started in Craft Taproom with the Crapsons, a punk duo determined to have fun and make sure their audience did too. Their show featured balloons, a round of applause for Goths (not that there were any in attendance), an announcement that two of their audience were expecting a baby and finally a bit of crowd surfing by the guitarist (leaving only the drummer onstage) while exhorting the audience to sing “42 wheely bins”. What it all meant I have not much idea and I don’t suppose it’s important but I was glad I witnessed it. A band probably best experienced live rather than on CD for maximum enjoyment, but there’s no reason why you can’t do both.
Following that, I nipped up the street to Handymans for a complete change of pace. I’d seen Claire Welles many moons ago performing her one-woman-and-laptop set but was expecting it to be more arty and was surprised how danceable her dramatic synth-pop actually was (I found myself bopping about quite a bit). She’s a compelling and confident performer and even a computer glitch during one number didn’t throw her (she was among friends anyway). It was the first time I’d been to a gig at Handymans and I was impressed at how great the sound was in their high-ceilinged back room.
I caught a little of Double Echo’s set after that. Their powerful post-punk sounded perfect for the surroundings, with Chris’s guitar anti-heroics particularly noteworthy. I was in no hurry to leave them but I couldn’t miss the battle rap legend that is Oshea playing across the road. For some reason this year Evil Eye’s line-up wasn’t included in the official festival listings but they had a full list of bands playing, as always. It’s an extremely small venue at the best of times and once I got through the door I had trouble getting any further. Eventually though I had a drink in my hand, whilst several people tipped theirs over my jacket trying to squeeze past. Oshea first came to my attention as a member of the legendary humorous rap combo Dick Limerick Academy and I’m glad to report he’s just as funny now, with his songs packed with references only a Liverpudlian would understand. I was particularly chuffed to hear him namecheck the Willow Bank in one of them! It didn’t take him long to break out the classic DLA oldie Nob’eads which went down a storm with its call-and response chorus. He played several songs from his current album, interspersed with his mock insults of pretty much anyone there who wasn’t from his street and listing the districts that were OK in his book – one guy having a great time at the front had the misfortune of being from Rock Ferry which prompted an outraged “get out of here, you wool!”. Anyone brave enough to try and leave via the door right next to the stage was met with a torrent of abuse too. All in good fun though. His album comes highly recommended, as long as you’re not easily offended, or from Vauxhall, or both.
I got to Smithdown bright and early on Saturday, keen to see Feral Family. I managed, but just about, as I arrived 10 minutes late and they only played for 20! Still, what I witnessed left me hugely impressed. Four young lads from Sheffield playing a very punchy and moody indie-punk with hints of the Bunnymen, the loud bass reverberating around the walls. I’ll definitely be looking out for them when they next come to Liverpool. My tip for the top and the best new discovery of the weekend for me.
After a sunshine break in the handily-close Greenbank Park – another option for passing some time till the next band – I was ready for Irene & the Disappointments who were setting up in Kelly’s. I’ve seen them a few times and enjoyed their tuneful indie pop, led by John’s sparkling guitar and Lauren’s piercing vocals, a little hampered today by sound issues but still sounding great in the enclosed space.
Next it was back to Evil Eye. It takes a bit of getting used to watching bands there in daylight, with buses flashing past the window behind them, but Blanchard’s heavy but tuneful stoner rhythms rattled the windows and surely must have caught the attention of everyone on those buses. I was having a dance to these before long, or was it the building moving around me? I plan to see them again and see what happens.
Details of my movements get a bit sketchy beyond this point (it was a long day, and sunshine and alcohol were involved) but I recall catching a bit of Infants in their scary baby masks and a little of Crocodile God (veterans like me of the 90s punk wars) before sadly having to skip the promising The Empty Page because they were scheduled at the same time as Leeds greats Dead Naked Hippies, who played last year’s festival and made a successful return. Their very powerful rock sound (reminiscent of a more muscular Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though perhaps that’s mainly down to Lucy’s voice and captivating stage presence) pulled in a crowd and turned Craft into a dancefloor for a memorable and too short half hour of strong tunes.
Sunday’s plans to see some bands elsewhere for free were scuppered by unexpected doormen but luckily Pete Bentham & the Dinner Ladies were on hand to save the day down at Smithdown. Surely you’ve heard them by now? Their quirky garage-punk-and-politics songs on such subjects as the local Goth Postman, Marcel Duchamp and Concert Square have made them a vital part of Liverpool’s live scene for many years now. The place was rammed and getting to the bar was not an option so I squeezed myself into the crowd to enjoy the show. The band had a new tune inspired by the Yellow Vests in Paris, featuring a bit of megaphone-enhanced performance art from the ever wonderful Dinnerettes. With such a packed audience, the bit where the band make them all crouch down could have caused all kinds of trouble but a good number of us managed it (and got back up again without injury!) so all was well. The Dinner Ladies #1 fan was visiting from Sweden and picked a good show to turn up at.
Monday was the final day of the festival, with still something to look forward to in the wonky shape of a.P.A.t.T. playing at Craft. As ever, no one (possibly including band members) had any idea what was going to happen. The band release albums that could easily be marketed as compilation albums featuring 12 different bands, such is the diversity of their output and the skill with which they master every genre. Their line up is ever changing also, so that people you think will be in the band are in the audience and ones you expect to see in the crowd are on the stage. On hearing someone being asked if he was in a.P.A.t.T. now and replying “no, I’m just a civilian”, I told him “that’s how it always starts…then you get drafted in”. In the event, the performance was as unpredictable as ever, including their recent video hit Yes That’s Positive, a cover of Adamski’s Killer played fairly straight, followed by a bit of black metal and an older track featuring a fiddle interlude. It’s rare for a band this accomplished and skilled at not sticking to any kind of musical rules to have a sense of humour about what they do but a.P.A.t.T. have buckets of it and are determined to see that their audience (who on this occasion included a two-year-old down the front, seemingly having as much fun as anyone else) enjoy the set as much as the band evidently do. This band are a national treasure.
That set would be hard for anyone to follow but luckily the friendly chaps in Good Grief were on next, keeping it simple with their melodic US-influenced indie-punk and the night ended with a headline set from Chester’s Peaness, who brought the crowd together for one last poppy bop which kept the sun shining even after it got dark outside. They left everyone with a smile on their face and going home glad to have had the chance to see so many good bands and looking forward to doing it all again in 2020.