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Friday, November 11, 2022

Liverpool Sound City review – mirth, mania and future megastars at resurgent festival | Music festivals

If there’s an abiding image of 2022’s Sound City, it’s the cartons of water provided by one of the festival’s corporate sponsors; essentially, it looks as if all the artists are chugging milk on stage. It sparks bemusement and mirth in equal measure and captures the festival’s entire atmosphere in microcosm – there’s a pleasant irreverence blanketing Liverpool city centre.

“It’s water, I swear!” protests Peter Harrison to one of the festival’s many cries of “Is that milk?” as his band San Lorenz – whose dramatic art rock and cutting vocals have set them apart as local favourites – deliver one of the sets of the weekend in the Arts Club’s sweltering attic. “This water’s a fuckin’ con!” exclaims Crawlers vocalist Holly Minto as she struggles with a flimsy carton in the same venue hours earlier, gleefully rejecting heckles to down the whole thing.

Foremost among a new wave of punchy young rock bands in Liverpool, Crawlers’ emotive single Come Over (Again) went viral last year, but they prove themselves more than one-hit wonders. The indefatigable Minto works the crowd, striking a perfect balance between witty badinage and heart-on-sleeve earnestness. Over the course of half an hour, two middle-aged punks go from indifference to leaping around and grinning like teenagers.

As indicated by a banner next to the stage in the basement of Jimmy’s, which features photographs of Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Florence Welch playing sets in their early years, Sound City has a reputation for platforming the next big thing. If there’s a future megastar among the lineup this year it’s probably Brooke Combe. In the cavernous EBGBs, she races through a tight set of big-chorus blues and rock with unshakeable swagger. Londoner Amy Fitz Doyley shows similar potential in the loungelike Phase One in the space of a three-song, 15-minute set. She’s in possession of a considerable voice but employs it subtly as she slowly unfurls her hypnotic electronic pop.

Self Esteem at Liverpool Sound City.
Self Esteem at Liverpool Sound City. Photograph: Jonny Nolan

Sound City has been through many evolutions since a lacklustre rebrand as a traditional fenced-off outdoor festival in the city’s former docklands in 2015, then an experimental era in the gentrifying Baltic Quarter. After cancellation in 2020, and a 2021 edition squeezed between spikes in coronavirus cases, there’s a sense that for the first time in years, the festival is in its rightful place: bands and fans weaving their way among football fans and stag-dos as they make the short walks from one venue to another.

The only problem is that so many of the shows occupy a similar space, musically. The vast majority are indie bands, singer-songwriters and four-piece guitar acts. Many are fantastic, particularly those who take things into heavier territory – TV Priest’s punishing post-punk, Tel Aviv band Monad’s ambitious psychedelia, and hardcore crew Ditz’s intense mid-afternoon gig in the dingy Shipping Forecast basement, in particular. The biggest names on the bill are Self Esteem, Yard Act, Alfie Templeman and the Lathums, and all prompt queues around the block. Yet there’s still a nagging sense of something missing.

There’s not much hip-hop, for instance, aside from Xadi’s drifting melodic rap, and Canada’s Mouraine, who wins over a small crowd in The Jacaranda on Sunday afternoon. The sole representative of Liverpool’s currently burgeoning experimental scene is the utterly superb Claire Welles; there’s next to no dance music at all.

Sound City still feels like a festival in resurgence, which concludes fittingly enough with a descent into all-out mayhem. The final act of the weekend, Italian rockers Piqued Jacks, possess nuclear levels of bombast, careening around the minuscule Kazimier Stockroom like they’re headlining the world’s biggest stadium, doling out lick after lick of unabashed hard rock anthems. A crowd of 30 or so are sent delirious. Not for the first time this weekend, it’s impossible to stop grinning.

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