This year Liverpool International Music Festival is asserting its international substance with a series of commissions that celebrate and explore Merseyside’s diverse global music connections. As the pendulum of influence seemingly swings between Liverpool and the rest of the world, Phil Morris examines the events commissioned by LIMF 2015 under the theme of MUSIC MIGRATIONS – unearthing the city’s impact abroad, highlighting the influence of black music in our heritage and sustaining music scene’s attributes on the digital stage.
As a cosmopolitan port city, Liverpool has been a gateway for social migration and a place of settlement for international communities, and this movement of people has shaped the global evolution of music. Over time, geographic and political boundaries fluctuate in how easy they are for people to navigate, but, somehow, music and culture will always find its way through.
Perhaps the flagship event of LIMF’s commissioned events this year is the Routes Jukebox project. LIMF music curator Yaw Owusu, esteemed photographer Mark McNulty and producer Jernice Easthope have embarked on an ambitious musical exploration of the USA, Jamaica, Ireland and Liverpool to find the untold stories of the key influencing records that made Liverpool one of the greatest musical cities in the world. The documentary presents the definitive picture of the cultural impact of music from abroad and the resulting tide of influence Liverpool bands have had on the world of music. An accompanying live event featuring Steve Levine and Janice Long will also retrace the transatlantic connection of the 1950s.
“Routes Jukebox is, for me, the most important project we have as part of LIMF 2015, as it looks at the roots and routes of the music and sounds that have brought Liverpool to its storied height within the music world,” Yaw Owusu explains, brimming with enthusiasm for his curation. “Both elements – the live event and the documentary – are entertaining, educational and, ultimately, a celebration.”
For the documentary, LIMF visited the ever-evolving music scene of New York, reliving the journey of the Cunard Yanks – the much-mythologised seamen who would return to Liverpool with the music commodities that would eventually spark the Merseybeat boom. The team also spent time examining musical links in big-hitting cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville. The latter of those locations is also to be honoured in a separate LIMF-instigated venture aimed at forging a special relationship between Nashville and Liverpool. The Bluebird At The Bluecoat partnership will give two local songwriters the opportunity to travel to Nashville to perform at the world-famous Bluebird Café, while twenty runner-up songwriters will participate in workshops at LIMF 2015. On 29th August, BBC Radio 2’s legendary ‘whispering’ Bob Harris will host a live representation of this partnership, as The Bluecoat brings a little bit of The Bluebird’s famed Listening Room to Liverpool. Replicating the signature Bluebird format, the songwriters on show (Grammy Award-winning bluegrass artist Jim Lauderdale and Ohio-born country musician Kim Richey among them) will perform together in the centre of the room, surrounded by the audience, as they share stories and accompany each other on various improvised pieces.
Another vital commission based on the theme of Music Migrations is Liverpool: Next Stop New York, a weekend-long consideration of how black American music influenced the heritage of Liverpool and wider popular culture. It’s often overlooked, but the majority of music played by Liverpool bands in the early-60s was a variation on the rhythm and blues picked up from black American artists. Seminal DJ and Next Stop New York performer Greg Wilson explains: “The way bands like The Beatles took the music of black America and put their own twist on it – that informed popular music throughout the 60s. Music’s always about that, two existing forms that fuse to make a new thing.”
The commission will explore and outline this give and take of influence over a number of events at Sefton Park’s Palm House between 28th and 31st August, and an accompanying exhibition that runs at View Two Gallery on Mathew Street from 7th to 23rd August. Exploration is Next Stop New York’s main event, consisting of an interactive discussion and Q&A with key figures like Eddie Amoo (The Real Thing, The Chants), original Cunard Yanks Richie Barton and Billy Harrison, and our own founts of musical knowledge, Roger Hill and Bernie Connor.
The two-day Exploration (29th and 30th August) is preceded by an opening night of performances from iconic DJs such as Wilson and Les Spaine. Documenting how black music affects culture in Merseyside is very close to Wilson’s heart; as a seminal figure of the Wigan Pier movement he has a unique perspective on Liverpool’s heritage. “Liverpool wasn’t a Northern Soul city, Liverpool was a funk city,” he explains. “Liverpool was into the contemporary black American music of the 70s, whereas, down in Wigan, people were going back in time listening to old records.”
Wilson’s experiences illustrate that Liverpool’s encounter with black music did not end with The Beatles’ domestication of the blues. Liverpool has a rich history of black musicians, including The Real Thing and The Christians. The impact of black music in this global city should never be ignored, and with this commission it will be explored, shared and celebrated. The Revolution Will Be Live – A Tribute To Gil Scott-Heron, is an event that further highlights this sentiment, with performances from civil rights activist Talib Kweli and legendary reggae band Aswad. Special guests of honour Ndaba Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s grandson) and Rumal Rackley (Gil Scott-Heron’s son will join this stunning line-up – which also sees local singer-songwriter Sophia Ben-Yousef join this month’s cover artist Malik & The O.G’s on stage – in celebrating the revolutionary spirit of the late, great Gil Scott-Heron.
While it is possible to trace Liverpool’s world-class cultural heritage and musical influence around the globe, the relevance of the theme in modern climes may be defunct. Today, great migrations of culture occur online every day. The advent of the internet has changed the way music is perceived and created. Scenes no longer coalesce around a physical place, like a record store or a venue, and, increasingly, we turn to genre rather than geography to define sound. In synchronicity with this transition, LIMF have commissioned the Global Roots International Mixtape, an NTS/Boiler Room-curated mix of global talent to explore international electronic music by creating the ultimate mixtape in relay style. Some of the names involved include Comeme (Berlin), Soulection (London), Clap! Clap! (Italy) and Ebbo Kraan (Amsterdam), who will be tasked with bringing together the far-flung sounds of the world’s hottest DJs in an event at the Palm House on the evening of 30th August, which will be broadcast on NTS Radio.
While the modes of communication have changed rapidly since the advent and mass distribution of recorded music, the impact on cross-cultural relations of the exchange of artistic ideas remains a vital part of human advancement, and may yet prove to be crucial in helping those remaining boundaries to become more porous. And, even though our digitised world is moving further away from regionalised hubs, Yaw Owusu remains optimistic about Liverpool’s chance of sustaining its reputation as a musical capital.
“I don’t think we’ll see another scene like Merseybeat grow organically in a city like Liverpool that will influence the world,” Owusu states. “Everything now is so immediate and anyone anywhere can be influenced by any sound and genre – however niche, new or foreign – and then be a part of a scene that lives, breathes and develops online and then has an international core scene and network. And that’s great! And I guess that’s where Routes Jukebox ends. However, I do 100% believe Liverpool is an influential music city still – we carry that tag proudly and it is clearly in our make-up, culturally, creatively, socially. We do so much, have done so much, and today we have such a growing scene that I can understand why artists and bands stay here or move here, and why people view this city as a special musical place. It makes sense. I don’t think that will change.”
LIMF SUMMER JAM @ SEFTON PARK
Perhaps the beating heart of LIMF, the sprawling three-day Summer Jam is adding to its tag as Europe’s biggest free music festival by also being one of the most fun to be part of. Sefton Park’s picturesque expanse of meadows and hillocks will play host to four stages of live music and family-friendly entertainment between 29th and 31st August, giving you the perfect setting to enjoy the last bank holiday weekend of the year.
The Review Field is used to handling thousands of alfresco party people as it has hosted Africa Oyé here for almost a decade. For the third year running it’s also the home of Summer Jam’s main Central Stage, with some of the biggest names in pop music leading the festivities: dance titans BASEMENT JAXX and LABRINTH are balanced by the altogether more easy listening soulful pop of LAURA MVULA, KATY B and RAE MORRIS. Perhaps the highlight of the Central Stage live performances is saved til last, as ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN team up with the ROYAL LIVERPOOL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA for a sure-to-be momentous closing set on the Monday night.
The evolving sounds of our city are given their rightful showcase alongside all of the household names, and the itsLiverpool Stage is the place where it’s happening. We were asked to select some of the artists to represent the current crop, along with the good folk at Getintothis, and we came up with quite a list: neo-psych modernists HOLY THURSDAY, alternative pop polymath ESA SHIELDS, the captivating SHE DREW THE GUN, fearsome Lycra-clad noise-smiths BARBEROS, hip hop soul man BLUE SAINT, Baleric/Scouse disco dreamers TEA STREET BAND and the sparkly sad and romantic SILENT SLEEP. Expect plenty more local talent to grace the itsLiverpool Stage over the three days, and make sure you check in to see how diverse our current crop of talent is.
Elsewhere, the Mellowtone-curated Bandstand brings a touch of soothing blue and rootsy Americana to proceedings, and the LIMF Academy Stage showcases a clutch of Merseyside-based musicians who could be headlining the Central Stage in years to come. All-told, there’s no better place to be this August bank holiday. See you down the front.