The new music festival that puts some of the UK’s most exciting acts alongside Wirral’s own emerging talent, helping to put Birkenhead on the music map.
Birkenhead is not a place you immediately associate with music. The town on the west bank of the Mersey is more likely to be defined, by Merseysiders at least, as not Liverpool. The other. As a town based on mercantile shipping trade, its fortunes have moved with the boom and bust of the shipbuilding industry centred at Cammell Laird shipyard, and has been in a bit of a slump since its heyday at the beginning of the 20th Century. Birkenhead’s fluctuating population pays testament to this: in 1801 it was 110; 24,000 in 1851; 110,000 in 1901; 142,500 in 1951, falling to 103,000 by 2001.
So, a strange place for a music festival then? Perhaps. Given that Birkenhead, and Wirral in general, has lived in the musical shadow of Liverpool, it’s maybe not surprising that the borough doesn’t have much in the way of infrastructure to service its musicians and gig-goers. A paucity of venues and studios has always meant that artists leak over to Liverpool to ‘make it’ – but there’s a certain outsider charm that means it’s a fertile place for music to be made. Which is where FUTURE YARD comes in, a new music festival hoping to put Birkenhead on the musical map and shine a light on the amazing talent incubated in a long-overlooked region.
Let’s not forget, Wirral has a rich musical lineage that can be traced back through The Coral to OMD, Half Man Half Biscuit and Pete Burns. It can even claim a bit of Elvis Costello, who spent his formative years living in Birkenhead – but there’s no denying John Peel as Wirral’s greatest musical son. There must be something in the water – which Future Yard is hoping to tap into.
Another of Wirral’s star products is BILL RYDER-JONES, whose career has blossomed impressively since he left The Coral. His fourth album for the mighty indie label Domino, Yawn, was released in 2018 to near-unanimous critical acclaim. Ryder-Jones’ knack for a heart-rending melodic twist, coupled with the kind of honest lyricism that could floor even the stoniest of hearts, is a world away from the gypsy guitar fireworks he produced on the early Coral records as a fresh-faced teenager. He’s followed that up with a stripped-back, piano-led version of the album (Yawny Yawn) just in time for his headline performance here, a rare outing on home turf for the Bard of West Kirby.
Bill Ryder-Jones by Jack Finnigan
Ryder-Jones’ loyal army of fans will be out in force on Friday 23rd August for this, and will also be wowed by the presence of his labelmate, ANNA CALVI, headlining the following night. Calvi’s star has risen to rare heights in recent years, receiving two Mercury Award nominations and being described as “the best thing since Patti Smith” by Brian Eno. Her operatic vocal range and fearsome guitar playing combined with such finesse on 2018’s Hunter LP, which was described by the Guardian as “a record that succeeds on any terms you try to force upon it” in their five-star review. Calvi channels her controlled fury through elements of flamenco and cabaret to produce one of the most compelling live shows on the circuit today.
These two artists bring great presence to the stage for the inaugural Future Yard, and will both perform their headline shows in the civic splendour of Birkenhead Town Hall’s Assembly Rooms. The Grade II* listed classical building dominates Hamilton Square at the heart of Birkenhead, which acts as the fulcrum of the festival. This brings us on to a fact that any self-respecting Wirralian will be able to reel off; that the Georgian town square contains the most Grade I listed buildings outside London (after Trafalgar Square). It’s also ideally located to be accessed by punters from across Wirral and Liverpool; that ferry that crosses the Mersey stops on both sides, you know.
Anarcho punks QUEEN ZEE have been on searing form since they dropped their self-released debut album at the start of 2019, and they know more than most that Birkenhead needs a shot in the arm to bring some energy to its ailing music scene. The quintet’s driving force, Zee, hails from Birkenhead, and is a sign that there is a network of musicians and artists crying out to be catered for. Further evidence for this can be found among the Eggy Records community, featuring BILL NICKSON and WILD FRUIT ART COLLECTIVE, both of whom are locals taking the rare chance to shine in front of a home crowd.
But if you think that Future Yard is all about civic pride and ‘Save Birkenhead’, you only need look at the bill to see that it’s packed with some of the most interesting acts breaking through right now. Aussie rabble-rouser STELLA DONNELLY has a remarkable knack for frankness, and possesses a barbed wit beneath her easy charm. Donnelly will be the perfect foil to Bill Ryder-Jones on the festival’s Friday night, alongside experimental improv jazzers SZUN WAVES. Led by electronic whizz-kid Luke Abbott, Szun Waves add a side of progressive dynamism to Friday’s proceedings.
What, you want more? How about the LCD-meets-B-52’s bop of new Brighton band SQUID?; the drifting, soothing tones of former Slow Club member CHARLES WATSON (whose 2018 record Now That I’m A River has been on constant rotation at Bido HQ)?; and the full-throttle rhythms of live techno punks SCALPING? And that’s just the first day.
Things get going a little earlier on the festival’s second day, allowing curious punters the chance to explore Birkenhead on what will be a bank holiday weekend full of discovery. You’d do worse than discovering NILÜFER YANYA on Saturday, too. The West London musician ditched her classical piano training after being spurred on to new pastures by her guitar teacher, Dave Okumu of The Invisible. Yanya’s debut album, Miss Universe, has been hailed as one of the standout releases of the year so far, pairing soulful indie with synthy glitter. A similar 2019 success story is PIXX, whose mellifluous slew of folktronica on second album Small Mercies has caught the attention of more than just the music press.
Elsewhere on a packed Saturday schedule, you’ll find plenty to titillate the senses. Duo AUDIOBOOKS are an intriguing prospect, and their woozy, dance-friendly oscillations aren’t to be missed in their party slot. And if thoughtful, guitar-based post-punk is your thing, then you’re in the right place: POTTERY, DRY CLEANING and WORKING MEN’S CLUB each showcase different takes on this theme, sprinkling dashes of fuzz, spoken word and electro-groove into the mix, respectively.
Another staple Wirral fact you’ll no doubt have heard if you’ve spent enough time with the locals revolves around another of Future Yard’s venues. Birkenhead Priory, on the banks of the River Mersey, is the oldest standing building on Merseyside. Dating back to a dwelling of Benedictine monks from 1150, it was also the site of the first regular service across the river. Across the festival weekend, this remarkable site – which rubs shoulders with the heavy industry of Cammell Laird’s shipyards – will host a breadth of live music in and around its many tranquil spaces. The main focus of this will be an evolving light and sound installation helmed by Wirral soundscape artist FOREST SWORDS. PYLON, his collaboration with art collective The Kazimier, will respond to the idea of space and home, a constant feature of Forest Swords’ own prodigious output. (You can find out more about this on page 28.)
Yan Wang Preston’s photographic work, FOREST, will also be in situ in the grounds of Birkenhead Priory for the duration of the festival. The exhibition showcases the Chinese practice of planting trees in unwelcome environments, often industrial; and this connection with the priory’s place as an oasis on the banks of a busy river will be explored in detail with a talk from LOOK Photo Biennial curator Thomas Dukes.
Future Yard will not only be giving Birkenhead’s venues the chance to shine, it will also be amplifying the noises of some of Wirral’s emerging artists. EYESORE & THE JINX and SPQR, both recent Bido cover artists, will likely be playing this event again in subsequent years, just much further up the line-up. DIALECT, SEATBELTS and STORES all bring different hues and shades to an already diverse bill, showing just how wide-ranging the musicians are in our midst. Add in adopted locals BRAD STANK, TRUDY AND THE ROMANCE and BEIJA FLO – as well as emigré LAURIE SHAW – and you’re starting to look at an impossibly talented programme. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Are you ready for your final Wirral fact? You’ve probably heard this one already, actually – that the Grade I listed landscape of Birkenhead Park was the model for the design of New York’s Central Park. You may not know that it was also (probably) the first publicly funded civic park in the world. What you almost certainly don’t know, however, is that it hosted the famous 1917 edition of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which would come to be known as the Eisteddfod of the Black Chair. It was the third such time that Birkenhead had hosted the Eisteddfod: however, on this occasion, the recipient of the honour of best poem was unable to take his place in the Bardic chair, as it was announced that he, Ellis Evans – or Hedd Wyn –had been killed on the battlefields of France. This tragic story has become enshrined in Welsh culture and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 1992. A commemorative stone stands to this day in Birkenhead Park.
This oft-forgotten nugget is the inspiration for an event celebrating the close cultural and creative ties that Wirral shares with North Wales. CILGWRI I GYMRU, a cross-river celebration of music in partnership with FOCUS Wales, ties together this story of the vibrant creative relationship between the Welsh on one side of the great Dee estuary and those of the land of ‘Cilgwri’ on the other.
For Future Yard 2019, Hedd Wyn’s poem Yr Arwr – the piece which won him the chair of the 1917 Eisteddfod – will be re-interpreted by LISA JÊN of experimental Welsh folk group 9Bach, who will perform the poem to a new soundtrack score from atmospheric electronic Wirral artist LO FIVE. New emerging Welsh artists MEILIR, ANI GLASS and HMS MORRIS will also play live at Birkenhead Priory on Saturday 24th August. And to coincide with the new commission and live performances, the Oscar-nominated Hedd Wyn feature film will also be screened on the day in Birkenhead Priory.
Lo Five will be busy on another project, too, piloting a showcase of artists from the ambient electronica EMOTION WAVE stable that he is part of. This event, titled REFORMAT, will also be commemorated with the release of a limited edition compilation on floppy disc.
These two additional pieces are part of a run of events that pull apart some of Wirral’s ancient cultural heritage, with a focus on some of the weirder aspects that may contribute to the area’s propensity for incubating outsider art. WALK ON THE WEIRD SIDE sees historian and author Gavin Chappell taking curious minds on a tongue-in-cheek walking trail around Birkenhead to mine some of the area’s esoteric history. And the bikes come out for VIKING WIRRAL ON WHEELS, a cycling tour led by Dr Clare Downham from the University of Liverpool’s Viking Age History at the Institute of Irish Studies. Wirral has a rich Nordic history, with many place names and sites still telling the stories of the region’s Viking settlers.
The final venue hosting live music is probably the newest addition to this part of Birkenhead. Bloom Building, situated just behind Birkenhead Priory, is an innovative new space that serves as a venue, coffee shop and creative space. It’s also the home of THE OPEN DOOR CENTRE, Future Yard’s official charity partner. The mental health support centre provides invaluable help and support for the region’s young people, and will be helping to bring an air of calm to the festival with live, soundtracked drone meditation on the Priory green on the Saturday morning. The venue will also be the location for international screenprint exhibition IN BLOOM. Hosted by Wirral-based poster artists Toucan Tango, In Bloom brings together some of the artist’s best work alongside that of some of their favourite designers: the punk-ish stylings of London-based artist Luke Drozd; and the multi-faceted work of Leipzig-based art collective Rainbow.
A new future for Wirral music seems to be well underway, especially with plans underfoot for further events to help bring some focus and infrastructure to the other side of the Mersey. Who knows, Birkenhead could soon claim to be the Brooklyn to Liverpool’s Manhattan. All revolutions have to start somewhere.
Future Yard takes place across various venues in Birkenhead on 23rd and 24th August. Tickets are on sale now at ticketquarter.co.uk.