The SMITHDOWN ROAD FESTIVAL hit its fourth year over the early May bank holiday, and despite one or two logistical issues, its growth shows no sign of slowing. In fact, with the addition of new venues, and an injection of fresh new ideas to make it a more inclusive, family-friendly event, it continues to develop into a key event in the city’s cultural identity. And with each passing year, we see new life and energy being brought to the area, feeding into its recent resurgence.
This resurgence, driven by a number of cross fertilising factors, is bringing new beginnings to this important area. This arterial route into the city has suffered from a lack of interest and investment for some time now, but, with city centre rents on the rise in areas such as the Baltic Triangle and Bold Street, an opportunity has arisen to build a new community outside of the city, among the shops of Smithdown Road, and as far out as Allerton Road. Lark Lane seems to have stagnated of late – it needs a lick of paint to say the least. These are just some of the driving influences behind the re-growth of Smithdown as a go-to destination in its own right.
Naked Lunch Café, Craft Taproom, and The Handyman all become venues for the festival this year: three great new independent initiatives, separate but together, united in their commitment to developing the area, and centred at the heart of its new life. Just walking down that stretch of the road feels different. It’s an almost contagious reaction; the feeling that, at any minute, another interesting new business might open. Such is the passion of the individuals making the difference there. These are positive times indeed.
As ever, the Smithdown Road Festival brings together a wide variety of music, both local and from outside of the city. Again, a host of unsigned bands and touring artists take their places alongside long-term heroes such as DAVE McCABE, CRAIG CHARLES, EDGAR JONES, and SPACE. These come among martial arts events for kids, comedy sessions, pop-up venues, and new performance spaces. Even the Palm House in Sefton Park is used, following the last-minute loss of the Mystery Stage (and the fortuitous cancellation of a wedding). Against all odds, the festival pulls itself together and rolls on through to the other side of another great bank holiday weekend.
Andy Scott, a partner in the festival, and of Evil Eye Burrito, is already looking to next year’s event as a chance to realise some of their long-term goals. “Next year, we’re really hoping to secure the Mystery as our main stage area. It’s a 10,000 capacity field which will have a couple of circus big tops for the stages, a kids area and a street food market. We are working with a couple event managers who are going to be liaising with the council to make sure that we can fix any problems that we’ve had this year, and really make 2018 the best one yet.”
From the moment the festival kicks off this year – from the opening salvo of TAKOTSUBO MEN’s angular sonic assault on the Defend Vinyl-sponsored stage, to the sight of a capacity crowd going well and truly overboard for IDLES’ ridiculous closing set on the Monday – Scott’s new venture, Craft Taproom, remains crammed for the entire weekend. They more than stake their claim as a workable venue space, and more similar events are planned for the future.
One of the shining examples of the new independent spirit bubbling around Smithdown is Naked Lunch Café; a community café in the most real and literal sense, owned and run by a co-operative of 40 people, each bringing different skills and links to the table. A leading light behind the co-op is Paul Tsanos, who tells us why they felt the need to bring it to Smithdown Road. “I live here and think it’s a great part of Liverpool that is going through some interesting changes. And I want to see more places that I’d like to go to.”
While Naked Lunch hosts some superb acoustic sets all weekend from NICK ELLIS, MEL BOWEN, ROBBIE VINCENT and DAVE O’GRADY, as well as co-hosting a pop-up venue with Liverpool Craft Beer in the old Post Office (soon to come under the Naked Lunch umbrella as a juice bar – another interesting development), all kinds of wonderment is breaking out down the road at The Handyman’s Supermarket. For decades, this iconic building has been synonymous with the Smithdown area. Generations will remember it as the frontage for a rocking horse factory. An independently owned hardware store for many years, it also had a former life as a small cinema. It’s an unprepossessing building with an instantly recognisable fascia, but behind its doors there is much promise as a cultural venue; multi-purpose, flexible, and unique for the area. And again, there is that strong commitment to its locality.
Andy James of Handyman tells us that their moving here was a happy accident, but that they’re already looking to lay down some firmer roots. “It was only after agreeing to take on the building that we realised the great things that were happening next door to us, at Naked Lunch, Craft, Defend Vinyl, etc. But now we’re here, we think we’re in the perfect location as the up-and-coming area in Liverpool. I’d like to see more independent restaurants and bars opening to create a real social destination to rival what is going on in the Baltic Triangle and on Bold Street.”
As the weekend comes to a close, thoughts turn to next year’s event, and the possibility of even more new spaces open and able to play a part. Fuelled by a love for the area, these individuals – imbued with the DIY ethic, the will and determination to try new ideas, and a commitment to collaboration and the power of co-operation – see that there is still plenty of opportunity, and plenty of space. We can look to the 10 Streets development and the multi-million pound deals that will bring it to fruition; we can rue the seemingly endless gentrification of the city centre. But it is important to remember the independent spirit of people in this part of the world. We’re not good at taking ‘no’ for an answer. It only inspires us to drive on further to what we want, and to what we believe we need. And in the heart of Smithdown, thanks to some inspiring and ambitious people, a new community is being built. A community for now, and a community for the future.