Live Report: Future Yard 2019
Gathered at Birkenhead Town Hall for the debut night of Future Yard festival, our half-cut headliner, Bill Ryder-Jones addresses his crowd.
“Sorry to those who have to get a taxi back to the other side, but we've been having to do it for fucking years” he jeers, with an unabashed hometown pride. If all the past taxi fares inflicted on Liverpool gig-goers travelling home to the Wirral have lead up to this, let’s mark this weekend up as a small victory.
Following closely behind the publication of their forward-looking hundredth issue, Future Yard is the brainchild of the team behind Bido Lito magazine. With backing from both the Wirral and the Arts Council, our programme promotes it as ‘the first step towards a new music future for Birkenhead’.
In conversation with the Quietus earlier this month Ryder-Jones admitted, “We were always conscious of not being from Liverpool. I think as a young person you look to people in your area that you can relate to, and being from The Wirral you’re neither here or there. You aren’t Liverpudlian, you aren’t a Scouser, you want an identity that makes sense. The way the English have treated the Welsh for centuries, it puts them immediately on the outside too”.
Paying its dues to Liverpool and Cymru alike, Future Yard hopes to make good on its promise of being the meeting place for the region’s diverse crop of outsiders. On arrival Clash spots many a familiar face spread out across the festival site, either with Future Yard tinnies in hand or sporting The Future Is Birkenhead tees.
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As we get our bearings throughout the day, it would also seem Birkenhead’s lack of established running music venues actually adds to the event’s overall charm as well.
After picking up a wristband we catch the tail end of skewed psych-soul outfit Samurai Kip’s brass-inflected set. The four-piece look to be encircled onstage by the 850 year-old confines of Birkenhead Priory. St Mary’s Tower looms large overhead and they’re flanked on their right by what looks like a battleship moored in Cammell Laird Dockyard. In this bright, late-summer setting, with staging and braided varicoloured lights posed against a white-on-brown stone-bricked backdrop, the town’s curious history seems seized by the sights and sound of its prospective future.
We then find our way to the Refectory where Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, has collaborated with Venya Krutikov and his Kazimier cronies to create PYLON, an exclusive festival installation for Future Yard. Similar to the glitchy TV pyramid of Liverpool Psych Fest 2014, PYLON cuts out above a thin mist like some Frankenstein Ex-Easter Island, player-piano hybrid, with a core of cymbals struck at random, composing an eerie soundscape that’s arguably in this case, more Steve Reich than PZYK.
Acting as a beacon for any lingering festivalgoers during the day, a cluster of fans soon assemble close by outside the confines of the Priory Chapel for Bill Ryder-Jones’ ‘not so secret’ solo piano performance.
“Are there any songs anyone would like to hear in particular?” he asks. “John” shouts a fan, followed by a prolonged silence. “Shit” chuckles Bill, eyes downcast. Wirral’s finest miserabilist is in mischievous spirits. After his initial reluctance, he eases into a short set of stripped 'Yawny Yawn' arrangements interspersed with older cuts.
Unlike his By The Sea supported, full-band outing later in the evening, here his close to the bone lyrics are fully exposed for all to see. His voice seems at times to buckle under their weight during the downward spiral of 'And Then There’s You' and the grieving perspective of 'Daniel'.
There’s something oddly liberating about hearing him burp and curse his way through a set of conflicted confessionals, battling with an unshakable melancholy. Honest and defiant, he might be adrift but he’s clawing back control. “Sorry is someone else talking?” he mocks, followed by a longer silence, “didn’t think so”.
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We then catch a brief glimpse of the balls-out synth savagery of The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo who come on like some Polyphonic Spree/Gogol Bordello cross breed, before we pace it over to the Town Hall to take in another unassuming homegrown talent.
Channelling the wounded pop of Daniel Johnston and backed by the Eggy Records all-stars, Bill Nickson’s fleshed-out lo-fi offerings ease by with a similar (Sandy) Alex G falsetto and slacker slant, at their peak verging on Built To Spill climactic proportions.
On our return to the Priory we’re met by the bracing discordance of Black Country, New Road. Tasteful sax and fiddle soon distort into razor-wire lead lines, underpinned by Isaac Wood’s acerbic narrative. Sunglasses closes out with Wood snarling, “she sells chemtrails” against a wall of neurotic Beefheart outbursts. Vital and challenging, it’s a booking that certainly measures up to the buzz.
Willie J Healey picks up where Nickson left off, his spoken Will Toledo delivery on 'Subterraneans' proving particularly infectious, before Welsh-born, Australia-based Stella Donnelly steals us in. Donnelly’s charm and choreography (complete with crab sidestepping) proves to be one of the day’s most entertaining encounters. Buoyed by her uncompromising commentary, faultless vocals and playfully toying with elements of EDM, there seems no stopping her rapid trajectory. Someone hold this lady’s 808.
We catch the first three Strawberry Guy tunes, before main-man Alex Stephens ushers us away to cap off our evening at the Town Hall. The Orielles keys player and Liverpool native, lays the velveteen Beach House vibes on thick, as layers of synth and guitar lap over us in Four-Calendar Café Cocteau Twins waves.
“Welcome… to Woolstock” Ryder-Jones seems to imply, parodying Richard Attenborough, as he makes his grand entry to John William’s Welcome to Jurassic Park. “Hands up who’s related to me,” he then grins, surveying the room.
After the aching Red House Painters feel of 'Mither' he battles against bar chatter from the back of the venue, but manages to retain the attention of the vast majority. A Mexican wave of shushing quickly spreads through the hall much to our amusement.
Following a standout solo rendition of 'Seabirds', 'Satellites' unravels with a churning, classic early 90s alt rock outro, with respects paid to Pixies and the Smashing Pumpkins. 'Two to Birkenhead' is the closest Birke will probably ever get to it’s own personally penned anthem.
Fans surrounding me embrace and mouth along, whilst the middle of the crowd splits into a small pit, drinks raining down all around them. Just in front of me the beaming Bido Lito crew fall into each other, all singing the closing refrain of “you say that desperate times, call for desperate pleasures” as if it were one great, shared sigh of relief.
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Even as a day-tripping Cestrian the communal sense of celebration tonight totally wins me over. It’s novel that my first experience of Birkenhead aligns with what was perhaps before this, only an idealised version of what the region could culturally offer.
Considering Clash missed out on the unhinged intensity of Wild Fruit Art Collective, Queen Zee and Squid at the Bloom Building earlier in the day, as well as the entirety of Saturday’s impressive offerings (that’s Meilir, Nilüfer Yanya, SPQR, Eyesore & The Jinx, Seatbelts, Beija Flo to name a few, plus Kyle & Carl, the two Gintis band mates I befriended during ol’ Bill’s chapel set).
As Ryder-Jones & co close out the evening with their off-kilter balladry, cast against projections of drive-by images of Hamilton Square and accompanying cityscapes, it seems our unlikely setting has found an unlikely star. Plainspoken, like Donnelly before him, he’s upfront about his sexuality, history and most of all, his pain. When the drink and the spotlight gets too much, his talent does the talking for him.
Tonight it would seem his followers, friends and extended family and are out in full support. Earlier in the Chapel before performing 'There Are Worse Things', Bill discussed his love of RuPaul’s drag race, pitting it against the twisted logic of Grease, where an innocent Sandy must adopt leathers and an attitude, in order to woo lead Danny. Taking a proper look at our prodigal son and his neighbourhood for moment, you’ll spot no attempts here to dress anything up any differently than how it actually appears.
It’s exhibited in all its complex, no-nonsense, self-deprecating glory. You get the sense we’re now baring witness to what perhaps was lurking there under our noses all along. Future Yard has just brought all that to our attention. In the same way Focus Wales offers an alternative look at Wrexham and the Welsh music scene, in time Future Yard may become just as vital.
In proving such a successful platform for grassroots talent, Merseyside’s musical community might have just stumbled upon its hallowed ground.
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Words: David Weir
Photography: Michael Driffill + Keith Ainsworth