Far too many tribute acts, most of which are playing Beatles songs, nothing else. Multiple stages, but hardly anything to see. For this reason, we purposefully avoided day one of The Matthew Street Festival. Day two at least had the "new bands" stage. Located just around the corner from Moorfields Station on Tithebarn Street, the idea was that the talents of Merseyside, yesterday and today, would all be showcased on this one stage; it being, as a result, the only "main" stage to feature any original music. Walk around the rest of the city and you're in tribute limbo, not a good place to be.
The Sunday lineup was comprised of bands from the first wave of Mersey Beat. Monday, the day we attended, was supposed to feature younger, more contemporary bands. That said, a lot of the people onstage today appeared to be fat, balding - mid to late forties - which implied that the bands of yesterday/yesteryear must have been made up of a collection of crumbling semi-fossilised skeletal zombies animated only by electrical discharges sent down the animatronic wires that have long since replaced their veins. Dodged a bullet there, then. Toilet breaks mid-set.
We arrived comparatively early in order that we could catch Emily & The Faves. Ryan, my brother and travelling companion, frequents a cafe at which Emily herself works. Or frequents, I can't remember which. We were promised some stoned, cosmic sounds in the vein of Bongwater or Galaxie 500, but instead we were treated to half an hour or so of supremely competent trebly guitar pop which brought to my mind Sleeper. Sleeper! I then remembered that, when in town the other day with significantly less money I had gazed longingly at a copy of their "It Girl" album in a nearby Cex. A pilgrimage was duly made in that direction, and it was about this point that the streets began to fill.
Most people were, it seemed, only there in order that they could exploit the relaxed street-drinking laws. Essentially, in specially designated areas, it was legal to drink as much as you wanted, but only before 18.00. This most people ignored: heavy drinking was taking place everywhere. It was common to see men and women of varying ages and tracksuit hues swaggering down the street clutching a grubby carrier bag full of booze - not so much making merry as steadfastly making it their mission to get as inebriated as they possibly could in as short a space of time as possible. Just like any other day in any other city anywhere, then. But this time it was slightly different. Like mufty day in school - when you were allowed to wear your own clothes - that people were allowed to drink in the street - in full view of the police! - leant a degree of novelty to the binging. I saw a woman stride with pride into the Cex to which I was making a bee-line - pint in hand, she proceeded to attempt to sell a battered little black box. They weren't having it. What was it? Unsellable, in any case. She proceeded to argue, loudly, doing that horrible aggressive pointing thing which seems to accompany all drunken conversations - friendly or hostile - in the north. And there was me queueing some five or six people behind her calmly clutching my Sleeper album. She wouldn't budge, so my pilgrimage was abandoned. It'll be cheaper online, anyway.
We drifted back towards the "new bands" stage in order to see The Amnesiacs. We knew absolutely nothing about this band, but we were keen to give them a go. I thought that with a name like that they could have been demonstrating a deep-seated admiration for the jazziest of Radiohead albums which would inevitably have seeped into their music. I was wrong. Very, very wrong. They were introduced as a "ska band", then came onstage and in a chirpy scouse PA twang only previously heard at pantomines, proceeded to introduce themselves as a "ska band", before going on to play some "ska music". This Ryan identified as "middle ska". "Early ska" is the label he gives to the originators, "late ska" to sickening atrocities such as Save Ferris, and in between, "middle ska", the likes of Madness, The Specials and, apparently, The Amnesiacs. It being Liverpool, they appeared to be related to most of the crowd. Their music was fast, loud and - in that afternoon warmth with the sun struggling to peek through the overcast sky, it was hard not to smile at their bouncy grooves and social commentary. They were yelping about poverty, about how one wastes their life at work - wonder stuff! Then they introduced a song by saying that there's a global conspiracy which everybody ignores, distracted as they are by modern trivia. Oh, please don't let this be about Judaism. I don't think it was. They spoke out against how lousy it was to have so many tribute acts on the bill, so kudos to them there, anyway.
Went for a wander after that. We gazed at the Mersey for a while, attracted by a boat which seemed to get smaller the closer you got. Next, we ploughed our way Mt. Pleasentward, through the lairy crowds and stopping off to look in a few charity shops for some Flaubert. It became uncomfortably warm, so it was a relief to arrive at St. Luke's, the bombed out church atop Bold Street. This is where we should have headed from the start. Called The Matthew Street Fringe (what else?) it was, supposedly, the alternative to the Beatles-obsessed throngs below. And it was absolutely wonderful.
Within St. Luke's we at first enjoyed the hypnotic polyrhythmic delights of Global Pulse. Three Liverpudlian drummers - their leader wearing a big red hat to contain his dreadlocks - but their sound was so vibrant and life-affirming that it was hard to believe that it was conceived and played by denizens of so bleak and insular a city. There in the empty shell of the ex-church, surrounded by wildflowers and interesting photography - this music which seemed to look beyond a specific, stifling time and place was exactly what I needed at that point.
Having left the stage, local rapper/poet Loki took to the stage to preach, in rhyme, to a beat - about his need to transcend his Liverpool existence ("it's MANDATORY!"). Here we had some genuine ambition. More so than the "new bands" downtown, this actually felt like the contemporary music of Liverpool. It felt forward thinking, relevant - and it was supremely refreshing to hear from somebody else who felt the need to escape from this swaddle of a city.
Next came a quartet called Wrecked Career. Apparently they came together less than a week ago, so it's understandable that they've not yet any kind of online presence. For less than a week of togetherness, already they boast an impressively tight sound, with soulful vocals undulating over addictive beat theremin loops. By this point the wind had picked up and people had begun to dance. In those apocalyptic surroundings with that dark, ashen sky - the wind interfering with the sound quality - things began to feel somewhat tribal. I felt a warmth - it was CREATIVITY! Unfortunately, the actual temperature itself was low. As warm as I might have been feeling inside and as much as I would have liked to have stayed and saw through Wrecked Career's set, it was too chilly, we had to leave.
I was up for heading towards Bumper - a nearby bar where entry was free and where bands such as Peter and The Wolf were apparently playing all day. It would have been warm and comfortable, but there was a further band on the "new stage" of which Ryan had heard great things, so we descended once again into orange hell. By now the crowds were pulsating and the alcohol had kicked in. There was a certain tension in the air which I just couldn't ignore. Where it came from, I don't know. It struck me as the exact opposite of the inclusive party atmosphere of St. Luke's. This one felt less tribal, more primal - hostile, exclusive, cold, cruel.
We arrived at the stage just in time to see The Elementals kick off their set. Again, they are unfortunately lacking in any web presence, but for these guys the crowd was surging. There must have been about a dozen musicians onstage - four or five rappers, a small horn section, a drummer, a DJ, three guitarists, bass - an extremely harsh and visceral sound which seemed to tear through the air and reminded me for the second time that day that this city can skank. And skank they did. The atmosphere was a dark party - before me, to the whoops and applause of the circle which immediately surrounded him, a young boy began to breakdance. The main body of the crowd was throbbing with energy, the police nearby looked grumpy, wary - as if hoping against hope that things wouldn't turn ugly.
For a while it felt great to be part of something so apparently vital and celebratory. However, presently a group of glittery sailors in wigs and hot-pants - part of a gay cabaret act from a nearby stage - meandered through the crowd. Some people boo'd them. Some turned from the stage and shouted at them, pointing. Their voices slurred unrecognisable by alcohol, no sense could be found in their shouts. However, the ugliness of their expressions, the screwed-up redness of their faces and the violence of their hand movements made it clear that these flamboyant sailors simply weren't welcome here. Indeed, how dare they be so different, so gay?! Of course, as homosexuals they presented a direct threat to the manliness of these feral idiots, so they simply had to scream their disdain. Would it have turned ugly had the police not been there? I don't like to think. From that point on, I lost the ability to view the party atmosphere positively. I was reminded that such collective energy could, very easily, be directed with destructive hatred against anybody who doesn't fit in. As I feel like an outsider at the best of times in this city, I suddenly felt very vulnerable indeed.
The final band of the day - the headliners, as it were - were The Cocabelles. Heavily influenced by the vocal girl groups of the 40s, 50s and 60s, they'd be a museum piece were they not so young, with two of the three girls being but 21. Dance moves and all - with sweet, close harmonies, a tight, swinging backing band, the guitarist of which sported a most impressive moustache - they were bright, colourful, energetic and very, very tedious and dull. That sort of music simply does nothing for me. The more faithful the pastiche, the more depressed it makes me feel. Also, there and then the sky blackened completely and opened up - it began to rain very hard indeed. I looked around at the miserable, drunken faces, the horrible grey office blocks bearing down around us - the barriers, the security cameras, the police - it hit me, I felt cold, wet, trapped and the chirpy sounds onstage with mocking cruelty simply compounded the misery - there and then I had to leave. Luckily they were only onstage for twenty-five minutes.
The Matthew Street Festival, then, I believe forces this grey city into a far more faithful nutshell than did an entire year of "Capital of Culture" events and plaudits. The majority of the city is cold, hostile, lairy, brutal, cruel, insular, inbred and absolutely obsessed with itself - with its position in the world, in Britain, with its past, with The Beatles and with pride. However, look hard enough and you'll find pockets of wondrous warmth and creativity - with people who'll smile with you, shake your hand, look out for you and just generally make you feel welcome. The difference seems to be that people in the latter camp know that Liverpool - as great a place as it might be, certainly is not the world.