Put together by the team behind Bido Lito! magazine, a local monthly which has been promoting arts and culture on Merseyside for the best part of a decade now, the stated aim of Future Yard was to put the much neglected Birkenhead back on the map by re-imagining venues and spaces around the city.
Best known as a shipbuilding town prior to the decline of that industry during the second half of the 20th century, Birkenhead is often synonymous with crime and poverty in the minds of many. Frequently dismissed as living in the shadow of its world famous neighbour across the Mersey, it’s a city with a rich history of its own.
Besides containing an array listed buildings that includes the stunning 850-year-old Birkenhead Priory, it was also home to England’s first street tramway system. In addition to this there’s Birkenhead Park, the first in the world to be financed using public funds and a forerunner to the Parks Movement which inspired the likes of Central Park in New York and Sefton Park in Liverpool.
Although based there Future Yard is not just about the host city, it’s about the wider Wirral area of which Birkenhead is essentially the capital. Flanked in the south west by the River Dee, the oblong shaped peninsula also has historical and social connections with parts of North Wales. Featuring a diverse range of local talent performing alongside national and international artists, Future Yard couldn’t have picked a better weekend on which to host its inaugural festival of “weird Wirral wonderment”.
Arriving at the Priory early on the Friday, it was a good opportunity catch a glimpse of PYLON. An installation created by Wirral-born electronic artist Forest Swords in collaboration with the Kazimer, it was housed in the refurbished Priory refectory. Comprised of a pylon with a series of programmed symbols running through the middle, they would be “activated” by artists such as Scalping, Luke Abbot and others across the weekend.
Designed as a space for “improvisation, exploration and contemplation”, the plylon was positioned in the centre of the room and encircled by pillows on which a number of early arrivals could be found enjoying its meditative sounds while waiting for Samurai Kip to kick off the festival with their blend of jazz, funk and soul.
It’s never easy opening a festival, particularly a brand new one, but the local quartet put on a good performance for a small crowd. The setting couldn’t be more perfect, with the rarely seen summer sun shining down over the Priory garden. There was a large naval ship docked behind the mobile bar selling cold cans of Future Yard pale ale which had been brewed exclusively for the festival by Black Lodge in the Baltic Triangle.
It was difficult to leave the Priory garden but if you wanted to witness the West Kirby-born Bill Ryder-Jones perform an intimate piano set in the fifty capacity max Priory Chapel then there was little time to snooze on the grass. A queue began to form twenty-plus minutes before the set began, which in turn led to a fifteen minute delay so a speaker could be put outside.
Revealing that he wasn’t particularly in the mood, the former Coral man was in good form but some of the audience were a little slow to react to his jokes at first. Beginning by taking a few requests, Jones performed a heartfelt set playing the likes of ‘John’, the incredibly sad ‘Daniel’ about his deceased brother, as well as ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’.
There’s usually a point where a festival really kicks off and it was a performance in the Priory garden by The Intergalactic Republic of Kongo that really got Future Yard going after somewhat slow-ish start. With the audience hesitant to come too closer, IRoK vocalist and driving force Mike Title jumped over the railings and practically dragged everyone forward.
Dealing in a mix of Afrofuturism and early 90’s dance-rock, the highlight was when they called a young kid up on stage and let him take over vocal duties for one of the songs. The young lad enjoyed himself so much that you thought they might have had a job on their hands getting the microphone back off him.
Given the hype starting to grow around the London-based six-piece over the past year, you’d have thought Black Country, New Road would have attracted a larger audience than they did in the Priory garden. Some sound issues delayed things by about ten minutes but their performance was easily one of the best of the weekend.
Their sound is an experimental blend of post-punk, noise rock, jazz and Balkan folk, which can perhaps best described as listening to Swans, Slint, Tortoise and King Crimson all at once, with a tense and fearful David Byrne-esque character on vocals. Cacophonous and incredibly gripping, the sax and violin really add to the dark tension they create. Keep your eye on this band.
The Priory garden cleared out pretty quickly as the majority of people headed off to check out what was on at the Town Hall and the Bloom Building. However, it soon filled back up as new faces arrived to catch Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly. Unsure whether to stick or twist, the kind offer of a beer from a fellow festival goer persuaded us to stick and we were very glad that we did.
Connected to the area via her Welsh mother, Stella Donnelly performed a few tracks solo before being joined by her bandmates. Having not been that impressed with her album Beware of the Dogs earlier in the year, she was brilliant live and put in perhaps the funniest show of the weekend. Sharp and very witty, the chemistry she has with her band was also great to witness. It was a pleasure to be proven wrong.
After spending most of the day at the Priory it was about time to check out the Bloom Building properly. Conveniently only a minute down the road, it was quite packed down when we’d poked our heads in earlier on. Holding around a hundred-or-so max with extra space outside, the audience at the brightly coloured converted industrial unit tended to be younger on average than those in and around the Priory.
Although this wasn’t the case for experimental trio Szun Waves, with the crowd being a little older but also fairly sparse during parts of their fifty minute set. Made up of electronic producer Luke Abbott, Laurence Pike of PVT on drums and Jack Wyllie of Portico Quartet on sax, their psychedelic electronic jazz explorations were perhaps a little too experimental for most of those who popped their heads in and out at various times.
Bill Ryder-Jones took to the stage in the Town Hall as the Friday night headline act and seemed a little wobbly after one too ales throughout the day. Despite this though it didn’t prevent him and his band from putting in a great performance, with the shoegazey and slowcore blend of ‘Satellites’ being one of a number of standout tracks in their ninety minute set.
After recognising numerous family and friends dotted around in the audience, he joked about how it’s nice that the locals don’t have to get a taxi back across the river after watching live music for once. After a bit more piss taking he uttered “no divisions” with a wry smile. But it wasn’t an inter-city rivalry which divided the room, it was the large numbers of people at the back insisting on chattering constantly throughout his performance, with Jones asking them to keep quiet numerous occasions.
Day two began very early for some with a two hour bike tour. Titled ‘Viking Wirral on Wheels’ it was scheduled to depart the Priory gates at 10:30am. How many people made it we have no idea, but we spotted a group of about two dozen heading out on a walking tour just after 1pm led by a local historian. Preferring something a bit more relaxing, we sat back and watched some yoga in the Priory garden and had a look at the Saturday’s offerings.
Kicking off the second day of music at the Priory was a programme curated by Focus Wales, an annual festival held in Wrexham which showcases the finest in Welsh talent. Opening this was Flintshire-born melodic soundscape artist Meilir who hopped between an electronic piano, an acoustic guitar and a typewriter, with his most powerful instrument being his stunning vocals.
In addition, the Focus Wales showcase included performances by Cardiff-based electronic pop artist Ani Glass (formerly of The Pipettes in which she performed with her sister of Gwenno Saunders), as well as electronic pop duo HMS Morris who were performing in Liverpool for only the second time.
Merging North Wales with Merseyside were seven-piece melancholic pop band Gintis, with members from both Abergele and Liverpool. Crowds were starting to pick up a bit by the time they performed just after 5pm and they certainly made the best of their time on stage on what was turning out to be a super hot day.
Despite the sun shining down we headed inside to the Priory Chapel to witness one of the highlights of the festival where Lo Five got the Reformat showcase rolling. The Liverpool-born, Hoylake-based electronic artist put together a seamless set of melodic, ambient techno-inspired tunes that had us hypnotised. We could easily have listened to another couple more hours of that.
Faced with a difficult choice, we went with Seatbelts down at the Town Hall over the highly rated Eyesore & the Jinx over at the Bloom Building. It was good to stretch our legs a bit after spending most of the day sat on the grass in the Priory garden. We certainly weren’t the only ones who spent large parts of their weekend basking in the sun.
Assembled by Hooton Tennis Club songwriting duo James Madden and Ryan Murphy after they began writing tunes that were a little more experimental, their socially conscious songs are great fun live. Abi Woods on keys and vocals has been a great addition to this band, who with two solid EP’s behind them are certainly one to keep an eye on.
Rather than walk ten minutes to the other venues only we grabbed a pint and waited for Beija Flo to enter the stage. It’s pretty difficult to pick one standout act from the weekend as there were multiple but she has to be in the conversation. Her performance had everything, featuring a bit of poetry, comedy, dance and activism in between some great music.
She puts so much of her personality into her art and had the full attention of everyone in the Town Hall, opening up at one point about her issues with MRKH Syndrome (a condition which causes the vagina and uterus to be underdeveloped or absent, affecting one in five thousand women). An incredibly original artist who has the potential to go very far indeed.
Line-up clashes are virtually inevitable at one point or another, especially with line-ups as good as Future Yard. It was certainly the case on Saturday evening. Pixx, Polypores and SPQR are all great and we were gutted that we were forced to miss them, but we just couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Nilüfer Yanya perform in the Priory garden..
With the sun gone for another day, the 23-year old West London-born artist put in a fantastic performance. Playing tracks from her critically acclaimed full-length debut Miss Universe, the BBC Sound of 2018 nominee closed the Priory stage with her sophisticated blend of art pop, indie rock, soul, R&B and jazz. The sax playing was just superb.
With no other performances taking place during her Saturday night headline set, the entire festival headed over to the Town Hall to witness Anna Calvi. It didn’t take very long to see why many were happy to pay for a ticket just to see the Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter. While her studio material is pretty good, live she is something else entirely. A force of nature.
Dressed in her customary red shirt, black trousers and white boots, the power and passion of her performance and the way she holds a room with her Gothic-inspired vocals was quite incredible. Unlike the previous night, there was very little chattering during her ninety minute set which ended with a superb cover ‘Ghost Rider’ by Suicide.
Whether or not “The Future is Birkenhead”, as the volunteer staff t-shirts said, only time will tell. Despite ticket sales perhaps not being quite as high as many would have hoped, the inaugural Future Yard was undoubtedly a huge success. Not one person we spoke to came away with anything other than love for this most intimate of festivals.