This was the third annual event of the Astral Coast festival taking place at the Floral Pavilion Theatre in New Brighton which, in its brief period of existence, specialises in showcasing some of Merseyside’s best established and most exciting new musical talent. Although not a frequent visitor to the Wirral, I had only recently returned from Glastonbury and am still very much in the festival spirit and had the taste for some local live music.
The weather on the day was certainly typical of Glastonbury when I’ve been before, with large gloomy clouds hanging over Liverpool and across the water towards my destination, with the rain destined to join proceedings at some point as well. This was not exactly how you imagine your first visit (in memory) to a traditional seaside town like New Brighton would be but, thankfully, I knew the festival would be safely tucked away inside the theatre and the weather wouldn’t be spoiling the experience too much.
Despite being rather desolate it was still quite an enjoyable experience walking down along the waterfront and passing the various chip shops, candy shops and arcades on the way to the venue. I could imagine in years, past or future, when sunnier skies look down on New Brighton for Astral Coast that the nostalgic seaside charm of the area would lend itself far more to the overall experience of the day. The same can be said for the beer balcony of the venue, with only those all-weather folk we have come to know as smokers not inside the theatre when I arrived.
The foyer was colourfully adorned with artwork and displays from some of the festivals non-profit organisation associates like Creative Roots and The Open Door Centre. Astral Coast is the latter’s flagship event and they were encouraging people to write down a lyric that meant something to them and why on coloured paper leaves (along with their name and age) and attach it to a white tree which was displayed in the foyer. The bar was also easily accessed, and a pretty decent range of drinks were available at very reasonable prices.
A quick glance at the timetable and it was pleasing to see that none of the bands playing on the Open Door or Bido Lito stages would be clashing. This is a great idea from the organisers as it gives each of the acts an equal opportunity to show off their music to the widest possible audience – with the only competition coming from the DJs, who did an excellent job of keeping the festival’s buzzing vibe going in the foyer as people travelled between the stages or dwelt at the bar.
The first act I saw was Veyu (who played their very first gig at this event last year) and they offered up an intriguing package of dreamy, melodic and atmospheric pop. One such highlight was “The Everlasting”, with its at times haunting melody and meandering and thoughtful lyrics, all brought to the energetic and resonant conclusion of the band’s twin lead guitars playing off against each other.
Next it was over to Bido Lito for The Sundowners, and to say that this band turned out to be my cup of tea would be something of an understatement. There is something undeniably striking about the stage presence of singers Niamh Rowe and Fiona Skelly, and it almost feels for a minute that a young Alanis Morissette and Stevie Nicks had formed some kind of supergroup. Their vocal harmonies sounded beautiful and full of life as they intertwined with one another throughout tracks like “Hummingbird”, “Into the Light” and “If Wishes Were Horses”. Although this band were entirely new to me, the latter song is a new one by their own standards, and one that really showcases the talent of the group as a whole – especially the tearing lead guitar of Alfie Skelly. If you’ve been following this band for the last few years then you already know what they’re capable of, but I can only strongly urge anyone who hasn’t been to go and check them out – and be on the look out for their upcoming album release as well.
I took the time to take in the ambient sounds of By The Sea on the Open Door stage, and then finally got to see Bird, who I’d only heard good things about and wasn’t about to be disappointed. Bird singer Adele Emmas’ vocals can sound one minute fragile and troubled before suddenly surprising with you with a primal burst of raw power. Accompanied by the ethereal yet energetic sound conjured by the rest of the band, the result was a perfectly tempered dreamy, delicate and gritty set of songs (Warpaint-esque) which firmly captivated everyone in the audience. Bird are most certainly another band to be keeping a close watch on.
There are few artists with the right sort of credentials to headline an event such as this and Bill Ryder-Jones – whether it be his years in The Coral, his critically acclaimed solo career, the various collaborations and production work done with up and coming local artists, or joining the Arctic Monkeys on stage for their recent UK arena tour – definitely felt like the ideal man for the occasion. Ryder-Jones proceeded to entrance the audience with a set full of songs which channel his distinctive brand of lyrical melancholia and sadness, and are backed up by his searching, dreamy style of guitar playing. One particular highlight was hearing his song “The Lemon Tree #3” seamlessly morph into a brief cover of Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” – one of my favourite songs of all time.
Astral Coast was most definitely a triumph in its third year, and a festival which promises to build on its success next year, just as it so clearly has done on their past events. It was incredibly well-organised and set in an ideal venue which was absolutely great value at £10 a ticket (or £12.50 on the door) considering the sheer quantity and quality of the acts on show. Most importantly, though, it is an event which did everything in its power to showcase all of its talent in the best possible way it could. The only drawback was having to get the train back to Liverpool (as I’m sure many others did) and subsequently missing out on some of the later acts – namely
We Are Catchers, Temple Songs and the Tea Street Band. Yes there was a night bus service (and I have seen some of those brilliant acts before), but I think the best idea would be to try and start the festival even earlier than 2pm, and to make sure everyone gets a chance to see what I already know would have been more of the same exciting local music that just keeps coming from both sides of the water.