Threshold Festival – Sunday
With the Saturday sun deciding to stay another day, Threshold Festival’s final curtain seems set to come down in style, and I decide to start the day in a relaxed manner and head to The Baltic Social, where James Sills has taken the stage. However I seem to have overlooked the date. It is, of course, Mother’s Day, and The Baltic Social is still a functioning restaurant. It’s therefore nearly impossible to hear the acoustic singer-songwriter above the clink of the kitchen and the screams of petulant children. His mellow style does, however, form as good a backdrop as any for a pleasant family roast, though it’s an ever so slightly jarring departure from what has, up until now, remained a weekend entirely smitten with the insular vibe of the British festival.
Leaving in favour of District, more central to the festival, I’m greeted with indie five-piece Room for Rent, and a pretty sparse audience. Not that it bothers the local band, who unleash an almighty post-rock racket on those fortunate enough to be there. Though visibly tetchy at first given the lack of attention, the group gradually relax into a groove, and as they begin to capitalise on the lack of pressure they go from strength to strength. Scuzzy renditions of Kings of Leon’s ‘Molly’s Chambers’ and The Black Keys’ ‘Lonely Boy’ can rival the originals in pure energy, while original tracks such as ‘Gretchen’ sees them seize a sense of detachment to release a huge sound that finds them a place in the crowd’s affections, though deafening them in the process.
Next up are The Haze, and as they take the stage the crowd suddenly begins to grow. Evidently they’re not a band without a fanbase, and their indie-rock sound goes down a storm. Frontman Kevin Walsh is a man with remarkable stage presence given his youth, while the rest of his band are without fail rock-solid musicians – particularly guitarist Sean Walsh who seems to have no shortage of blistering solos ready and waiting to be set free. Though the band aren’t quite pushing the boat out as much as they might be able to in terms of innovation, and their sound is certainly nothing new, what they do they do with lashings of charm, talent and charisma. It’s essentially mainstream rock and roll, but if that’s what you’re after you’d be hard-pressed to find better amongst the sea of up-and-comers. If they can maintain an upward trajectory and find a stroke of luck or two, don’t be surprised to spot their name on some major line-ups in the future.
Unit 51 is a hub of sorts for the festival, and it struck me as unusual that I still hadn’t been, yet I approached with slight apprehension when Niamh Jones took the stage; amongst gluttony of wistful acoustic singer-songwriters, would there really be anything to set her apart? My fears are soon allayed however, and right from the off the sizeable crowd is captivated by her charming delicacy and measured mournfulness. Covering ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’ Jones manages to renovate the cheese-pop classic into a fragile and touching folk tune with more than a hint of Joni Mitchell, so transforming the original that were it not for those lyrics the original would be indistinguishable. Meanwhile her own composition ‘Cloudhead’ exhibits a lyrical talent that’s direct in its simplicity, yet far from unsophisticated. She closes with an astonishing and at first acappella version of ‘The Parting Glass’, in honour of the date dedicated to her mother (who later that evening asks me why I’ve been sat alone writing things in a notebook for the last 3 hours).
Unit 51 is perhaps Threshold’s most consistently lively venue, but as Dominic Dunn and his band take the stage it’s completely packed. Undoubtedly one of Liverpool’s rising stars, the bar is awash with excitable punters, a situation Dunn grabs by the horns. His set is encrusted with character, from the aptly titled opener ‘I’m On My Way’ to the tortured acoustic lilt of ‘La Vie Est Belle’ and the measured swagger of closer ‘Keep Them Tight’, he is every inch the performer and something of a heartthrob for a gaggle of drunk middle-aged women behind me. His band too are worthy of high praise, his three backing singers lending opulent texture to his crafted melodies while dexterous guitars and a thrusting rhythm section give the sense of a highly polished live act.
While the ecstatic crowd do wane slightly in number for their subsequent set, Ragamuffins don’t let the night’s momentum slip and frontman David Jaggs gives an animated, angular performance in the vein of Elvis Costello and Kevin Rowland. There’s more than a hint of early Dexys in their sound too, arduously soulful vocals juxtaposed with lively brass. Keyboardist Sam Parry meanwhile dons the organ much like a 1950s light entertainer, with a distinct Britishness in the Butlin’s tradition (and I mean that as a compliment). Lyrically they’re also fascinating, songs like opener ‘Generosity Killed the Fatcats’ and ‘Fish and Chips’ embodying a restrained quirkiness a la Divine Comedy, with hints of the melancholy whimsy that characterised much of Belle and Sebastian’s early work. Overall what shines through with Ragamuffins is a sense of self-awareness, and of pure enjoyment. They might not be world-beaters in the making like Dominic Dunn, and they might look like a band of geography teachers, but you’d be hard pressed to beat Ragamuffins when it comes to atmosphere.
Closing the evening, and for me the festival, are Joe Symes and The Loving Kind. Their recent self-titled debut album has already set them apart with its blend of Liverpudlian tradition and technical skill, and they bring their sound admirably to a live setting. Incredibly versatile as musicians, ‘Fine Line’ is every bit as playful and embedded in the classic Mersey-pop tradition as on record, while their final track ‘Falling Down’ morphs into an extended 10-minute psychedelic epic, in which they show off their technical abilities as a band to jaw-dropping extent. The only problem is, the frenetic atmosphere kindled by Dunn and upheld by Ragamuffins is no longer with us; Joe Symes and co give a phenomenal set – a highlight of the festival – but they’re met with little more than polite applause.
Perhaps the night peaked too soon, or perhaps everyone’s by now just a little too drunk, it’s hard to put your finger on. By no means is it a disappointing finish to the festival, there’s just a sense that the band really deserve a little more for their efforts.
Having said that, the worst of closing sets imaginable would fail to take away that little something special about Threshold festival. With similarly-structured affairs like SXSW and even Sound City becoming increasingly saturated by the mainstream, Threshold is truly refreshing in both its artist-supportive ethos and the sheer consistency of brilliance represented in the myriad of its acts. Threshold festival is a treasure not just for Liverpool, but for Britain’s burgeoning grassroots music culture, for whom opportunities like this are increasingly few and far between.