They came from as far afield as Germany and Spain, Brighton, Glasgow, London, the Midlands, South Wales and South Yorkshire. Even Cleveland, Ohio. And you can only imagine how many Covid tests that involved.
To paraphrase Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer Ray in Field of Dreams, Rico built it, and they came. And while there was no guest spot from ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, there was plenty to devour and savour over three days of happening indie pop, raucous garage rock and more at the inaugural Preston Pop Fest.
I planned to write a few feature/interviews to plug it all when it was announced five months ago, but the festival sold out in a matter of days and I got no further than an introductory piece with the afore-mentioned Rico la Rocca, of Tuff Life Boogie promotions, and The Bluebells’ main songwriter and guitarist Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell. Even then, I think it’s fair to say none of us were sure it would all get the go-ahead. But it did, and proved a triumph.
It must have been a logistical nightmare, and also a question of space. The Continental is ideal in that the ambience is on tap, so to speak, with lots of separate areas – in the garden and around this South Meadow Lane pub – to seek out between the snug bar and main function room, these days rechristened The Boatyard. But when you’re talking about up to 16 acts a day and God knows how many musicians (and that’s not me discounting any ‘non-musicians’ involved, I should add) arriving at different times, with precious few places to tune up, turn in and drop out … well, let’s just say that the soundchecks were far from private affairs. And one of my abiding memories of the weekend was regularly seeing the Conti’s events promoter Rob Talbot looking for Rico, potential crises having to be averted, from malfunctioning bass drum pedals to non-showing acts who are on next.
“Don’t suppose you’ve seen Rico?”
“I think he went that way … but that was two minutes ago.”
I think it’s fair to say crosses were ticked left, further left, and centre throughout though, Preston Pop Fest 2021 living up to and perhaps blowing out of the water all expectations. Cards on the table first though – of nearly 40 acts, I only managed to see eight. I live fairly local, but could only get into town each evening. But eight acts is still one more than I caught over the entirety of 2020, that year we’d all rather airbrush from our lives. And one thing I learned from my initial late-’80s Glastonbury sortees was that stumbling from one stage to another with too much of a fixed plan for three long days kind of kills off the notion of the true festival experience.
Ideally, I’d have added at least another dozen names to my ‘seen’ list, only some of which were on my pencilled-in version in March. I certainly missed a fair few I hoped to catch, but this was the first weekend I’d caught eight quality outfits in one weekend since the Fleadh in London in June 1992, and on North West soil since Heaton Park’s Martin Hannett tribute, Cities in the Park, in August 1991. Somehow that’ll be 30 years ago now. And while those stats possibly put me to shame for some of the hardier souls, the reason I mention it is because that at least illustrates the magnitude of the task pulled off in making this all somehow happen, in the most trying of circumstances.
I didn’t even manage to get into the snug until Sunday night, but the late evening closing set there more than made up for it, Michael & the Angelos in on the breeze (not as if there was much of that in there, the windows closed to avert complaints from the neighbours) from Nixon County, via Liverpool, to share some songs with us, introduced by former Cornershop, Formula One and Common Cold drummer David Chambers, the audience including close friend and Bunnymen legend Will Sergeant. And so this punter took himself briefly out of his Sunday evening comfort zone for a little psychedelic grunge, courtesy of the cartoon-equivalent of a band also known as The Kool Aiders, linked back to John Peel favourites The Mel-o-Tones and The Walking Seeds, their Stooges-like glorious racket (with all due respect and all power to their cartoonish elbows) impressive, if not rather jarring after the soothing sounds of The Orchids in the more spacious and certainly more airy surroundings of the Boatyard. But they certainly made the most of their setting, frontman Bob and his four amigos facing each other, the standing percussion player their hardcore beating heart.
Of course, the star-struck pop kid in me wanted to hang around to make small talk with Will, remind him how I’d interviewed him a few years back and try and say something non-trite, non-fawning yet respectful. But although we were less than the recent 2m-yardstick distance from each other, I bottled it and scarpered, drowning myself instead in the consolation of a glorious finale back in the Boatyard that had all the makings of a feelgood movie climax.
With regard to The Bluebells, I arrived back a tad too late to understand why Ken McCluskey was wearing a boiler-suit (was it an early Clash-like statement of intent?) and private jokes were passing between audience and band about Star Wars creator George Lucas, but the force of good was definitely with us, and I can think of no more deserving act for that weekend’s closing spot. This was totally the right call for a celebration of indie pop and the community feel of this loose-fitting smorgasbord of genres.
Sunday’s headliners – these masters of crossover indie (am I the only one who hears a little Bay City Rollers pop craft in there now? ) featuring Campbell Owens, Mick Slaven and Doug MacIntyre as well as Bobby and the McCluskey brothers these days – soon delved into ‘Forever More’, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ and the glorious ‘I’m Falling’, the latter reminding me of heady mid-‘80s days when Sisters got regular spins on this perennial teenager’s turntable. Ken’s voice and those of his bandmates remain as strong as ever. And that’s not often the case three decades on. On the day we lost another master of the close harmony, Don Everly – to whom so many generations of singers owe so much – it seemed rather apt.
I want to add that they did ‘Wishful Thinking (Will She Always Be Waiting)’ too, but I was playing that in the car and sometimes get confused over what I’ve actually heard when I’ve not used my notebook. They certainly did ‘South Atlantic Way’ though, as poignant now as then, the next flag-waving foreign war never seemingly far off. And there was the wondrous ‘Cath’, the first Bluebells song I truly loved, leading me up the garden path from the moment John Peel’s rhythm buddy David ‘Kid’ Jensen played it on wunnerful Radio 1.
And they still had the big hit to come, ‘Young at Heart’ – 27 years after its reissue topped the UK charts – followed by a lovely take on Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’, before a stonking late-‘60s encore of The Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’. Class set, class act.
That perfect Boatyard finale neatly complemented the previous set by fellow countrymen The Orchids, who stole my heart on their previous Conti visit and did not disappoint this time, the stand-outs among a warm summer evening set including treasured indie pop numbers – and at their best they gave older brothers Collins and Frame a run for their money – like ‘Something for the Longing’, first album opener ‘It’s Only Obvious’, the inspirational ‘Peaches’ (it’s ‘dreaming, baby’ line also apt, with Don Everly in mind), and ‘Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled’. Sumptuous choruses and enough to get yourself high, feed your soul, and set yourself free.
Between Dad’s Taxi duties, dog-walking, domestic duties and a Preston commute, I was only ever likely to manage short stints to keep tabs on proceedings, but even though I had to run out of the building mid-encore during the opening night’s finale to pick up my daughters, 45 minutes away, I at least got to see two great acts that night, starting with the one-man band that was Wales-reared, Dorset-based Young Marble Giants legend Stuart Moxham, and WriteWyattUK faves Close Lobsters, the latter for the first time since a 1989 Students’ Union headline at Surrey Uni in my hometown (having caught them and been blown away both times supporting The Wedding Present before).
My first night highlights included Stuart’s solo interpretation of ‘N.I.T.A.’, from the highly-influential Colossal Youth, four decades on, our distinguished guest casting aside his guitar for keyboard and backing tracks action – and then Close Lobsters’ ‘Let’s Make Some Plans’, ‘Just Too Bloody Stupid’ and a restarted ‘What is There To Smile About’ … after lead singer Andrew Burnett initially chose a different key in a convoluted attempt to convince us they hadn’t played that particular dancefloor smash in several years. And yes, all these years on from Foxheads Stalk This Land and Headache Rhetoric, they’ve still got it, as most recent long-playing product Post Neo Anti proved. I just hope the moment they finished their ‘Going to Heaven to See if it Rains’ encore and I hot-tailed it off, they didn’t tune up once more then crash into ‘Never Seen Before’ and ‘Kneetrembler’. If they did, just keep it to yourself, right?
Incidentally, that evening I found myself in conversation with both Sunday debut act uhr (I missed their storming and less than cosy Sunday snug set, dad and lad John and Jack Harkins joined by the afore-mentioned David Chambers, his set with Baboon ruled out by a bandmate testing positive), but I’ve since seen footage and been suitably impressed enough to vow to catch them soon as I can) and two members of John Peel favourites Yeah Yeah Noh, the latter looking suitably impressed – as good as packing their bags for a trip to Spain next year – when I mentioned on seeing one of the Spaniards in the works wearing a Madrid Pop Fest t-shirt that the two festivals were official partners. Pretty sure that wasn’t the case, but I gather that promises were made between promoters. Watch this space. And at a time when Lancashire is making a collective bid for European City of Culture, it’s fair to say Rico is leading the way, the groundwork done for what could become a staple in the region’s indie gig calendar.
Saturday provided a cracking bill too, your scribe ensuring he was at least in time for East Midlands ‘unpop’ legends Yeah Yeah Noh, before a perfect blistering finale from angular angle-grinding Essex wonders The Wolfhounds. Two very different approaches to ‘pop’, both alright in my book. Again, I missed out on much more, 14 Iced Bears’ Robert Sekula (I can’t believe it’s now 35 years since ‘Inside’, their debut single in the attractive paper bag sleeve, a regular on my C90 compilations around then, taped off Peel, not least when I only had two minutes of cassette left) just finishing his snug set as I arrived, while I missed The Jazz Butcher – soon heading to The Ferret for an evening set, Pat Fish appearing as one-half of a ‘guerilla guitar two-piece’ – and Creation wonders Jasmine Minks, and was called out the following night for missing WriteWyattUK regulars Vukovar (memorably described on Rico’s Best Left in the 1980s Toy Box fanzine notes as ‘originally starting out as a Throbbing Gristle-inspired boy band from the Wigan/St Helens axis of evil’), who were good enough to hand me a copy of The Great Immurement all the same.
I also felt guilty for missing The Great Leap Forward for a second time at the venue, despite being impressed by their latest single, and time was against me for catching either of the late night tales sessions from Nicholas Blincoe (also on the bill with Meatmouth) and Graham Duff.
Yeah Yeah Noh gave themselves not so much a mountain as a down to climb, to use their own vernacular, getting John Peel Festive 50 chartbuster ‘Bias Binding’ out of the way early doors (you could argue there was more movement on the floor for their soundcheck, truth be told – the band mock-admonishing those dancing far too early in the proceedings), but they held our interest throughout, with plenty of wry smiles on the way to tour de force ending ‘Blood Soup’. Still cutting it (the heavenly lawn of greatness, that is).
Like The Housemartins’ ‘Happy Hour’ somehow courted the very people it poked fun at, I feel it’d be wrong to suggest Essex anti-legends The Wolfhounds‘ ‘Middle Aged Freak’ proved to be the anthem of the weekend rather than ‘Young at Heart’, but it kind of was. Reduced to a two-piece on their last visit in late 2016 without Pete Wilkins and Richard Golding – but still immense – I was hooked by the full turnout this time from the moment I was lost in the mesmerising ‘Across the River of Death’, their splendid last two LPs – Untied Kingdom and Electric Music – prominent, earlier numbers like ‘Blown Away’ and ‘Skyscrapers’ finishing the job nicely.
While I missed solo sets from both lead singer David Callahan and Andy Golding – in his guise as Dragon Welding –the following afternoon, I made it back in time for Jetstream Pony, another highlight, partly making up for the fact that as I walked towards the Boatyard, Swansea Sound (a fivepiece including Amelia and Rob from the Catenary Wires and Hue Williams from the Pooh Sticks) were heading towards the beer garden gate with their gear. On the previous two nights, we were at least half an hour behind schedule, but not this time unfortunately, the world and its live-in lover soon telling me how good they were on their live debut. And that after a pleasing moment seeing a young lad on the window outside the snug thrilling to the rock’n’roll blast of another Scottish border-raider that went down a storm, James King & the Lone Wolves, of whom Iain McNeill apparently said, ”I’m pretty sure anyone in Glasgow could have listened to it by opening a windae”. Praise, indeed.
But Jetstream Pony soothed me, bringing US West Coast ‘60s sensibilities from the UK’s South Coast, five and a half decades later, their transatlantic vibe aided by London-based Californian lead singer/occasional Davy Jones tambourine shaker Beth Arzy, also known for Aberdeen and The Luxembourg Signal, and NYC-born, Brighton-based bass player Kerry Boettcher. It was also the first time I’d seen Shaun Charman – these days on guitar/backing vocals – playing since he was behind the drum kit with The Wedding Present in 1987, a check through my archives confirming the last time was the night the hurricane blew through the South-East that October, Gedge, Solowka, Gregory and Charman having set the University of London Union alight that night. A long spell in Brighton outfit The Pop Guns followed, and on this occasion that band’s drummer was in ‘on loan’ (their German drummer unable to travel).
And here was a band that as much as anyone summed up the communal vibe. Not only did they charm us on stage, but they were there supporting others from the dancefloor, as can be said of many more on the bill, not least Amelia Fletcher, throwing plenty of shapes to The Bluebells, picked out by the mirrorball like the heroine of her recent Catenary Wires single. And perhaps that was the secret of success for Preston Pop Fest 2021 – that ‘all in it together’ vibe.
I should add that I’ve only scratched the surface here. I heard good things about Glasgow’s Sumshapes and US Highball (was Scotland empty last weekend?) and Sheffield’s immaculately-attired Potpourri (the latter priding themselves on their ‘space age bachelorette pad music with a glacial cool that belies their warm hearts’, according to Rico’s zine). I at least told myself I can see further WriteWyattUK faves Ginnel and One Sided Horse around town in the coming months. But everyone who took part deserves a mention and a badge of honour, and you’ll find online plenty more interpretations of winning sets by The Bad Daddies, Barry, Campbell L Sangster, Cowgirl, Normal Service, The Room in the Wood, Spread Eagle, Stephen Hartley, The Strange, Surfing Pointers, The Train Set, and Thee Windom Earles. Is that everyone? Hopefully. Let’s hope a fair few of these acts re-book for the next Preston Pop Fest though. And it will happen.
With thanks to Lee Grimshaw, Erika Gyökér and Chris Quinn for the photos coped here, and of course Rico and Rob for their hospitality over the three days.
And for details of the next hip happenings, Rico’s in-house four-legged host and Preston Pop Fest 2021 cover star Coco la Rocca apparently asks you to consider attending these further Tuff Life Boogie events: Celebrating Steve Barker’s On The Wire on Sunday, September 19th, Hardcore Halloween: The Stupids, Hellbastard, Deviated Instinct, Intense Degree on Saturday, October 30th, and Garage Peel : The Primevals, The Wolfhounds, Inca Babies, The Total Rejection on Saturday, November 20th.