World’s premiere power pop festival crushes Liverpool after 2-year covid hiatus
I started to write songs when I was 13. I loved Bad Company (still do) and I thought it was so cool how the band had a theme song called Bad Company. Same with The Monkees. A song that announced who you were and what you intended to achieve.
For my band, stupidly called Rox (yes with an x), I wrote, “It all started out in 82/we were ready to rock, how ‘bout you.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
As embarrassing as it is to commit those words to paper, it’s 40 years later, and my high school band—rechristened Circles during our senior year at Glenbrook North outside of Chicago—just completed three magical sets at the Cavern Club, honored to play a tiny role in the world’s premiere festival of power pop music, International Pop Overthrow.
This festival has special resonance for me. It was named for the stunning debut album of Material Issue, whose leader Jim Ellison was my friend and mentor in rock ‘n’ roll. Material Issue’s legacy was cemented by enduring hits like “Valerie Loves Me” and “What Girls Want.” And in a nice piece of cultural justice, the band’s acclaim has grown in recent years, with the excellent documentary “Out of Time” earning huge kudos in the cities where it’s been screened. (For the sake of both disclosure and humblebrag, the film was executive produced by the company that owns this website; click here to pressure the distributor for a screening or streaming option near you.)
And Liverpool is special to me personally as well. It’s the childhood stomping grounds of my wife’s father. He died before I got the chance to meet him, but his obsessive interest in pop music and successful career in same were just some of the many ways I always felt spiritually connected to this man I’ll never meet. I got engaged in Liverpool and having a chance to go back there and play music and see old friends has been such a special treat. It’s been interrupted, like everything else, by the pandemic.
My band The Lilacs played in 2019 and absolutely killed it in anticipation of the best year in the band’s history. But then the festival shut down in 2020 and 2021, which corresponded with the most serious personal calamity in my life. And now, after the fall, as Ray Davies put it, the sun shines again.
International Pop Overthrow 22 was a roaring success. An injection of spirit and lightheartedness that music fans all over the world not just deserve but need. Fittingly, it opened on Sunday, May 15, just 24 hours after Liverpool took home the FA Cup in a thrilling win over Chelsea.
With 105 bands playing over 8 days, it’s not possible to see them all. So what follows are my impressions of some of the acts I did catch, with the understanding that this is just one man’s perspective drunk on weak g&t’s and the magic of being in the world’s best city for live music.
Mark Pountney is a singer-songwriter with plus material. He’d benefit from varying the tempos a bit, but the addition of a band really brought his excellent songs to life. You can hear from the harmonies and falsetto here on “Something Good Going” why he’d appeal to the people who trek from all over to stand where the Beatles once stood.
Lucky Blue came from Rotterdam and brought along a guitar case full of Mod anthems and a ton of energy to fuel them. A breakout band of the festival. Four singers, all with an idea how to sing. The guitar player has a great Fixx type sound and wears his strap with the top around the nut, which I can’t remember ever having seen on an electric guitar. But there is no way they can allow their bass player to wear shorts and sweat socks and a ball cap. This cannot stand. A truly fun band to watch with solid song contributions like “Everest,” which has a meh verse but a killer chorus.
A great moment occurred when the charismatic singer broke both an A and D on one song early in the set. The musical brotherhood of The Cavern prevailed. One guy lent him a Les Paul as another handsome Samaritan quickly changed the strings on his Stratocaster. I don’t remember them playing their best song, the ballad “Remember Me,” but it’s very much worth tracking down.
The Beat Movement from Greenock, Scotland played roots rock with a lead guitarist who looks like Paul Weller and plays like KK Downing. It was a bit loud for these ears, but I was digging the high harmonies the drummer supplied.
A fellow called Rob Jones took the stage as a solo act. As he pointed out multiple times, he usually plays with a “much younger and more handsome guy” named Rob White. It takes some courage to get up there between all these tough guy bands dripping with testosterone and sing a solo song on acoustic guitar about a “French girl in the hallway.”
Copenhagen’s Mansfield featured gorgeous pop songwriting with great harmonies by the drummer, who plays the entire set with a super winning grin. The lyrics could do with a bit of workshopping, but I wonder sometimes when, if English isn’t a first language, you get amazingly fortunate unintended results. Think “Brain Tag” by Bettie Serveert. Other times it’s cliched – “like a landslide.” On the other hand, singer Christian Stage speaks with an accent more English than Danish so I’m not sure what’s happening here. (Yes, I am aware of how ridiculous my assessment is. Everything I know about Danish comes from addiction to The Chestnut Man.) I bought “Tell It Like It Is” and even though I can’t figure out how to translate USD to DKK, whatever fortune I paid is worth it for this pop gem.
We caught The Side from the Scottish Highlands whose excellent song “Let the Feeling Go” typified this bluesy pop band that lets the piano drive the rhythm. They soak the songs in wah wah and such a heavy Scottish accent I couldn’t understand the between-song announcements. No matter. Pop music is a universal language and these guys showed up with a real idea. I would have advised them not to include “Top of the World” on their otherwise excellent 2009 album Nowhere Left to Run because its verse melody is too close to the chorus of Rockwell’s hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” Their best song, the epic ballad “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” featured a finale with about four fake endings and it ruled. The wah wah pedal made a tasteful reappearance and it was beautifully composed like a Kansas song.
Senior Class came from Essex with one handful of pomade and another of great songs. Their new single “Fit Thighs and Pretty Eyes” sounds and looks a good bit like The Wonders and has hit written all over it.
Vix 20 lost a couple points in my book for caving to the pressure to play a Beatles song, even though their version of “Lady Madonna” was pretty rockin’. I give them credit for the fresh take, and I love the symmetry of one lefty and one righty guitarist playing back to back.
Inverness quartet Lucille was one of my favorite bands of the entire festival. Their new release Rise sounds how I always wish the Foo Fighters would sound—like they mean it. Best song on a very good record is “Nothing Comes for Free.” And because I can’t help myself, they should have included some harmonies on that one. Even a unison shout of the key line would have enhanced the dynamics. A terrific band with A+ songwriting, and a surprisingly effective visual presentation from four bearded guys (three with eyeglasses!).
The Chelsea Curve out of Boston wear their mod influences proudly on their Fred Perry sleeves. Bassist/singer Linda Pardee makes for a compelling frontwoman, while rangy guitar player Tim Gillis reminded me a ton of Dag Juhlin if there are some fans of The Slugs from Chicago out there. And speaking of Chicago pop legends, I think one of their songs included the lyric “better be a better way.” Maybe they’re Green fans?
The Stayawakes wore their Weezer influence proudly and even had a song about 1995. And they happened to be the single best band I saw at the whole festival. I think I drunkenly advised them not to wear matching polka dot shirts, but it was out of love. Just too damn good of a band for gimmicky stuff like that. Listen to this song, “Lovestruck.” Total fucking hit. “Please Steve, Just Drive” has the kind of chorus that’s painful for me to hear because I so wish I’d written it. Their song “Power Pop Massacre” could be the anthem for the whole IPO Festival and even contains a clapback lyric. “A Status Quo cassette in your mum’s car” has got to be a reference to the unforgettable Teenage Fanclub song The Concept, right? (She wears denim wherever she goes / Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo.) I dunno, maybe not, but when you see a band sing that line and you’re standing a few feet from the actual guitars of the Status Quo in the hallowed museum of rock and roll at the Cavern, it’s a very special thing.
I didn’t see Detroit band The Incurables, but their singer Ray made a point of introducing himself to us after the third Circles performance. He too knew Material Issue and he stuck around to meet me and commiserate about the loss. Ray pointed to his table at The Cavern Pub and it was 100% covered in pints and mixed drinks. Detroit Rock City. Ray told me that he remembered reading a story after Jim died about how Material Issue played the same exact set every night of a tour and by the end it was perfect. I told him it was my story he was citing — Jim Ellison’s obituary in NewCity. Like I said, I didn’t see the band, but I later heard their cover of the Violent Femmes “Add It Up” and it surely rocks.
And finally, Circles.
We are older now. For our third set in 24 hours, I took “I Don’t Need You” out of our setlist because I just didn’t think I had the energy to do with it what I would have in 1986. But this isn’t old-timers week or baseball fantasy camp. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think we could put on a credible performance that more than clears the embarrassment threshold. While I seem to have lost about a step and a half from the high part of my tenor range, I’m a far better singer today than I was decades ago, and a better guitar player. And so are the other guys, John Packel and Kevin Sanders. We don’t play as hard, we don’t play as fast, but we play way smarter and with more musicality.
We did mostly original songs from different eras of our musical past—a bunch of Lilacs songs, a couple Circles chestnuts, a Green tune, a Material Issue song, a new song that I wrote during Covid. And songs that meant a lot to us for other reasons. Just What I Needed, which we’ve been playing for 40 years, After the Fall, which has special resonance for me. And of course “Stay Free.” I’m 1900 words in here, but I am struggling to describe what it felt like to stand on a stage with my two best friends of 40+ years and create music.
But wait, there’s more!
We added some ingredients. NYC guitar phenom Max Kyrillos joined us in Liverpool. We met cute. Twelve years ago, I was at a pool party with a bunch of my fellow middle aged douchebags, dying of boredom, when suddenly I heard the unmistakable strains of “Back In Black” wafting from the basement. I snuck down there and saw this 10-year-old kid whaling with maximum authority and a huge smile. I plugged in and we played AC/DC songs for an hour. Max is a young adult now and making a name for himself in the music business. I saw him serve as musical director to an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at the Bowery Electric. We’ve been talking for years about finding a chance to play together and it finally happened.
Then there was a miracle. My nephew Nate Kurson has become a fantastic bass player. As in, a guy who can nail a Joe Dart riff. We were booked for Nate to join The Lilacs at The Cavern for a few songs two years ago in 2020. Covid snuffed out those dreams. This year was all set. But just when it was time to take off, a new disaster unfolded. His dad got Covid. A lesser 20-year-old might have said, “As disappointed as I am to miss this opportunity, I just can’t see flying around the world to play two songs with my uncle.” That’s not my nephew. Without even telling me this was happening, this adorable mop of hair hopped on a plane with his Fender P. The case had a handwritten note on notebook paper taped to it, “Fragile. Bass.” By himself, Nate traveled to Germany then Manchester then Liverpool to fulfill his commitment. There’s a word for that: Rocker.
Having two young guys join the band energized the whole production. After just a bit of practice, we meshed perfectly and even our onstage moves and presence effortlessly fell into place. The three main guys probably look a little balder by comparison, but the results were indisputable. The crowd bought it, everyone had a great time, and a few Lilacs fans even showed up and knew the words to our songs.
Toward the end of our stay at the Cavern, we ran into Kim & Lee. That’s Kimberley Rew, who wrote “Walking on Sunshine” and “Going Down to Liverpool,” and his wife, the great bass player Lee Cave-Berry. Their drummer Morris Windsor was a Soft Boy with Rew years earlier. Like Bad Company and The Monkees, the Soft Boys have a theme song. Packel got to sing a bit of I Wanna Destroy You with a real live Soft Boy. I did a verse of If You Were a Priest. That’s the kind of lucky magic that pops up at IPO at the Cavern.
I’m not deluded about the value to the rock pantheon of our little combo. I know our contributions don’t “matter.” But that doesn’t diminish the sheer joy of playing rock n roll on this sacred mud. The Cavern is hallowed ground. I think we honored our fans and our obligation to rock and roll. I’m grateful to the International Pop Overthrow and its impresarios David and Rina for providing this opportunity. And to the great city of Liverpool for believing in the transcendent power of rock n roll.
“I’m going down to Liverpool to do nothing, all the days of my life.”
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