World’s premiere powerpop festival takes over world’s premiere rock venue
LIVERPOOL, UK—If it’s May in Liverpool, you can count on two things: Jürgen Klopp will have coached The Reds into the finals and the International Pop Overthrow Festival will be crushing it at The Cavern.
This is my third straight year playing at The Cavern Club as part of the IPO Festival. I cannot be perfectly objective in reviewing a festival in which I myself have not only performed but that I just plain dig so much. But I will say that the thrill of taking the stage there at 10 Mathew Street—where Brian Epstein first set eyes on The Beatles at one of their 292 performances from 1961-1963—retains every bit of the electrifying magic that has drawn me to fly 6 hours to be part of it.
And that’s why IPO Liverpool is so special.
First, its curators David Bash and Rina Bardfield (the husband-wife team who I witnessed get engaged a couple years ago on stage at the Cavern Club before I myself got engaged during IPO Liverpool a year later) do such a good job of selecting power pop acts from all over the globe. But also, these acts feel it, too. They feel a solemn duty to rock with particular spirit here on this hallowed musical ground.
At every IPO, there’s one act that rises above. This year it was The Aim. When a festival has a musical genre theme—jazz, blues, power pop—it’s hard to stand out. There’s only so far you can drive outside the lanes of power chords and harmonies before it’s no longer power pop. The Aim distinguishes itself not so much with innovation or instrumentation but instead puts to use the oldest tools in the rock n roll arsenal — energy and joy. And some kick-ass songs.
This six-piece mod band from South London knows who they are and wrings a ton out of it. They wear tight Fred Perry polos, lead singer Grant Judges dons a Specials-era porkpie hat, back-up singer Sam Judges in a dynamite modette skirt. It all works. And it don’t mean shit if you haven’t got the chops and the songs. The Aim has both. Their catchiest song, “A Fish Called Wanda,” is oddly not included on either of the CDs I paid ten quid for at the merch table. But the new record Feel Like Getting High is expected soon and will presumably correct that oversight. This is one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. And I’d have thought that even if they hadn’t acknowledged me from the stage as “Kenny-boy from America” during their cover of The Jam’s “To Be Someone.”
Another standout act was Scotland’s Pelikan Rogue. I swear I had the idea for this band 25 years ago – a clean, tight Britpop act with the twist that the guitarist would be like a metal shredder guy. So along comes this group and they’ve got the exact approach I envisioned, right down to Scottish Slash in his hat and sexy low-slung Les Paul. The songwriting was a tad predictable, but actually picked up as the set progressed, finishing strong with the best song “Lie to Me.” An excellent drummer, too, who’s also a strong singer. I advised the lead singer that they were underusing the drummer’s voice, especially on their cover of The Seeker, where he could have been doing Townshend’s high harmony on “I’m looking for me / You’re looking for you.” Oddly, lead singers are not always super receptive to constructive criticism immediately following their performance. Definitely a group to keep an eye on.
As for the rest …
Because I was only able to attend four of the festival’s eight days, I cannot give a comprehensive review of all 130 or so acts from all corners of the globe. I missed Baltimore pop sensations Starbelly, for example, and everyone was raving about them; same with Japan’s The Sharona, who dress like The Knack. But it’s not possible to catch every act anyway. There are three stages — two at the Cavern Club itself and one at the Cavern Pub directly across the street. What I share here are my impressions of the acts I did catch.
I gather that the Restless Souls are some sort of supergroup because I saw some of their members performing in other combos later on. They’re a tight R&B quintet. They have a male lead singer, David Stevenson, who’s also the guitar player, plus a female lead singer, Beth Dyson. I couldn’t hear Dyson at all. Which is a shame because apparently she recently had a pretty big hit on the country charts. Then they performed what’s going to be their next single, “Just You and Me.” It’s a jazzy number, and struck me as a tad easy listening for this band in this place but the saxophone accents were very tasty, especially when trading licks with Stevenson ‘s guitar.
I remember listening to Howard Stern one time and hearing Stuttering John explain why he didn’t care for the Scorpions. He said something like I don’t really need a short guy yelling at me in German. That’s pretty much how I feel. I’ve toured Germany fairly extensively and always love the music scene there, but somehow never really got into any German rock bands. That might change with Slow Sunday, a terrific psychedelic quintet from Hannover. I’m not sure I would have given my German pop band any name with the initials SS, but the songs I heard on the main stage were beyond reproach. There’s a little bit of math rock going on between the guitar players. But that’s ok when you’ve got a truly magnetic singer who sounds and looks amazing. I hope Slow Sunday understands what a special talent it’s got in Ute Ahlers, who commands the stage with a voice as big as Nena. A rock-solid rhythm section, too — classic silent bass player pounding it out alongside a lefty drummer who plays a righty kit and doesn’t use a floor tom.
The Know Escape. I’m not crazy about puns in band names, a concept that was memorably skewered in That Thing You Do when the Wonders, spelled Oneders, kept being called the o-need-ers. But I guess if there’s anyplace where you can get away with a band name pun, it’s in Liverpool. The band had a “Go Your Own Way” era Fleetwood Mac vibe. This group had the guitar player from Restless Souls and also its other singer, except here she was playing keyboards and singing backup. The best song was “Up on the Down,” sung by another powerful female lead singer – a breakthrough year at IPO for kickass women vocalists.
One of the revelations of the festival was mylittlebrother (one word, all lower case). I was skeptical. With the Rocketman biopic, I fear young musicians are going to think it’s acceptable for a front man to be tethered to a keyboard. It’s not. This group’s singer-songwriter is super handsome with great hair, but he’s trapped behind this stupid Technics P50. Once they start started singing these really pretty melodies, backed by some gorgeous high harmonies by the guitar player, I started to get it. And wouldn’t you know it, they’ve got a song called “Janie,” soon to be out on Big Stir records. I am also a little brother and have also written a song with Jane in the title, so I heartily approve.
Other highlights: I wrote about Darling Boy last year so I won’t belabor the point. This talented young singer (and actor—he plays Small Face Ian McLagan in the mod musical All or Nothing and portrayed Clash drummer Topper Headon in the film London Town) packs a ton of charisma into, as he puts it, a short hairy man. I could only catch one song by Ludovico, “Do You Mind,” but it completely scorched. Denmark’s Caper Clowns had two memorable features – the most extensive rack of guitar pedals ever and everyone in the band is as tall as Krist Nøvøselic and Mick Fleetwøød.
And then … The Lilacs.
I have played at The Cavern Club twice already, at IPO 2017 and 2018. The thrill of performing my own minor pop music contributions in the same place where the Beatles performed theirs — and a thousand others, like The Who, the Stones, the Hollies, Elton John, Black Sabbath and Queen’s first gig— remains undiminished. But this was different.
This time, my band The Lilacs was in full effect.
I have to go into a little history for this to resonate. The International Pop Overthrow festival is named for the album and song of that name by Chicago pop legends Material Issue. MI’s leader Jim Ellison thought of that name and indeed the entire concept that the world was in dire need of more power pop music to save it from the self-pity and dark side glamorizing that had taken hold of independent music even before grunge broke out nationally.
So another thing Jim also named was my band. “The Lilacs” was Jim’s name for our band, and he pretty much insisted. After I left Green (a band that Jim briefly played in himself before starting Material Issue), I told him my concept for a new pop band. Amid all these tough guy bands in Chicago who were doing really intimidating almost scary rock ‘n’ roll with incredibly dark themes (think Big Black, Naked Raygun, the Jesus Lizard—all great bands, no doubt about it) I thought there was room for a group that would do really earnest, catchy traditional pop, but the hook would be that we wouldn’t try to be cute or dress up in the same outfit. We would have the toughness of all these wallet-on-chain angry rockers while our songs laid it all out there emotionally.
Jim got it instantly. In his trademark nasal voice, he told me, “You’re going to call your band The Lilacs. I’m going to produce your first record. Then we’ll write some songs together and when Material Issue gets big I’ll let you guys open for us and you’ll get big.”
That’s pretty much exactly what happened except for the last part. Jim named the band, produced our first record and even played guitar on it (that’s him doing the cool toggle switch riff in “It Seems Like Years” on our first EP, The Lilacs Love You). He even recorded over old Material Issue demos to save us money on tape at Jeff Murphy’s Shoes Studio, erasing forever what might’ve been some classic Material Issue moments.
Meanwhile, Material Issue was catching on. Their self-released EP morphed into a stunning debut album on Mercury. “International Pop Overthrow” was 14 unforgettable power pop confections, including two that became hit songs, Valerie Loves Me and Diane. The band suddenly became what Jim had always envisioned. His unshakable belief in himself worked. He sold the fans on the idea of these scrawny Chicagoans as people who belonged on MTV Spring Break and the Dennis Miller Show. And Jim kept his word. He gave The Lilacs important opening slots and even after Material Issue became too big to play at local rock clubs, he’d stick us on bills when they were playing under fake names or just arrange for us to have primo spots on other bands’ bills.
Jim and I talked about him producing The Lilacs’ first full-length record, and in fact he was in my basement on Belmont Avenue when I wrote the song “Jennifer,” which he insisted would be a hit single. By then, Material Issue with getting way too busy with touring and their follow-up album for the producing to happen, but Jim continued to be The Lilacs’ biggest fan and supporter, constantly encouraging me to keep at it even though my interest was starting to wander beyond Chicago rock ‘n’ roll.
So that’s why it meant so much to me to return to The Cavern this year and present The Lilacs in Liverpool.
Our lives have changed about as much as possible during the 25 years since The Lilacs Rise Above the Filth came out. But like a hard-throwing rookie who has to learn how to throw breaking stuff after his 97 mph heater leaves him, The Lilacs have actually improved in some ways, even as we can’t quite hit the high notes in “If You Get Home,” or match the 1991 intensity of “The Knife.” We’ve learned how to sing, we’ve learned nuances of rhythm and tone, and by the way, the technology of PA systems has advanced so that in 2019, you no longer have to scream your throat out to hear yourself in the monitors.
That’s a long preamble to what I really want to say about The Lilacs’ three performances in two days at The Cavern. We fucking rocked. All three shows, just about every song. I know I cannot be objective. But I promise, I’m a tough self-grader. If we sucked, I’d admit it. But The Lilacs in 2019, with a brand new rhythm section we never played with before, are just about as good as we were in 1992 when we opened for The Ish at the Voodoo Lounge before a sold-out crowd.
And for the first time in the recent history of really fun Lilacs get-togethers, this wasn’t merely a reunion show. We have some new stuff cooking. In March, The Lilacs went into the studio for the first time since 1993. One of my all-time heroes of rock, founding member of Television Richard Lloyd, was interested in producing new Lilacs material. We had two songs from the old days that I had always had wanted to record — David Levinsky’s gorgeous ballad “Blue Spark” and my rocker “Monica,” which had actually been recorded by the excellent Chicago pop band The Returnables but had never made it onto tape with The Lilacs. So the goal was to capture those two, but then something magical happened.
Dave emailed me a recording (he lives in Utah, if you can believe that shit) of a song—just him singing and playing guitar. That song, “Shadow of Doubt” blew my mind. I was instantly impressed and instantly competitive. I sat in my basement for 10 hours and did something I haven’t done since 1994. I wrote a pop song. It’s called “I Saw Her First.”
We went out to Nashville, to Studio 19, which was founded by Scotty Moore in 1964. I already knew Richard Lloyd a little bit by that point but I had never worked with him. We were joined by John Valley, the greatest drummer I’ve ever played with, who had been in The Lilacs for a year during the golden age, and on bass, we had Steve Poulton, a friend of ours who I knew from his years playing with Paul K and the Weathermen who has since become a working studio musician in Nashville. The four of us had never played a note together until we opened it up at Studio 19. And it was magic. And for this, you don’t have to take my word for it.
Kenn Goodman, the chief of Pravda Records, a Chicago institution that’s been putting out great music for her more than 30 years, heard the songs. Pravda will release The Lilacs Endure in late 2019.
Actually, you don’t have to take my word for the vitality of the Cavern performances either. The age of the smart phone means that there will soon be video evidence and you can decide for yourself. The first video is our cover of Grant Hart’s gem “2541.”
The tragic dénouement to the Jim Ellison story, of course, is his suicide in June 1996. As I wrote in the liner notes to the final Material Issue album, Telecommando Americano, “When tragedy visits the life of any artist, it is tempting to allow the calamity to obscure the art.” Sometimes it feels like the world takes away so much of what has made it special. But the fact remains, my bandmates and I took the stage three times in two days at The Cavern in Liverpool. No one can take that away from us.