Premiere powerpop festival occupies holy site for a week
LIVERPOOL, UK—International Pop Overthrow, the music festival devoted to powerpop, convenes in several cities around the globe throughout the year. And every time it does, all the bands playing hope they’re the one that catches fire with the one magical set that reaffirms rock’s relevance.
This year in Liverpool, that band was Thee Wylde Fuzz Show and their can’t-miss performance took place late late at night on Friday at the Cavern Club. The four-piece mod-looking outfit from Leeds commanded every inch of the tiny front stage, using the oldest tools in rock’s arsenal – style, chemistry and kinetic energy— to electrify the self-proclaimed “most famous club in the world.”
Frontmen Jonny and Jase sit somewhere between The Jam and the MC5 on the mod-rocker continuum, but these distinctions melt away in the face of the raw power that unites all good powerpop. A father-son rhythm section drives the beat forward (in a kind of adorable moment, the group’s earlier show across the street was marred when Will, the bass player, failed to show up because he was taking his exams) and the two guys in suits just crush it up front.
By the time they got to their last number, a dynamite version of Mooney Suzuki’s Electric Sweat, every single member of the audience, still strong after 1 am, was dancing. One Wylde Fuzz Show song, Thinking, neatly summarizes what it means to rock when your band is old enough to have members’ kids playing in it.
I’m thinking about the hair that I’m losing / And how my friends find it so amusing
And that right there is the genius of the International Pop Overthrow Festival. Now in its 18th year, what unites IPO attendees is not an embrace of a certain lifestyle or shared generation or background. The only thing that joins these bands and the people who come to watch is a love of pop music.
In fact, two of the best bands at the festival literally couldn’t have come from farther away.
The Stanleys, a four-piece no-frills rock band, showed up from Perth Australia. Their Friday night show on the mainstage didn’t quite recapture the energy of their Thursday night scorcher on the more famously Beatle-y small stage. But both sets showed off a tight band in fine form and their song Everybody Dance from their debut album “The Stanleys” is a genuine hit.
A funny detail about this band is that the leader/bassist has this kind of tough singing register but then thanks the audience in this super high and sweet speaking voice. Meanwhile, they’ve got a guitar player who looks like a biker Gene Simmons but sings these really tasty high harmonies. I also appreciate that their other guitar player favors a Telecaster Deluxe—probably not a quiet tribute to Material Issue’s Jim Ellison, the composer of the song “International Pop Overthrow” who gave both my band The Lilacs and the International Pop Overthrow festival our names. But it’s nice to think of it that way. And in a funny nod toward globalism, the singer of The Stanleys wore a t-shirt from Crazy Horse in Bloomington, Indiana. Maybe Perth isn’t so far away, after all.
Speaking of far away, another of the festival’s standout acts was The Mayflowers. Appearing all the way from Kyoto, Japan, it’s oddly wonderful to see this trio of Japanese youngsters in Sgt. Pepper coats hitting these perfecto harmonies and crushing hooks. I liked their own set very much, but things really gelled when the band backed up Mark Frith, who made his name as the leader of The Troubadours. No less an authority in English songwriting than Paul Weller called Frith “a classic British songwriter’ —listen to his perfect song Deep Devotion and just try to disagree—and he’s developed a strong following in Japan, which surely accounts for the hook up with the Mayflowers. Standing there watching Mark Frith and the Mayflowers, letting the irresistible hooks and great singing wash over me deep in the Cavern, I felt like Brian Epstein at a lunchtime gig in November 1961. Something special is going on here and the kids seem to know about it—it’s only a matter of time before everyone will get it.
Speaking of which … one thing I could live without is the need felt by so many acts to throw a Beatles song into the mix. When you stay in Liverpool for any length of time, you can begin to go a bit Fab Four mental. At the Hard Day’s Night hotel, it’s literally 24/7 and that diminishes my need to see The Stanleys perform Day Tripper or Mark Frith’s version of All My Loving. It does get the crowd moving reliably, I admit, but must we?
Another highlight occurred just before I was to take the stage for the first of my two bookings. A fellow called Alex Wolf performs under the stage name Darling Boy. Wolf is more of an actor than a musical performer. He played Topper Headon to Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Joe Strummer in the Clash-heavy feature London Town. (That’s a very sweet and likeable movie, by the way, and the practice space version of Clampdown really nails it. The director or writer or DP clearly loved the Clash and noted from Rude Boy, as I did decades ago, that the band practices all facing the same way, rather than looking at each other. Wolf in Topper’s yellow coveralls is spot on.) IPO festival head honcho David Bash serves as emcee and in his remarks after Darling Boy, he hit on the way Alex uses his full charismatic arsenal to draw the audience close.
The Ronains had an interesting look to them – huge voiced female singer who performed sitting down because of a broken leg, backed by a solid acid rock band and a kick-ass drummer with a huge smile. I don’t see the point of covering Somebody To Love but if you’re going to try, they’re lucky to blessed with a singer who can do a credible Grace Slick, even hobbled.
So here’s where this lengthy recap takes a turn toward the supernatural.
On Sunday evening, an angel appeared at the Cavern Club. His name was Geoffrey.
I was booked to perform two 30 minute sets – one on Sunday night and the other on Monday evening. I knew Monday would turn out alright. My musical partner of 35 years, Johnny John Packel, was scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon to accompany me on a bunch of Lilacs songs and some covers. But that left me naked for the Sunday night show on the famed front stage. I can get through a song or two solo but was frightful that 30 minutes of me with my guitar would prove too little even for the supportive and music-loving crowd at The Cavern.
Sure enough, I plowed through my song Red Dress well enough but then plodded through Husker Du’s Don’t Wanna Know If You Are Lonely and could feel some air leaving the balloon. I half-jokingly asked the crowd if there were any drummers in the audience. From nowhere, this bearded sweetheart appeared. He shook my hand, muttered something about a bucket list, and took his seat behind the drumset.
I had no idea what to expect and started the intro to my song, Jennifer. This adorable little hippy just totally NAILED it. OK, my tunes are not exactly Rachmaninoff. But Geoffrey even got these couple of stops totally right. Turbo chargers restored! He politely offered to leave after one song, but quickly gave in to my entreaties—and to the crowd, who loved him—and played out the rest of the set, all of it at a shockingly high level. There’s video. [Ed. Note: I just noticed that the fellow in the video who handed Geoffrey the drumsticks was the bass player from the Ronains.]
On Monday, an Italian folk duo called Carry On Tale opened up the day at The Cavern Pub. It was an odd fit for the festival, but wouldn’t you know it – they played Bye Bye Love (Everly Brothers not Cars) and we were singing right along. Also on that night’s bill were Rob Clarke and The Wooltones—interesting look and feel and they managed to wring some life out of the 12 bar blues format with their catchiest song, Brown Paper Bag. Dave Rave and his mod-looking international outfit were excellent. Despite only seeing each other when they have gigs, they covered Shake Some Action (which ain’t easy) and Dave gave these very long and funny David Brent style introductions to each song.
At some point, it was time for John P and me – half of the original Lilacs, half of the original Live Wire/Rox, two-thirds of the original Circles, and all of the twosome that has been playing together in our basements since 1982—to take the stage at the Cavern Pub.
We opened with Stay Free, a fittingly English tale of high school friendship. It sounded amazing, and I even nailed the guitar noodle after “I practiced daily in my room.” Until my A string broke. John did a jazz solo as I changed my string in record time. We went through a bunch of Lilacs hits but I think the high point was performing Better Way at this Temple of Rock. For both of us, Green has always symbolized the magical pinnacle of pop – where songwriting genius and a once-in-a-generation voice meet passion and energy and time and place. I obviously don’t have Jeff Lescher’s singing ability, but our love for that band, and that song in particular, helped bring this one home. For three minutes on Mathew Street in Liverpool, it was possible to close our eyes and pretend.