Songhoy Blues perform during Liverpool's International Festival of Psychedelia
Songhoy Blues perform during Liverpool's International Festival of Psychedelia © Richard Martin-Roberts/Redferns

Now into its sixth year, the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia welcomed its latest “congregation” to the city’s Baltic Triangle district last weekend.

Attracting about 2,000 people a day to four stages in a complex of former warehouses that has become a hub of creative industries, it’s a festival that plays on Merseysiders’ reputation for being tuned into the outer reaches of rock music. “Psychedelia” is loosely construed: the organisers take the psychedelic template as a base for exploring a diverse range of sounds.

Early on Friday, the Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble, led by the eponymous former Stereolab member, atmospheric German act Bambi Davidson and Swedish veterans Träd, Gräs & Stenar all offered mellower, more contemplative excursions than some of the wilder acts to follow. London band Novella — which, with three women on guitars and vocals and a male drummer, was at odds with the weekend’s default gender balance — recalled the likes of 4AD acts Lush and Throwing Muses but with a welcome rhythmic urgency.

Novella © Keith Ainsworth

One standout was the night’s final live act, The Bug vs Dylan Carlson. “The Bug” is UK electronic music producer Kevin Martin, whose collaboration with doom-rock Seattle guitarist Carlson yielded the critically acclaimed album Concrete Desert. Its dark, apocalyptic palate fitted well with the Psychfest ethos, Martin building up walls of rhythms and effects with subsonic frequencies that reverberated through your body, while Carlson’s sandblasted guitar lines carried more impact live than on the studio versions.

Other acts conformed more closely to the classic modern psych-rock template — the long-haired, heads-down British or American guitar troupe, more nihilistic than the hippy rock acts of the 1960s and ’70s. Friday’s exemplars included Loop and The Telescopes, both of which emerged in the late 1980s to criticisms of being overly indebted to the indie noise of The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3. Both have been revived in recent years but whereas Loop reprise the cavernous dark rock of their breakthrough albums, The Telescopes’ sole surviving original member, Stephen Lawrie, focuses on recent material. He packs his band out with four guitarists and adds his own distorted vocals to make a convulsive, punishing drone, 45 minutes of which left most of the audience desperate for a breather.

The Telescopes
The Telescopes © Tommy Miller

But it was one of Saturday’s acts, A Place to Bury Strangers, that demonstrated just how much life this well-worn format still has in it. A mere three-piece of guitar, bass and drums, the New Yorkers made a pummelling sound, often delivered at a frantic tempo. They finished by wading into the centre of the crowd to a frenzied reception. The day’s headline set from Austin rockers The Black Angels couldn’t match that level of intensity, despite an expectant crowd; perhaps there are limits to how much of this stuff even the most dedicated audience can take.

That may help explain why two African acts from different cultures and eras, Songhoy Blues and W.I.T.C.H. (We Intend to Cause Havoc), went down so well. Both bands have a story to tell of political repression, W.I.T.C.H. suffering censorship along with other “Zamrock” bands at the hands of Zambia’s government in the 1970s, and Songhoy Blues formed after one of its founder members fled Islamist laws imposed on the Timbuktu area for the relative freedom of Bamako during Mali’s civil war in 2012.

The “desert blues” tag associated with Songhoy could also be applied to W.I.T.C.H., who were aiming for an African take on Hendrix’s brand of psychedelia. Now reformed, with two members from their 1970s line-ups augmented with three westerners, they produce a highly enjoyable organ-backed groove. One song warning against wallowing in nostalgia, “Living in the Past”, seemed especially pertinent: clearly the band’s elder statesmen are intending to savour their revival.

As Saturday evening progressed, the Pzyk Pryzm room of immersive installations, “dream machines” and virtual reality was a peaceful haven for many, while downstairs little groups of hedonists were dancing on the tables in the DJ tent to vintage Latin, reggae, disco and jazz. Queues were forming for the most popular bands, a vindication of the organisers’ decision to programme in as much variety as possible.

Träd, Gräs & Stenar
Träd, Gräs & Stenar © Keith Ainsworth

The Comet is Coming’s manic jazz-dance was a welcome counterpoint to a guitar-heavy weekend. Part of a contemporary British jazz scene that seems to be constantly churning out interesting acts — several of which involve this group’s saxophonist, Shabaka Hutchings — the three-piece come across like the lost sons of Sun Ra and are a compelling fusion of synths, lively drumming and riff-heavy sax, a perfect soundtrack to their own intergalactic fantasies.

Beyond midnight on Saturday, the slick dance pop of Brighton band Fujiya & Miyagi enticed many late-night revellers; still more were drawn to The Bongolian’s set, a euphoric percussive frenzy accompanied by a driving Hammond organ that recalled acid-jazzers The James Taylor Quartet. It was a far cry from the bludgeoning darkness purveyed by some of the weekend’s earlier acts. Somewhere in between the organisers’ promise of a “kaleidoscopic celebration of our global psychedelic village” and one of their slogans for the weekend, “This WiIl Destroy You”, lies the essence of this intriguing festival.

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