I can’t believe it’s been eight years since I first set eyes and ears on The Shipbuilders on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. Wailing from the bandstand, Matty Loughlin’s voice is so distinctive you’ll not un-hear it in a hurry. Since then, the band have played hundreds more gigs and released a string of uniquely astounding singles, culminating in the long-delayed release of Spring Tide, their critically acclaimed debut album.
Described by Paul Higham in 2017 as “Liverpool gypsy-surf-rock,” the band have since been heralded as many things from many people, with the National Press piling on further accolades on the album release late last year.
Offstage activity finds Matty protesting against a controversial dual carriageway that is planned to run straight through Rimrose Valley Country Park in his hometown of Liverpool and shaking hands with Socialist hero Jeremy Corbyn, but their music deals more with more domestic and cultural issues and often of days gone by than hard-line politics, as we will hear later on.
As part of the band’s series of Shipwrecked events, tonight’s audience finds themselves in Prohibition Recording Studios, possibly the single most intimate venue in the city, nuzzled below the Old Everyman Youth Theatre at the back of Hope St. Caught between two Cathedrals (Yes, we’ve got one to spare), the night opens with Sally Porter, a teacher by day and a poet by night. Sally has a sparkle in her eye as she retells nostalgic tales of her past with warmth, humour and sometimes sadness.
Her opening, “Landscape,” is a love story to the dock road that runs between the city and Anthony Gormley’s Iron Men of Waterloo. Born and bred in this area, it is pleasantly surprising to hear of this largely industrial and battered area spoken of with such affection. This will all change with the arrival of the new Everton ground, so Sally sets its current state in aspic for those of us who know the area well. Stories is a beautiful snapshot of life as a single mother in New Brighton; whiling away the hours with her son in the library, poring over books together, I’m reminded strongly of the illustrations in Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books I read to my kids a long time ago, springing into a colourful new life in this poem. Further stories take in school-bullying, Barry Gibb, party girls on a train to town, struggles with sexual identity and poems about her parents. “Straight Up Beauty Queen” creates a glamorous image of Sally’s mother on a beach via a newly discovered, old holiday snap-shot. A poem about her late father sees Sally wishing she knew about his secret poetry book while he was still alive, a lost opportunity to have bonded on some level.
All of this work tonight is beautiful, and from both her own heart and the heart of the City, she clearly adores.
Next up is Anna Jane Houghton, a singer-songwriter who will be releasing her work through mai 68 records, home of tonight’s hosts very soon. Anna stumbles onto the stage, not through any fault of her own, but by the sheer enormity of the audience. Snug was a word created for tonight. Once composed, her vocal delivery and fragile guitar work break the whisper barrier, which encourages us to focus in on her words which continue the warmly poetic theme tonight.
Opener, “Skin,” is as lyrically intimate as the venue and sets Anna up as a sensitive writer and meditative performer. Guitar patterns take me back to the wonderful debut album of Bon Iver, also so delicate that it could crumble like a moth.
Her sound is hollow in the most positive way, Echoey in the most ghostly folky way, not unlike The XX, King Krule, Durutti Column or as Sally Porter whispered to me, The Cocteau Twins. This is mature work.
Each song tells a wonderful story; “Nervous Driver,” Anna tells us, is about “Arguments in cars and receding gums.” Other songs include a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Memories,” which does the original justice, alongside tales of witch-hunting and the home of painter Agnes Martin. It is a short set, but a memorable illustrative one and I look forward to hearing her new releases.
The Shipbuilders deliver, in my humble opinion, their tightest set that I have heard so far. Almost acoustic, and crammed onto the stage, this is close. So close I knock guitarist Danny Lee’s shoe with my own at least twice; apologies.
First song is album opener, “Stranger’s Lament,” with the recurring line “The Pretty Girls who wait for me.” We find out later that this line was donated by Matty’s Dad, and in truth, it does sound like an old-fashioned lyric, reminding me of the stuff my Dad was listening to when I was a kid. It’s a great opportunity to introduce new Shipbuilder, Pete, on trumpet. Whilst offering a very Liverpool sound in the style of Andy Diagram (Pale Fountains, later James) and even the long-forgotten ’80s/’90s indie band, The Vernons, the live solo brass adds a warm element to the band’s already luscious sonics.
The only annoying aspect of The Shipbuilders (veiled compliment) is the inability (when asked) to describe their sound. Scouse definitely, no-brainer, but there is other dark and wonderful aural imagery going on in their sound. The trumpet does create that Andy Diagram vibe, but also tells the tales of many childhood Sundays, post-roast, in front of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood Western, Morricone looms large. Michael Head, The La’s and the Long forgotten Bandits are all thankfully guilty of bringing in a bit of Western to their music, but Matty’s love of Romanian gypsy folk adds another element that, in my opinion, makes them as impressive as The La’s any day of the week.
“Hanging me at Dawn” and “Fault Line” follow and are two of the band’s signature tunes, flexing their Shipbuilders muscles; it is as typical as it gets. We hear Matty mutter of the latter “F’ckin’ love this song.” Could this be his Ian McCulloch / Killing Moon moment?
There’s another new member tonight, Deaks, on bass; the endlessly moving roster of members is slowly becoming akin to The Fall. Only Matty and Danny Lee remain from the original line-up. Matty’s voice is the most recognisable element of the band, but Danny Lee’s guitar skills are like Johnny Marr to Matty’s pre-fascist Morrissey. Striving ahead but in perfect harmony. Well-oiled machinery.
“Wild Atlantic Way,” with its band catchphrase “Diddley Eye Aye,” is aired alongside the brilliant “Forest Floor” and the classic “Northern Rose.” This latest suite of songs from the album shows a monumental development in writing and performance skills far away from that sunny day in 2015. However, “Northern Rose” remains the closest in spirit to those early days.
“The Moon” is Epic, absolutely breathtaking, whilst album closer “Same Star” is almost Who-like in its bombast. A very different beast to the rest of the album, and as Matty explains later, an intro to the next long player.
An encore, which involves the band not actually leaving the stage due to a crowded house with no through route, includes the painfully melancholic “‘til the End” and a pared-down but still recognisable rendition of their “big” single, “Silk Road.”
This has been, without a doubt, one of the most informal gigs I have been to in many a night, more like a living room party or family gathering than an all-out gig. That they pretty much know and acknowledge virtually everyone in the room gives some indication of what this band are about.
A Q and A session of just short of an hour, not only tells the story of the band’s rise from Albion and The Crystal Horses, but also is a crash course in Liverpool culture. Anyone who has never visited the City or spoken to its people should have a listen to the sound file right here over a steaming bowl of scouse or a jam butty.
The Shipbuilders are within the fabric of the City now and hopefully will be remembered in many years alongside the Heads, McCullochs, Mathers and, dare I say, Lennons of Liverpool.