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The history of Southport Weekender Festival
Cast your mind back to 1987, the year of the first UpNorth weekender. Fans all over the country cry into their pillows upon hearing that The Smiths are no more. A million apathetic, non voters keel over with surprise as Thatcher wins an astonishing third term. Andy Warhol is shot, Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand make it across the Atlantic and Paul Simon releases the career saving ‘Graceland’.
Society of the day shows no embarrassment in walking round in Nike trainers that have bubble wrap in the heel. At the bar they ‘demand to have some booze’ for the first time. Initially, few people out of their age bracket seem to notice the significance of the friendly enough looking round yellow faces that have started to appear on their clothes.
One person who does notice is Alex Lowes, founder of what has now become known as the Southport Weekender. From his very first days as a promoter, hiring out the back rooms of pubs ‘just to get some soul music played,’ Alex has had a sharper eye than most for the changing trends in fashion (although you couldn’t tell from looking at him) and of course, music.
This ability to keep abreast of the ever changing movements in dance culture, coupled with Alex’s passion for music (having DJed himself for several years), has played no small part in making Southport Weekender the resounding success that its 25 Year Anniversary proves it to be.
Twenty-five years ago, Berwick upon Tweed was the first site to be utilised by Alex and the team for the event. ‘At the time we started, there were, and still are, other good weekenders, but they weren’t representing all the underground music that we thought was relevant,’ explains Alex. ‘The solid jazz stuff and modern soul wasn’t catered for at all and that’s what we felt was the cutting edge of music at the time. Also, the southern weekenders were very southern based, particularly in regards to the crowds they were attracting.’
And so, with a line up that included Bob Jones, Pete Haigh, Tom Jackson, Colin Curtis, Richards Searling, Yogi Haughton, Billy Davidson, Simon Mansel and Bob Jeffries, the first weekender was born. ‘We had the main room, which for the first years covered a lot of different styles of music including hip hop, jazz funk, and the beginnings of the house movement. There were only a few big Chicago tracks around at the time, but boy did it go off when they got played. We had the soul room and we had the jazz room, in which we also dropped a bit of Northern soul into. I suppose even back then, you could see the beginnings of the Alternative room there,’ recalls Alex.
‘After the first one the people at Berwick came and told us, “We really like what you’ve done. We’ve got another holiday centre at Blackpool we’d like you to have a look at.” I thought, Blackpool, great! With the history of the Blackpool Mecca it had always been a legendary place for music and was obviously a nice place to visit,’ says Lowes, who had obviously never been dragged kicking and screaming to the seaside resort as a child.
The first weekender, whilst proving a success to all those who had attended, failed to draw the numbers the team had anticipated, throwing into doubt the reoccurrence of the event. Luckily for us, the encouraging words passed from punters and DJs after the first, together with a Country Council ‘car loan’ from his day job (he sold the car without them knowing) alongside Alex’s belief in a north based, progressive weekender, ensured the offer of the Blackpool site was accepted.
By the second weekender numbers had doubled. By the third, they’d trebled. Even back in those early days, Alex and the team he’d put together were on the look out for improvements to make, and the DJs themselves were of the same dedicated, music mad ilk that they remain today.
‘At the time of Blackpool’, most people who were coming, were coming to hear soul’, remembers original weekender DJ, Billy Davidson. ‘It was mostly 70s stuff, but there were a lot of newer, 80s tracks coming through, street soul they called it at the time. Because there was only six months between events, what happened was a number of DJs got more excited by this newer sound and so when we all came back people who were expecting the same 80s sound were shocked to find there’d been a dramatic change in some quarters. You could see there was a lot of unrest there and so for the next one the street soul was moved into its own area which has now become the Funkbase.’
Over the years, hip-hop and R&B have been well represented at the weekender with high caliber artists like Gangstarr, Roxanne Shante, Kenny Dope, Teddy Riley, Soul II Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, India.Arie, Jazzy Jeff and Trevor Nelson all making appearances. The Funkbase continues in this fine tradition, as does the Connoisseur’s Corner, which ‘reflects more about what those early weekenders were about than any other room at the event,’ reckons Kev Beadle, refined album compiler and longstanding Alternative room DJ. Whilst it’s true to say that for your more traditional fan, the Connoisseur’s Corner remains the epitome of what a soul weekender sound track should be, even this space has not escaped the forward thinking ethos that encompasses the whole event. ‘Initially you’d have heard mainly 70s stuff in there, bit now you hear 70s, 80s, 90s and right up to date releases getting played,’ comments Scottish soul and soulful garage DJ Bob Jeffries. He is another weekender original who features in the Connoisseur’s Corner alongside stalwarts Richard Searling and Norman Jay.
After three tremendous events at Blackpool, the UpNorth weekender quickly outgrew the site and after dropping in briefly on Pontins in Morecambe, it moved to their sister venue at Southport. ‘We really loved that site,’ says Alex Lowes. ‘I think the weekender really started to progress and come into its own when we got to Southport.’ And it was the Southport name that came to define what Latin maestro Snowboy describes as ‘the most important black music event in the UK.’
With such firm foundations to build on, the event has gone from strength to strength, improving on every occurrence. As a time honoured member of the Connoisseur’s Corner team, Essex based DJ Gary Dennis is someone who has appreciated many of the changes made to progress and improve the Southport experience first hand. ‘Above any other weekender or event that I’ve been to, the thing about Southport is its attention to details. Every time you go there, there’s even more attention been paid, more improvements have been made. I remember going into the chill out room and being amazing that the bar was made out of ice. It’s those kind of details that give it the supremacy over any other event of its kind. I mean, for their 30th Anniversary event, they sold out tickets without any adverts, without any promotion, without having announced any of the international guests, purely on the esteem of the gig. Alex has got to be able to stand back from something like that and be able to say, “Well, I have achieved something here.” That kind of thing is unheard of.’ The tradition continues: at the beginning of November 2011, the UpNorth team announced that all 6,500 tickets for their 25th Anniversary Weekender in May 2012 had sold out, again without a single artist from the line up being released.
From the dance floor space, which is tweaked at every event, to improvements in the Powerhouse’s spectacular visuals and lighting, and the custom built sound systems in every arena, nothing stands still at the Southport Weekender, especially not the music. ‘None of us forget the past, it’s all part of our make up. But the reason why we’re playing what we’re playing now is because of how we’ve been educated in the past. It’s a natural progression,’ explains Kev Beadle. ‘I suppose when I started doing the weekender, it was more of a purist event. It was quite defined – real soul, real jazz. It was quite heavily based on older, classic music, the 70s stuff in particular. These days I don’t think you can run a successful weekender, certainly not one of this size, simply playing old music. Now it’s moved on to the whole contemporary dance scene and even though the rooms are still segregated, it now incorporates the more up to date versions of those scenes as well as embracing the more traditional elements.’
A classic example of this was found in the Alternative room (now the Beat Bar) appearance of Jazzanova and Rainer Truby at the 30th Anniversary Weekender in 2002. Whilst the European sound may have been represented by previous guests like Kruder and Dorfmeister before, and the West London derived nu-jazz and broken beat scene covered in the sets of both Kev Beadle and Gilles Peterson, this event was the first time that Southport paid tribute to these new sounds, which was essentially a modern jazz funk movement, by offering an invitation to these scene leaders. ‘Rainer is probably the best DJ in the world in our scene, better than myself or Gilles, because he’s the one amongst us who can actually mix,’ laughs Kev. ‘He has amazing ability’. Jazzanova and Rainer Truby follow in the tradition of the likes of Roni Size and Naked Music as cutting edge first time guests to be presented in the Alternative arena. A quick glance at Weekender line ups almost ten years on, shows Alex is still inviting the finest selectors representing the most upfront sounds at Southport. Weekenders 45-47 showcased Joy Orbison, Floating Points and Kyle Hall, all major players in the bass music sound that invaded upfront dance floors at the tail end of the decade.
With so much progression, isn’t it likely that at some point Southport will lose track of what kind of weekender it actually is? Will the 25th Anniversary in 2012 be at all recognisable from the one that happened in Berwick all those years ago?
‘I think it’s always been done so well,’ says Billy Davidson of the evolution. ‘They’ve never let it go too far too fast, but at the same time, they’ve never dragged their heels. I would say that in essence, the thread that remains through all of our weekenders is a high quality of African American derived music. The DJs also have always been of the highest standard, everybody who plays knows a lot about and is passionate about the music.’
Gary Dennis agrees that the common ethos that has stood strong over the past 25 years is the key to the event’s continued success. ‘Everything links up. If there was somebody playing heavy rock or hard house here, it just wouldn’t fit in. All of the music styles that are presented at Southport, if you did a family tree of music, they’d all fit together. The house has come from disco which has come from soul. The nu-jazz and drum and bass has come from hip-hop, jazz and funk.’
Bob Jeffries explains further. ‘The ethos of playing soulful black music is still there. From the very start, right up until now it still for me has exactly the same vibe.
The vibe. Of all the attributes Southport Weekender has, this is perhaps the most special. If you took all the lighting, sound, DJs and live acts to another site, you couldn’t reproduce the vibe of the Southport Weekender. And for all that the UpNorth team do for each event, it is always the Southport family that steals the show. Musically discerning, dance floor dedicated, party mad and passionate. These are the qualities that the family have always brought to the event. Whether you are a veteran Southport visitor or one of our newest recruits, the Weekender is for you. But be prepared – if you come once, you may never miss another!
Words and interviews by Marc Rowlands
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