Review: Southport Weekender 52
On the evening of May 10th 2015, a fundamental chapter of UK music history sadly came to a close, with the last ever Southport Weekender. After twenty-eight magnificent years and a whopping fifty-two events, the curtain finally fell on this much adored long-running saga that constitutes such significance in the chronicles of black British music. Taking place down at the renowned site of Butlins in Minehead, thousands of devoted ravers descended on the West Country for the final farewell to an event that has left an indelible mark on soul music from around the world.
The brainchild of Geordie promoter Alex Lowes (whom we spoke to last month), Southport was born out of a two-pronged discontent with other weekenders of the late ‘80s. Lowes not only felt that too many events favoured a Southern crowd (and we’re talking more than just South of the Watford Gap here), but that the full spectrum of contemporary underground music wasn’t being fully represented. “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”, says Lowes.
Though the first event took place in 1987, inadequate venues meant the early years involved a number of different locations (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Fleetwood, Morecambe). It wasn’t until 1990, when finally moving to the Pontins in Ainsdale and with a particularly strong lineup that included Adamski and Seal, that it began to be known as the Southport Weekender. Since then, it’s gallivanted across the UK before finally finding its home for the final years in Minehead from 2011.
While events like Bloc and Bugged Out! have in recent years rejuvenated the holiday camp setting, Butlins and Pontins have played host to weekenders like Southport for nearly 30 years. For those keen to enjoy their music without getting knee-deep in a muddy field somewhere, these classically British sites have played a historic role in hosting what is an inherently British form of hedonism. To say the move to host such events has been a successful one would be a huge understatement: its chalet towns not only providing functional, clean abodes fantastically close to the action, but also effectively providing whole districts worth of house parties. Think first day Uni vibes on an abandoned B-movie film set. Some location indeed…
Now, we can spout the history of this event just as well as anyone else but the truth is that this was our first year in attendance at Southport so we’ll be the first to admit our first-hand experience is limited. That said, what we encountered on this weekend was truly one of the most wholesome events we’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing, and we hope to pay some homage to that here.
“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!”
After a lengthy coach journey down the M4, during which we learned that headliner Jocelyn Brown had unfortunately already cancelled, we arrived at Butlins late on Friday evening with the crowd already in full celebratory mode. Making our way into the arena for the first time, we headed straight for The Beat Bar for Nightmares on Wax, who opened his set with a personal thank you to Southport for the impact it’s had on his career, before dropping a trademark chugging edit of ‘Inner City Blues’ to rapturous effect. Edits played a key part of his two hour peak-time set as he took to adapting classics like ‘Mas Que Nada’ and his own ‘Les Nuits’ for a more dancefloor-friendly groove.
Next up, Marcellus Pittman pulled the dance by the scruff of its neck as he straddled the divide between earnest disco edits and the desire to plunge headfirst into blisteringly raw 4×4 with signature Detroit abandon, reaching a giddy high-point when he dropped Peven Everett’s seminal ‘Put Your Back Into It’. Speaking of, Peven was top of the unmissables list coming into the festival and even then exceeded all expectation. This was no live PA: Peven and his backing band made live performance seem like automation. A real harmony between percussion, keys and Peven’s own extraordinary vocal talent, they eased through classics including ‘Gabriel’, ‘Power Soul’ and of course ‘Put Your Back…’ An absolute privilege to hear the latter in both original and live form on the same night.
Without doubt the highlight of Friday night though was walking for the first time into the visual feast that was The Powerhouse, to watch Kerri Chandler and Chez Damier, two godfathers of ‘90s US house, going HAM in a back to back packed to the brim with classics. Both came armed with a premier selection – from Lil Louis’ ‘Club Lonely’ to MK’s stomping remix of ‘Can You Feel It’ all the way forward to Kerri’s own ‘Bar A Thym’ – tracks that first established their hometowns New Jersey and Chicago as major players back in the early ‘90s and into the noughties, and have ever since become Southport perennials. Hearing such seminal tracks, played for a crowd that has for so long subscribed to this movement, took on an overtly spiritual significance, and it started to become clear that what we were witnessing was something truly special.
Four hours of this plainly breezed by. Suddenly it was 6am and Kerri was lowering the needle for one last time, on a beautifully apt closer in the shape of Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’. Singing every word and arms raised aloft, he embraced the crowd’s adoration, poured out his soul and singlehandedly reiterated the influence that Stateside soul music has had on the Southport sound. A touching finale to a top class evening of music.
With DJ EZ on at The Funk Base at the slightly odd time of 3.30pm, we were up and at ‘em early doors. Slight oversight or programming genius? Given the attention to detail that became so evident, on top of the fact that this was a crowd who were out for one last monumental boogie, we’d suggest the latter. Jampacked with just about every vital track from the champagne bubbly era, EZ’s set was the typically high-octane history lesson we’ve come to expect from the UKG pin-up.
From ‘Ripgroove’ to ‘Boo’, he eased the bustling venue out of its apparent hangover with his otherworldly button bashing and rapid-fire mixing – despite some mid-set technicals. You more or less know what to expect from EZ these days, but somehow you still find yourself spellbound each and every time. Somewhat like the Rodigan of London in the ‘90s, he encapsulates that era and proved himself once more as a first class entertainer and ultimately one of the UK’s most talented performers.
After a prolonged afternoon siesta, we then headed back to The Beat Bar to find Innervisions boss Henrik Schwarz laying down the 4×4, with an extended version of his remix of Emmanuel Jal’s ‘Kuar’. Opting for driving house that at times bordered on techno, Schwarz provided a brief yet welcome respite for those visibly in search of some grittier beats. Later, Ron Trent continued in this vein with a supreme and sweaty two hour masterclass with the help of his trusty rotary mixer.
“So many friends made here, so many babies made here”, Louie Vega.
Sunday afternoon was all about Masters At Work. Louie Vega and Kenny Dope have long been a part of proceedings at Southport and there was really no question that they would be closing the weekend. Joined by Southport residents Jonathan & Bob Jefferies, they indulged the thousands of revellers packed into The Powerhouse with a sentimental selection that culminated with The O’Jays’ disco classic ‘I Love Music’ and Harold Melvin’s anthemic ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. After that one was finally faded out and realisation of the end dawned, the clearly emotional, and in places teary-eyed, crowd made its way for the exit.
The aftermath was strangely serene, poignantly so, and we headed back to our chalet, taking in the palpable emptiness over a couple of strong drinks. That proved both therapeutic and re-energising – a good job really as some 3000 people were recharging their batteries for the official after-party. Dancing has never felt so effortless as in the Suncébeat Dome as Kev Beadle kicked off the concluding chapter in impossibly smooth style. At one stage, Beadle apologised to the crowd for a slight hiccup with one mix that was, in truth, barely noticeable. That sign of humility epitomised the respect the DJs have for the Southport faithful; there’s little separation between performer and punter here and throughout the weekend DJs were clearly playing tunes for the people rather than at them.
The afterparty finally came to a close under the stewardship of the hottest exports of South African house – Black Coffee and Culoe de Song. Bringing their pensive brand of epic, tribal house to the Weekender’s conclusion seemed oddly prophetic, teasing weary ravers out of their three day marathon into swaying unity with apparent ease. Culoe’s set peaked with the monumental breakdown of his 2014 Innervisions anthem ‘Y.O.U.D’, while Black Coffee reaffirmed why he’s one of the most compelling DJs anywhere in the world right now with his calculated, exhilarating mixing style.
AFTER THE AFTER-PARTY
It’s difficult to describe what was going through our hearts and minds come festival end. One lasting image remains following Louie Vega’s closing ceremony: a sea of discarded plastic cups bathed in the light cast by disco-ball shadows; an overwhelming sense of belonging despite being a total and final newcomer to the Weekender experience; tears flowing from those who have found an obvious and loving attachment to the festival and its people over the years; bitter disappointment in ourselves for prioritising the need for food over the need to catch every second of Louie Vega and Tony Humphries‘ festival closer; respectful mourning amongst an expansive emptiness that stretched far beyond the four walls of the main stage. A tale of two halves from a personal perspective, with a distinct feeling of fly-on-the-wall detachment as objective outsiders that slowly evolved into fully-initiated togetherness. We’re privileged to have been a part of even a fraction of such an illustrious institution.
We do hold many regrets from the weekend. Missing some of the UK’s finest selectors in the shape of Groove Assassin and Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson, the latter whose own fanatical following could seemingly rival that of most global superstars. Not spending enough time in the foundational Connoisseur’s Corner – a room and sound that is heralded as the principal influence for Masters At Work’s Latin-flavoured Nuyorican Soul project – to give a truly justifiable account of its importance. But most poignantly, realising that this event which we had come to adore in the space of sixty hours was now tragically coming to a close – at a time which, for us and so many, seemed so premature.
No doubt seasoned Southporters will tell us all that means we pretty much missed half of the full experience, and to some extent we’d agree. But what our ears and eyes may have missed was more than made up for by that which we did witness. With a motley crew of impassioned and gregarious soulful heads, the likes of which you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world, catered for and populated by some of the most important names in dance music of black origin from the UK and US, the Atlantic connection has never seemed stronger.
Similarly, the sentiments expressed in the Southport Weekender Facebook group serve to confirm and extend the enormous emotional impact the festival has had on so many people over the years. Comments, photos, tales of SPW withdrawal, hell we’ve even got disco royalty John Morales ID’ing tracks personally. This pick of the bunch from Melissa Bent is the tribute to end all tributes:
“Stepped into the Q Park lift in Leeds and the suited and booted man beside me starts to laugh. I was a little uncomfortable to say the least. Then he lifts his arm pushes up the cuff of his shirt and says ‘and there was me thinking I was the only one who didn’t want to take it off.’ His southport wrist band matching mine. Which I didn’t even notice was on show. We both laughed, as I left the lift he said take care southport family and gave me the heart sign. Whoever u are, you made my day. You never know when you will bump into fellow spw family, as they come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life xxx”
With the transience and prevalence of festivals in 2015, one wonders if an event like Southport – with its exceptionally devotional following of punters and DJs alike – is likely to come along anytime soon. One can only hope. In the meantime, we eagerly await any news of future endeavours from the team behind this foundational event. And in any case, there’s always Suncébeat, their burgeoning soirée on the sun-kissed Dalmatian coast. See you there? See you there.