Penelope Isles, Future Yard, Birkenhead, May 19 2020

❉ Stephen Porter is rocking in the Isles at his first Post-Lockdown gig.

“Penelope Isles’ creative hub of siblings Jack and Lilly Wolter hail from the Isle of Man (basically the UK’s very own Birkenhead – in island form), but have long been seen as a ‘Brighton band’  following their relocation. Both brother and sister take shots as lead vocalist, with Jack’s tremendous falsetto confusing this pop fan on certain tracks when hearing debut album Until the Tide Creeps In.

Birkenhead gets a rough deal from the world in general. Often dismissed as ‘The One-Eyed City’ by its much bigger neighbour, Liverpool, and routinely slagged off by the dumbass snobbery of the less perspicacious inhabitants of its socially upwardly mobile neighbouring areas of (‘The’) Wirral, there’s much to love about this town if you know where to look, and – crucially – so long as you’re not a total fucking moron, that is.

Besides providing us with Glenda Jackson (Britain’s finest actress of the twentieth century), Half Man Half Biscuit (possibly the greatest contemporary chroniclers of the foibles of humankind), William Ralph Dean (undoubtedly England’s greatest-ever footballer) and Wilfred Owen (almost; before the pedants get their fingers out – of their arses), Birkenhead also provided the world with the template for New York’s Central Park – which is perhaps the most tedious of all questions asked to high flying quizzers.. Alright, it’s responsible for Paul O’Grady, but that would be like blaming my city for Doddy, Tarby and Cilla-y.

And I’m just not having that.

There are many beautiful areas of Birkenhead, and as we left our Merseyrail station early on Wednesday evening, the sun poured across the lovely Victorian gardens of Hamilton Square, and it was just good to be alive.

It’s people who regenerate run-down areas, and not big business. People with vision. And the good folk behind Argyle Street’s Future Yard will undoubtedly be one of the prime movers behind the area’s regeneration. Future Yard itself is terrific – with indoor and outdoor spaces for food, drink and gigs, along with brilliantly-trained staff and designed with a nod to eighties modernity and with Gerry Anderson UFO lettering (Eurostile Extended, apparently – thank you, Mr James Gent!) throughout.

When I compiled the list of 2019’s Top 100 Tracks for We Are Cult, there was only ever going to be one candidate for the hallowed number one spot: Penelope Isles’ Chlorine. As soon as I heard this song, I knew it was special, and its grip on my imagination grew stronger with each subsequent listen. It’s one of those songs which just speaks of different worlds, and places in the heart and mind so ineffably beautiful, it makes me so glad that my ‘pop music gene’ never died the death that  Alexei Sayle claims that happens to all normal people at 37. The gorgeous siren call of Chlorine has kept it in my top ten singles ever since that day.

I’d been to Future Yard before to see the equally brilliant She Drew the Gun after the last-but-one Lockdown, and I was frankly made up with the THX-1138 nature of the gig experience, with its emphasis on personal safety, distancing, masks, gels and the tech required for validating identities and ‘ticket’ procurement. Future Yard’s geometric light designs also give a strangely retro-futurist feel to the place. All beers (including the ace New Zealand IPA I was drinking), food and merch are brought by waiting staff simply by scanning a barcode on your splendid little school desk table. Now, this might seem like the obvious here and now to you cynical, seen-it-all-before hipsters, but I’m old – like really old – and to me this sort of stuff is the genetically-enhanced dog’s bollocks, mate!

Some people want to go back to spit and sawdust gigs, with knobheads throwing plastic glasses of lager over each other and spreading whatever new variant of Covid comes along via their rancid breaths, but for now (and forever), this will do me.

Support act Last Living Cannibal was overwhelmed by the reaction he received. I think for practically everyone attending this was their first Post-Lockdown gig, so even had he not been the amiable and very gifted musician he turned out to be, I think he would have got at a decent reception. I was just about to write had he turned out to be a Peter Glaze tribute act singing a medley of Bowie songs, but – obviously – with the focus on Golden Years, he would have received a rapturous reception, except I really would have paid good money to see that.

So, a great set from a talented and lovely solo artist before the main act. Future Yard’s policy seems to be that an artist is given a specific time to start and finish and they stick to those times. Now, (again) this is great, and without sounding like the sad old bastard I undoubtedly am,  there’s nothing like good manners and respecting your audience as far as I’m concerned. It may not be very rock and roll, but the number of times I’ve had to leave Manchester gigs (in particular) to get the last Liverpool train because some shit, arrogant, indie twats have finally deigned to honour us with their presence at ten past eleven or something is legion.

And at 8.45 precisely, Penelope Isles arrive on stage with new track Sailing Still, and it’s just lovely. It’s been a good two years since I last saw them in a tiny club in Halifax and the band sound better than ever. Penelope Isles’ creative hub of siblings Jack and Lilly Wolter hail from the Isle of Man (basically the UK’s very own Birkenhead – in island form), but have long been seen as a ‘Brighton band’  following their relocation. Both brother and sister take shots as lead vocalist, with Jack’s tremendous falsetto confusing this pop fan on certain tracks when hearing debut album Until the Tide Creeps In.

Second new song Have You Heard is another one of those siren songs that Penelope Isles excel in, whilst old favourite Cut Your Hair (from  the album) sounded better and even more beautifully melancholic than ever. How such young people imagine the fading dreams of youth and  the quotidian nature of the descent into middle age is beyond me:

You gave it up and sold your strings
And started talking kids and things
There’s so much more to see just yet
You haven’t left the country yet

I might be wrong, but I think it was the fabulous Gnarbone which occasioned the dreaded wig-out which almost spoiled my enjoyment of the last time I saw Penelope Isles. For the uninitiated, the wig-out is an overhang from sixties psychedelia and seventies metal, and involves the band indulging in a twenty minute (at least) jam session to show the punters what great instrumentalists they are.


The worst offenders in my lifetime for this were Yo La Tengo (who’ve now done it twice on the run while I’ve been in attendance) and Roxy Music – who insisted on including an effing drum solo in the middle of Dance Away (on their 1980 Flesh and Blood/Horrible Drum Solo tour.)

Luckily, there was no such repeat, and a great album song was performed in all its introverted majesty.

Chlorine was almost a religious moment for me. A good religious moment, mind, and not like that time when I was an altar boy and Father _____ (name withheld until I find out if he really is dead) asked me if I want to see “some genuine ecclesiastical puppies”. I was hoping they’d get the song spot on, but it was even better than I’d hoped.

New songs In a Cage, Terrified and Soduko all bode well for that ‘difficult second album’, and there was a stunning version of Leipzig (or Leripzig as it appeared on the on-stage set-list) showcased the fragile beauty of Lily’s voice in all its glory. I’ve no idea what

Come on in and dream with me
I’m  having a good time
Au revoir Joline by now
See gypsy, make the water shine

means, but it made perfect sense on Wednesday.

Lily’s singing on the quiet closer (and new song) 11 11 reminded me of Cerys Matthew’s truly lovely Welsh language album Awyren/Aeroplane and was the perfect end to a fabulous evening in Lorient’s twin town, and I headed for home with my digitally ordered t-shirt and manually-peeled-off-the-stage set list neatly positioned in my man bag (I’m such a meterosexual fanboy).

Nice one Penelope Isles – and well done Future Yard and Birkenhead!

Support act: 8/10

Penelope Isles: 10/10

Venue: 10/10

❉ Penelope Isles’ debut LP ‘Until The Tide Creeps In’ is out now on Bella Union:

❉ Stephen Porter is a poet and spoken word artist who performs as Saint Vespaluus. He will be appearing at the Come Together festival at the end of May and at The Shipbuilders’ Shipwrecked festival at the Future Yard on August 14 2021. 



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