The Big Gig begins

If our city really has risen again, why do we need to keep being told so?

2008 Capital of Culture opening events
Lime Street and Echo Arena, Liverpool

The best views at the People's Opening of Liverpool's Capital of Culture year were had by some of my students, who occupy the housing association flats opposite St George's Hall, the roof and steps of which formed a makeshift stage for the event. I heard later that some of the more enterprising among them hired out their rooms to TV companies for sums that would make a useful dent in any undergraduate overdraft. If I had got my act together, I could have blagged the best seat in the house.

Instead, I viewed the People's Opening with the rest of the people - stuck down a side street with a restricted view of the big screen and thirty-odd thousand bodies blocking my way to the stage. At times I felt like one of those onlookers at the Sermon on the Mount in Life of Brian, mishearing the PA system and exchanging baffled looks with the strangers pressed against me.

According to my watch, the show started dead on 20:00 hours, not 20:08 as it said in the brochure. The shouty MC announced that this was "the moment the big dig became the big gig" - a reference to the council-sponsored public artwork made up of JCBs and traffic cones that has graced the city centre for the past few years.

The performance began with a shipping container labelled "Precious Cargo" being hoisted on to the stage and decanting some of Liverpool's cultural luminaries, though the only ones I could recognise were Les Dennis and a woman from Atomic Kitten. (This probably says more about me than it does about the cultural luminaries.)

The evening had its moments - including one lovely bit where aerial acrobats interacted with a big-screen animation - but there was rather too much regeneration-speak about Liverpool being "the centre of the creative universe".

I do wonder if this constant reiteration that Liverpool has reinvented itself protests too much and ends up reinforcing the metropolitan prejudices it seeks to dispel. The Culture Secretary, James Purnell, has said that the Capital of Culture title is "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the city". Yet if culture is subsumed into a regeneration agenda that aims to create the elusive buzz needed to attract tourists and investors, it runs the risk of avoiding those areas that are too ambiguous for this feel-good message.

But Liverpool: the Musical, staged the next evening at the new 10,000-seater Echo Arena on the Kings Dock, managed this tension between civic boosterism and creative autonomy brilliantly. Throughout the performance, musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic were arranged in a grid of boxes like in a highbrow version of Celebrity Squares, semi-silhouetted behind a backdrop that doubled as a video screen, while their conductor, Vasily Petrenko, moved around in front of it on a cherry-picker crane.

The show began like a Last Night of the Proms in reverse, with "Rule Britannia" hymning Liverpool's maritime past and developed into a gloriously incongruous mix of Welsh choirs, brass bands, hip-hop and post-punk pop. The orchestra provided a brilliant blanket of sound for Liverpool groups such as Echo and the Bunnymen, the Farm and The Mighty Wah!, led by the irrepressible Pete Wylie in a gold lamé Elvis suit. By the time Ringo Starr arrived to perform his sentimental squib of a single "Liverpool 8", I was won over.

Accompanying the music was a 90-minute film mixing "Yellow Submarine"-style animation and archive footage of Liverpool social history, including double-edged images of the previous "big dig" - the slum clearances and ring-road building of the 1960s. The links between music and image were just the right side of obvious. When a local band, the Wombats, performed "Moving to New York" at the People's Opening, it had seemed somehow unfitting, if not tactless. But when they performed it again here, in front of images of the Cunard Yanks, the Liverpool seamen who sailed the passenger liners and brought back the vinyl that inspired the fledgling Beatles, it made more sense.

In regeneration-led views of a city's history, discordant voices tend to be silenced by a single, homogeneous subject: the city itself, emerging into a glorious present and rendered instantly readable. Fortunately, Liverpool: the Musical was not so easy to read: it left me with a deafened right ear and a series of arresting images that had me walking out briskly into the docklands air.

Details: http://www.liverpool08.com

Pick of the week: Liverpool ’08

The Wombats
25 January, the Cluny, Newcastle
The up-and-coming rock trio warm up for a national tour this year.

Three Sisters on Hope Street
From 25 January, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
Chekhov is relocated to the city's Jewish community in 1946.

Blood Brothers
Until 26 January, Liverpool Empire
Last chance to catch Willy Russell's landmark musical.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism