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DJ Mag soaks up the atmosphere...

As the curtain falls on the 52nd edition of Southport Weekender, Masters at Work drop Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ to mark the final tune in its 28-year history.

The main stage celebration of house from New York, Chicago and Detroit, dubbed The Powerhouse, is full to the brim with the Weekender faithful keen to catch a last note of music at the event they’ve loved so much.

Louie Vega jumps on the mic at the climax to thank some of the DJs who have played over the years. There’s passion in his voice as he says: “Phil Asher, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson, Ron Trent, Kerri Chandler, Dennis Ferrer, Chez Damier, David Morales, Tony Humphries, Frankie Knuckles.

Big shout out to all the DJs. Keep it going.” Among the formidable list of names only Phil Asher and the sadly-deceased Frankie Knuckles hadn’t played this weekend, however the history of the festival packs in even more of the most respected purveyors of music with soul.

It all started back in 1987 with the UpNorth Weekender in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Then the main stage covered a diverse range of genres, including hip-hop, jazz, funk and the beginnings of the house movement.Acts included Bob Jeffries, Pete Haigh, Tom Jackson, Bob Jones, Colin Curtis, Richard Searling and Simon Mansel. 

After relocating to Blackpool for three years, the UpNorth Weekender would move to Morecombe before settling at Pontins in Ainsdale in the 1990s, when the festival changed its name to Southport Weekender. Despite a switch from the north to Butlins Minehead in the south west in 2011, the name stuck, just as the focus has always been on soulful music.

Joey Negro first played Southport Weekender in the mid-1990s, coming on after Erick Morillo’s Subliminal Sessions in the Powerhouse and dropping MFSB's 'K-Jee' as his first track.

“I had been to quite a few of the weekenders and I felt if I could play a set, I had a good idea of what the crowd would like. Southport Weekender has always been famous for having a musically-educated, appreciative crowd and being very friendly. It was very flattering to be asked to play, and even more so to be asked back,” says Joey, aka Dave Lee.

This weekend he’s playing the Connoisseur’s Corner, an elaborately-decorated space where UpNorth original Bob Jefferies is playing twice. Joey has seen the festival evolve over the years from both sides of the decks and reflects it’s moved with the times to encompass new musical trends while remaining true to its soulful roots.

“Some soul weekenders you go to and there’s literally no one there under 45. There are definitely younger people here – it’s doesn’t feel like a school reunion from 1962.

The organisers are booking new music and pushing the festival forward with people like Floating Points, Deetron and Henrik Schwarz. That’s what’s kept it relevant, yet they haven’t strayed too far away and lost what’s good about it.”

Seth Troxler, MK and Ben UFO are other newer acts to have featured, appearing alongside heritage acts such as Chaka Khan, Faith Evans, Michael Watford and The Blackbyrds. “That’s why it’s a great shame it’s finishing, there’s not much else like it.

There’s a lot of well-put-together dance festivals with similar line-ups, but nothing really like Southport in terms of music or crowd. I hope it’s not the end but if it is the end, I hope someone else starts something similar. Some people have had the best weekend of their lives here.”

We can well believe the acclaim Southport Weekender gets, seeing Chicago’s Chez Damier back-to-back with New Jersey’s Kerri Chandler in The Powerhouse. The duo’s four-hour set is littered with funk and soul, made all the more special as Chandler gets on the keyboard to improvise over their house mixes.

While infectious tunes such as Michelle Weeks’s 'The Light' keep us dancing until 6am, the set finisher of Stevie Wonder — 'As' — brings out the emotion. Chez Damier claims this emotional response is down to the soulful essence that has been built up by Southport’s reputation and an “authentic crowd”.

“Soulful isn’t so much about the kind of music, I think the music has been driven because this soulful music tends to bring it out of people, because of the emotions, because of the passion that’s in it.

Normally I like to see where people’s heads are at. When you have an authentic crowd like you do here, you just play because they are in the spirit of having a good time, and that’s what I got last night.

“I didn’t get this kinda crowd who was all tweaked out in their head, I got people who were really about freedom and really enjoying themselves, and that is always amazing and rare to do.”

Southport Weekender will live on in Croatia, with the sixth edition of sister festival SuncéBeat this July. Damier sees the similarities in the Croatian festival scene, yet challenges Southport Weekender regulars to make the end of one era into something for themselves.

“Some of the UK festivals that happen in Croatia are really authentic, the people are authentic, they know their music, they go to have a good time, they don’t come for the mess and they come to be free. When you think of dance music, that’s what you come for — the freedom.

“The end of Southport Weekender will be sad for those who have used this as their getaway, but to me, I think the ending is always good because now my question to the people is: what are you going to do with all these wonderful years that you’ve had? How are you going to make a difference in the world?”

One act who might form the start of that new era is 24-year-old Mr Mendel. The Dutchman almost arrived too late on the soulful scene to play the festival, making his debut this weekend in Connoisseur’s Corner in a nod to his old school style.

We see him follow up the soul of Jarrod Lawson with a set of house and disco that brings warm vibes to the room. Having been a punter previously, Mr Mendel is delighted to be getting the chance to play and suspects it was Chicago’s Rahaan who put in a good word.

“I actually read in the programme that you get booked based on the recommendation of other DJs who play here. I guess that’s what happened — it was probably Rahaan who played here a couple of times. It’s a big deal for me to play here; it’s the Champion’s League in soulful music.”

Mr Mendel appreciates the history of Southport Weekender and foresees a continuation. “They started when this music was big and they grew together with the DJs who are still playing here, they have been evolving in a natural way with the music. It’s also nostalgia. There’s a lot of people here who don’t go out that much anymore.

“It’s a shame that the festival stops, but I don’t think the movement stops. Smaller parties and festivals will fill in the gap. To put on a big event like this out of nothing is very hard. Southport has the legacy they’ve built on, so it will probably continue in a different way.”

As well as being the biggest soulful music event on the UK calendar, Southport Weekender also boasts the highest percentage of black British attendees thanks in part to the hip-hop, garage, R&B and soul of The Funkbase.

This weekend’s highlights include the fast-mixing skills of DJ EZ ripping through classics such as 'Let the Body Groove', 'RIP Groove', '21 Seconds' and 'A Little Bit of Luck' to a shoulder-to-shoulder dancefloor on Saturday afternoon, plus a history lesson in reggae and dub from David Rodigan and a turntable masterclass from Rich Medina vs Cash Money.

The positive vibe in The Funkbase is carnival-esque at times, particularly when EZ and Rodigan drop the volume on the records to hear the crowd provide the lyrical fill-ins.

That good feeling flows so strongly through the loyal supporters of Southport Weekender that a collection for organisers Alex and Dave raises £3,000 to go towards thank you presents for the pair.

Louie Vega, who plays alongside David Morales and Tony Humphries as Kings of House for six hours on Saturday night before the Masters at Work closing set with Kenny Dope, reflects on his link with the festival.

“Alex and Dave are friends, they’ve been our friends for over 20 years. I don’t think it’s changed. You see a younger crowd, you see an older crowd, but I think the only thing that’s changed is you’ve seen another generation come in. That mixture is what made it so beautiful.”

Kenny Dope pays tribute to the event that inspired the Masters at Work Nuyorican Soul project, which saw them work with Vincent Montana Jr., Roy Ayers, George Benson, Jocelyn Brown, Tito Puente and members of the Salsoul Orchestra.

“The first time we came here in the '90s it was amazing. It was the first time I’ve seen the movement of a room dancing to uptempo jazz music at that point. Everybody was dressed, male and female, to the T. The shoes on, the suits on, it was crazy, and that inspired our Nuyorican Soul project.

“We played a lot of vocals today. Being the last one we wanted the people to sing and remember those songs. I think it’ll be back. I hope everybody can figure out what they need to figure out. Maybe not next year, maybe not the year after, but some point it’ll get back together.”