I’ve been back in work a few days now and have recovered from my post-festival blues and the hangover that inevitably comes with them. Now fully returned to normality, just in time for Halloween, I can put last weekend, the first 4-day Swn Festival, into perspective.
I’m a big fan of the left field festival that calls Cardiff home. I call the city home too and for me, it’s like a mini-SXSW on my doorstep. There might be less going on and the bands might not be as well established but it retains that sense of independence and the aim to expose lesser-known, up-and-coming bands to wider audience.
Sure, there will be people who are put off by the fact that the line-up is filled with bands they’ve never heard of but these aren’t the target audience of the festival. This is a festival custom made for the hungry music fan, the listener always on the look out for something new. Some of my favourite moments over the weekend were the pre-gig lunches, our little group huddled around a table in any place we could find with free wifi, poring over the line-up, listening to the bands on Spotify or YouTube on our phones, each of us recommending bands to the others as we decided who we would see that day.
There are a multitude of acts I now love and can’t wait to check out more of, see them perform live again. This is the spirit of Swn Festival. From bands I was familiar with but had never seen live, to bands I’d never encountered previously, to bands I know and love, Swn has left me with some of my favourite live music experiences and memories of the whole year.
Thursday started with a surprise. A gap on the line-up just marked TBA. There were rumours, sure; they all pointed towards there being a well known Welsh star making an appearance to open the festival with a bang. We congregated upstairs in Clwb Ifor Bach watching a band set-up. None of the people on stage looked familiar; we were still none the wiser as to who the mystery person was until finally, bedecked in a gold sequined top and new, shoulder length, curly hair, Charlotte Church appeared on stage looking shy and nervous. Any anxiety she may have been experiencing soon fell away as the band surged into the first song and we heard her voice for the fist time, powerful and confident, well suited to the new style. Although different to the material showcased on her recent album, it is still a progression from what came previous; as well as the guitar driven soundscapes there are still poppy elements here as well. All in all, it was a surprising performance that didn’t disappoint. The band were officially listed as Banded Puma, a rather hasty anagram of “made up band”, so we’re still left wondering where this is going but hopefully it’s somewhere good.
Whilst the majority of my group stuck around at Clwb to catch French folk duo Herman Düne, I headed over to Undertone for the punk rock showcase featuring Exeter lads The Cut Ups and Red City Radio, all the way from Oklahoma. The highlight for me, however, was Caves. The Bristol trio had a wonderful upbeat feeling to them with bouncy, anthemic punk songs. Great chemistry between their guitarist/singer and bassist, too.
My Friday was spent at the Students Union in the Solus venue. This had been perfectly booked with a second stage set-up in an adjoining room with the line-up staggered so there would always be a band playing. It was in this second room we managed to catch the synth-heavy likes of pop act Friends Electric and the electronic glitch and guitar of Man Without Country. However, it was in the main room that we saw the true musical highlights of the night with Belfast’s And So I Watch You From Afar with their unique instrumental blend of heavy rock. The night was topped off with perhaps the biggest name of the festival, North Wales-based Joy Formidable who had previously been invited to play SXSW earlier in the year. This show marked the end of an extensive tour in support of their debut album, The Big Roar. The turn out for them was immense, filling Solus to the rafters. It’s clear to see that 2011 has been a hugely successful year for them.
With Saturday as the first full day of the festival, we were in town early to make the most of it. The early parts of the day were spent flitting between Buffalo and Cardiff Arts Institute before heading over to Clwb Ifor Bach to check out Gallops, who we’d missed the previous evening. Sticking around for electro-rock outfit Three Trapped Tigers afterwards turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Despite the heat and humidity from a packed out venue, these were clearly the highlight of the day – a band I’d never heard of but who I now love.
They ended just in time to nip upstairs to catch London rock’n’rollers The Jim Jones Revue who proved to be an absolutely awesome party band. Keeping the party vibe alive, we headed over to Cardiff Arts Institute to cap the night off the old school hip hop of Ugly Duckling, sending everyone home with a smile on their face.
For me, Sunday was all about celebrating the Cardiff music scene. Local record label, Barely Regal, were taking over Undertone for the day, competing with Dempsey’s for who could cram the best of Cardiff into one room. Our day started off with the sublime two piece Right Hand Left Hand, compensating for the lack of band members with expertly performed guitar loops, layer upon layer of them. I’d unexpectedly see this bettered later in the day by Theo in Undertone. Originally from Worcester, Sam Knight is a one man math rock machine. With the name Theo, Greek for god, it seems quite fitting upon seeing him perform. Stunningly technical guitar loops overlayed with heavy hitting, complex drum patterns. With the breakneck pace of his set, if I hadn’t have seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed it was just one guy.
Also at Undertone, we had Effort, a garage rock supergroup with BR founder Matt Fiddler, Automatic guitarist James Front and Kutosis drummer Ben Isaacs, all fronted by BBC Radio DJ Jen Long. Following them, we get Matts main band, the incredible Among Brothers. A heady mix of vocal, synth and instrumental harmonies that leave you in awe. They wear their influences on their arm with clear comparisons to The Postal Service and Sigur Ros but with enough experimentation and imagination to keep everything very much their own. The stage was finished off with the double header of Samoans and Strange News From Another Star. They released a split 7″ together earlier this year but are stylistically very different. Samoans fill the loud, screamy quotient that seemed to be missing elsewhere with one of the best drummers I’ve seen perform live, followed by Strange News and their tongue in cheek love of denim.
Meanwhile, Dempseys had post-punk boys Kutosis launching their debut album, Fanatical Love; light hearted indie pop Tiger Please, featuring Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell’s son Tyla and the Sonic Youth-esque Saturdays Kids before finishing off the night with the psych-rock stylings of The Witches Drum, replete with a lead singer in face paint and rubber gloves.
All in all, it was a great event and one we should be proud to have in Wales. City festivals are the way to go and Swn are going up against the likes of Dot To Dot, Camden Crawl and Great Escape with ease.
I think what made this year great over all was that it wasn’t just about the scheduled performances. Over the weekend, we were treated to surprise treats in the shape of unannounced shows – instore performances at Spillers Records, live sessions in Alpha Omega, sessions recorded for Miniature Music Press. At one point, we were even lucky enough to catch Lewis Floyd Henry busking in the middle of Queen Street.
All of these things are only publicised to a small audience of people with a buzz created on social media to get the word out. This really added to the excitement of the festival.
This entry was originally posted to the Visit Wales blog on Thursday, October 27th, 2011 at 4:57 pm