Gruff Rhys / Y Niwl / Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog - Pesda Roc, Thursday 1 September 2011
Bethesda has some otherworldly quality to it. Any place that kneels in front of Snowdonia's most awe-inspiring vistas is bound to reflect and amplify those wonders somehow. Stood just back from the main street as I drive through are a series of most impressive chapels, or tabernacles. I'm ashamed I don't know exactly which. They're places of worship. And even though I have an atheist heart, little fills me with a sense of the miracle of our existence more than spectacular, breath-stealing landscapes and architectures built to move us closer to God.
Bethesda has both. It sets me along a line of spurious thinking. "No wonder so many great, instinctive and original musical minds come from this area..."
I'm thinking particularly of Gruff Rhys. Original minds, within the rock and roll canon, are rarer than they should be. Rock'n'roll's journey from a rural, to an urban, and - in this instance - back to a rural landscape is a fascinating one, I think.
And I wonder how much Gruff's childhood amongst these streets and houses carved from the slate of the mountains, where every storm and sunbeam is magnified by the slopes around, helped shape his unique vision. Super Furries' notable peers from back in the day either locked themselves in bedrooms mainlining on Public Enemy, Guns N' Roses and Sylvia Plath (the Manics); broiled with the working class, last gang desperate to ride out of this one horse town mentality of 60ft Dolls or Stereophonics; or filtered a similar (to the Furries) less-knowing, more playful and unbounded sense of infinite possibilities (Catatonia and Gorky's).
As the outsider coming in, seeing the sun burst through Mordor clouds onto the Carneddau, hemmed in by reverent slate palaces and with so many pubs on one side of the road than I'm sure it's an optical illusion, I think I can see one of the reasons why Gruff is synonymous with music that doesn't sound like anyone else. But I imagine if I foisted this particular theory on him there would be a pause that'd last a geological epoch, and an eventual 'maybe' in response.
Because, and I know you know this, what separates the truly great from the moribund is instinct. The ability to do without too much thought getting in the way. Some people call it a state of grace. That Bethesda means 'House of Grace' in Hebrew just gives me more grist for an already over-worked mill.
I'm here for Pesda Roc. Pesda Roc is the revival of a festival originally inaugurated in the mid 80's by local music fans like Gwynfor Dafydd. The likes of Maffia Mr Huws, Yr Anhrefn and Meic Stevens played. Gruff may well have been in the audience, being inspired by what he witnessed.
Since the last of those initial Pesda Rocs in 1986, the event has been resurrected on a couple of occasions, notably in 2003 when Super Furry Animals played. It has been reinstated this year for a much sadder reason. Pesda Roc 2011 is 'er cof am Les' (in memory of Les).
Les Morrison co-founded a studio in the town in the 80's that became a creative hub and a place of practical inspiration for a welter of significant Welsh bands: Celt, Maffia Mr Huws, Bryn Fôn, Jecsyn Ffeif, Y Cyrff, Ffa Coffi Pawb, Super Furries, Catatonia, The Peth and others beside. I'm told that he would frequently engineer and record nascent, skint bands for free, giving opportunities for valuable recording experience to those who would have struggled to get it otherwise. That kind of far-sighted benevolence is rare. He was also a songwriter and a musician in his own right, and he became Super Furry Animals' guitar tech - travelling the world with them.
Les passed away in April and this year's Pesda Roc was founded because he'd wanted to see another of the festivals in the town, and because it would give the vast musical community who had been touched by his friendship, talent and kindness an opportunity to celebrate his memory.
So, a bewildering array of Welsh talent, past and present, crowd various pubs, halls and clubs in Bethesda for five evenings. I drive into the town late on the Thursday. I'm here to see Gruff Rhys, Y Niwl and Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. I've never seen Gruff live before, despite the fact that his songs (whether with Ffa Coffi Pawb, Super Furry Animals or his solo albums) are the alphabet of Welsh music, at least as far as I'm concerned.
I can trace Gruff's songs backwards to learn about what went before (he plays songs by Datblygu, Ffa Coffi Pawb and Caryl Parry Jones tonight), and his own songs shine like a runway into the future, they will endure timelessly as an inspiration to others. So Gruff, to me, is a link between the past and the future. He's the key Welsh artist of our times. I have cried, laughed, danced and been amazed by his visions more than anyone else's. I can't tell you how excited I feel about the prospect of being in the same room as his 'Til I Die voice and quixotic guitar for the very first time. I'm ashamed that it's the first time. It's inexplicable to me. I've lied to cover it up, such is my embarrassment. And I'm not one for lies. Not often, anyway.
My gig-going friend, Andy, and I arrive at the Neuadd Ogwen just in time to catch Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. What I'm struck by first is the hall itself. A beautiful old theatre cum cinema cum whatever else has been required from it over the years in this community. The orange plastic chairs are inexplicable. But they're also filled with a diverse swathe of the local communities' bottoms. Gigs aren't just for young folk, or people-who-should-grow-old-more-gracefully folk. Gigs here are for folk.
In a very real sense, without the genre tropes and tics, this is folk music. It's heart-warming. But it doesn't take too much to warm my heart, especially after a Guinness. Even the sight of a nice smelling punk (Neil Crud) has me dewy-eyed. Takes us a while to fathom that it's his infinitely more aesthetically pleasing partner who smells so fragrantly, but the illusion is an amusing one, however fleeting.
Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog
Cowbois are on stage. It's a big broad stage with lovely curtains and a bold 'Pesda Roc' backdrop seemingly carved from coal or cardboard, hard to tell at this distance. I've never seen Cowbois before, either. But reports of their set being the best at the Wrexham Eisteddfod and rumours of a revelatory main stage appearance at the recent Green Man festival have whetted my appetite.
Disappointing, then, that I have to strain hard to hear them. All the bums on the orange plastic seats are attached to people glorying loudly in each other's company. They're not being rude in ignoring the music. The music is, perhaps, a little too gentle, lilting and melancholic for the moment. But like when you're a kid being driven to the beach, straining for the first proper sight of the sea, some great sparkle of guitar or flash of vocal dexterity breaches the chatter and lifts the heart. And as those moments become more frequent, the audience quietens, drawn - without any fuss or bother - into Cowbois' world. And the set gathers volume and momentum as each moment passes. What started off a little like Neil Young's Harvest becomes Rust Never Sleeps, dragged along by crazy horse squeals of madly brilliant guitar.
Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog knew exactly what they were doing. It was the best paced set I've heard in aeons. They're something special. Something transcendent. Something that lifts my soul up into the night sky, amongst the stars, gazing down at the twinkling lights and echoing sounds of Bethesda...
And then someone is sick all over me at the bar.
Andy gets the worst of it and has to buy (another) Y Niwl t-shirt so that he can change into something that isn't covered in regurgitated lager and crisps. I wash myself in their sink. But in all the fuss and cleaning and de-odorising and bother, I miss the first half of Y Niwl's set. Smelling like a real punk I manage to catch the flashing blades of their finale. Y Niwl sound fiercer than I've heard them before. Whatever energy is firing them zaps up through the audience's feet too. The kids are twisting and jiving. Everyone is happy. Even the puke-covered.
And so to Gruff. I shan't go on. Well, I've already gone on a bit. His set and his demeanour is a great tribute to his lost friend. Gruff tells us warm anecdotes about Les fashioning the odd plastic and Velcro appendage to his acoustic guitar (he didn't like the cutaway, as far as I could discern - but my Welsh is basic/intermediate, please correct me if I misunderstood.) Gruff also stresses Les' ability to bring people together, how he was no respecter of the boundaries and barriers that are frequently put between people. On one occasion, Super Furry Animals were walking down a labrynthine corridor at the BBC, preparing for an appearance on Top of the Pops. They walked past a door labelled 'Carlos Santana'. What? The Carlos Santana? One of the most legendary guitar players of all time? A man who played Woodstock, for crying out loud! You'd think that a bunch of wet-nosed oiks from Wales'd shuffle past the dressing room quietly, in nervous awe.
He knocked on the door: "Alright Carlos? I'm Les."
And so the band spent the afternoon hanging out with Carlos Santana.
That ability to make friends wherever he went must have been a godsend when the band were touring far flung parts of the world. Lots of bands hermetically seal themselves off when they're on tour. But I'd imagine - and I am extrapolating here, I hope with some accuracy - that Les helped Super Furry Animals plug themselves into the communities and cultures they visited more readily than if he hadn't been there. He must have been a great man to have around.
Which is the right note on which to end this. Gruff was sublime and more wonderful than I could convey in another 1750 words. But Pesda Roc was about Les, the musicians he worked with, the community many of them came from, and the elemental place that provided the perfect conditions for their chemistry. Sad, uplifting and most wonderful.