Wales

Gŵyl Gardd Goll, Y Faenol Estate, Sunday 24 July 2011

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I wake up on the Sunday morning existentially adrift. This can feel like the loneliest job. You get to flit around countless, remarkable folk, drawn to their talents, banging your dusty antenna against their luminosity, but you never get in. You're a different species. And that's how it should be, I think. Being friends with people in bands strips you of your objectivity, and objectivity is important if you're spending the BBC shilling.

But with all the talk of Norway and Amy Winehouse; the phone call this morning telling me about a close family friend who had suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 43; a wife 2,000 miles and a week away in Turkey; a daughter who's been passed from pillar to post; I'd gladly ingratiate myself with The Kooks and promise them a month's worth of airplay for the sake of an empathetic smile.

The only reason I know that I'm awake is that gnawing black feeling in my stomach. When life wants to be cruel and ugly, it knows how to pull out all the stops. The little monsters who follow us all, every day, without having to make a big Stephen King song-and-dance about it, are the most unsettling. And the little monsters are everywhere this morning. They're dancing on my desk, they're in all the unopened emails, they're partying in my fridge and pouring into my house through the radio.

Too much? Probably. But what's the point of writing these if they're not rooted in honesty, and if they don't give you the real reason why what happens subsequently is verging on the miraculous. We all listen to music for different reasons. On a day like today, I listen to music because the really good stuff kills all known little monsters DEAD. (Slams a Chloe Leavers mp3 down on the desk with melodramatic force!)

I immerse myself in the routine of putting the night ahead's show together. If I want to get to the final day of Gŵyl Gardd Goll, the whole three-hour show needs to be tied down by midday. And, despite the incursion of a particularly frenzied batch of little monsters via the BBC Introducing Uploader (they most frequently adopt the form of a Sum 41 tribute band) I meet my deadline. I find the clothes that are least creased and crowbar myself into the car.

Steve Sweet Baboo is on the second stage when I arrive. He knows about the little monsters. His songs are filled with their spoor, but also flash bright with the pathos they hate so much. Initially I mistook Steve for a rather jolly chap, probably due to his attire. But his songs are filled with more heartbreak than any one man should have to bear. I wonder, fleetingly, if he masochistically invites it on himself: picks the girls that are least attainable and most likely to screw his heart up, toss it in the bin, because that keeps his well wet . But Steve ain't no muse tourist.

Sweet Baboo

His most plaintive song, If I Died Would You Remember That You Loved Me, couldn't be more incongruous on a vivid summer afternoon if it arrived in a flashing sou'wester. Its thoroughly unselfconscious lyric, funereal tempo and heart wrenching delivery make the audience shuffle uncomfortably, but it connects and transfixes for those very reasons.

Sweet Baboo isn't too cool to reveal every bloody bruise on his heart. OK, some might say that he rather wallows in the reveal, but not me. Steve is the antithesis to every dead soul that ever said "Man up!", as if the mere fact of having a penis protects you from heartbreak.

A friend says: "I wish he'd bloody cheer up."

Well, I - selfishly - hope he doesn't, not too much anyway. His songs, particularly the music hall melodies and self-deprecatory lyrics, are like buoys scattered on the black, choppy seas we all, occasionally, navigate.

And anyone who can write the line: "And Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes, and I've got six, So I guess there's some catching up to do, to tell you that I love you" has earnt a permanent place on my soul's jukebox.

9Bach

In comparison, 9bach seem superhuman. They ride the little monsters with whips and stirrups. I imagine Lisa Jen not taking any nonsense from dry ice demons. She's a salutary lesson in meeting life head on with a bit of wisdom, a voice that could crystallise rainbows, and a garrulous optimism that'd put that there blazing sun in the shade.

9Bach's startling interpretations of traditional Welsh folk songs aren't - in of themselves - happy, not by any means. But the elemental truth of these songs, the reason they've endured, is that they have an emotional intelligence sewn through the tunes, the arrangements, the lyrics, that is undeniable. They work. It's why they've survived. They're songs about murder, on a murderous day, that make murder feel a whole universe away. How... the hell... does that work?

I'm not about to try and explain.

Lisa's voice is all. If the awe-inspiring view of Snowdonia to our left had a larynx, this is the sound it would make.

I love Yucatan, but I miss them in order to get some food and a drink. Dilwyn Yucatan organised this whole shebang. It feels sacrilegious to not see their set. But, I have to rush from the site to get to Wrexham in time for tonight's show. The lentil curry is an essential, and tasty, diversion.

Cate Le Bon

I don't think I can do the next artist justice. I don't know that smart-ass similes or gushing hyperbole can convey the multifold, otherworldy wonder of Cate Le Bon. I don't know that I can express quite how transfixing her set of entirely new songs was. I want to stress her keening originality, but I don't want to paint her as in any way 'weird', because 'weird' infers quirky or self consciously odd.

But the impression scorched on my ear's retina, that's still there as a fuzzy ember if I shut my ears down to black - is one of a woman being nothing other than herself. Reference points to other artists don't really work, because they come out topsy-turvy and misleading, like trying to describe a fifth dimension to Betty Boop. But, here goes: she's a Dark Knight Vashti Bunyan. An oestrogen Arthur Lee. PJ Harvey as done by Patsy Cline. Nico does Hank Williams. She's a whole other species, like Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

A little sad, a little distant, a lot beautiful, a perplexing riddle of a woman with songs that take the ether of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush and embroider a whole new tapestry from its celestial threads.

But she's none of these things, really. She's a woman with songs. All of the other magic springs up in the mysterious spaces in her sound. Her skill as a lyricist is rarely commented upon, but I love the see-saw, Sapphire and Steel nature of her words: "Fold the cloth, or cut the cloth", is a line imbued with something vague; like a fragment of a nightmare, but one that you want to revisit.

There is a paean to the moon that is so plaintive the birds stop singing to hear it. It is the best song of the weekend until the next song. It might be called Last Boat Out Of Here; whatever it's called it's like nothing I've heard before. I am quivering. Alan Holmes is sat next to me, equally bewitched. We share a nervous laugh and a few big swear words to try and sum up quite how great we think this is.

Then Cate plays a guitar solo so unusual and perfect I can feel myself slipping far, far away. I hold my hands by my side so I don't get snagged on anything. It's the only place I want to go, embracing the loneliness.

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