Sŵn Festival day one
So, the first night of Sŵn Festival. I've bought new socks and underpants. I have eyedrops and bananas. I'm about as ready as a man can be for a long weekend of excellent music spread across Cardiff's most discerning music-friendly establishments.
This account will be a bit scattergun and somewhat rushed, but it will hopefully give you a real taste of the brilliant, peripatetic nature of Sŵn.
First up, at 6pm I go to collect my wristband at festival hub, Dempseys. Festival hub is Sŵn rhyming slang for 'damn good pub'. The hub is already brimful of friendly faces. Over there, in the corner, Martin Carr! He's tall and frowning. He wants to DJ but there are no sounds coming out. Some random speaker cable-fiddling, and a bit of the roadie's panacea (gaffa tape) later, and the sound of Stereolab's Ping Pong fills the room.
"Play some dub!" demands a man. The man is John from Llwybr Llaethog - Wales' Sugarhill Gang and Lee Scratch Perry rolled into two. We talk about Blaenau Ffestiniog. Which is random. Transpires we both recorded in the same studio there. He to much better effect, obviously.
Despite all the friendly faces in Dempseys, I'm here to see bands. Lots of bands. Huw 'Pooh' Williams drags me away from people I want to drink beer with because he knows I can be easily distracted from my task. If Odysseus had been as easily distracted, it would not have ended well for Penelope and Telemachus.
"Let's go and see some bands we've never seen before!"
We start in Y Fuwch Goch. Drawn there in Huw Stephens' most excellent slipstream. Danish guy with beard, Dad Rocks, is a folkish sage, beautiful - kind of jazzy - and rather unusual fingerpicked guitar lines embellish songs of great, mellow heart. But we're off before we really get to know him and his music. I'll definitely seek out more.
Manchester's more industry-focused equivalent of Sŵn, In The City, are curating the stage at Undertone. Brown Brogues were one of the bands that got people most excited at In The City. Those industry tongues that still wag wagged with drooly gusto, by all accounts. There are two Brown Brogues: Mr Voice and Guitar, and Mr Big Drums. They're not really 'misters', though - they're so young! I feel like I should confiscate their beer.
They have distorted vocals and blues shapes ripped from a guitar and a Fender amp. So I'm thinking Black Keys, Jon Spencer, White Stripes and the whole blues tradition that preceded those bands. But their unaffected and enthusiastic vigour at these well-mined seams means that they create a new heat from the fuel that remains. Their blues bag is far from empty. I like them a lot.
From Undertone we scurry to the Model Inn. It's scuzzy in here in a good way. Interior designers haven't sacrificed its soul to Feng Shui or unnecessary soft-furnishings. Lesson No. 1 are hosting this venue tonight.
They've been bringing the best in leftfield punk and hardcore to Cardiff since 2004. They've also done much to encourage many of south Wales' finest DIY discordants. Their first band of the evening are Goodtime Boys.
Goodtime Boys are dramatic and impassioned. I don't get to hear enough to tell if they bring anything new to the hardcore equation. I'm not sure you're supposed to bring new things to equations. If something works, and balances, it's good for existence. So although Goodtime Boys sound pretty de rigeur, they also sound pretty damned good.
I've never seen Sweet Baboo sing his own songs before. I've watched him play bass for Spencer McGarry and Cate Le Bon. When he's not unwittingly inciting riots with PE students in Newport (an unexpected result of a recent appearance there) he writes the most wonderful, whimsical songs. Songs of such charm that he could play them on a toothbrush and bin lids and we'd swoon. He somehow manages to transform the top floor of Clwb Ifor Bach into everyone's front room with the warm homeliness of his songs. Loved it! Thank you, Steve. But yes, your mum was right about the tightness of those trousers.
Across the road we catch a tiny bit of Stagecoach (sounding good), and a morsel of Right Hand Left Hand (the top floor of Dempseys is rammed and the noodling we hear is too perplexing to hold all of our attention) - I'd love to hear a whole set of theirs. 'Whole sets' are a luxury we've made the choice to deny ourselves in favour of as many different artists as possible. This is the one moment when that strategy rather lets us down, I feel.
Sun Drums are very nice, if a bit too slight and tempered to draw me in. I tell Huw that we have to see Spectrals because I've very much enjoyed their recent single Peppermint. It proves to be a rare good recommendation. Their reverb-saturated pop reminds me, in many ways, of early Aztec Camera. There is a real deftness of touch to the songwriting. They're cute, gawky, and classically 'indie', before that term got rail-roaded and bastardised.
I hear timeless melodies spun from a lovelorn heart. Everyone who's watching is bewitched. We want to take them home with us. But it's not home time, yet. Nowhere near, it transpires.
"We have to go see Nedry," I tell Huw.
"They're dead good," I'm on a roll.
We walk miles (it feels) to Buffalo Bar and marvel at the racket being created outside by Oui Messy. A definite, unexpected highlight. They have the shouty dimension that many of Cardiff's guitar-toting bands have absorbed from walls in local rehearsal rooms. But they become much more interesting in between those bits.
There is flange and there are spacey, mini wig-outs. Bits of their set sounded like condensed Hawkwind. I'm pretty sure I'm not making this up. Very good. Definitely lots of promise, here.
I've never been to Cardiff Arts Institute before. But Nedry have drawn me here like a fat moth to a blinding luminescence. Festival co-founder John Rostron selected one of their tracks for a Sŵn preview show we did a few weeks back. It was my favourite of all the excellent music we played.
"Dubstep Bjork" was my soundbite reduction of their sound. Which proves to be pretty accurate. But they're so much more than that. Their set is truly outstanding. Two guys on guitar, laptops and drum pads, and a woman on singing and pedals. She is transfixing. A real star in the ascendant.
What initially appears to be quite noodly when we walk in becomes a hypnotic melange of dub bass, huge swells of sound, complex rhythms and her beguiling voice. I don't know how, what or why, I just know I could listen to her sing for the rest of time. None of the studied drama school melodrama of many singers. No hackneyed vocal mannerisms. Just emotion, subtle drama and great melodies. If I see anything as good over the rest of the weekend, I'll hop all the way home in a luminous pink, happy bunny suit.
Things get messy from here on in. That's probably to do with the social drinking. Attempted professionalism can only go so far. With me it's on a timer and it switches off automatically - whatever I try to do - at 11pm, except on Sunday nights.
I catch seminal intelligent punk band Bellinithrough the haze. The guy who's playing the guitar does so with a real mastery of the raw and the juggernaut: massive, clever riffs that carry impressive ideas across whole nations and cultures. Bloody brilliant.
Finally, upstairs in Dempseys, where it all started. Yucatan! So beautiful. So seductive. So like the mountains back home, in all their clouded majesty. I get tearful and a little homesick. Then I get a little real sick to balance the equation. Then I get wrestled. Then I get a taxi.
Now I'm going to get some breakfast.
Roll on day two.
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