Sŵn Festival day two
Sŵn Day Two. I wake up and regret it immediately. Too much fun the preceding night, most of it very blurred. It's a busy day today and I should have taken that into account. But who amongst you - who? - would tiptoe back to their hotel for an early night when there are pubs brimful of people who you never get to see at any other time of the year? Oh, right. Okay.
Swn is my annual holiday. I'm not joking. I could go to Minorca, or Barmouth, or Bulgaria, but instead I save my pennies and come here. That's just my way of explaining myself. If you bumped into me and I looked a bit worse for wear, this is why. Mentally picture my red-faced ass (?) in Benidorm and my happy demeanour and fainting whiff of eau de hops make more sense, perhaps.
Tonight BBC Introducing, BBC Radio Wales and C2 have our night of tunes for Sŵn. We're at Chapter Arts Centre. If you haven't been to Chapter yet, don't. Returning home to a Chapter-free town is a depressing experience. If you don't experience its airy, broadminded charms, with nutritious vegetarian treats on the menu, and an arty cinema I keep walking into looking for toilets, then you won't miss them or curse your hometown for its criminal lack of them.
Hosting a night at Sŵn is a tremendous honour. Amongst us, we get to programme a night of great sounds. However, hosting a night roots you to that venue for the duration. It means that all the random wandering and bumping into unfamiliar noises that makes Swn such a thrill is (mostly) denied me for an evening. But it's a small price to pay when you have great music to gift people.
Drains are the first band on. There's no one in the room. At least, that's the message I get on my mobile from Bethan Elfyn. "Make an announcement in the bar," it says. How toe-curling! I do it, though... in the manner of the most sheepish street hawker in Christendom.
Drains are a Samoan, a Kutosis-ian and a drummer. They take to the stage wearing masks or badly-knitted balaclavas. We can't see their faces. I wonder if they're making an intellectual point with this, but then remember that some people just like wearing masks.
They sound like they're pushing boulders off the edge of tower blocks with nary a care for unfortunates skipping across the urban wasteland below. When the boulders hit, there is big impressive noise. Dan's voice is the essence of everything that Katherine Jenkins isn't. They're fierce fun. They wear masks. Dan scrabbles about below the stage. They disappear after about 20 minutes of grizzle and it's a great start to proceedings. I just wish there had been more people here to see them.
The very moment they finish, Y Bandana are kicking off proceedings in the Drama Studio upstairs in Chapter. I saw (and reviewed) Y Bandana when they played Yr Wythnos Fach for us back in May. They were really charming that night - and had a great energy and lack of self-consciousness. Tonight's set feels a little more 'staged'.
Fun as a dramatic false ending can be for the band, ending every song (seemingly) with one is overkill. When they're good (current single Dal Dy Drwyn) they're exuberant and revitalise us with harmonies and melodies to challenge the most curmudgeonly of musical tastes. When they're not so good, the songs flounder a bit amongst muso in jokes and the sound of a Britpop tribute band. Not sounding 'now' is never a bad thing for a young band. Being 'now' means you very quickly become 'then'. But a little more nowse and quality control and Y Bandana will have the audience as excited about their music as they clearly are.
Is the Back to the Future bit at the end intentional? A florid guitar solo grinding to a sudden halt a la Marty McFly at the prom night band auditions. If it is, it is very clever. These lines are thin lines.
Back in the Studio Theatre, the nicest men at Sŵn (Cyrion) are filling the room with beats, bleeps, squiggles and electronic finery. This is resolutely dance music. It's designed to get you moving, get you involved. But although we're in the presence of a pounding 'dum dum dum dum' kick drum, this is the antithesis of dumb.
What sets Rhodri apart from his laptop-toting peers is his natural musicality (the bleeps and sweeps are melodic bleeps and sweeps) and also his ability to assimilate, Borg-like, the sonic motifs of a la mode electronic movements (the dubstep squiggle) but in ways that cast different shadows. It all sounds like Cyrion, in other words. A mighty fine sound. And Theston's live drums give the whole thing a real physicality and presence in the room.
Rhodri orchestrates the whole thing from his MIDI controllers with a real spirit of mischief. Every now and then he strips out whole bars of the sound, disconcerting the audience, only to bring them crashing back in at the right moment. All the best live bands I've ever seen have an air of unpredictability about their performance. It's a remarkably difficult sensibility to evoke for electronic artists. But Cyrion manage it in excelcis.
A breathless sprint upstairs reintroduces me to the red-eyed glory of Steve 'Sweet' Baboo's talents. His second appearance at the festival is with his new project, Wickes. Nothing to do with the DIY chain, all to do with the DIY brilliance of their songwriting.
The guitar is swapped for a keyboard, he's joined by his good friends Rob from the Voluntary Butler Scheme and H. Hawkline's Huw Evans. There's a half-drunk charm and unpretentious wit to Wickes' songs. Whereas Sweet Baboo charmed the audience into wanting to take him home last night, tonight they might be rather worried he'd empty the drinks cabinet and keep them up playing records scrounged from their record collection, letting the needle skate across prize vinyl.
They're great. But he can keep away from my Buddha.
Next band on are Bastions. There's no gap between the bands. It's like a sonic relay race. I haven't even had time for a Jimmy Riddle, let alone a Richard Gere. So, legs crossed and throat dry I attempt to introduce them. I say something about bus-stops and caves... I've no idea why.
Honestly, not being able to cuss like a cuckolded sailor in these hallowed environs is a massive and embarrassing impediment. Because Bastions are all those little big bad words - simultaneously. So, imagine them scattered liberally throughout the next passage for it to accurately convey the awesomeness of what occurred. And that's the British use of 'awesome' rather than the American one, where the word is generally used to describe things so unawesome I'm hoping the Oxford English Dictionary will wage terrible war on all abusers until they stop, or are extinct.
Bastions exist between twilight genres of noise and fury. They're label-resistant. Try and affix a 'post hardcore' label to them and something darker and more metallic will blow the label off. Try and replace it with a 'dark metal' label and some strange shoegazey episode of seething ambience will do the same. Start writing 'seething ambience' on your rapidly shrinking pile of labels and all thunderous hell will break out, suddenly and with such fearsome physicality that the pen, the labels and your brain jelly will all get blown out through the circumflex of existence, leaving a damp puddle of awed-some in its place.
What they've learnt since the last time I saw them in May is poise. The vicious louds are balanced by long moments of stillness. Near silences that ooze and flutter like nightmarish parallel dimensions. The quiet-'er' bits are captivating, though. Jamie vocalist gathers himself for another Night Of The Hunter onslaught. Danny the drummer shakes the tension out of his muscles, walks to the front of the stage and videos the audience. He wanders back, takes a breath, another breath, then the silence is bludgeoned into ferrous hulks that batter our heads. Danny is the most physical drummer I've ever seen. His rhythm gives their noise its conviction and foundation. Vast. Bottomless. Like roots beneath mountains. Mantle vibrating.
There are folk next to me who say things like: "Who the hell are these? They're amazing!"; "Why haven't I heard of these before?" and "Wow!".
Yes, wow. And awesome.
Victorian English Gentlemens Club are well ensconced in their set by the time I pant my way to the drama studio. They're back to being a three-piece and I think it suits them greatly.
The rhythms and arrangements are more minimal, more seductive, almost... bluesier... especially on an amazing, scratchy version of Bored In Belgium. Attention to detail is paramount with Victorian English Gentlemens Club. The stage is decorated with pendants and a mannequin. An old timer like me is reminded of a dislocated episode of Sapphire and Steel.
I'm called to the other stage because a band have gone missing. By the time I get back, VEGC are playing their last note. A substantial, appreciative crowd applaud. I stand there cursing the responsibilities that drew me away. Still, I can immerse myself without distraction into the new album they're just finishing.
I see little of what happens subsequently on our stages. There is kit to remove, conversations to be had, remnants of riders to be rescued from foraging Drains.
The audience swells as the night progresses and the more well known bands visit us with their excellence. Veterans of Sŵn, Peggy Sue, bewitch with singular, mostly acoustic songs written under gloaming bowers. There's an anxious mystery to their music, strung-out beauty from outsiders condemned to peer in. Initially they remind me of Pooka, but where that duo had a self conscious strangeness to them , Peggy Sue's yawing, yearning fables are utterly convincing.
Young Legionnaire are skinny, cool and great. Paul's past in yourcodenameis:milo is more apparent than his present in The Automatic. This is splendid and rather spidery. Melodies burst out of the relative complexity of their music. There's a right impressive energy flooding off the stage. They're clearing loving it. So are the audience.
And that was that; our night at Sŵn Festival 2010, over. I make the dangerous assumption that that means the music is over for the night. Oh, country boy with your bumpkin, early-night expectations! A straggle of us head into town. We clamber the stairs in Dempseys a little rain-sodden. Just a pint of Guinness is all I'm after, craving repair from the iron and B vitamins contained therein.
Queuing at the bar I can hear a rather plaintive voice and a rather brave, unamplified acoustic guitar. Attempting to balladeer in a packed out pub on a Friday night strikes me as foolhardy. A couple of boorish folk shout at the bar without paying any heed or respect to the bloke with the guitar, who I still haven't seen yet. I crane my neck to get a sight of him. Oh, my! It's Pete flippin' Lawrie! What a pleasant surprise.
Fortunately he foregoes efforts to draw the audience in acoustically and rejoins a band on the stage to use a more effective form of aural communication: a.k.a. amplification.
His set is an unexpected delight. Seems that his soulful timbre and uplifting, blue-eyed folk/soul isn't to everyone's taste. But it is to mine. He knows how to write a song, does Pete. He's a craftsman of the heart. I loved it.
"You look well," he said when I tripped over to say "hello".
That's normally a euphemism for either "fat" or "drunk". Given that I've lost two stone since I last saw him, it has to be the latter.
The night ends with drizzly smokes on Womanby Street, more bonhomie than you'd get at a Disney convention, respect for Matt from The Keys and his yob-handling skills, and utter bewilderment that Ras Kwame's excellent DJ set hasn't drawn more people in. Huw Stephens is here. Rhodri Cyrion is here. Theston Cyrion is here. So, all is fine. I take my cardigan off and dance like a bad dream, wedding uncle.
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