Whether coordinated or coincidental, a running theme through many of the 2023 Llais Festival’s setlists has been the unexpected appearance of a cappella singing. Gwenno, its co-curator, is no exception. In reference to the folk influences on her latest record Tresor, she opens the show beating on a handheld drumskin while calling in Cornish for sunshine and the beginning of a new season.
A presenter, dressed in a harlequin-esque costume in reference to Tresor’s album artwork, introduces each album with a touch too much reverence and attempts at audience interaction that fail to gain enthusiasm. More engaging are Gwenno’s brief bilingual chats between songs, revealing background influences from art and poetry, and introducing the uninitiated to figures of Welsh identity and independence behind hits such as N.Y.C.A.W. (‘Nid Yw Cymru A Werth’ – ‘Wales Is Not For Sale’), which is addressed to the auditorium in a brilliant cross between political oration and low-key indie disaffection.
We were promised guest performers, a captivating dance performance and live immersive visuals, only the latter of which comes to light. The visuals on the back screen, although impressive, are so busy in many songs that they distract from the outstanding musicians on stage, who joyfully capture the sweet spot between indie, psychedelic rock, pop, folk and electro. Later on, we’re provided with some relief: technical problems provide welcome breaks from technological overload. Gwenno and the band are fantastic; the visuals, when more minimalistic, are a small bonus.
It’s true that Gwenno’s music has had a deep influence on the reputation of the disappearing Cornish language, and normalised Welsh language music on UK radio. The decision to present her three albums one after the other, though, at a huge national concert hall, perhaps canonises her career a touch too soon. Hopefully, there is plenty more to come from Gwenno, and a retrospective of her musical and cultural significance at a future date will feel more appropriate.
The concert closes with another Llais semi-theme: audience singalong. Gwenno takes us through the chorus of her 2018 single Eus Keus? (Cornish for ‘Is There Cheese?’) using call-and-response, before inviting us to a panto-style adults vs children shouting contest. With the festival as a whole and in her own concert, Gwenno has done exactly what she set out to do: to show different ways in which the voice can contribute radically to various conversations and reveal new things about ourselves, from giving a platform to marginalised heritage to bringing people together in amazement at the beauty of the musical voice.
Gwenno, Llais @ Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Sun 15 Oct
words ISABEL THOMAS photos POLLY THOMAS