Reviewing the success of the Saturday night at the (welcome) return of Festival Of Voice to Cardiff is, it turns out, an endeavour laden with questions. Questions about pricing, scheduling, programming, venue choice and ultimately what the music festival hopes to be and who it exists for.
Caveats abound. Inevitably, COVID will have dramatically altered the organisers’ ambitions, doubtless limiting both audience numbers and artist availability and, frankly, it’s brilliant to have live music back in whatever form – this event will have provided a shot in the arm for a whole range of professionals still reeling from nearly two years of disruption. It’s also worth noting that tonight’s programme is running in competition with the visit of the Springboks to the Principality Stadium, planning around which is presumably no easy task.
Having said all that, it’s apparent that ticket sales are far from what might have been hoped for, not least to the 20 or so audience members present when energetic opener Nuha Ruby Ra hits the stage of the somewhat repurposed, but still massive, 2,500-capacity Donald Gordon Theatre.
In considering why turnout is so disappointing, eventually peaking at what looks like a little over 200 people, it’s worth pondering exactly who Festival Of Voice is aimed at. The ticket price of £55 for this evening, alone, is steep. By point of comparison, Gruff Rhys, ostensibly tonight’s headliner, played Clwb Ifor Bach for £15 in August. Ticket prices like that are not going to draw in young folk who’d provide a bit of energy, or those who might be prepared to take a punt on some of the newer acts on show, and will be out of reach for many of the Centre’s neighbours in Butetown (46% child poverty, as at 2019) upon whom the WMC landed, spaceship-like, two decades ago.
Further muddying the question of who the festival is being delivered for, is the booking policy. This evening’s lineup is excellent but incoherent and lacks any of the unique crossover moments that have given FOV a focus in previous years: Thursday’s collaboration between Max Richter and Sinfonia Cymru seems to be the sole nod to this approach in 2021. The breadth of the festival’s approach is both a strength and a weakness – a wide remit to put together creative, diverse bills, then having to hope people will shell out for acts who may only be partially to their tastes.
Beyond the ticket pricing and programming, even the scheduling for the day is bizarre: the decision to split an already small crowd between two different rooms to watch performances by hip-hop/adjacent acts in Biig Piig and Ladies Of Rage is a frustrating and baffling one. Entertainment in the foyer runs at the same time as the main stage acts, rather than between, so attendees leaving the main room are greeted by WMC staff mopping the floor and bars being shuttered, rather than catching moments of theatre or performance art which might have lent some sense of momentum.
So, it’s a bit of a muddled affair. But, happily, none of this was reflected in a series of performances of the highest quality. The aforementioned Nuha Ruby Ra kicks the evening off with a performance awash with chaotic, kinetic energy. For all that it’s pretty weird to have a club-size audience ramped onto the considerable stage of the Donald Gordon Theatre, the benefits are a massively powerful sound and lighting rig – which Nuha makes full use of, blasting the audience with a noise which brings to mind LA’s Health in its intensity. Her white shirt is daubed in a red mantra, “I’ll show you how to move”, which she draws on as she weaves her way between agog audience members. A thrilling display of power.
Following this is no mean feat, but the endlessly gifted Anna Meredith and her incredible band put in the set of the day. Their massive, bombastic sound is idiosyncratic to the point that genre-categorisation becomes a game of pin-the-tail-to-a-cheetah-in-full-flight. Like a turbocharged Phillip Glass Ensemble with Steve Vai throwing down guitar and a generous dollop of synths to round the sound out, the 5-piece delivers a memorable and upbeat set. Snap-your-neck beats on tunes like Bump or the anthemic perma-crescendo of Nautilus get people moving while Meredith’s joyous enthusiasm keeps the energy going even during less vigorous numbers.
Next on the main stage, young Irishwoman Jessica Smyth, aka Biig Piig, delivers fireworks in the form of an energetic blend of R’n’B and hip-hop, much of which is delivered in the Spanish she grew up speaking. Live beats and saxophone give her sound some welly and she’s another performer who crackles with obvious glee to be onstage.
The sole act playing the Weston Studio that day are Cardiff’s Ladies Of Rage, an electric and eclectic ensemble of all-female artists from across Cardiff. Various members run through their contributions to the group’s Harddwch Du / Black Beauty release, inviting collaborators as they went. It was a brilliant session that deserved a bigger audience.
Audience numbers swell (and the appearance of a couple of daffodil hats suggest that this is related to the final whistle blowing across town) as Gruff Rhys and his band arrive to take us through material from Seeking New Gods and earlier stuff. They’re a tight unit – the date arrives amidst a tour that’s clearly got them firing on all cylinders. Drummer Kliph Scurlock absolutely batters his kit as the band bang out hits old and new, the likes of Hiking With Lightning smoothly complementing classic material.
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Bringing down the curtain tonight and nearly bringing down the house at the same time, Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon are an absolute riot. They’ve become a staple of wee-hours festival slots in recent years and it’s easy to see why as the multi-talented crew bring a party like no one else. Church is a livewire – clearly on a mission to make sure she’s having more fun than anyone else here – and with a setlist of covers that spans everything from Black Sabbath to Justin Timberlake, there’s something for everyone. A particular highlight is a bouncing rendition of Datblygu’s Y Teimlad, notably covered by Super Furry Animals on Mwng, which brings things together nicely.
Some brilliant sets make Festival of Voice’s third day in Cardiff a memorable evening, but almost in spite of the organisation of the festival. Hopefully, future years are a little more focused.
words HUGH RUSSELL photos POLLY THOMAS