After the third edition of this Cardiff aural extravaganza had to be cancelled for 2020, Festival Of Voice is back on track with a four-day programme of musical icons and stars-to-be alike. Noel Gardner offers a summary and profiles 10 names on the lineup.
The team behind Festival Of Voice, an innovative large-scale celebration of music that launched in Cardiff five years ago, found it necessary to recalibrate as the cursed 2020 has trickled into the marginally more pleasant ‘21. Thinking on their feet, there have in fact been two distinct spins to the FOV model this calendar year, with the second set to take place at the start of November and form a significant part of the comeback of live concerts in Wales.
Though the event’s scheduled return for November 2020, with Cate Le Bon enlisted to curate the lineup, was scrubbed from diaries well in advance, Cate appeared on the bill of Gŵyl 2021 in March. This was a digital festival featuring a few dozen performances – mostly music with a sprinkling of standup – filmed in otherwise empty Welsh venues, with Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre featuring heavily. (Gŵyl was programmed in conjunction with Wrexham’s FOCUS Wales, Aberystwyth Comedy Fest and Other Voices Cardigan; the first two of those return in person for early October.)
The WMC will be the exclusive location for November’s Festival Of Voice, which runs across four days and arranges its programme into a quartet of eclectic-but-complementary bills. Some acts are, let’s say, homegrown favourites; others have visited before, though one can expect absence to have made the heart grow fonder; others make their Welsh debut.
The size and scope of the Wales Millennium Centre looks like it’ll lend help in making FOV impressive. According to Graeme Farrow, artistic director of both venue and festival, “these events will be held on the Donald Gordon Theatre stage, with the audience on stage too.” The building’s many other rooms and pockets will also host live performances, DJ sets and extra food and drink outlets, while Welsh playwright and theatre producer Bethan Marlow has worked with Valleys-based youths and youth workers on what is intriguingly described as “a series of creative interventions”. Hopefully, these will form one of many surprises 2021’s Festival Of Voice has in store.
A pivotal musical figure on a global scale for the best part of half a century now, Eno will open Festival Of Voice with its keynote speech, these being something of a speciality of his. If you most readily associate him with his coining and development of the ambient genre, you might think it ironic that a composer of such pointedly instrumental works has been invited to kick off an event that celebrates the power of the human vocal. Of course, there is a great deal more than that on Eno’s vast CV as a composer and producer. His brother Roger Eno will perform live on Sun 7 Nov, too.
One of the most respected names in modern composition, the Anglo-German Max Richter cut his teeth in 90s dance music and retained that nonconformist sensibility on becoming a classical musician in his own right. Over nearly 20 years, his moving, ambient-influenced albums and minimalism-adjacent arrangements have found a sizeable audience, with particularly calculator-exploding streaming stats, and Richter has frequently dabbled in opera, ballet and film soundtrack work. For his first performance in Wales, the pianist will be joined by Sinfonia Cymru for a doubtless stirring conclusion to FIV’s opening evening.
A composer from North Carolina who currently lives in London, Kelsey Lu is an exemplar of how, in 2021, avant-garde string music and brash neo-pop can intersect without either party being diluted or led astray. Solange and Blood Orange had both enlisted the cellist’s talents before Lu garnered attention in their own right with 2019 debut album Blood, where dignified classical parts coexist with electronica and field recordings. The latest release Hydroharmonia is a 20-minute piece incorporating ambient stylings and spoken word. Moreover, their queer and Black identity is centred in Lu’s work, notable in the context of much of the classical and avant-garde establishment.
FOV makes a point of noting that this performance, second on the bill to pastel-shaded synthpoppers Hot Chip, will feature Tricky backed by a live band. This isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a lionising of the ‘band format’ so much as an observation that the driven Bristolian shapeshifter can turn out an incredible show with this setup: lights low-to-extinguished, abrasive retoolings of music which, while exciting, can be imposing even in its studio version. Tricky burned so bright in his first few years of 90s fame that it proved impossible to maintain on musical and personal levels, but he’s rarely stood still over the last 25 years plus.
“They said I’m acting like a narcissist / I said thank you, my day is going marvellous.” Juice Menace dipped a toe in rap circa her late teens, found she was actually really good at it, accrued a rep in her Cardiff locale, linked up with producers from further afield (bouncy UK garage bossman Conducta, for example), shuffled between south Wales and London for a bit and eventually moved to the English capital late last year. This will be Juice Menace’s first hometown live performance since chat really started about her, with recent singles 24s and Fuptheclub doubtless getting aired.
Scottish composer Anna Meredith bisects modern classical and leftfield indie with uncanny precision, her two studio albums Varmints and Fibs both arriving via the Moshi Moshi label and the latter getting the time-honoured Mercury nomination. She’s also composed for the Proms, the 2008 broadcast of that work finding her biggest audience to date, and in her recorded work has moved back and forth between electronic synthesis and live, lush instrumentation. Her shows are renowned for bringing a rockier, danceable dimension to the orchestral intricacy of her compositions.
With only one mini-album to her name so far, this London artist has turned some heads while proving impressively tough to categorise. How To Move, released in March, finds Nuha Ruby Ra wailing plaintively and narrating intensely over big rock riffs, jazzy horn burble, murky electronics and low-lit soundtracky moments. Some of it is fairly unambiguous relationship waffle, lyrically speaking, other parts are more obtuse and poetic. This performance will be Ra’s return to Wales after playing the main stage at Green Man last month: she won the festival’s annual Rising competition in 2020, but had to wait a year to play.
Is Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon the coolest thing a wealthy semi-retired celebrity could plausibly do with their time? If not, it is surely one of the jolliest. Church, one-time tween vocal sensation from Cardiff, took it upon herself to get back on the mic, but also assemble a large band of musos (including her other half) to back her with covers of iconic pop and rock songs. ‘Covers’ sells it rather short, though, as they’re generally refashioned into new genres and torn through, almost DJ mix-style and with commendable versatility. Everyone dresses up in glitter and sequins and suchlike and it has proved a nailed-on festival favourite in the last five years.
This will be Arab Strap’s first appearance in Cardiff since 2005, although in terms of their time as a going concern it’s a relatively swift return to the city. The Scottish duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton disbanded the following year after a decade of stark, confessional releases which progressed from odd, addictive lo-fi to more developed, string-bedecked arrangements. After a handful of gigs in the middle of the last decade, Arab Strap’s reformation proper came in 2020, with the comeback album As Days Get Dark released early this year to a healthy reception.
At 75 years old the elder stateswoman of this year’s Festival Of Voice programme, Stella Chiweshe has enjoyed a storied musical career – and, it’s a safe bet, with some stories to tell. She grew up in pre-independence Zimbabwe and learned to play the country’s national instrument, the mbira dzavadzimu, at a time when this was very much not done by women, and mbira playing was officially banned by the regime in any case. Post-independence, she eventually gained recognition for her abilities, going on to tour the world solo and with her band, Earthquake.
Here’s our playlist to keep you going until the festival kicks off.
Thurs 4 Nov: Max Richter & Sinfonia Cymru; Kelsey Lu; Colin Currie Group & Synergy / Brian Eno (keynote address)
Fri 5 Nov: Hot Chip; Tricky; Rachel Chinouriri; Juice Menace
Sat 6 Nov: Gruff Rhys; Biig Piig; Anna Meredith; Sprints; Nuha Ruby Ra; Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon (afterparty)
Sun 7 Nov: Arab Strap; Ghostpoet; Roger Eno; Stella Chiweshe; Ani Glass
Festival Of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Thurs 4-Sun 7 Nov. Tickets: £45 Thurs 4 + Sun 7; £55 Fri 5 + Sat 6. Info: 029 2063 6464 / here
words NOEL GARDNER
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