Hopping off the train at Swansea, you’re greeted with the quiet hush of the post-rush hour city centre. Beyond the pockets of disruptive teenagers and boozy street corners, music community stronghold The Bunkhouse is found. A Swansea Fringe Festival wristband secured for this, the second evening of a four-day multi-venue festival, steps are retraced to find Volcano Theatre on Swansea High Street. We’re told by the friendly bartender that the venue used to be an Iceland supermarket, but since their 2015 takeover, this unique art house now makes space for theatre, live music, and its own art gallery.
The unconventional backdrop hosts the first performer we’re due to see, r’n’b/pop artist Aisha Kigs. Behind woozy lo-fi backbeats, her vocals are a powerful introduction to the night. After describing her recent return from New York, Kigs moves between singles and unreleased tracks – Dime A Dozen, Don’t Wanna Be Friends – with flair, andby the end of her set, Kigs has transformed the timid audience into captivated group of adoring fans, with the boundaries of performer and audience blurred.
After a mad dash back to the Bunkhouse to see Nookee, schedules are running slightly behind, meaning we catch the tail end of Ci Gofod’s set. The funky group play a few tracks before clearing the stage, whereupon Nookee’s dual lead vocalists – and identical twins – Gemma and Violet Hunt-Humphries blow the venue away. Accompanied by the band’s tight formation, yin/yang energy manifested through soulful contrasting vocal parts makes for an exhilarating bluesy performance, and this radiates into the audience.
With a festival hosting such a brilliant lineup with short changeovers, tough decisions on who to see are inevitable. At this moment a choice is made to leave Nookeeprematurely and return to Volcano. Walking midway into Welsh-language band Sybs’ set, we hear something grungy, even Smashing Pumpkins-esque, and the group’s last song Paid Gofyn Pam is a true highlight: warm and melodically nostalgic, the perfect temperature for this audience.
A short wander up the street takes us to Elysiumto watch Cardiffian noiserock band, Slate. With a growing reputation for entertainment infused with mystifying intensity, we are given nothing less this evening. Lead vocalist Jack Shephard holds unaverred eye contact that stirs a connection between him and audience; passersby, unaware of the festivities, periodically stop to listen to songs like St Agatha and Tabernacl. The band finish with an unreleased track, Remoter Heaven,where Shephard’s gripping, chanted lyrics are hard not to pay attention to.
Despite it being a Friday night, the last train back to Cardiff interrupted our carefully planned schedule. From the grapevine we’ve heard The Bug Club were a hit, too, but as it was we were graced with 10 minutes of punk rock from Bad Shout – heavy and fast, with frontman Callum Charman’s recognisably gritty vocals – before saying our farewells to Swansea Fringe Festival.
Organised by Swansea Music Hub, 2023 marks the fifth Swansea Fringe Festival since 2017. The goals of the hub are to raise the profile of live music in this South Wales city, working on a volunteer basis of musicians who have grown up in Swansea. Supported by 4TheRegion, Coastal Housing Group, PRS for Music, and Swansea Arena Creative Learning, as well as a new project from Menter Iaith Abertawe funded by Tŷ Cerdd, the festival is a true triumph for arts and culture.
As much as the festival is a success, one its founders should feel proud of, it deserves more attention: besides the buzz inside the venues, the streets of Swansea feel unaware of these musical celebrations. Everything is being done right, but it feels a wider audience reach is needed for this festival to thrive.
Swansea Fringe Festival, various venues, Swansea, Fri 6 Oct
words TERESA DELFINO photos CARYS GRIFFITHS [Instagram]