SŴN FESTIVAL | LIVE REVIEW
Various venues, Cardiff, Fri 21-Sun 23 Oct
Tramshed, Fri 21
Sŵn’s 10th birthday opened with SŵnRise, a full line-up concert at Cardiff’s Tramshed. SŵnRise could be seen as a small cross-sectional example of what was to come over the rest of the weekend.
As the audience trickle in, North London four-piece Crows have the unenviable role of being the first official act to play at the tenth Sŵn festival. The band kick off Sŵn 2016 with a half hour of relentless, fervorous, throbbing punk rock, frontman James Cox stalking through the moderately gathered crowd during their final song, Crawling.
In stark contrast, Pumarosa followed up with ethereal-voiced lead singer Isabel Munoz-Newsome. The London five-piece played their first gig in Wales as part of Sŵn, and you couldn’t get a more opposing act to follow Crows’ punk stylings. Pumarosa’s set ranged from otherworldly vocals, saxophone-featuring soft-rock of Cecile, 70s funk-tinged guitar riff on Red, to their epic new-wave styled – hugely successful debut single – Priestess, sounding like a song Toyah Wilcox might have produced in her heyday.
Due to illness, the anticipated Spring King had to cancel their appearance at SŵnRise, however two Welsh bands, Sandinistas and Estrons – who both played later in the festival – took Spring King’s place to entertain the crowds. Championed by Sŵn’s own Huw Stephens as well as Radio Wales and actor and film-maker Jonny Owen, valleys band Sandinistas’ punk-pop nostalgically reminded me of the bands I used to watch play in ‘battle of the bands’ around the Rhondda while I was in my early 20s.
Cardiff’s Estrons came together with the intention of creating unconventional rock’n’roll with several genre influences. It’s their current song, I’m Not Your Girl, that was pure new-wave punk-pop, in the vein of the best of the 80s female vocal-lead groups (think Bow Wow Wow); although an unexpected lineup change, the crowd were loving it.
I was blown away when I saw Meilyr Jones supporting previous Sŵn act John Grant earlier this year, so his headline set as part of SŵnRise was much anticipated. Jones does not disappoint with his baroque indie-rock – as quiet as he is between songs, he is energetic and boisterous in his performance, he is so unassuming when speaking to the crowd, it’s like someone flips a switch when he starts to sing. (CW)
Gwdihŵ / Buffalo, Sat 22
Cardiff based musician and artist R. Seiliog (Robin Edwards) is hard to nail down into genres. The Sŵn programme describes him as “Krautrock meets techno … imaginative, cyclical electronic sounds”. Edwards played two gigs as part of Sŵn’s Saturday, both largely consisting of his acclaimed debut album In Hz. His afternoon set in Gwdihŵ was a suitably subdued affair for the time and venue; while his later set was more energetic as the festival-goers had a chance to warm up. Although it’s not a type of music I would normally listen to, I enjoyed R. Seiliog’s rhythmic, industrial electronica. South Wales music fans can catch R. Seiliog as part the Make Noise Electronic Recycling Tour, where you can gain entry by taking along a an electronic item to recycle. (CW)
Undertone, Sat 22
A moderate sized crowd filled out Undertone for Tensheds on Saturday afternoon. This piano-and-drum duo can be summed up by the title of their new album, The Dandy Punk Prince. The basement venue of Undertone seems a perfect space for this type of gig – compared to the White Stripes and Tom Waits, but imagine if Waits had formed the White Stripes and you’d be closer to Tensheds’ sound. There is a beautiful contrast between Matt Millership’s growly vocals and his passionate melodic piano playing – his classical training showing through – a genre of music that Millership himself calls “21st century blues”. (CW)
ALEX DINGLEY BAND
Buffalo, Sat 22
Although The Alex Dingley Band didn’t play anything near the indie-pop of Knucklebone or Cat’s Eyes, their Saturday evening set upstairs at Buffalo bar was a full set of new stuff. With an album imminent, recorded with Buffalo/Sŵn line-up-mate Cate Le Bon, Dingley’s set is a melodic, soft rock affair with a sheen of Welshness. Do yourself a favour and check out the previous singles, Knuckle Bone and Cat’s Eyes. (CW)
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE JANE FONDA AEROBIC VHS?
Clwb Ifor Bach, Sun 23
Have You Ever Seen The Jane Fonda Aerobic VHS? [left] is definitely one of the longest and weirdest band names on this year’s festival line-up. The energetic Finnish band played upstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach, with their Nordic brand of garage rock and bubblegum punk girl-band vocals of lead singer Susanna Pilli-Sihvola. But it’s the 1980s toy-sounding, Casio keyboard playing of Ekku Lintunen that makes HYESTJFAVHS? enjoyable to watch and listen to, it’s clear that they have a sense of fun when it comes to their music as well as their band’s name. Although they played their set at 3.30pm on Sunday, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a regular Friday night gig in Cardiff’s Clwb. (CW)
Clwb Ifor Bach, Sun 23
Maddie Jones was curator of the Girl In A Band lineup downstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach on Sunday, and nobody can criticize her for putting her own band on the bill. Jones cites David Bowie as an influence, which was clear by the eye-catching glittery silver boots she was wearing. Yet the glam-rock footwear belies the soul-rock sound of Jones’s voice – this set was pure bluesy rock’n’roll. Could You Be My Rock And Roll –the hit track from the crowdfunded EP of last year, Colour Me In – and newish song Black Cat being standout songs of the set; but there was also a perhaps unexpected bluesed-up cover of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River. The band obviously enjoy each other’s company and like playing and singing together, joking through the set (as well as Maddie’s father FaceTiming the whole gig to her mother) making them extra enjoyable to watch. (CW)
Fuel, Sun 23
One of the attractions of Swn and festivals like it is the opportunity to discover sounds that are both rad and new to you, often by stumbling happenstance. This year, the band which fill that role for me are Fehm, a trio from Leeds who play rumbling, purposeful gothic anarcho punk. They’re an ideal early evening pick-me-up, skating the edges of retrograde cliché (especially the ankle-length coat worn by bassist Amy Fishlock) but doing it with such panache that it feels wholly legit (this applies to the coat as well). (NG)
Fuel, Sun 23
I’ve seen Nottingham two-piece Rattle [left] three times in the last few months and on each occasion, they’ve managed to instil a delighted, respectful silence in the audience. Their music is made using only drums – one kit each – and vocals, in both cases making strong use of repeated phrases and a taste for hypnotic minimalism. It doesn’t sound like hippy drum circle whimsy or proggy virtuoso flimflam or a rock band who’ve misplaced their guitar and bass players – in fact, Rattle sound like little else but themselves, a rare feat at this point in music’s evolutionary curve. (NG)
Moon Club, Sun 23
I spontaneously decided check out Italian musician Giorgio Tuma at The Moon Club: a cinematic sound of psychedelic dream-rock with melancholic vocals from Tuma. Also with that added novelty of the drummer being the frontman/singer. English obviously being a second language, Tuma voicing his appreciating playing Cardiff and being part of the festival that bit more endearing. (CW)
Undertone, Sun 23
Betsy, the young singer who grew up on a Pembrokeshire goose farm, was the act on the Sŵn festival line-up that I was most looking forward to. The small basement venue of Undertone quickly fills up, but there is some trouble the electronics – if the mixture of intimate crowd space and equipment trouble is making the Lost And Found singer nervous, she doesn’t show it. As well as huge hit single Lost And Found and Fair from her debut EP, the set consists of soul-dance sounding tracks and also a newish) song Hope. Betsy’s voice has been compared to Cher, Heather Small and Shara Nelson’s work with Massive Attack, but nothing can prepare you for hearing that voice in person – especially after she’s just said something to the audience in her strong Welsh accent, her singing voice seems to come from nowhere. I spoke to Betsy – and her mam, who was helping to get the audience going as well – after the set; she asked me to mention that she has a new single out soon, but it was clear that the appreciation from the audience during her set was reciprocated by Betsy herself. (CW)
Fuel, Sun 23
My previous encounter with Blood Sport left me lukewarm, but in fairness they were supporting Egyptian wonderman Islam Chipsy and his band, who would smoke pretty much anyone (un)lucky enough to play with them. This evening, up close in a smaller venue, their essential innovation – a live rock interpretation of thudding, maximalist techno – makes a lot more sense. Playing for 45 minutes without pause, as if this were a DJ set, the Sheffield group reference the metallic abrasion of a band like Shellac, but make them sound fit for a peaktime dancefloor. A crack three-man unit, with particular praise warranted for brutally efficient drummer Sam Parkin, if you can envisage a less dayglo and more ruthless version of Battles you won’t be a mile of Blood Sport. (NG)
SCOTT & CHARLENE’S WEDDING
Moon Club, Sun 23
My last act at Sŵn Festival 2016 was Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, and I admit the name was the whole reason this particular band appealed to me – with my sister being four years older than me I grew up watching Neighbours. Lead singer Craig Darmody named the band after his mother’s favourite soap because it reminded him of being a kid, putting paid to the idea that Australians don’t really watch that soap. Another stereotype was dismissed when the band placed their cans of Stella on stage, instead of drinking Fosters. Darmody has a natural coolness and the sometimes quintessentially Australian-ness and wry humour of the autobiographical lyrics, on songs such as Don’t Bother Me and Distracted, makes S&C’s Wedding more than just a Neighbours reference. The Aussie indie rockers played Sŵn as part of a European tour, hot on the heels of their latest album Mid Thirties Single Scene, released last month; frontman Darmody tells the audience that the band were “here a couple of years ago, this feels heaps better than that time”, it seems that everyone really enjoyed being at Sŵn’s 10th birthday this year. (CW)
MELT YOURSELF DOWN
O’Neill’s, Sun 23
The final band to play 2016’s Sŵn Festival are nearly half an hour late starting, which isn’t ideal when it’s gone 11pm on a Sunday, so it speaks well of Melt Yourself Down [top] that their boisterous, multifaceted punked-up jazz quickly gets the crowd dancing hard. Comprising remnants of bands including Polar Bear, Sons Of Kemet and Zun Zun Egui, MYD are accessible in a crowdpleasing sense rather than a blandly smooth one – the influence of Fela Kuti and other Nigerian funk shines through at points, other times it’s as deliriously cheerful as Washington DC go-go. They are a great way to send everyone home, or to Clwb Ifor Bach for ill-advised fruit cider and karaoke as the case may be. (NG)
words CHRIS WILLIAMS / NOEL GARDNER photos DAVID GRIFFITHS