I was lucky enough to be invited to review this mammoth, four-day urban festival in the Welsh capital. It was exhausting, exciting, tiring and ace in equal parts. I also got told off by its curator and Radio One DJ Huw Stephens for entering a backstage area by accident. Sorry Huw…
Dates: October 17-20
Venue(s): Various, Cardiff
Now in its seventh year, Cardiff’s Swn (pronounced ‘soon’ and Welsh for ‘sound’) festival is a roaming urban celebration of some of the best new bands and artists juxtaposed with established acts and Welsh talent.
Curated by Radio 1’s all-round nice guy and music aficionado Huw Stephens, who attends the whole four days, it’s established itself as one of Britain’s best urban festivals, up there with the likes of London’s Camden Crawl, Brighton’s The Great Escape and the multi-City Dot to Dot festival.
Its hub is a small street adjacent to Cardiff castle – a street tucked away and almost peripheral. But it’s more than just a street party. This year it boasts 16 venues, from pubs to churches via university halls to art studios.
Kicking the festival off to a small crowd in one of the aforementioned pubs (Dempsey’s) is Newport troubadour Joe Robert Lewis, who performs his impassioned acoustic set to just a handful of punters. Not that that bothers him: “The last time I was here I played to no one”, he quips, grateful for the applause his schizophrenic ditties garner. Not schizophrenic as in unhinged, but as in changeable. He switches from strident Frank Turner-like growls to playful little-boy-lost ditties seamlessly, while his awkward, self-deprecating banter is amiable.
In the plush surrounds of The Angel Hotel, with its carpeted floor and wedding venue opulence, new London wunderkind Chloe Howl is defying her tender years with a masterful set of intelligent jitter-pop. She maybe only 18, but her songs are yearning, winsome and learned, and able to appeal to myriad demographics.
With a flame-haired do, alabaster skin tones and fetching model looks, she’s eye candy for the young fellas and a style icon for teenage girls. The Landan Tarn tinge to her lush melodies remind us of the time we got excited about Kate Nash and Lily Allen, and she can expect the same levels of stardom that those two ladies enjoyed.
In Cardiff’s oldest indie haunt, Clwb Ifor Bach, colloquially known as simply ‘The Welsh Club’, there’s a Super Furry Animal prowling. It’s SFA bassist Guto Price, performing as part of cosmic-pop shufflers, Gulp, while back at Dempsey’s is one of the most talked about bands of the current zeitgeist: Catfish and The Bottlemen.
A sizable crowd has turned up to see what all the hyperbole has been about. And with songs that sound like the Strokes covering a compilation CD of British post-punk, they could be The Libertines Mk 2 if they keep their heads together. Their guitars are sharp and abrasive, while the swirl of energy and vitriol from the four black-clad, scruffy-haired deviants is overtly familiar and supremely invigorating.
Over at O’Neills, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Wales’s finest purveyor of jangle-pop, Mr Huw, who finds himself playing his measured and adroit Welsh-language pop to hardly anyone in the pub’s upstairs bar. His excellent melodious oeuvre deserves a much bigger audience.
Meanwhile at Clwb Ifor Bach, Frankie and the Heartstrings are taking time out from running their Sunderland record store to pump their audience with their sugar-blushed pop fizz while Peggy Sue’s skewed experimental alt.indie is chin-scratchingly ace in the club’s downstairs room.
Back upstairs, Sky Larkin throttle their instruments to create a meaty platter of songs from their recent third album.
They remain one of indie’s hidden gems, existing just beneath the radar. With swelling, powerful buzz saw rock and Katie Harkin’s cutting vocals they are the mainstream’s loss.
The opening day is perhaps dominated by glitch-pop titans Everything Everything, who, along with spiky Hot Chip-alikes Dutch Uncles, are the big drawer over at the Uni. But with the capacity there maxed out, and with so much on offer elsewhere, Day One can be classed as a win on many levels.
After Day One had ended so boisterously, perhaps it was fitting that the first act of the day – local boy Aled Rheon – was a chilled out , plaintive distraction, if only for half-an-hour.
In those plush surrounds of The Angel Hotel, Aled, a Cardiff-based troubadour with just one EP to his name, blends the Welsh and English languages beautifully, not just in his songs but in his introductions and appreciation, too.
His spine-tingling acoustic odes are mesmerising; rich with pathos and heavy with memories.
The Welsh language is a beautiful language, and when sung, this beauty swells further. His is a short set, with him alone, sat on a stool looking – and sounding a little – like James Dean Bradfield with curly hair and a snazzy jumper. It is one of the highlights so far, but is in no way inkeeping with the remainder of the evening’s course.
The majority of this evening is focused in Clwb Ifor Bach. First up on an eclectic menu is North London’s rising star, Lucy Taylor, aka Pawws. She’s like a gifted marriage of Ellie Goulding and Little Boots, all silky synths, pulsating basslines and lush vocals. With a slim figure squeezed into a tiny leather skirt and a faux crushed velvet top, her blonde hair wafting over her face almost seductively, she’s the image of beauty, and supremely talented (she even plays the flute. How many times do you see that at a gig?)
She’s a million miles away from the noise-angst being generated downstairs from Swansea’s garage-rockers Heavy Petting Zoo. It’s possible to hear them – maybe even back in Swansea – but seeing them proves difficult such is their scuzzy allure.
So it’s back upstairs for the eagerly-awaited Wolf Alice. Recently touted as the future of youthful and exuberant British rock, Wolf Alice combine catchy hooks with contagious choruses, and emit a cavernous snarl of rock ‘n’ roll.
With Ellie Rowsell’s good looks and velveteen larynx, imagine if Taylor Swift turned up her amps & went batshit mental with dirty, scuzzy alternative rock and you’re almost there, minus the prima donna that that little brat has become, naturally.
As Rowsell weaves moments of melodic tenderness into a mash of, dare I say, nu-grunge, their set is going to be tough to beat.
Japanese gonzo punks Bo Ningen, mind you, do their best to shift Wolf Alice from their perch. But things don’t start well. Already late, they arrive on stage like a scary-ass Halloween nightmare; all in black, and with an incredible amount of raven-coloured hair cascading from their collective scalps.
But while the acid-punk volume is notched to 11, leading lady and guitarist Taigen Kawabe’s vocals are too low. So low that the insane noise that instantly attacks the crowd drowns her out altogether.
With sound problems rectified, they’re set is a lesson in how punk can be both exciting and noxious. Seriously, the mind boggles at their psychedelic acid punk, Japo-Anglo gonzo rock, tits out-mental space-jazz feakshow
Still at Clwb Ifor Bach, for a while, at least, the noise levels have been reduced as Danish odd-bods Pinkunoizu take to the stage. They span genres with their claustrophobic, disorientating style of proto-post-punk that nips at the feet of Krautrock and lo-fi ambience.
Part Can, part Pavement, their experimental shtick doesn’t quite land with the crowd, especially when hard-rocking twosome Drenge are yet to come. Unable to sit nicely in a specified genre, Pinkunoizu’s lingering alt-punk is the comedown to the mind-altering drug that was Bo Ningen.
And so we come to Drenge. The time is now 1am in Clwb Ifor Bach, and suddenly, as a homage to their late billing, Drenge brothers Eion and Rory Loveless bounce on the stage in their pyjamas and waste no time in launching into their insanely dark and dirty blues-rock.
Young men of this age – from the tourist town of Castleton in Derbyshire – should not be making music of this ilk. Think of the Black keys before they were touched by the commercial hand; think The White Stripes without the wet drumming; think balls-out grungey, sludgy rock.
Their short set is a tinnitus fest. It’s incredibly loud. It’s like they found the secret setting on their amps which reads ‘Are You Fucking Sure?!‘. But while punters leave cupping their ears and trying desperately hard to hear one another, Drenge’s fuzzy fug of noise is another winner.
Thursday and Friday’s musical mayhem had begun at 6:30pm, but over the next two days, it gets bigger, wider and altogether more expansive. Starting from today the festival swells and spreads, both literally, and musically.
Canton is an area of the city which is about a mile’s walk from the city centre. It’s the location of the Chapter Studio and Theatre, and St John’s Church, an actual church in the middle of nowhere providing a base for acoustic acts to really make use of the spacious, aesthetically-wondrous venue.
But at the Chapter Arts Studio, a young crowd has gathered, along with some proud parents. It’s the stage for the Young Promoters’ Network, a pedestal for Cardiff’s young up-and-coming musicians and artists.
Gabrielle Murphy is a local lass with oodles of talent. With the look of a young Whitney Houston, and the voice of a young Maria Carey, her confidence and competence in mixing smooth R ‘n’ B with mainstream sounds is refreshing. She showcases some of her own songwriting prowess before ending with a mellow cover of Alexis Jordan’s ‘Happiness’. Prodigious and promising, she was worth the trip to Canton alone.
The remainder of the day is frustrating. It’s clear that more tickets have been allocated for today, and venues are packed to a degree at which it’s possible to hear the band, but impossible to see them.
At Fuel, a rock pub with a tiny stage at the back, Hail! The Planes are washing the mid-afternoon punters in a bath of dream-folk, but God only knows what they look like. The same applies for Little Arrow’s set next door at The Moon Club. Punters have cunningly realised that if you stand on the stairs leading down to the floor, you can see the band’s reflection in the mirrored back wall. But it’s a back-achingly, foolhardy task, so while their west Wales folk sounds half decent, there must be a better option than this.
And there is, and it’s found on the Outdoor Stage. This small bandstand-esque stage has been set up in the middle of a shopping thoroughfare to capture intrigued shoppers, and to give Swners some fresh air.
Masters in France are from North Wales. Think of a Django Django tango with Hot Chip, with added cowbell. Also, cast your mind back to the recent IKEA ad in which the kids’ toys come alive and help prepare for dinner. That song, ‘Playin’ With My Friends’, was theirs. And with the sun slowly setting, they’ve stopped shoppers and festival goers with their glitchy alt.pop.
Back inside at Dempsey’s, there’s quite a bit of interest in Scottish electro-pop five-piece Babe. And little wonder. Gerard Black, who’s also the lead man in Francois and the Atlas Mountains, is wearing a colourful patchwork XL jumper which rather sums up their sound: colourful, playful, expansive and a little wonky.
Thankfully, The Moon Club is accessible for Nadine Shah. She resembles Welsh beauty Catherine Zeta Jones while her sound is like White Chalk-era PJ Harvey. Her deference and appreciative smiles are cute, while musically, this girl’s brooding electronic-tinged ballads could catch wind.
In the same venue are Money: the ‘Mancunian Mancs’ as some have generously labelled them. If you tilt your head towards them and close your eyes you can almost hear that reference spill forth, but theirs is a gloomier outlook, and they’ve more in common with Portishead’s grey miserablism if truth be told.
Much perkier but also with a doom-ridden epicentre nagging away at their guitar menace are The Wytches at Clwb Ifor Bach. They round off an odd day. You can’t always get what you want, said some old sage or other once. That adage was proven today.
After a somewhat disappointing Saturday, Sunday promises much, with a psychedelic bent towards its climax with Temples providing the main attraction.
But way before those Kettering oddballs strut their glam-rock boots, there’s a full day of diverse genres to tackle.
Firstly, it’s to The Angel Hotel, which wasn’t used yesterday due to a wedding. And it seems the hoteliers have neglected to take away the huge round tables used at the ceremony, so as Cardiff six-piece Winter Villains set up, people are taking the weight off and sitting at the tables. As more people arrive, they too sit down, casually on the floor.
As the band start to play, no one rises. A little rude perhaps, but then the realisation that this band are perfect for a seated audience creeps in as they sooth hangovers and awaken sleepy eyes with a mesmeric performance of elegiac, harmonious folk.
On each song, three of the band’s male contingent sing, creating a sound akin to a small Welsh male voice choir as fragile folk tinkles around them. They provide the perfect relaxed early Sunday afternoon set; those layered harmonies recalling a less abstract Wild Beasts, powerfully evocative, wonderfully moving & atmospherically sumptuous. They are magnificent, and serve as the perfect start to the day.
On the Outdoor Stage, one of Friday’s highlights, Aled Rheon, has acquired a large crowd who lap up his wistful Welsh laments, while at the implausibly tiny Fuel, ex-Tubelord man Joey Fourr’s scratchy, maladjusted DIY post-punk is both raw & pure. With just a female bassist and a knackered old drum machine for company, they’re a mess, but it’s music at its most primitive.
Across the road at Dempsey’s, Pembrokeshire’s teen sensation Elly Sinnett has captivated her audience with her sweet & innocent folk-laced tales, while back at Fuel, Cardiff’s new slacker-rock hopefuls Radstewart are playing again, having played on Thursday.
They’re like a complex alchemy of Stephen Malkmus on a real downer and Art Brut’s Eddie Argos at his most blusterous, spitting rhetoric and hilarious one-liners in studied diatribes. Scuzzy, fuzzy and utterly compelling, they are another highlight, even though once again Fuel’s limited vantage points scupper any chance of actually seeing them play. But when you get the chance to see them, do so.
Back at The Angel Hotel, the tables are still enticing everyone to laze around. But again, Lanterns on the Lake are hardly the derriere-shaking types. The Newcastle five-piece’s genteel dream-folk once again provides the ideal accompaniment to hardy Swners’ weary legs, as their atmospheric lashings of epic folk (so epic that at one point the whole band were playing the drums!) is both soothing and woozy.
Each song sounds like a set closer they’re so passionate, so much so that as the band leaves the stage, the crowd naturally assume that’s their lot. But lead singer Hazel Wilde remains on the stage to show off her own piano balled. The softly-spoken Geordie – an unwitting comedienne throughout – then orders her band on to close the set. Unfortunately, most of the audience have departed by this point. A minor faux pa in an otherwise flawless set.
Now firmly chilled out, there’s a drastic shift in gears. At Clwb Ifor Bach, it’s all gone a bit weird as London’s newest hyped band Telegram are making a jangly, psychedelic racket with a wink to prog rock and more than a mere nod to The Horrors. But it’s their look that is most striking. It’s like Alice Cooper, Michael Hutchense, a musketeer & one of The Horrors have walked into a venue and started to play whatever entered their minds at that point. It’s as if Noel Fielding has created them, and they look and sound like one of his labyrinthine mind melts.
Over at The Angel, thankfully the tables have gone, and Philly’s Swearin’ – another hotly-tipped band fronted by American underground heroine Allison Crutchfield – are carving out chunks of brittle proto-punk. No one is sitting down for this lot, as biting guitars churn out danceable hooks that sound like the Breeders covering the Gossip.
At Clwb Ifor Bach, another lauded London band, Childhood, sound encouraging. References to Bloc Party are obvious, not just because the band’s figurehead Leo Dobson resembles Kele Okereke, but because their angular, pointy and astute tunes are exciting and cultured. Chiming guitars add another layer, and Leo has the Kele stare nailed, too.
Temples, some say, are a 70s glam-rock pastiche; a comical resurrection of an era which had its moments, but its critics also. Others will argue that if there’s gold in that there era, why not mine it? And this Kettering outfit just about get away with it.
James Edward Bagshaw’s name may sound like that of a former Prime Minister, but he looks like Marc Bolan, and makes no secret of that. With silver glitter eyeliner, frizzy tangled hair and the type of red, sparkly faux velvet top you’d find in your dad’s loft, he’s single-handedly re-igniting the 70s. Although he’s helped by his band, who offer a plethora of transcendental psych-rock belters. They’re neo-psych pioneers; masters of their own genre. Glam copyists? A little perhaps.
As there’s little chance of seeing anything of the last band on the festival’s bill at Fuel – Glasgow’s The Yawns – it’s at The Angel Hotel where the festival ends for this observer, as curator Huw Stephens’ faves Waxahatchee perform.
Sister of Swearin’’s Alison Crutchfield, Katie Crutchfield is also something of an American indie darling. With Waxahatchee her latest incarnation, she’s fronting a Pixies-influenced alt.rock finale of grandiose measures. She’s like Kim Deal without the big deal, and a solid performance ends the festival in style.
So while The Yawns play to a packed Fuel, that’s it until next year. It’s been a roller coaster, but Swn is some festival.