A last minute invite, from the gracious Jayne Rowlands, to attend the BBC Horizons/ Swn festival press launch at Clwb Ifor Bach on Saturday meant that I had to desperately bone up on all those artists about to descend on Cardiff over the weekend in order to devise a precise route map for crisscrossing the capital and catching as many of the leading acts as I possibly could. I asterisked the list down to 28 must see artists and, armed with a downloadable itinerary for each of the festival’s nine venues, set about creating a strategic campaign that would leave Churchill’s detailed invasion plans for the Normandy landings look half-baked by comparison.
First stop was the press bash, which was good fun; there was a chance to mingle with rising stars like Dan Bettridge and Aled Rheon, to grab a complimentary cupcake and even to polish off a glass or two of Prosecco into the bargain. Bethan Elfyn, noticing I was propped up on my crutches, kindly offered to fetch me another glass of wine, before she dashed on to the stage to introduce the first of the day’s formidable Horizon/Gorwelion actsA. ny regular readers of kevonhissoapbox will know that Dan Bettridge is mentioned frequently in dispatches, so his set was almost guaranteed to be a festival highlight. Dan kicked off with the unbearably poignant “Letters Home”, a song which shares common ground with Willy Vlautin’s spoken piece “Postcard Written with a Broken Hand”, even down to its use of an unreliable narrator. It’s a song, like so many in his repertoire, that never fails to send a shiver down the spine. Other highlights in a fine performance included his momentous single “Third Eye Blind”, reproduced magically here by his tight knit band, and a couple of tracks from the 2014 “Darker Days” E.P, “Drive” and “Rosie Darling”. The only disappointment, in an otherwise top-notch set, was the omission of “Darker Days” itself. There may well be a 120 acts lined up for this year’s festival, but this is the guy they all have to beat!
*A strange footnote to Dan’s performance – midway through his set he claimed to have just eaten a cupcake with his face on it. Rock ‘n ‘Roll stars are renowned for their excesses, of course, but I don’t remember reading this particular anecdote in Keith Richard’s notorious autobiography Life. Either BBC Wales is really pushing the boat out or Dan’s showing the first signs of a little known complaint, hallucinatory narcissism!
It’s a tough ask to follow in the footsteps of Dan Bettridge these days, but Hannah Grace proved herself to be equal to the task. Grace is a singer’s singer, able to switch from demure diva one moment to a jazzed-up Janis Joplin the next. This was a punchy, no holds barred, performance with “Black and White” and “Walk Away”, (its stoned-out scat singing finale nearly took the roof off the place), providing some of the day’s most memorable moments. The festival was off to a sensational start.
Bilingual singer-songwriter Aled Rheon is another act who kevonhissoapbox has steadfastly championed this year. His captivating ballad “September” has, quite simply, been one of THE tracks of 2015 so far, and it’s no surprise, therefore, that he opens his set with it today. What is surprising, though, is the appearance of five other people on stage to perform it with him! Aled Rheon and the Gorgeous Charge, making their live debut, included the Climbing Trees pair – Matthew Frederick (keyboards) and James Bennetts (drums) as well as Tender Prey bassist Mark Foley. There’s a poignant moment, too, towards the end of a fine set, when Aled dedicates his wistful ballad “Wrap up Warm” to his new born son.
A brief chat with Matthew Frederick, as he was finishing his guest spot, gleaned the unwelcome news that the Climbing Trees’ gig at 10 Feet Tall had been brought forward to 6.30, leading to a direct clash with the much lauded Hooton Tennis Club. ‘See you later’, I casually remarked, although, even then I sensed the seed of betrayal beginning to bloom in my heart, after all HTC had been tipped up by the NME, no less, as one of the four must see bands of the festival. And, anyway, I had already bought my ticket for the Trees’ forthcoming hometown Christmas gig, so, what could it hurt, I reasoned, if just this once I stood the Trees up? My conscience was clear, sort of!
So it was that as the St John the Baptist church bells struck 6.30 I was to be found in the front row of a packed out Jack Rocks stage in Clwb Ifor Bach ready to watch the second coming of comedy Indie-Rock (HTC are nothing if not a humorous cross between Supergrass and Space with a sprinkling of Neil Hannon, or indeed fellow Swn artist Simon Love (more of whom later), thrown in for good measure. Like a flash, though, the enormity of my actions struck home; sure the more glamorous HTC looked and sounded enticing, but, by the end of the band’s third song I was starting to feel like some sort of squalid adulterer, about to consummate the ultimate act of betrayal. It was Fatal Attraction all over again! Visions of the buoyantly bearded Frederick dutifully soundchecking, still blissfully unaware of my illicit rendezvous, began to dance before my eyes, pangs of guilt come out of nowhere and did a dozen quick laps around my breaking heart. Suddenly I was forcing my way tearfully through the crowd and out into the night air in a desperate attempt to salvage my long-term relationship with Climbing Trees.
I arrived at 10 Feet Tall breathless and panic stricken and managed to bump straight into, of all people, Matthew Frederick himself, busily working his way back to the stage through a tightly packed crowd, ‘How much have I missed?’ I managed to innocently croak ‘Nothing, it’s running late’. Thank goodness, as the Trees turned in a terrific set, mixing classics from their outstanding debut Hebron (“Aloisi” and “Under the Lindens”) with three spellbinding new tracks that augurs well for the band’s upcoming sophomore record.
The set opened with the first of those new songs “Caesar”, a raging fire and brimstone instrumental, impressive enough to overcome the unresolved sound problems that had delayed the gig in the first place, and the forthcoming single “Graves”. Before introducing the band’s ‘token’ pop song ” Lost”, a number which really sees the band pump up the volume, Frederick amiably joked that a recent review in the Carmarthen Journal had described the band as ‘successfully climbing the pop ladder’. The Journal is, if anything, underplaying the band’s appeal. For me, the Trees are a truly magical group of musicians, perched nine-tenths of the way to the top of pop’s metaphorical beanstalk and on the verge of making a fairytale dream of world domination come true (well, I have been drinking all day on an empty stomach, complimentary cup-cake aside!)
Between these excellent sets I managed to catch Canadian garage rocker Michael Rault at the Undertone basement. In all honesty, this was an under-whelming gig that only really came to life with the blunderbuss wig-out that closed the set; that really was something to behold, though, so perhaps I’m doing him something of a disservice and he seemed to go down well enough with the small congregation of punters in attendance.
Next up, in the same un-atmospheric venue, was 16 yr old wunderkind Declan McKenna, winner of this year’s Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Award. His internet smash “Brazil” is an electro-poppy critique of worldwide football corruption and was certainly the stand-out song in an engaging set. He’s an extremely likeable and un-pretentious performer; kitted out in a Winnie-the-Pooh type t-shirt, he makes no attempt to disguise his tender age, cheerfully admitting, in fact, that his mother is in the crowd tonight monitoring his use of bad language.
I was back in the Undertone basement, following my flirtation with HTC, at 7.30, to see London’s Honey Moon deliver a superlative batch of songs that recalled the very early days of The Servants (think “She’s Always Hiding”) and renowned U.S janglers Real Estate. Before kicking off their set, the band’s front-man Jack Slater-Chandler made a hand on heart declaration that they were ‘gonna play some love songs for the people of Cardiff’. Amen, to that!
They proved to be as good as their word, easing their way through a half-dozen sun-dappled songs, the best of which were the dreamy “Tripping (On the Thought of You) and “Waiting” – both of which were taken from their eponymously titled debut E.P which I will certainly be checking out a.s.a.p.
That was day one over, brought to a brilliantly luminous conclusion by the kind of band Swn is so good at unearthing; my plans to leg it across to Abacus to catch the much-hyped Protomartyr abandoned, at the last minute, due to a dietary imbalance – plenty of drink, no food!
I had recovered my equilibrium by Sunday afternoon, however, just in time to catch a quality set by Simon Love at the Buffalo Bar. Love’s acerbic approach may not appeal to everyone, but he definitely has the pop chops to take some of the sting out of his waspish world view. His latest single “The New Adam and Eve” is a prime example, a jocular, jangly pop song laced with murderous intent. It’s a fascinating gig that culminates in a bizarre duet, between Simon and his Dad, of the Traveling Wilburys’ classic “Handle with Care”.
From there it was straight past a packed out Peaness gig downstairs at the Clwb Ifor Bach and upstairs to the Jack Rocks Stage for Beach Fatigue (formerly Heavy Petting Zoo) and another chance encounter with Dan Bettridge who’d hot-footed it straight from the Tender Prey gig in the Buffalo Bar. Another large gathering was royally entertained by Amy Zachariah and co’s blistering psych-surf set, which actually threatened to loosen my teeth on a couple of their higher octane numbers. Opening song “Isabelle” was a frenetic slab of garage rock, which, majestically, seemed to go on forever. I, for one, would have been happy if the group had played that track over and over again in a sort of garage rock version of Groundhog Day. Of course, I would have then have been denying myself the pleasure of hearing new single “Drunken Grrrls” and the equally excellent “Cut Throat”. In singer Zachariah Beach Fatigue definitely have a front-person with real stage presence, whether she’s tightening the microphone lead around her neck, stealing her guitarist’s glasses, or jumping off the stage to boogie with the crowd!
Across the street, at the Moon Club, local boys The Cradles were playing their clever, Kinksian pop, to a smallish crowd. I managed to catch the second half of the gig, meaning that I’d missed out on hearing the superb “Denmark Street”. “Stamp Man”, another of their kitchen-sink character studies, is well crafted enough, though, to suggest that this is a young band set to make their mark in 2016.
My final stop for the weekend is at the Four Bars. I arrive just in time to catch the end of an extremely well received set from Cristobal and the Sea and bag a sofa seat in readiness for Bristol’s Rebecca Clements. I had intended, right until the very last minute, to watch Elle Mary and the Bad Men, simply because anybody putting the poetry of Pablo Neruda to music deserves an audience, so I was really hoping that Clements’ performance would vindicate my choice. Unfortunately, her introspective set didn’t quite come to life. “Coma Boy” was easily the best of her own compositions, while her faithful cover of The Cure’s classic “Boys Don’t Cry” was the obvious highpoint of a somewhat listless gig. The last band to take to the Four Bars’ stage was Beach Baby, fresh from a support slot on the Hooton Tennis Club tour. Their short, sharp, six-song set showed rich promise. Whilst summer single “No Mind No Money” is furiously catchy, it’s more than matched by current release “Limousine”, a shimmering slice of surf-rock, and final number “Powderbaby” a gleaming track which quickly escalated into a savage, guitar-thrashing, semi-deranged finale. It was the single most exhilarating moment of my Swn festival weekend!
So, Swn is over for another year. Of the 28 artists I’d hoped to check out, I managed to see a grand total of fourteen! Missing Protomartyr still rankles, and I regret that Lazy Day and The Big Moon escaped me too. There were still plenty of highlights, though. The Horizons showcase brought together a clutch of brilliant Welsh artists and the festival’s curators certainly did a fine job in casting their net far and wide, attracting genuine contenders in the shape of Hooton Tennis Club alongside proven big hitters like Everything Everything. Swn, certainly warms the soul, it’s a feel-good festival that has the capacity to re-invigorate and re-enthuse anyone with a genuine passion for new music.
In a surreal coda to the evening Mrs kevonhissoapbox and I had arranged to give Matthew Frederick a lift home at the festival’s close. Unfortunately, M.F. was having some difficulty in navigating the long and winding road from Womanby Street to St Mary Street! Six texts later there was still no sign of the Trees’ gregarious pianist. We eventually tracked him down at the entrance to the Millennium Stadium. Just goes to show what Swn and a Lucozade too many can do to you!
Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/9321851