With special focus on Welsh up-and-comers, a lovely atmosphere and a user-friendly multi-venue infrastructure, this is best way for music-lovers to experience Cardiff.
Words: Lloyd Bolton | Photo (cover): Rhys Grail
Walt Disco by Ashlea Bea
Sŵn festival is a joyous, low-key weekender bringing together the best up-and-coming acts from Wales and Britain as a whole and having them share the spotlight with some bigger acts on the alternative scene. Though a couple of big names dropped out (Sorry, Deadletter), remaining big hitters like Bodega, Sea Power and PVA combined with less familiar names to make for a busy weekend of must-see performances.
The city festival is a tricky format, with venue-hopping and dealings with the outside world often inhibiting the free-flowing experience that makes four days camping in the English rain seem worthwhile. Sŵn navigates these potential problems with ease, making for a pleasant festival experience and a great way to engage with the Welsh capital. The venues are all pleasingly intimate and well-placed in relation to each other, most congregated along Womanby Street with the exceptions (O’Neill’s and the three stages at Jacob’s Antique Shop) being no more than ten minutes away. On top of this, I am happy to report that we were beset by a queue to get into a venue only once and not for more than ten minutes. Arriving on little sleep, unfolding myself from a long journey packed into National Express legroom, I arrived in the city with open ears. After stopping in at my Auntie Terryl’s, where I conveniently had a place to stay (and of course lovely company!), I headed straight for Womanby Street, where most of the action was.
Photo of Sea Power by Ashlea Bea
Though it had been a couple of months since my last festival outing, I was quickly welcomed back into the magic of gig-going while still wiping sleep from my eyes on each afternoon. The gentle and compelling songs of Lilo, lifted by three-part harmonies, and the trailing piano and clarinet pieces performed by Group Listening were similarly becoming even as my mind tortured the question of whether I should be buying a beer or a coffee. This was the best I have seen Group Listening in their four-year lifetime, and they were perhaps the best suited to the gallery space on the top floor of Jacob’s. The pair were completely at ease in performance, their absorbing instrumentals balanced with dryly hilarious comments between songs (including one apology for some awkwardness accidentally written into the performance by their tastefully analogue cassette backing track).
Over the weekend I made a conscious effort to seek out some new Welsh acts, and perhaps the most memorable was She’s Got Spies. While her recorded output tends to be a little more gentle and folksy, live the music was invigorated by the tension of its idiosyncrasy. With some notable exceptions, the karaoke performance style of singing to a laptop backing track can feel somewhat cheap. Here, however, it added to the captivating artlessness of the performance, which felt entirely itself.
After a quick Spoons dinner (there was even a Wetherspoons on Womanby!) and a look in another local pub for the last 15 minutes of the United-Chelsea game, the itinerary pointed imploringly to Walt Disco at Clwb Ifor Bach. I was glad to finally experience this legendary venue, and it made for a great gig space, already misty with sweat from a day of music. Stood close to low stage, I was in the splash zone for a suitably raucous set, in full view of the band’s dance moves, which veer between primal flails and surprising nodes of coordination. Having previously only seen this band after midnight, I felt that at 8pm the atmosphere lacked a certain fizz, so I found myself focussing on their neo-New Wave sound rather than what to do with dancing feet.
Following this was a first trip to the stage at one of Cardiff’s two O’Neill’s bars, giving the evening a burst of Freshers’ energy. This mood was completed by the fare on the Cardiff’s St. Mary’s Street, the main night-out strip, as well as the frankly violent shots deals at the bar. Undeterred, I settled in looking forward to a set from The Orielles, who I had not caught since the dramatic evolution in their sound represented on new album Tableau. The set felt transitional, still relying on their central guitar-bass-drums setup. The new music sounds outstanding on the record, but its intricacies and patience got somewhat lost in this setting. Throwbacks like ‘Bobbi’s Second World’ and ‘Henry’s Pocket’ noticeably grabbed the crowd and suited the occasion of a festival Saturday night out better than the jam-heavy cuts like ‘Beam/s’.
Anyone looking to keep the night going after this followed their nose to Jacobs, which stayed open latest on Saturday. I was glad to catch most of Skylrk., another of the exciting Welsh prospects turned up by my pre-festival Spotify deep diving. I did not understand a word of the Welsh-language rap delivered by the frontman, but the performance impressed me with its incorporation of band elements with hip-hop composition. The line up was that typical of a rock five-piece, the performers looked like they could have been either side of 6th Form, and I can only hope for big things from them. Visionary new single ‘adfywio.’ suggests they have it in them.
Saturday night closed with something a bit closer to home: Wesley Gonzalez singing of prosecco and Ally Pally. Playing to about 75 people upstairs at Jacob’s, his band were delightful, sweaty and forceful. The keys player spent half the time toking an Elf Bar, Wes belted his songs with a midnight forcefulness that seemed to exceed even his usual standards, and Tyskies were sipped all round. Excellent work. All that remained to be done was to sample Cardiff’s late night takeaway scene (we opted for fake Nando’s from ‘ChilliFlames’ – I cannot say it was anything special, but the antics of our fellow customers made it more than worthwhile) and catch a taxi back to our residence for the weekend (only £11, a steal split between two).
Wesley Gonzalez by Jamie Chapman
After an embarrassingly slow morning at Terryl’s, we were driven back into town cursing ourselves for failing to get up early enough to explore the city beyond its venues. After the aforementioned Group Listening set reset our minds to the task at hand, we grabbed a coffee downstairs and headed into a smoke machined basement for Bingo Fury. Transcending the 2pm time slot (the artificial fog and basement setting helped), this was as good as I’ve seen Team Bingo, the highs and lows of tone and timbre delivered with perfection. The break in ‘Big Rain’ had me feeling euphoric, perhaps hitting stronger for me with a full day’s live music having already primed me for its ambition and energy.
A quick break in the music then followed as we stopped in a local pub to watch the second half of the Arsenal game, a thoroughly frustrated 45 minutes from an overworked team that should have rested more players midweek. The pub was lovely, though, classically British with three pool tables and a rather nice Welsh ale (Felinfoel) on tap. Darn cheap as well. The fun thing drinking in Cardiff over the weekend was beer price roulette, as this varied wildly between venues. The highest prices amounted to less than what we have been desensitised to in London and there were occasional steals to be had (4 Red Stripes pint cans for £12 at The Moon in this day and age!?).
Bruised by Arsenal-Southampton, I needed picking up. Thankfully, next on the bill was Sweet Baboo, the hardest working Welshman in showbusiness and creator of some of the most wholesome music going. My cynical brain usually finds his work a little too saccharine, but that day I was in that perfect place to experience its mighty uplifting power. He opened with three songs performed solo on acoustic guitar before introducing the full band. This risked losing the attention of a fickle festival crowd, but it was carried off phenomenally well and stamped his individual personality on the rest of the set.
The sweetness of the afternoon was extended by Ailsa Tulley, who I had somehow missed at the summer festivals this year and before. Her dreamy gentle set at The Moon went down just as easily as my fresh pint can of Red Stripe.
Once into the evening, it was time to put on my dancing shoes for the festival’s closing set from PVA back at Clwb. The crowd across the weekend had tended to conduct itself with a certain restraint, creating a positive and polite environment perhaps at the expense of a genuinely exciting energy. At PVA, however, this finally let up, and we got down good to the live adaptation of the group’s outstanding debut album ‘BLUSH’. Inspiring mosh pits and spilled beer, the group stamped their personality on the weekend, with ‘Hero Man’ in particular already striking one as a modern classic.
Somewhat ragged from the weekend’s music, I was happy to leave my experience of Sŵn on that high, neglecting the afterparty downstairs. The festival was a compact and lovely occasion, with a thoroughly good pile-up of bands across the two main days. In spite of its big-name dropouts, the weekend was full of personal highlights and moments I wished I could be at two stages at once. Sŵn is a wonderful excuse to visit Cardiff and will offer you a well-concocted mix of old favourite bands and your next favourite discovery.