Published on Cardiff AfterDark (Oct 22 2014)
If you were out in Cardiff last Saturday, you will have surely been in ear-shot distance of some quality music reverberating from some of the city’s stylish venues (not least on Womanby Street which became a street party for its music-loving residents). It could only mean the musical wagon that was Swn Festival had rolled into town once again for one day only. Yes, this year we weren’t treated to the usual four day extravaganza that we have come to expect and love, which would have been a source of disappointment for some. However, it didn’t stop people from flooding the city in force for their annual Swn fix.
The quality of the line-up certainly hadn’t deterred in any way. They may have been no big household names in the vein of the likes of Mr Scruff, Temples and Alt-J, but this only gave more room to shine for some of the more exciting, promising, up-and-coming artists circulating on the Welsh scene. The newly branded ‘DimSwn’ more than anything was a glimpse into the future stars of tomorrow, with an array of artists all destined to go on to bigger things and gracing Swn’s stage on the way. So allow AfterDark to recapture the magic of another memorable year of Swn…
Four Bars at Dempsey’s was the venue with the honour of opening the curtain on DimSwn this year, and it was Alice Jemima who had the duty of getting the ball rolling. She did so with her usual class, reducing the venue to a tranquil silence as her sugar sweet, delightfully quirky vocals and soft-as-silk melodies filled the air like a scented candle in a dimly lit room. Her voice at times can be a little too softly spoken for the ears of the audience –probably why she politely invited some of the audience to ‘get a little closer’, hence a line of people bringing their beers and sitting in a cross legged stance on the floor (myself included). Her music is an odd mix of melancholic yet youthfully optimistic, and ultimately endearing. You can never underestimate the power of just a sweet voice and a guitar to completely own a room, and that rare ability which Alice possesses is testament to the unique charm that Swn has.
Just after, Clwb opened its doors to the growing numbers gathering on Womanby Street and it only took a mere of seconds before dozens huddled themselves into the downstairs bar. Hardly surprising as Baby Queens, one of the artists selected for the Horizons scheme this year (indeed many of its artists would grace the Clwb stage and elsewhere throughout the day), were about to kick off the Clwb festivities. For many, the Queens were the highlight of the festival last year, and the sheer enormity of the crowd that greeted them this time seemed to take them by surprise. Clearly they made a good first impression. It was easy to see why so many people have hyped them to go on to bigger success, as soon as they delved into their ultra-sassy blend of R’n’B, hip-hop, reggae and pop, all delivered with just the right touch of sexiness and soul. There’s surely plenty of room in the current scene for a girlband with guitars, and their unique sound is sure to be the soundtrack of next year.
Then a trip to next door as Gabrielle Murphy gets ready to bless the fairy-light adorned stage in the Cardiff Fashion Quarter –the first of THREE sets across the day for the young songstress (clearly the poster girl for this year’s Swn). It was a family affair as, without her usual guitarist, her father joined her on stage on guitar duties. Her sound seems to weave in and out of genres resulting in a silky spider-web mix that falls somewhere between Zeppelin-style folk, 60’s adorned soul and R’n’B-embellished pop. The foundations for her sound lie in the warm, autumnal melodies, an her stripped-back acoustic set allowed both her melodies and her mature-beyond-her-years voice to shine as bright as the lights glittering the ceiling of the stage. An enjoyable performance, and there’d be more two more chances to enjoy it later.
Back upstairs in Moon Club, Merthyr Tydfil’s own Delyth McLean’s warm, honey-dipped vocals fill the intimate setting with ease. Her sound combines jazz-infused rhythms with an ear for catchy, breezy folk melodies. Having flied solo until now, this was her very first performance with her full band, including her sister sharing co-vocalist duties. It’s hard to believe this is only their debut performance because the band’s harmonies are super-tight –individually dynamic yet a force as a collective – and Delyth more than holds her own as a frontwoman thanks to her assured stage presence.
Climbing Trees bring a touch of Americana-infused blues with a Welsh flavour – which they describe with their own coined label ‘Cymrucana’ – to the ground stage of Clwb. The band creates a wall of noise with their anthemic, sweeping, melody folk which brings the crowd on its feet – a sound both soothing and rousing in equal measure, full of gospel-style harmonies and catchy guitar hooks, plus more beards on one stage than your typical barber shop. It’s a confident assumption that you can expect bigger things from Climbing Trees in the future.
Just after Climbing Trees exit the stage, The People The Poet take their place in the ground setting of Clwb which is gradually overflowing with people with each exciting artist. After the gentle folk of the Trees, The People The Poet turn proceedings up a notch with their catalogue of soaring, guitar-heavy melodic rock, which manages the similar trick of revving the crowd up, complete with the fierce grittily soulful vocals of Leon Stanford. Lyrics about cancer, body image and fatherhood are not the usual choice of topics for an arena-ready rock band, yet T.P.T.P. somehow turn these subjects into bona fide anthems that stir the heart and soul.
Across to the other side of town in the upstairs of Buffalo Bar, Rag n Bone Man adds a dash of blues to the colourful Swn rock ‘n’ roll circus. There is little accompanying him on stage other than a drummer, a backing track and a cooler of beer, which is exactly all that is needed for the brand of stripped-back, DIY, dirty blues that Rag n Bone Man has become well known for. His gritty, bourbon-soaked voice is an instrument in itself that seeps with every ounce of pain and raw machismo.
Back across town, London’s own Jagaara fill the Four Bars stage. Despite the increasingly humid temperature, Jagarra still manage to attract a huge crowd into the room. The band is fronted by three sisters – Jane (vocals/guitar), Ruth (vocals/guitar) and Cat Edmondson (vocals/synths) , accompanied by Tom on bass and Glyn on drums – and their vocal harmonies stick together like fine glue, gliding effortlessly over the wall of sound generated by their powerful, grandiose synth-laden rock-pop. This was their first time in Cardiff, and after their white-hot performance on Saturday they are surely welcomed back to the Welsh capital.
As the sun begins to set on the festival, Kizzy Crawford provides a fitting soundtrack to the setting autumnal sun with her funky cocktail of soul, folk and jazz. It’s pretty much to sum up Kizzy’s sound in one sentence or compare any artist to her. Her sound refuses to be nailed to one genre, instead taking and mixing them until such comparisons are distinguished. Utilising sun-drenched guitar melodies, finger-tapping percussion and her own soul-infused vocals in her set, she is met with a seal of approval from every member of the crowd in the cosy setting of CFQ.
In the equally cosy upstairs of Buffalo Bar, Golden Fable gently cool the audience down with their elegant, dreamy pop which somehow manages to string together folky guitar and strings with trip-hop imbued synths in perfect harmony. In doing so, they create a sound that, when your eyes are closed, can whisk you away to another universe. It is obvious that the band are inspired by their surroundings in the north Welsh mountains, as their music overflows with beauty and heart, topped by the haunting vocals of lead singer Rebecca Palin.
By the time we get back to Clwb, the entire downstairs is pretty much rammed to full capacity. Houdini Dax are about to perform on stage. The band deliver a full throttle set from start to finish performing one slice of blistering punk-rock after another without even pausing between each number and barely stopping for breathe. Frontman, singer, lead guitarist and all-round rock icon in-waiting Jack Butler makes every of the stage and taking time to pose in front of the photographers. It’s fair to say that he is a photographer’s dream. You know a band is truly good when the audience demand an encore and clearly the band know how good they are, as they briefly tease the audience by taking a quick break (more likely just to get some much-needed breath) before launching into not one but TWO encores. The final careering riffs of ‘Our Boy Billy’ bring an end to the trio’s set and Clwb’s coverage of Swn.
Once again, Swn never failed to disappoint with the sheer quality of its line-up, the only downside being that we could only be treated to one day instead of four (though perhaps this meant less hungover people in the audience which can often result from a four-day musical binge). Once again, a plethora of yet-to-be-unearthed talent was on show, and this was the perfect chance for many to watch these artists in their rawest form before their ascent to their peak. Another successful outing and hopefully not the last we see of Swn for some time.