Review: Swn Festival 2015

AfterDark’s Dean Hodge reviews some of the performances from this year’s Swn Festival in Cardiff (6-8 Nov 2015). "If the previous two DimSwns were slim pickings of the Swn fruit tree, this year was the full aural cornucopia". 

The venues: Buffalo/Clwb Ifor Bach/Four Bars (Dempseys)/Gwdihw/Ten Feet Tall/Undertone/The Moon Club/The Abacus Rooms

Like many, it was great for me to see Swn Festival return to Cardiff in its original multi-year form after a two-year spell. The previous downsized DimSwn events did a fine job of filling the gap in between and keeping the Swn faithful happy, but at last we could now enjoy a whole weekend of arguably the biggest musical ‘street party’ in Cardiff.

The slightly later date for this year’s outing (due to a certain rugby tournament) meant that the days were slightly shorter, the evenings slightly darker and the weather slightly colder (or perhaps not much colder as it is the Welsh weather after all). The quality of the music and the atmosphere though, remained of the same high calibre as it did before.

If the previous two DimSwn outings were merely slim pickings of the Swn fruit tree, then this year’s event promised to be the full cornucopia of aural richness. Having such a plethora of talent gracing some of the city’s venues is both a blessing and a curse, as it leaves a dilemma as who to see or which act could be an as-yet-undiscovered favourite.

A band that has become something of a staple for packing out a venue and whipping an audience into hysteric glee, Cardiff’s own Houdini Dax repeat the magic as they close the opening event of Swn 2015 in the newly christened Swn venue The Abacus Rooms. Their razor-sharp riffs, sucker-punch hooks and biting wit to match is just the aural medicine needed to illuminate the party spirit within each member of the audience, and get the weekend off to a raucous start.

They perfectly bookend the opening party of Swn which was earlier launched by Dan Bettridge, a singer adorned with a bourbon-soaked vocal oozing with pure soul. With the honour bestowed on him of opening the inaugural stage in The Abacus Rooms as well as the Horizons/Gorwelion Stage the following Saturday in Clwb Ifor Bach, on both occasions he nails a performance that sparks a gold rush of musical riches to come.

 

The Horizons/Gorwelion Stage itself proves to be a hive of homegrown acts of the highest class. Hannah Grace follows suit with a performance that is just as sublimely soulful and topped off by her dynamite vocal, while Aled Rheon – having only recently become a father prior to his appearance last weekend – performs a stirring set of bilingual folk that reduces the entire room to the sound of a pin dropping, interrupted only by deserved applause in between.

Later on, Afro Cluster make their way to the stage as the choice of replacement for an injury-stricken Y Reu, and they merit their last-minute billing with a performance of funk-driven fury that barely leaves time for the audience, as well as the band, to pause for breath. Probably the best surprise act of the whole event for many, and there will surely be much more to come from them in the coming months. Violet Skies is another highlight as her skyward vocal and radiant soul-cross-folk sound brings the hairs on the necks of everyone to standing point.

 

Taking place right opposite in The Moon Club, the ‘YPN & Wales Online Present: The Wolves of Womanby Street’ stage gets under way with young neo-soulstress KayCee. Given her newcomer status, both her musical product and any description of her in the press is pretty scarce, which makes this discovery all the more special.

Adorned with a voice evocative of the great soul voices of the past yet in tune with the sound of today (she manages to turn Drake’s Hotline Bling into something much more meaningful), she certainly won’t stay a secret for long. It’s safe to earmark this as one of those moments of music myth where a raw talent announces their arrival in a tiny room under the noses of the masses.

As the party on Womanby Street is in its ascendency outside, in the Four Bars room of Dempseys, a moment of solace comes in the shape of the mouth and fingertips of Danielle Lewis. Her breathtaking voice and melodic string-plucking captivates the audience to such an extent that barely a member of the room leaves Four Bars for the entire duration of her performance. In a festival where so many acts battle for attention, that is a highly admirable feat, made even more so by the fact that she manages it with just a ukulele/guitar and a pair of gold-dusted lungs.

 

Opposite in the upper realm of Clwb Ifor Bach, the ambition and abandon that lies beneath the music of Yorkshire duo Seafret is realised with the addition of a full band, along with the wall of searing noise that this holy temple of a venue manages to generate so well. The heartfelt vocals of Jack Sedman and the roaming melodies of guitaristJack Draper form the satellite round which rest of the band and the audience revolves.

Taking my feet on a slightly longer walk across town, the technicolour pop of Brighton band Fickle Friends brings a respectable crowd away from the street party of Womanby Street to the upstairs of Buffalo. With the atmosphere gearing up as the night draws nearer, the band storm the GRLTLK Stage with their neon-glitzed disco-pop.

 

Another few yards away in the upper deck of 10 Feet Tall, the soaring melodies and sweeping harmonies of Climbing Trees wash over the entire audience in the room as gracefully as they did at DimSwn last year, and leave an afterglow of purified bliss.

Further down in the basement of Undertone, the soaraway melodies and sky-scraping harmonies that ring out from Liverpool indie-pop outfit Clean Cut Kid threaten to escape through the roof and into the rest of the building. With a penchant for consistently catchy hooks rivalled only by the amount of facial hair on display, they justify their status as a band to watch out for in the next year.

 

As soon as London quartet The Big Moon take over proceedings in 10 Feet Tall, it doesn’t take long for the floor below me to shake in vigorous motion, as a result of an fervent audience jumping at one infectious riff after another with gaudy abandon. One wonders if such a band capable of whipping an audience into frenzy as The Big Moon should be allowed to headline the attic room of 10 Feet Tall. Even a cover of Madonna’s Beautiful Stranger is given a delightfully warped makeover by the four-piece.

The band have a great rock ‘n’ roll energy that seems to be vacant in most guitar bands these day, along with a flair for unshakeably catchy melodies. While their songwriting is still maturing, they bring an element of fun to their sound, that is a refreshing remedy to much of the music of today.

Another such band that pack energy in abundance, albeit one fuelled more by rage, is Merthyr men-of-the-moment Pretty Vicious. Such is the anticipation surrounding the band that even half an hour before the band are due to arrive, The Moon Club is already packed out – resulting in probably the biggest audience that one fortunate guitar technician will ever play to (and he clearly revels in the moment by showing off with some nifty axe solos). It’s easy to see why Pretty Vicious are creating such a buzz, with songs that are fast and fastidious in equal measure. The primal energy and sheer volume is such that it could awaken bears out of winter slumber.

The tsunami of noise is enough to leave a permeant ringing in my ear that carries on into the next day and leaves me having to reply on my lip-reading abilities to have a normal conversation with people, let alone be able to hear the remainder of the acts still to come.

 

My choice of band to get my second day up-and-running does so in a rather more mellow manner. The music of London retro-rock revivalists Ultimate Painting is less inspired by mundane reality of modern small-town life, and more by the unbounded escapism that music brings, evoking images of the south Californian coast rather than the boredom and frustration of growing up in a South Wales valley town. The psychedelic undertones of their lyrics are soundtracked by hazy 60’s inspired melodies that, while inspired by the sounds of the past, hint at a fresher new musical wave.

The busy turn-out for the band in the ‘Wales Goes Pop! Presents’ Stage in Buffalo is impressive given their Sunday afternoon slot when most people are perhaps still getting over the past two days of craft ale-fuelled festivities, and preserving themselves for the after party later on.

 

At the Cambrian Records stage in 10 Feet Tall, the first delicate plucks of strings by David Roberts reduce the entire room to silence, with a few members of the audience taking to sitting cross-legged near the stage and for half an hour escaping into the dreamy, warm guitar melodies being played out. Gracing the stage on his own for the first half and joined by cello for the second part, David Roberts plays folk at its most untainted.

One of the many respectable records that Swn can add to its belt is its propensity to throw up a dynamic rock duo that threaten to tear down the walls of anything in distance, and Man of Moon keep that belt firmly intact. The feedback-strewn guitar-doubling-as-bass riffs and dense drumming result in a back-to-basics blues sound that is elevated into a shoegaze-imbued wall-of-noise, which bounces off the four walls of Undertone and through every pair of ears in distance.

As the early autumnal dusk begins to fall on the Swn weekend, cross-national outfit Cristobal and the Sea keep the light fully burning in the Four Bars room in Dempseys, with an aural cocktail of mystical trop-pop blended together by psych-folk harmonies and bossa nova rhythms.

The mysticism and melancholy of the lyrics that lurk beneath their sunset-tinged sound capture the mind, as much as their stirring melodies provoke every pair of shoulders and hips into movement, from the audience as well as the band. Their set confirms two things: the band seem to have an aversion to wearing socks or shoes, and you can never go wrong with the inclusion of a flute in music. Oh, and the band are rather bloody good!

 

The final euphoric note from Cristobal and the Sea is where my coverage of the event itself ends, but not before I revel in the fun and frolics of the Swn After Party in Clwb Ifor Bach, which for the time puts the post-festival blues and the long train journey back from Cardiff to home in Cornwall firmly on hold. I leave the event with my liver just intact, my shoes slightly more scuffed after covering a considerable amount of walking distance between each venue, and more new favourite artists to enjoy and put on repeat for the next few weeks and beyond. I now find myself counting down the next calendar year until the return of Swn Festival (and the tenth birthday of Swn too). Swn 2016, you have a lot to follow.

Photos from Swn 2015 HERE

By Dean Hodge

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