Minifest Month: Wales Goes Pop! Review

Second year not out for Cardiff’s joyous indiepop festival, held in the swanky converted church that is The Gate arts centre. Started by Liz and Kay of top poppers The School as a celebration of melodic aceness, it’s already become a sort of local version of the Indietracks festival, a long held dream of the organisers made real. Last year’s was a blast of balloons, fun and certain musicians drinking a weekend’s rider on the first day. Here’s what we found this year.

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NEW FAVE BANDS

Solid quality runs through the whole WGP line-up, but two bands’ performances jump up like excitable puppies. From the stupidly fertile Leeds DIY scene come sex robots Cowtown, their set a ferocious rush through gaudy garage rock and viscerally chunky pop music. Keyboardist Hilary’s Thee Oh Sees T-shirt is a pointer; there are also bits of Devo and Oneida in the mix, together with the joy of guitarist John using his formidable chops for danceable fun rather than virtuosity. Frantic, yelpy headrushes of noise don’t get much better, and we fucking rinse their merch table.

Haiku Salut are from Derby and approach their set like meticulous multi-instrumentalists, an almost boffin-like dedication to each instrument swap and eight bar loop. Out of the tumble of piano, accordian, ukelele and percussion (amongst other things) comes a beautifully flighty mix of modern composition and just-the-right-side-of-twee instrumental lilting. And out of that suddenly come laptop glitches and hulking electronic beats, a forest rave that flares and recedes again, leaving three slightly shy women back onstage. Anna Meredith does a similarly inventive compositional thing, and Haiku Salut are in that league of greatness – music out of nothing that’s astounding and outstanding.

GENDER BALANCE

Course, it shouldn’t really need pointing out, and is hard to mention in a non-patronising way, but the amount of female involvement at Wales Goes Pop, from organisation to bands to audience, is a seriously refreshing antidote to the domination of sausage at other gigs and festivals, and likely goes a long way to explaining the agreeable atmosphere in the Gate over the weekend. Solely or partially female-based artists following each other repeatedly on the bill should be normal not noteworthy, and is truthfully mostly noticed in retrospect, such is the good vibe zone engendered by the particular swirl of people and excellent tote bags present.

DEATH AND RESURRECTION

Well, it is Easter weekend. One of the most, uh, revelatory WGP sets is that of Simon Love And The Old Romantics, the new group formed around the deviant nucleus of the ex-frontman of The Loves, the Cardiff indie band that pretty much defined sometimes good, generally middling twee indie pop of a few years back. Their Saturday slot is a dodgy uncle’s todger waggled in the faces of the many small children in the crowd, a lesson in cheeky-faced pomp and whale-size hooks that’s big hearted, big balled and excellent fun. The guitar-based songs sound like ace John Waters-addled US garage trash band Hunx & His Punx; the piano-based numbers like Paul McCartney sozzled on Newcastle Brown, having sex with the milkman. One song has the refrain “F!?!RRRRRS”. Amongst the swearing and gutter trawling, pure pop brilliance, like some dream episode of TOTP2 you don’t want to wake up from.

HEADLINERS

Some pretty judicious choices sit at the top of the tree of each of WGP’s three days and nights. The Wedding Present turn in a typically professional set on the Saturday, making an awful lot of balding men giddy, bouncy, or just smile quietly to themselves. Closing the festival on Sunday are Withered Hand, a many-headed Scottish troupe who make up with jauntiness and sheer bonhomie what they possible lack in memorable songs (and who put up with the bizarre arrival of a bunch of loathsome poshos drinking champagne from an ice bucket with admirable charm).

It’s Helen Love‘s Friday night set that best exemplifies the never-grow-old tendency of the festival though. In permanant sunglasses, the Swansea kiddiepop vampire leads her band through way more direct hits than you might remember, with both herself and her songs seemingly pickled in life preserving, Ramones-worshipping aspic (and the crowd aren’t shy about chanting “Hey ho, let’s go” a few hundred times). ‘Punk Boy’, ‘Put Your Foot On The Fuzzbox Baby’, ‘Yeah Yeah We’re Helen Love’ – it’s a set that delights and thrives on the devotional audience response, even if, brilliantly, it’s interrupted by some over-excited 10 year olds jumping on the power cables. ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom’ leads to a frothing stage invasion of men, women, children and balloons, and the grinning realisation that, sometimes, all is right with the world.

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Helen Love @ Wales Goes Pop

TOKEN MEN

Proving men can be as good as female musicians if just given the time and opportunity, WGP lets the odd hairy troubador in to peddle their wares. Calgary, Alberta’s Woodpigeon, shorn to single representative Mark Hamilton, scores highly, riding on Hamilton’s high and lonesome voice and some gently brushed guitar work. His set gets stronger as he moseys along, leaning more and more on looping and layering, sending repeated ghostly vocals up to the ceiling to spine-bothering effect.

Even better is Steven James Adams, once of Broken Family Band and Singing Adams, now sporting a fine beard, an acoustic guitar, and a seemingly endless supply of wryly funny, poignantly brilliant songs. He mixes being a craftsman of everyday magic with being way too huggable, and, wandering around the cafe bar, tenderly singing lost classic ‘Injured Party’ into punters’ nervous faces, it’s perfect late afternoon fare.

GOOD LOCALS

Some nicely chosen local acts slot in perfectly, like whisker pieces on a cat jigsaw. Hail! The Planes continue their infrequent gig appearances with a set heavy on the swooning lushness of their recent ‘Send A Signal To Me Love’ EP. Despite leaning on impeccable influences (Dirty Three, Do Make Say Think, Godspeed You! Black Emperor in their stormiest sections) H!TP have carved a pretty unique space for themselves, certainly around these parts, one that can go from pin drop quiet to swollen noise and back, a treat of jazzy, post rock folk all the better for its pure rareness.

Radstewart will probably never receive a review that doesn’t mention Pavement, but they too have boiled down some obvious influences (tilt your head and you can hear a little Weezer and Jonathan Richman too) into shiny new shapes. They may look like a slightly unambitious University Challenge team, but their sound is a pretty moreish, crisply British take on wobbly indie-rock, almost austere at times, button cute and with a nicely sideways lyrical edge. Rad kids.

Like last year, The School open the Saturday with a crowd noticeably larger than a lot of the following acts’. They deserve to be adored really: Liz Hunt’s large, well-drilled band are carriers of the classic pop torch, and Liz herself becomes a stronger songwriter and arranger seemingly with every album. So the new songs sound bold and confident, mixed in with the older ones that sound like lost friends, and as ‘Never Thought I’d See The Day’s queasy organ greatness rolls out, you feel like you want to tell the strangers at the bus stop all about this fantastic music.

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Haiku Salut @ Wales Goes Pop

WHAT ELSE

Balloons. Estonian beer in a weird elongated pyramid in the nearby off licence. Soundman Ed’s sprint to the stage during Laetitia Sadier‘s classy set, leaping over a small child right at the last minute. Home Bargains, and its range of acidic sweets being way too near. More balloons. One of the organisers offering us a go in the backstage lift. The selection of artwork in the Gate corridor, culminating in a terrifying picture of a horse. Alex from Tender Prey. The singer from Flowers, playing a one string bass while singing like Liz Fraser over a wall of pastel noise. The sheer range of desirable vinyl, merch stalls, promoters with flyers, punters, punters’ kids and random band members, bustling and smiling and pretending they can dance at the indie disco. What a brilliant festival.