And as quickly as it begun, it was over. For the many of us Cardiff gig-goers who are accustomed to cramming a year’s worth of singular, brilliant Indie & much much more into one weekend, I’m sure it was a widespread feeling when we woke up on Sunday morning, expectantly excited for the next three days of Swn. Maybe that’s just me – there’ve been some superb other festivals doing their own thing this year but nonetheless fulfilling the cultural cravings that usually build up to being sated in mid-October.
Hub had a clutch of hugely promising local acts, Juxtaposed & Jealous Lovers filled a bill with Rad-Indie and Holy Boredom had a whole weekend of experimental, pulsating weirdness to behold. Nonetheless, Swn and those other events are their own things, and the thrill of wandering down Womanby St and seeing a cue for something you’ve never heard of, for that weekend’s must-see act was still a Swn-delight this year – with hoards desperate to see Wytches and The Amazing Snakeheads ferocious sets. Despite the roster of bands slimming down to a (relatively speaking) petite 60 or so, there was still the sense of potential and of inner-city expanse fed by the feeling there is always a fresh faced gem hidden amongst Cardiff’s many streets you still had to snake around.
There was still space for new festival nooks and crannies to open up too. The BBC Horizons/Gorwelion scheme very much reflects the Swn ethos toward new Welsh music, so it was fitting to see it at the heart of the festival – in the wristband exchange in CFQ on the as usual brimming Womnaby St, with many of their 12 supported artists performing, including Gabrielle Murphy, which you can read more about below. Add to that the justified reverential hush enveloping the transcendental performance by A Winged Victory For The Sullen at St Davids Hall and there was plenty of newness to keep you alive with interest. Here’s the pick of Dim Swn 2014, as seen by Mari Lowe, Ruth Tolerton & Lloyd Griffiths.
The Amazing Snakeheads
All too ready was I to be completely alienated by hyper-masculinity as I entered the upstairs of Clwb Ifor Bach part way through The Amazing Snakeheads’ set. The venue packed to the brim with festering, sweaty bodies; and none more so than the three figures prowling the stage. How wrong I was – no sooner have I found myself a convenient spot than I am fused into the filthy body of the crowd, totally absorbed by the raw, blues-drenched flesh of the feculent music. Little by way of communication is needed between band and crowd; maggot-fated, we are here to writhe in ecstasy at every sultry riff, every wrenching howl from vocalist Dale Barclay. Something happened between initial alienation and basking in glorious wonder, but trying to pin it down would be as futile as resisting the urge to cavort in the face of The Amazing Snakeheads’ film noir-esque tantalisation.
Rag N’ Bone Man
Playing early evening at Buffalo, Rory Graham aka Rag N Bone Man delivered a smooth sound, testament to his skills as a wonderful vocalist – with occasional rasp and rich bass notes. The crowd wasn’t huge but there was a lot of love with plenty of singing along, including Cardiff mates Baby Queens. The audience were slow to warm up at this early-in-the-evening slot, but permission to dance came with the arrival on-stage of friend and rapper Stig of the Dump. Self-deprecatingly he invited us to provide the moves for “two clumsy fat men”, but drummer Ben Thomas’s effortlessly cool style provided more than enough reason to regardless. As a whole, Rag N’ Bone Man’s tracks reveal a skilful and heady mix of blues, soul, hip-hop and spirituals – with many captivating live, notably Life In Her Yet, a moving and beautiful track written about Graham’s Grandmother.
Having had the cheerful encouragement of hearing the fascinatingly varied, fully formed catalogue of Titus Monk online–which had the brio to segue seamlessly from impetuous Kings of Leon vibrancy to misty and brooding TV on the Radio style experimentalism – it’s fair to say I did not anticipate his voice to find its way to entertaining a Gwdihw crowd with straight off the bat acoustic country sounds. However, his more ‘conventional’ takes with a pointed amalgam of acoustic styles, from hammered folk style strumming to plaintive country augmented by the bounty of bass and baritone that is his superb voice, it’s hard to be disappointed. With looping that added subtle emotional shifts to keep the songs far from folkish sentimentalism, it’ll be interesting to see how the songs feel expanded by a full band.
Newly formed from also-Cardiff based Chain of Flowers, there was a very healthy crowd gathered for the post-punk influenced Luvv in Undertone’s claustrophobic surroundings, at a 3pm slot that you’d be forgiven for thinking didn’t tally with their South-Wales Hardcore lineage.
Keeping alive a DIY aesthetic – “we have cassette tapes at the back” – they delivered a noisy, moody and engaging sound which showed a sophisticated handling of their wide punk and post-punk influences.
The drummer and bassist provided a persistent pummel and their guitars were honed with detail and intricacy, adding an elegance that lifted their songs up to something special. With a heavy dose of delay, songs such as ‘More’ had dirty vocals coming from their lead singer’s small, angular frame with a slurred, vacant feel that made lyrics appealing to the heartbroken all the more captivating.
Starting my Dim Swn day, I headed down to the wristband exchange at CFQ in time to catch Gabrielle Murphy, framed by the racks of vintage clothing and the omnipresent festival buntings. After showcasing her velvety, rich vocals we’re informed that her guitarist fell ill at the last moment and has been replaced, lo and behold, by Gabrielle’s father. Her choice of covering Thin Lizzy’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ holds perfectly for the atmosphere and there’s no sign of her father telling her she’s living in a trance; rather, his guitar holds up her mesmerising vocal command.
Descending into the depths of Undertone, little can be seen beyond the density of the crowd until eventually I catch a peek of Blaenavon silhouetted against moody backlighting. Something of the uncanny is in this band’s signature sound too. Their instrumentation is in turn delicately creeping, lonesome and sinister, before it becomes explosive and bursts through the venue, pulsing and energised. Ben Gregory’s vocals show remarkable maturity as he adapts from assured gentleness, to a playfulness perhaps reminiscent of The Futurehead’s Ross Millard at his best, and back again.
Most of the late night surprises you receive anywhere in the vicinity of St Mary’s St on a Saturday night tend to involve harassment by way of blow up toys or finding yourself trapped in a world of polystyrene and discarded gravy, so it was with a reassuring kind of curiosity I went to see the to-me unknown Taffy at Four Bars. Although they might sound like a laddish insult from the aforementioned road, they were actually a breezily enthused pop-punk band, riffing on Shonen Knife with some Britpop bands of a similarly fuzzy-fun ilk in there. Songs such as ‘Tune in a Jar’ would happily soundtrack a Twisted By Design night on the same floor, even if they feel derivative of C86 era Indie-pop. Not entirely surprising fun then, but fun nonetheless.