Sŵn Festival Cardiff 2011

Joy Formidable know a thing or two about atmospheric backdrops

Words by Sofie Jenkinson, photography by Simon Ayre 

As we roll into Cardiff on the week of Sŵn festival and run our fingers along the pale stone and chipped red brick lining the alleys and streets, we can feel the glow in the air. Feet clap on the rain-smattered cobbles and raindrops bounce twice as guitar riffs tumble from the open windows of small, sweaty pub rooms above.

Bodies tussle in and out of doorways and rooms under the stairs, full of amps and instruments as the city breathes in and out. Like any place with a great musical tradition there is always something happening here and Sŵn concentrates this, bringing it into line with those that never sleep and giving it the blood of a New Orleans, a Memphis, a New York, for a handful of days.

Encapsulated in a little bubble as you float from corner to corner, from the castle to the city reaches – seeking out, stumbling on and clattering into. From impromptu performances with drum kits on the street, to big productions with stage appendages, to music over film, comedy off the cuff and creating in the corner. All trimmed with handmade bunting and topped with late nights in the warm glow of familiar old corners.

Tumbling head over heels into an already packed out Clwb Ifor Bach, the beating heart of Sŵn festival, Big Scary Monster’s Algiers are already bursting into every corner as they hit sweet notes at either end of a handfuls of lyrics, rolling up and down between the frets.

Upstairs a surprise is sprung in the first intake of breath as Charlotte Church takes a turn on the Clwb stage with her new band Branded Puma. A surreal moment for an unsuspecting and unassuming crowd waiting for the subtle sway of Herman Dune. David-Ivar Herman Düne slides into place and pontificates about Sŵn – it’s meaning, it’s lack of sun – as he neatly places his guitar strap across his heart. But brushes it all aside with all the buttoned-up charm and smooth class of the French pair as sweet, talkative lyrics swirl and jitter among their guests.

The tiny, tucked away stage of 10 Feet Tall is surrounded, like an island backed into a corner as Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells take to it with their band. The building creaking at the seams as people stand elbow to ribcage while thick, seductive, gloomy Moffat lyrics hang in the air above their heads, all full of memories clicking into every one of the words that cut straight to the bone. Like cloudy, malty wheat beer Moffat stands large over it all as a trumpet cuts through the dusty taste and leaves his battered, bruised, beating heart in the centre of it all.

Running your forefinger down a creased up, beer-soaked programme, curling at the corners as you decide your next move doesn’t always pay off but sometimes you strike gold. Two Wounded Birds stand, perched on the edge of the early evening stage at Clwb where people stick to the walls like glue, patiently waiting for a wave, and then calmly, aggressively taking charge of it. Awe struck as notes clash together, a mess of leather and Malibu, heavy fingered and slicked back. Like the gang from beside the lockers are transporting the room to a Twin Peaks-style eerie school disco, awash with 50s prom dresses. Sliding around in the simple reverb of the rock’n’roll twists and turns by the bamboo bar as it clashes together and melts into a doo-wop beat.

On the other end of the scale sit Joy Formidable nestled in the nape of a nautical themed stage at Cardiff University’s Students’ Union, with guitars that lap over the drum kit through cut-out waves. Sharp corners skim the calm and peaceful centre, surrounded by hard and tight elements as Ritzy Bryan rockets about the stage, sparks flying from her guitar and eyes. A packed room heaves under the weight of crescendo and sing-a-long as the band from north Wales look out across a sea of raised arms and mouthed lyrics, the lighthouse shining out from behind them.

Next up, Cut Ribbons pad out onto Buffalo’s stage and take a small, shy peek out across the room before they tear right through its middle, lungs-first. Big open spaces fall out in front of them and gradually fill up with a sound that feels connected to all of its parts. A perfectly pitched, meaty pairing of girl-boy vocals, staying together and undercoating each other in all the right places but at ease jumping out alone. Guitars crash into each other and over everything in a layered, fascinating little package all set to come out on cassette only-label Kissability soon.

Gallops tip up to their second Sŵn stage of the festival and are still taking everything apart and putting it all back together again in a fierce, raging soup of glorious chaos, rattling around in the underbelly of Clwb. Sounds falling in on each other and worlds colliding as they shake everything the right way up. Taking a measure of it all: tightly wound, fierce, jerky.

As the hairs in ears lay down flat, trembling, it’s not long before Three Trapped Tigers unleash a second wave of sound, which is all set to blow the most sure-footed gal off her feet. Relentless and tough with a drummer that sits in the centre of the storm, calling all of the shots as electronics fly out the end of every riff.

Fresh from a set alongside special-guest, Gruff Rhys, winner this year’s (first) Welsh Music Prize, fellow nominees, Y Niwl drift through the city to the upper floor of Dempseys. Strumming their way across old wooden floorboards that creak as the stripped back sound washes over bar stools and pints of Guinness with an old surf dog vibe, topping off an evening nicely.

And so to final days, bringing tiring, beautiful things with them. Effort tuck themselves away in the darkest, stickiest of corners in the Undertone basement for their first outing as a full band. Brainchild of BBC Radio 1’s Jen Long and Automatic guitarist James Frost this pet project is now backed up by one half of Barely Regal records and Among Brother Matt Fiddler on bass and Kutosis dummer Ben. Infectious turns of phrase pop from Long’s mouth as hooks spin around them and blend to a petulant, playful swagger. Nicely done.

Among Brothers reckon Sŵn is better than Xmas and who are we to argue?

Among Brothers shoehorn themselves onto the stage just after Effort, their sound shimmering on the surface like moonlight on water. “Sŵn is our favourite time of the year”, they shout over the packed room as they tune up. “It’s better than Christmas!” Perfectly poised violin nips around vocal, over vocal, over shouts to the sky. There is a steady persistence to each wave of limitless crescendo that moves together, smashing through the humid room in pockets of perfect clarity.

Away from the epicentre of the festival, in a neat little cabin, cut adrift, Chailo Sim melt into the corner of Gwdihŵ. Taking a trip from the very tip of Wales, drenched in Celtic seas, this band of St. David’s troubadours sit back among the owls lining the walls, framed by twinkling lights and strum. Lighting up this glorious hidey-hole with their tender ebb and flow, plucking heartstrings as sweet harmonies and memories lick around the fireplace.

The floor of Clwb begins to bounce softly as fingers tap against wood and the looping harmonies of Ben Howard flood the room, like a warm breeze through salted hair. Notes dance across the room like pebbles skimming across water and the deep, soul of Howard’s voice buries itself, a gain of sand in nooks and crannies, nostalgic and bristling with honesty. There are glimpses of greats (Martyn and Drake) and mainstream (Bon Iver and Mayer) but there’s plenty he’s cut from his own cloth.

‘Old Pine’ shines out – an untrammelled, spirited tune, peppered with the simple pleasures that we so often forget. A land-locked minstrel singing from his guts at the shore with his toes in the ocean, the music constantly moving around and on, and on, just as the water does around his feet. Howard harnesses a power in his music, but one that sets him as free as he is among the waves.

And in one last deep breath we fall into a crumpled heap on top of a pile of worn, beautiful bunting in the corner of Clwb Ifor Bach, a cold beer in hand and toast the glorious 5th birthday of this cracking little festival. Every year a better way to discover something new, miss too many great things and sink back into a well-loved, hard-working musical city.

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