Swn Festival - Cardiff - October 17-20 2013 (Live Review)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013 Written by Dave Ball, Huw Baines and Craig Thomas

Now in its seventh year, Cardiff’s Sŵn Festival has become one of the leading new music events on the scene. A city festival in the classic sense, the 2013 bill was diverse, frequently thrilling and rapturously received. Spanning intimate bars, church spaces, a hotel suite and some of the city’s most celebrated live music venues, it transformed a wet weekend into one to savour.

As a city, Cardiff is remarkably fit for purpose. With its compact feel and a burgeoning cultural/beer epicentre on Womanby Street - home to Clwb Ifor Bach, the Moon Club, Fuel and Dempsey’s - it was impossible to escape the excitable atmosphere of potential discovery that took over many music fans for its four day run.

Kicking things off on Thursday night at Gwdihw, one of the smaller venues used by Sŵn, Soak’s gentle voice had a sparse but deeply respectful audience in rapturous silence throughout. Bridie Monds-Watson was followed by another delicate acoustic act, Greta Isaac, who treated a larger crowd to a captivating set. Again the quality of performance created an atmosphere in which you could hear a pin drop.

Across town, in the Dragon Suite of the Angel Hotel, future superstar Chlöe​ Howl (pictured) followed up an impressive set from HMS Morris with some ferociously catchy, witty electro-pop, before Sŵn favourites Cut Ribbons played to a packed room at Four Bars @ Dempsey’s.

They filled their 45 minute set with live favourites, such as Damascus, and plenty of new material from their upcoming EP, while Radio 1 DJ Jen Long was among the excitable audience for a band whose star is still rising.

Back at the Angel Hotel, Ghostpoet drew a good crowd for his headline slot. Without his usual complex lighting show though, it was actually quite difficult to make out the stage under its darkened pink hue. The sound also didn’t behave as expected, but there was plenty of energy and an enjoyable aftertaste despite some minor gripes.

As Friday rolled around, the heavens opened. With a biblical downpour hitting the city in the early evening and some high profile artists on various bills, many venues filled up early and remained packed out throughout the night.

Cardiff-based math rockers Right Hand Left Hand rolled out their glitchy instrumentals at a rammed Four Bars, with Missouri brothers Radkey flying through an exhilarating, 25 minute set of old school hardcore straight after to leave much of the crowd a sweaty, rain-soaked mess.

Over at O’Neill’s, Broken Vinyl Club brought back elements of mid ‘90s Britpop with their groove-heavy indie rock, which had heads bobbing and feet tapping throughout. Following them, Keys provided one of the weekend’s highlights, blasting out an hour of energetic psych/blues rock. Their raw power was punctuated by a fabulous display of drumming from Dave Newington.

As the clock ticked towards 10pm, Womanby Street was dominated by one thing: the queue for Clwb Ifor Bach. Bo Ningen’s (top picture) set was one of the most hyped of the weekend and the London-based acid-punk troupe didn’t disappoint with a wild, breakneck show a matter of hours after they opened for the Cult on the other side of town. They left a room full of smiling faces and ringing ears.

Opening Clwb Ifor Bach's downstairs stage on Saturday were Cardiff quintet the Echo & The Always, who offered a blend of synth-pop and indie sensibilities punctuated by the stunning voice of singer Laura Hancock. Moving upstairs, This Is Wreckage proved to be an unexpected treat. With a heavy blast of dizzying riffs coming from lead guitarist Grave, who looks like the Cure’s Robert Smith gone metal, the climax to the set served as the perfect set up for what followed.

Fist Of The First Man (pictured) provided a huge highlight with a thunderous assault on the senses. With bass that shook fillings loose and strobe lighting to keep the crowd off balance, their set was sonically complex and ear-bleedingly loud. Everyone, band and audience, was breathless by the end of a triumphant performance.

Just over the road at Fuel, another new venue for Sŵn, Theo brought something different to the table. A remarkable musician, he appeared alone with his guitar, a drum kit and collection of effects pedals. For 45 minutes he performed the role of a superb three-piece instrumental metal act, looping rhythm and lead guitar tracks before diving behind the skins to hammer out beats. Outstandingly talented and superbly original. Ultimate Power's club night at the Moon Club offered exactly what its name suggested. Several hours of power ballads brought plenty of air guitar, with a healthy dollop of crooning pop.

Sunday began with Winter Villains, whose layered harmonies came across perfectly at the Angel Hotel and proved to be the ideal way to nurse a day four hangover. Following them was up and coming 20-year-old songwriter Dan Bettridge, whose blues-inflected voice demanded the attention of the room as soon as he opened his mouth. By the time he finished up, he had plenty of new fans.

The outdoor stage on The Hayes offered non ticket holders the chance to enjoy some live performances, and one of the highlights came in the form of local girl Maddie Jones. Opening and closing her set with jazz numbers, the bulk of her songs were carried by her beautiful, soul-heavy voice, including a medley of covers, her own take on Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and original songs from her Mr Walrus EP.

Swearin’ ensured that it was a family affair at the Angel Hotel on Sunday, with Allison Crutchfield taking to the stage with her band a couple of hours before her sister, Katie, threw down her winning ‘90s-influenced alt sounds as Waxahatchee. Swearin’ play scuzzy punk that’s as ramshackle as it is catchy and endearing, with a small clutch of Crutchfield diehards screaming their way throughout their set.

Gwdihw provided a fitting finale, with an appearance from John Smith. It is possible to become over-saturated with the sheer volume of music at Sŵn, but Smith’s combination of virtuoso guitar playing and raw vocals was a treat for those who managed to stick it out to the bitter end. His self-effacing humour between songs brought up the fact that he was expecting a noisy festival crowd, but every track was respected with the silence their quality deserved. So, over four manic days, eardrums were assaulted, souls were soothed, beers were finished and a good time was had. Let’s start the countdown.

For a full gallery of images courtesy of Craig Thomas, click here.

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