John Cale

Festival of Voice | John Cale & Gwenno

Gary Raymond finds a misplaced John Cale in the middle of a poorly-conceived opening night extravaganza.

In his indispensible book on the history of the music festival, Electric Eden, Rob Young describes the evolution of what was once little more than an impassioned experiment set up by Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams in the Malverns in 1914 to what has become the cultural phenomenon of our age. What Holst and Vaughan Williams established is a model for all the festivals that have come since, but one defining ingredient is that they emerge from a groundswell, from a collaborative kinetic that merges and builds up to something that other people wish to enjoy. A true festival grows from the ground up. The first impression listening to Graeme Farrow, Artistic Director of the Wales Millennium Centre, as he gave the launch speech at the opening night press junket, is that Festival of Voice has landed, not sprouted. It sounds at first that if Festival of Voice has grown from anywhere it has been from the boardroom and not the coffee dens, shack stages and rehearsal halls of grassroots creativity. Festival of Voice is without doubt less an organic celebration of the sonic capabilities of human biology, and more a branding mission for the City of Cardiff.

But this is not the be all and end all.

In his speech, Farrow spoke of tradition, of Welshness, of this idea that “the voice” is something Wales “is known for”. There was a moment when he was almost drowned out by the sound of church bells bounding in through the open windows, and the irony was there for all to hear. A close reading of “Wales” will tell you the country’s history is not about sound, but about content. We have a history of civil disobedience, not simply melodiously chirping in the face of adversity. The point is, the Festival of Voice will be judged on what it puts up, and not its marketing campaign. And the campaign has been immense.

All sorts of media organisations have put their shoulders to the wheel on this one – even The One Show did a bit on Charlotte Church’s The Last Mermaid (although as a one-time host of the programme it might have been an easier pitch for Church than some people have had to make over the years). Cynicism aside, Festival of Voice has a battle to fight. The line up is eclectic – as the nature of the premise requires – and it is spread across a multitude of city venues (rendering that all-important “festival atmosphere” impossible). And despite national coverage and a Herculean effort by the marketing team (there is even Festival of Voice chocolate), tickets did not sell for John Cale who was supposed to provide the opening night extravaganza.

And it was an odd, roundly disappointing affair. Perhaps a wrong choice for the opening mission statement of this expensive branding exercise. Cale has the kudos, but does he have the tone? The concert itself was a mess. Moments of euphoria, too sparsely sprinkled amongst a poorly-judged set-list that for the most part struck only one tone: drudgery. Cale never looked comfortable, never looked fully in step with the add-ons to his band of festival choir, festival string section, and festival celebrities. And rather than having any sense of momentum – perhaps a half of Cale and band and then a half of Cale with extensions – the constant chopping and changing simply gave everything a stutter. There was one cheer tonight – when he went in to a beautifully sleepy “Sunday Morning”. Most other songs fell flat, and his material from M:Fans, visceral and poetic as they were, were going nowhere in the lifeless auditorium of St David’s Hall. No blame lies with Cale. He does what he does. The man is a genius. But any attempts at setting a tone were undermined entirely by the constant stage traffic, be it the choir, the string section, or the token celebrity standard-bearers of “Team Wales” coming on to disturb Cale’s rhythm. Add to this bad sound levels and the general inappropriateness of the venue (this is neither a new nor minority complaint about St David’s Hall) to hold rock musicians and their audiences in anything like the required state to evoke any sort of enthusiasm.

There was a distinct lack of concept to the whole evening. Michael Sheen’s rendition of Dylan Thomas’ “Death shall have no dominion” in the form of “Jesus Caligula” to a shuddering backing from Cale’s band was a bit shouty, and it brought a bit of grist to proceedings, but why did Sheen look like he’d come straight from weeding the garden? Likewise, Charlotte Church collaborated beautifully, but if any of it looked or felt different in rehearsal it must have been an extremely low-key rehearsal space indeed. This was supposed to be the grand unveiling of a festival that the movers and shakers of our capital city feels it deserves, and, regardless of the hundreds of hours put in, it all felt a bit shapeless, a bit chucked together, a gumbo soup of marketing ideas to get those ticket sales ticking over – string section: check; choir: check; Michael Sheen: check; Charlotte Church: check – without any consideration of how it would hang together and whether John Cale was the right act to provide the glue.

As mentioned, the choir, when employed, and when the sound was correctly balanced, brought moments of euphoria. But the orchestral work was almost entirely lost in the mix and Cale’s wonderfully brittle vocal swamped pretty much everything for the night. The festival of “voice” needs to have a word with whoever is in charge of sound.

As FoV spreads itself across as many Cardiff venues as possible, you cannot help but wonder if this would not have worked in a more intimate setting, or, perhaps more pertinently, would something else not have worked better here? Gwenno, who really is a shining light of Welsh music at the moment, and a brilliant live performer, struggled with the dead air of the auditorium. When she said regretfully that her song about dancing was about to be performed in a venue that she was led to believe had forbidden audiences to get up and dance, the only reasonable response was “Well, what are we all doing here? Should we all just go and do this in a bar down the road?”

There is so much to be excited about with even just a cursory glance at the programme for FoV. Big names as well as fascinating contributions from foreign cultures, and original commissions that genuinely have experts tingling with excitement at their prospect. But the opening night was a mishmash, a conceptual (or lack of) misstep in the wrong venue. A good arts council application does not necessarily translate as a rock solid marketing hand grenade. Giving Cardiff the festival it thinks it deserves is all very well, but a successful festival needs an identity, needs an atmosphere, and it needs a bit of authenticity. On those terms this was a bad start.