Gary Raymond takes a look at superfestival Gŵyl 2021, a major collaboration between live festivals from all around Wales, and asks if online can ever do the job of the in person experience.
The centre piece of Gŵyl 2021, the lockdown festival achieved with the coming together of Festival of Voice, Aberystwyth Comedy Festival, Other Voices Cardigan, and FOCUS Wales, seems to be Charles Hazelwood’s Death Songbook, and it might have been the headline draw for Festival of Voice had FoV happened last year as it should’ve done. Death Songbook has the star attraction of Brett Anderson and the guest allure of Nadine Shah, not to mention the conceptual weight of the theme, songs about death, performed here in an attempt to “break the taboo” of the subject. It would be a tour de force was it not for the fact it’s all delivered with such a sombre, hangdog approach. Anderson, who looks like he hasn’t smiled since emitting an unexpected fart in the mid-1990s, says that happy songs have always depressed him, which sounds thoughtful and profound until you start thinking about songs that are happy and just how happy they can make you feel. Hazelwood, equally pretentious, the composer-geezer who refers to the noble influence of his “missus”, is equally hangdog. Songs about death, as so many have proven, some of them covered here, need not be so bloody mirthless. But that’s not to say the performances don’t have their moments. Anderson’s voice is a thing of raw power and beauty, and it’s grown over the years to be something much more interesting than the screechy Bowie-pastiche he belted out in Suede’s heyday. Here, although he isn’t quite up to aping the melancholic charisma of Black’s original version of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, he is great on “Killing Moon” and Mercury Rev’s “Holes”. The musicianship of the good people of the Paraorchestra is often the most joyous thing on offer. But there’s something about the audience-less presentation. It doesn’t break down the taboos around discussing death, rather it gives the impression that singing some songs about grief in a vacuum means you can all but avoid the subject.
I start with Death Songbook because it comes at you first. The subject, the Sky Arts vibe of Hazelwood, the star names, it catches your eye on the horizon like a giant wielding a club. Online interaction with a festival, the swinging door of “the watchlist”, the control you have as viewer, is a very different interaction than the one you get as a paying guest to a live parade of events. It seems churlish to mention it at this stage, but there’s no pause or skip to a live festival. And so, whereas the live version of FoV, for instance, would have Death Songbook placed for us inside a context, here it is all too easy – in fact, perhaps even easier than any alternative – to come to something like this and view it in its dreary, moribund isolation. The festival vibe is all important, and it’s different as an audience member when you have to work at it yourself.
But that’s the yoke of the festival organisers, and it’s hardly the only new challenge arts leaders have had to try and navigate in real time over the last year. As is usually the case, the critic points out problems in a spirit of sympathy and solidarity.
But Gŵyl 2021’s triumph ends up being the sheer scale of diversity in what the festivals have come together to platform. The marriage of festivals that have forged very distinct identities over the last decade is ultimately a strength. When all is said and done, this is “the Wales festival”; outward-looking, energetic, proud. There is no authentic place here for trite nationalism, this is a showcase of talent, plain and simple, and it showcases a Wales bursting with creativity and positivity and internationalist cultural values.
The highlight of the eclectic programme is the performance from Cate Le Bon of the entirety of her excellent album REWARD (2019). This isn’t a concert, but a series of music videos, filmed in and around the Millennium Centre down Cardiff Bay, thatched together to give us a “concert film”. Gŵyl 2021 isn’t trying to fake a live festival, it’s not trying to deny where we’re at. A great deal of thought has gone into how to exploit the restrictions. Le Bon is a mercurial performer as well as songwriter, and it’s easy to slip into the atmosphere created by the elusiveness of the presentation. But it does bring up the marked difference between live music and curated “live” video content. This can still be great, just as when Joni Mitchell and the Staple Singers get their inserts into the “live” concert in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (surely an influence for the filming here); there’s nothing to be gained by harping on that it just isn’t the same without an audience.
Where “live” energy might be replaced by the Jodorowskian pop art vision in Le Bon’s set, Gruff Rhys’s offering of Pang is full of those spaces between notes, although Le Bon will have to sink back even further if she wants to take his crown for laconic disinterest in the job at hand. He remains a captivating songwriter, up there with the best of his generation, better at drawing on the past than Noel Gallagher, funnier than Morrissey, more self-aware (and a better vocalist) than Damon Albarn, Gruff Rhys is entering national treasure territory, if he isn’t already interred (in Wales, at least).
Gŵyl 2021 is a superfestival, greater than the sum of its parts. Arlo Parks delivers a fabulous set amidst countless fabulous sets; and then there are the podcasts, the Tim Burgess Listening Party, one-off collaborations, international acts such as Dhun Dhora and N’famady Kouyaté alongside homegrown talent like Kidsmoke and Ani Glass, Benji Wild and Carys Eleri. Gŵyl 2021 might not quite be a festival that has something for everyone, but it certainly caters to the intellectually curious, the culturally adventurous, and people looking for some relief from the usual zoom-heavy festival experience in a time when, unfortunately, we still have to be reliant on screens to get anything at all.
Gŵyl 2021 can be watched on the BBC iPlayer