Reviewers: David Anthony and Will Jones
It’s the second night of the festival and fatigue has yet to set in. This was aided by the fact that despite this being the first weekend night where more people were attending, no valuable band-watching time was lost to frustrating queuing, a problem with the festival in years gone by, but not on this night. Whether this was down to luck or the fact that the organisers have got it right this year it’s impossible to tell, though confirmation of the latter may come with a queuing-free Saturday (though, unfortunately it may also confirm that the event is less popular than it once was).
Anyway, first up tonight were electronic Jewellers – ‘Best gig we’ve ever done’ was how the Newport electronic duo summed up their set which opened up Friday Swn Fest. Upstairs in O’Neill’s (St Mary’s Street) doesn’t seem at first to fit the ethereal sound of Jewellers and the duo look a little of out of place with their simple stage set up, a lone laptop and lots of knobs waiting to be manipulated in a seemingly complex fashion. So after a tentative beginning, including a minor technical glitch which is laughed off by the pair, the crowd are urged forward to make the mock stage of three pub tables seem like a genuine gig. This closing-in of the crowd helped the duo, whose ambient electronica swoons and slowly builds, the beats finding their groove and Jewellers finding their feet in front of an increasingly large crowd. The piano sample-led closer upped the tempo and they finished up victorious, having made a success of a difficult early slot and an unusual venue. But that’s all part of Swn’s charm.
More laptops and studio kit came with one-man-band Mr Fogg at Ten Feet Tall. Kitted out with a bass guitar, keyboard and drum machine it appears as if the formal Fogg had musical differences with the rest of a band who had all left, leaving him to play all the instruments. Mr Fogg presented two kinds of songs – sweeping 80s skyscrapers of a kind Ultravox used to do and delicate Aqualung type piano ballads so delicate I was berated during set closer Pearl for the clicking noise my phone was making as I typed out my notes. That’s never happened to me at a gig before! But why this person was so desperate to hear the words of Mr Fogg is a mystery as, unfortunately the singer-songwriter’s penchant for the banal and/or clichéd couplet all but ruined these beautiful ballads. It’s unfair that one act gets picked on for trite lyrical output while others get a pass, but this is solely because ballads are built around word-play and phraseology while big tub-thumping stompers rely more on heart-stopping four-four beats to touch a listener’s musical erogenous zone. Mr Fogg is definitely a talented musician but if he wishes to reach the next level he may need to employ a Bernie Taupin figure to help him with the words.
Hot footing it across town I was determined to be at Clwb Ifor Bach for curious musical polymaths, Liars, who turned out to be a surprisingly secret highlight of the festival. ‘Surprising’ not in that expectations were low, but having been acquainted with them for over five years (they’ve been going for over ten) and being another band from the US, this reviewer arranged to arrive early to avoid the inevitable throng of ardent Liars fans. This though did not transpire. There was a healthy showing for the band, but when they reached the stage (more surprises here) Clwb Ifor Bach was not the rammed, watch-your-drink and jump-instead-of-dance sea of humanity I imagined. This is a shame as Liars are great. Endlessly reinventing themselves, the trio who took to the stage manned synths instead of their usual guitars and began with a triptych of electronic selections from their new album WIXIW (pronounced Wish You). Despite electronics being a staple of their sound for many years, the most startling omission at this point was live drumming. Live percussion is a signature of the band (who even released an album called Drums Not Dead), so to see Aaron Hemphill (tonight looking uncannily like Gareth from the Office), Angus Andrew and Julian Gross eschew the skins and creating an almighty rock racket purely by electronic means may count as a surprise, but since Liars represent their decade’s musical output by eventually seeming to adopt every musical instrument to create their dirty, skronky songs, it really was just business as usual. And while business as usual for Liars is, perhaps, not for everyone (‘difficult’ is a word often attributed to the trio) for me they’re exciting noiseniks that are never wilfully obscure and really got the crowd moving with a wall of – admittedly unusual – sound.
(It should be noted here that while awaiting Liars, I caught a few minutes of the Invisibles who sounded like late-era Primal Scream with their gossamer vocals and electronic noodlings)
Capping off a largely successful night of musical adventure was the meat and potatoes indie of The Cribs. The raucous trio return to Swn after a five year absence to open their UK tour, and appear in high spirits. With tonight’s Great Hall gig part of Swn’s new top up ticket process, the crowd are obvious fans and are vocal even before the band take to the stage. The band tell us it is the eve of the twin brothers Ryan and Gary Jarman’s birthday, and the Wakefield trio plough merrily through their back catalogue as well as bringing to life this year’s In The Belly of The Brazen Bull album. A lot has happened to The Cribs since their last Swn show: three records, and one brief fling with Jonny Marr as a 4th Crib. Now back as a trio they seem liberated from the fatherly stage presence of Marr and as a result tear through upcoming single ‘Anna’ with a newly-injected ferocity that leaves the album version for dust. Back to basics with 2004’s ‘Another Number’ provided the obligatory crowd guitar riff sing-along, the first of the evening’s many ‘oohs’, ‘uh-ohs’ and ‘ba-das’ that are the trademark of their songs. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo makes his regular video cameo during ‘Be Safe’, his spoken word tirade accompanied by what must be The Cribs’ rawest throat shredding chorus. It’s this ability to switch from arty indie music icon collaborations straight into the fly by fun pop of newbie ‘Chi-Town’ at the drop of a cymbal that makes The Cribs so loved. The evening draws heavily from The Crib’s 2007 showpiece record Men’s Needs, Women’s Need’s, Whatever with ‘I’m a Realist’ and its opening refrain ‘I’m a realist/I’m a romantic/I’m an indecisive/piece of shit’ getting the crowd shouting in unison (singing would be too kind). ‘Men’s Needs’ rolls straight into ‘Hey Scenster’ with the thumping bass and feedback drowned out the guitar riff entirely, not that anybody cared, the one-two blast of 3 and half minute lo-fi pop perfection had everybody dancing indie disco style, drinks took flight and boys and girls made out. It is Gary Jarman’s bass and vocal turn on ‘The Wrong Way to Be’ that helped close the set on what is now their staple anthem. So a triumphant return to Swn for The Cribs, leaving a satisfied set of topped-up punters rushing out to the after parties and to try the impossibility of catching everything else.
So it’s 2 for 2 at Swn so far, with 2 nights left. Halfway through and this year’s Swn has been a roaring success.