Swn Festival: Saturday

Reviewers: David Anthony and Will Jones


An extra special effort was made today to roam around and see as much as was humanly possible – a few songs here, half a set there – to overload the senses to the point of implosion. First up, beneath Undertone’s low-slung ceiling a throng of photographers were waiting for Death at Sea to kickstart their set. On stage the appeal was apparent, above a line of grey Converse (a rather obvious show of band unity) the Liverpool five piece stand tall and sport 21st century mop tops (Toni & Guy-nam style). Their sugary pop rock is filled with a surfeit of ‘yeah yeah yeah’s, songs about girls and love-struck angst.  Sample: ‘Not left my room in weeks’ during ‘Drag’ and talk of ‘Wasted Youth’, which is pretty much de rigeur for this kind of thing, but especially jarring as being in a reasonably renowned band hardly suggests the wasted youth that most of us experienced.

A jog away is Trinity Street O’Neill’s, heaving, and as the sun sets outside, inside Cardiff’s own Sion Russell Jones is raising spirits with his folksy whimsy. His harmonica and acoustic guitar strapped onto his imposing, ginger frame he quips ‘For those of you just joining us, I’m Ed Sheeran’ which is a marvellous aid for those here to write about him. From his debut ‘And Suddenly…’ we hear ‘Mandy’ which showcases his cracking falsetto vocal and during ‘Way Back When’ melody filled everyone with deja vu, as though the songs have been with us for years, which isn’t a bad thing to have in your armoury. It might be straight singer/songwriter stuff, but it’s delivered via a cracking vocal and genuine likeability, hence the place being packed to the rafters.

Up in the darkness of The Moon we find The Physics House Band surrounded by encouraging chin stroking admiration with their instrumental dexterity, as the bass player veered here and there in masterful fashion. This jazz psychedelic fusion brought the droves of committed 4-day wristband wearers together; all fatigue drained away by the sight of so much energy expended on stage on their mission to nowhere. But it’s the journey that counts and as an unashamed display of accomplished musicianship it was unimpeachable.

Heroin heroines Pins have that elegantly wasted dispassionate affect, and the Velvet Underground & Nico album as musical template. The female foursome wear it well and, even in a mock Irish pub on St Mary Street, manage to attract the likes of Steve Lamacq to their brand of ‘am I bovvered?’ studied disinterest. So: droning tom heavy sounding drums, high bass lines and cooing vocals, reigned with casual scuzzy guitar figures and various tempo changes to distinguish the songs.  For a band not even an album old they are intimidating in their focus, the merchandise table ready and waiting, the band seem to expect people to want to buy their wares and I don’t blame them. The appeal may be obvious, but that doesn’t detract from ‘LUVU4LYF’ bombastic drum and bass beats and ‘Eleventh Hour’ lackadaisical brilliance. Oh and with a song called ‘Shoot You’, combined with Pins as a band name and the Velvets as touchstone, hopefully the girls are intelligent enough to borrow the accoutrements of Opiate use without actually living that life.

Upstairs in Clwb Ifor Bach and for the second time this festival three brothers, two of them twins, take to the stage, but unlike last night with The Cribs The Family Rain were much cleaner cut in both their suited and booted appearance and their crisp clear sound, happy to throw in an old fashioned guitar solo and very enthused to be there at all. The same could be said, but more cynically, of Holy Mountain, who rocked as if that simple achievement would get them any further than this making-up-the-numbers spot on a lesser stage at a city festival. It won’t.

Childhood sound big for their age. They trade mainly in the kind of soaring guitar lines that reach for the heavens, as the afro-haired lead singer Ben Romans-Hopcraft, as if not aware of the musical IMAX behind him goes about his own business, mainly swathed in echo and low in the mix. This could almost be compared to what the Stone Roses perfected, but this isn’t the second coming in swaddling clothes. They are much looser and groove in a way that disqualifies them, as well as having songs which don’t fit the template. They haven’t quite found their voice yet. This won’t stop the NME over-hyping them though.

A band with no need for help with hyping themselves is Palma Violets. With a lead singer whose genuine first name is Chilly (Jesson), it’s as if his parents were preparing him for a life in a band and therefore believes his/their success is assured. It is guitarist Sam Fryer however who makes the boldest claim when he asked any A&R to put their hands up because “they’re the best band in the world”. Which begs the question why name yourself after sweets when you think you’re chocolate? Anyway, this self-assuredness didn’t do Oasis any harm, and these rockers are also bringing nothing later than the sixties to the table. The Violets trade in Hammond-based rock and as such set themselves apart from most of the indie mob. A band like this hasn’t exploded on the scene since the Horrors. Yet these guys bring the machismo with all its attendant whiffs of sweat and testosterone, making them a much dirtier proposition than their sweet smelling namesakes. But, as with Oasis, it’s tunes and attitude that sell, not originality, and it remains to be seen if they have the tunes to back them up (at the moment it’s exciting but a little unmemorable; single ‘Best of Friends’ is no ‘Live Forever’). It looks like they may just be flavour of the month for the moment – but a killer album could change all that.

Away from the coming and goings of Swn’s usual Saturday night brashness, tucked up behind the National Museum in the rather tasteful environs of the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre John Grant was performing. The luxury of a seat and a break from the temptation of the bar saw the venue slowly fill with weary-legged punters. The tickets warned that stragglers would not be granted entry; however a 15 minute delay turned the crowd giddy enough to create what must have been the first Mexican wave to take place in the velvet-clad lecture theatre. Fortunately for everyone involved Grant took to the stage soon after, the stage split: one half filled with a grand piano, the other with a more familiar Swn sight of synths and a laptop. Grant shared piano and synth duties with Chris Pemberton and 2010 debut ‘Queen of Denmark’ is the source material for most of tonight’s set, with Grant playing piano on ‘Sigourney Weaver’ whilst Pemberton provided backing vocals and the accompanying warbling synth solo, on ‘I Wanna Go to Marz’. Grant took centre stage as he recalled his childhood ice cream parlour menu, taking us on a tour of memories of his past. However he has been in Iceland for the past ten months recording a new record with Icelandic electronic act GusGus, and gave an impressive taster of this, ‘Vietnam’ and what will be album closer ‘Glacier’ both presented as stripped back versions of the symphonic wash of what will eventually be released, as Grant didn’t have chance to get together the full band that he plans when he takes the record on the road proper. The superbly titled ‘Great Motherfucker’ another new song written out of the frustration of being told constantly of the importance of loving yourself brought wry smiles, and a brilliant chorus. ‘TC and Honeybear’ and ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ brought the gig to a fitting close, before Grant returned for a brief encore.

John Grant had just provided one of the highlights of the festival, in a venue fitting to the performance. The set was enthusiastically received, and as the lecture theatre emptied people spoke about how eagerly they were now awaiting his new album, and it’s not often you can say that after hearing ‘new’ songs, where a gig’s default purpose is to ‘play the hits’. Well John Grant won’t be having many of those, but he will survive as a boutique performer supported by people willing to put their hands in their pockets for the many tours he’ll no doubt be doing for may years to come.

And so Saturday comes to a close and it’s fair to say that fatigue is setting in slowly. Seeing this much music leaves one satiated, but as tomorrow is the last day, over-delivering this much is fine, especially as there is a lot to look forward too.